18 This catechism is conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety. It should be seen therefore as a unified whole. Numerous cross-references in the margin of the text (italicized numbers referring to other paragraphs that deal with the same theme), as well as the analytical index at the end of the volume, allow the reader to view each theme in its relationship with the entirety of the faith.
We are coming to the end of the introduction, though to mangle the literary genius of Winston Churchill, it is barely “the beginning of the beginning.” This paragraph, which at first glance reads like a user’s manual, states its purpose and usage in ways that do prompt a closer look at the nature of the work and the accuracy of its self-identification. These will be critical questions as we work further into the specific treatments of the Faith.
Paragraph 18 ostensibly addresses issues of style and intent. Catechisms as a literary form do not date back to early Christianity, at least under that title. The Acts of the Apostles gives us an idea of what a summary statement of belief might have looked like in a Jewish milieu (Acts 2: 14-41) and a Gentile one (Acts 17: 16-33). From these it was a natural progression to early creeds or summaries of what Christians understood as the pillars of communal faith, proclaimed at major events such as sacramental initiation. I do not know when creeds became a regular set piece of the Sunday Eucharist, but my best guess is that the era of the Christological Councils (325-451 A.D.) and the formation of the majestic Nicene Creed in this era established a precise baseline that was acceptable to both eastern Catholics (Greek) and Western (Roman/Latin) Catholics. (Ironically, it was a later addition to the Nicene Creed that led in part to a theological break between Rome and Constantinople: the description of the Holy Spirit as one who “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” or in Latin filioque, “and the son.” This is the famous Filioque controversy.)
The interesting thing about the Nicene Creed is its complexity compared to, say, Peter’s Pentecost speech in Jerusalem. After several centuries of life experience, reflection, misguided trends of thought, and passionate apologetics in defense of the Faith, the expanse of understanding of the Christian event was growing in content and complexity. Added to this was the growing role of the papacy, synods of bishops, and certainly the great succession of Church thinkers such as St. Augustine, who introduced the Church to an anthropology that included original sin, enduring sinful tendency (concupiscence), the necessity of immediate baptism, and utter dependence upon the saving will of God. No catechism has ever been able to embody all the nuance of Catholic philosophers and saints, including today’s. What catechisms actually do is present—with varying degrees of success—a common core around with the community of believers can identify themselves.
This is particularly true with the predecessor of today’s Catechism, the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century. We have referred to this document before, but the more I examine it, the more amazed I become at the similarities of the two documents. The Roman Catechism was no doubt prompted by the Protestant Reformation, which preached a major assault against many tenets of Catholic belief and practice. The Roman Catechism was part of a rather well organized program of reform and renewal in the Catholic Church to assist the faithful in wading through a sea of controversies, from the concept of indulgences to the Biblical origins of the sacraments. Our present day Catechism of 1994, as I understand it, was an effort to bring clarity by churchmen who believed that catechetics and general faith formation were either so vague as to be incomprehensible or, more likely, peppered with false or inadequate statements of belief in the new pedagogical atmosphere after Vatican II.
Both catechisms tend toward the apologetic: strong statements of what the Church holds to be true in the face of cultural trends, other religious movements, and even diversities of thought within the Church. In this sense the term “organic presentation” has credibility of purpose. But there are two major reservations to be noted. (1) If indeed the present day Catechism is termed “an organic whole,” this claim would be strengthened considerably if several major sources had been worked into the text in their full context. Of particular note would be Scripture and the documents of Vatican II. Regrettably the text of the Catechism draws upon Biblical and Conciliar citations as “proof texts,” that is, quotes extracted to buttress a particular Church teaching. This was the fashion of using the Sacred Scriptures for many centuries, but a method abandoned as inadequate long before I reached the seminary doors. During Vatican II the Council fathers voted strongly that the Church take its identity from the Scripture, not the other way around.
(2) Today’s Catechism virtually ignores five centuries of its own sons and daughters whose scholarship has added inestimable wealth to the treasury of understanding of the Faith, particularly the Sacred Scriptures. I have looked in vain for citations dating from the Age of the Enlightenment of what we more generally refer to as “modern times;” the most recent I have discovered is St. Therese of Lisieux from the 1890’s. There is not a single citation I can find from any of the great minds who shaped the renewal of the Church. In fact, a disturbingly large number of citations come from the sitting pontiff at the time, Pope John Paul II. Thus, to apply the term “organic presentation” is something of a stretch in terms of chronology and sourcing. The Catechism is a more congenial and literary pleasing document than its Roman predecessor, but it still had a lot in common with nineteenth century attitudes that the world has nothing to offer the Church.
I was struck by Pope Francis’s words to the United States Bishops in Washington: he called for his chief shepherds to “engage” the world in which they serve. Engagement is rarely a one-way street: already Francis has taken a tone quite different from the magisterial style of his recent predecessors. At the very least, his footnotes and citations can be traced to a merciful and generous Christ as he preaches the full Gospel for the organic identity of the Church.