This is the first of over 2000 propositions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I calculate that if I treat of one text per week, I will have completed our look at the Catechism in 39 years, or at age 106 for me. Rest assured, though, that there is a hierarchy of importance in the texts; some are clearly more important than others, and many can be clustered, so it might take only 29 years. I have just returned from my ophthalmologist, who tells me to irrigate my eyes more frequently to avoid desiccation when using the computer, if I plan to finish this Catechism project.
This opening text of the CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) is a summary statement of Christian truth. For this reason alone it is worthy of a certain preeminence and familiarity. Interestingly the Gospels have similar summary openings. Mark’s Gospel summary is found in 1:15; “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel.” The CCC puts forth the very existence of God, One who is totally self-sustaining but from a perfect love chose to freely create. God loves his human creation, sin and all, and in the fullness of time sent his Son to save mankind from that mortal sinfulness. Through the Son mankind receives the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and unifies our life on earth that we may enjoy a perpetual unity in the sight of God.
This is one of few propositions that do not have footnotes, suggesting to me that this paragraph is the work of one writer. Were I to learn that Pope John Paul II composed this introduction, I would not be surprised, although much of the work was overseen by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who famously observed that he was mystified at the high quality of a text produced by a large and apparently unwieldy bureaucracy. The conservative First Things published a fascinating introduction to the Catechism in 1995.
A key thing to remember is while this Catechism (and others, before and eventually after) embodies in objective language the Church’s teachings of faith and morals as understood at this juncture in our history, its reception cannot be taken for granted as self-evident. For example, the introduction assumes not simply the existence of God but also a significant personal involvement by God in human affairs. Obviously an atheist would not find the opening paragraph convincing, but neither would a Deist, for that matter, who approaches the divinity with a rational scientific detachment. Another large body to consider—very large in my view—is undereducated Catholics, who have never experienced a competent exposition of Revelation and its full personal implication. Comprehension and interest may escape many, including the faithful who attend weekly but do not reflect significantly on the meaning of their actions.
At the time of the Catechism’s release there was considerable discussion about its use. Even its most ardent admirers, along with professional religious educators in general, understood that the Catechism was not for use as a classroom text. Rather, the CCC was viewed as an official magisterial or ecclesiastical statement of what should be taught. It was, I recall, of particular interest to publishers of religious education texts. The CCC also set the parameters of articulation of Catholic belief in public discourse and publication undertaken in the name of the Church.
Thus, the Catechism as text is not the primary tool of evangelization. New believers come to the baptismal pool through the agency of living believers, and it has been forever thus. “Behold these Christians; see how they love one another.” Good conduct leads the witness to the search for motivation, of which the human believer is the living text. Once the affective connection is made, the new believer will most likely wish to learn about his or her new family. This is where the catechumenate and mystagogia processes come into play, and where the judicious use of the CCC is most appropriate in the evangelization process.
For the newly baptized, and for those of us who prod ourselves daily along the road of rebirth and continuing evangelization, this opening statement of the Catechism is a text that does indeed take on a timelessness all its own. Even an elementary sense that a timeless God arranges his day around me, in some real way; or a sense of sin and worthlessness turned on its psychological head by the extraordinary sacrifice of the man from Nazareth; or the supernatural solidarity of a community that breaks bread with me and would die with me….it is the heady wine to be drunk anew in the Kingdom of that “infinitely perfect and blessed in himself” Father who has given us his all.