Paragraph 66 continues the thought that the Revelation of Jesus as recorded in the Sacred Scriptures is the total and complete body of truth necessary for salvation. The theological term “economy” has an interesting development. In Greek, the root work oikos means “house” or “household.” Oikos is also the mother of the term “ecumenical” as in the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, when the entire household of God came together (at least that is the principle; Vatican II, like most ecumenical councils in history, was decidedly male and clerical.) The term “Christian economy” is the home of all Revelation, all revealed truth under one roof.
Para. 66 describes the Christian economy as the last word (“the new and definitive Covenant”) which will never pass away. This statement calls to mind Matthew 24:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Allowing for literary hyperbole, Matthew’s emphasis is the permanence of Jesus’ words—the heart of the Christian economy. The catechism goes on to state one of key doctrines of Christianity: that “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, Revelation is finished in terms of content. Catholic Tradition expresses this truth in two ways. First, the Church holds that Revelation ended with the death of the Last Apostle (believed to be John), thus designating the ultimate meaning of an apostle as an eyewitness of the Resurrected Jesus and his life’s body of work.
Although not explicitly mentioned in para. 66 (though it will be treated later) the definition of the Apostles and the precise nature of their role in the Church is inseparable from any discussion of Revelation. For much of the Church’s history it was customary to speak of the “apostolic college.” If you check the definition of the word “college” in a contemporary dictionary, you will find among the more remote entries the definition “an organized association of persons having certain powers and rights, and performing certain duties or engaged in a particular pursuit: the electoral college.” (Sorry about the given example.) In my seminary, there was an elderly friar who always spoke of St. Peter as the “dean of the apostolic college,” a metaphor that always conjured up caps, gowns, and ivy. But in fact, the identity of apostles as teachers dates to, well, apostolic times. Recall how St. Paul defended his right to teach as an apostle by virtue of his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. [See Acts 9] While it is customary to think of the Apostles as founders of local churches, it is their function as the first teachers--who handed on the tradition of the Lord Jesus from first hand encounter—that gives them a unique identity and authority.
This brings us to the second critical point, the embodiment and “passing on” of the Apostolic teaching. As one might expect, this “passing on” would take the form of written texts with the deaths of the Apostles. These texts would be read at the Eucharist and used in the instruction of the faithful as well as authoritative sources for Church governance. As the Church progressed into the second century, the multiplication of such writings became problematic, and by the end of the second century the bishops, successors of the apostles, invoked apostolic authority to declare which 27 texts summarized the full content of apostolic teaching, and thus the New Testament canon was established for all time as embodying the Christian economy, so to speak.
A remarkable inclusion in para. 66 is the instruction that despite the completion of Revelation and the establishment of the books that contain it, “it has not been made completely explicit.” The text goes on to say that over time it remains (present tense) the task of the Christian faith to grasp the full significance [of Revelation] over the centuries. The Catechism is saying that the Church is on a constant mission to better understand its Apostolic teachings; this is the mission of Catholic theology.
One of the “follow-up” tasks of Vatican II remains the establishment of due process, so to speak, in the working relationship between the ministry of protecting the truth of Revelation as we presently understand it and the ministry of theological investigation of the Faith by the Church’s scholars. If you have been following the Monday thread here, you may remember that the moralist Bernard Haring, a major theologian in the proceedings of Vatican II, was ordered to appear before the doctrinal office of the Vatican to account for his writings over the late 1970’s. Haring’s description of his hearings is borne out by many other Church scholars of note who were similarly summoned: a generally hostile and one-sided procedure with presumption of guilt, i.e., writing and teaching contrary to the established teachings of the Church. For a Catholic priest scholar, public censure by the Church is no small penalty. It is intriguing to see that in the last generation or more, some of the best innovative Catholic theology is now published by lay men and lay women, as well as women religious.
The question remains, when is “innovative” too innovative? Is the welfare of the Church threatened by scholarly debate over the ordination of women, for example, or discussion of morality of homosexual relationships? Something of a new factor is the public’s accessibility to the thinking and writing of speculative theologians. Centuries ago such debates remained the private domain of university faculties. Today anyone can purchase Father Haring’s books, for example, on Amazon.
The Church carries its Apostolic mandate to provide, among other things, a moral and doctrinal grounding for the study of the Faith, and I know of no practicing Catholic theologian—at least in my schooling and reading—who would deny participation in this role. How theologians serve the Church is by exploring conditions and factors that bring us closer to better understanding the fullness of Revelation. It is unfortunate that some can view such exploratory work as “attacks” upon Catholic belief. For the first time in a long time, we presently have a Pope who is feeling some of these same “attacks” for his writings on economy and morality.
One curious point in para. 66 is the implication that all Christians share in the work of grasping the full significance of the faith, a matter we need to return to at a future point.