12 This work is intended primarily for those responsible for catechesis: first of all the bishops, as teachers of the faith and pastors of the Church. It is offered to them as an instrument in fulfilling their responsibility of teaching the People of God. Through the bishops, it is addressed to redactors of catechisms, to priests, and to catechists. It will also be useful reading for all other Christian faithful.
While on its face this paragraph appears administrative in its content, and even a touch benign, in fact there is a significant sea change that quite frankly is still not fully appreciated. Among its first components is the very nature of the book and the term “catechism.” The first catechisms, speaking anachronistically, would look for all the world like creeds to us today, and rather brief ones at that. As formularies they would have had three purposes: (1) a statement of the nature of Christian life, particularly for those seeking baptism; (2) liturgical or communal worship, and (3) boundaries on preaching and teaching statements regarding the core of Church belief. I cannot recall a time when a creed or catechism embodied everything a Christian needed to hold and obey—even our Nicene Creed at Mass does not explicitly mention such doctrines as the Real Presence of the Eucharistic food. Such doctrines would today be subsumed under the fourth tenet of the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church….”
From the days of the Apostles creedal statements have always been buttressed by a much more extensive body of Church faith and morals. Given the well-established hypothesis that the Gospels derived from earlier and oral traditions, we have to assume that Jesus said and did many things not recorded in the sacred books (John 20:30-31 and John 21:25 affirm this.) The Gospels, each in their own way, provide the essential Jesus with his core message of salvation. Four centuries later several Church Councils would produce essential elaborations of belief—Jesus is fully divine and human, he is consubstantial or of one substance with the Father, etc.—in a formulary we profess at every Sunday Mass. We have very good evidence, however, that the Church fathers vigorously debated the doctrinal questions at hand from resources of Scripture, worship, popular piety, and particularly the writings of an already large body of Church fathers, many of whom would be venerated one day as saints.
With the passage of the centuries the lists of teachings of popes and bishops, as well as the dictates of local and regional synods of bishops, were becoming quite numerous. Add to this the rules of religious orders and the moral guides to Irish confessors, known as Irish Penitentiaries, and by the thirteenth century the need for collecting, editing and screening this material was becoming pressing, particularly in light of new ideas springing from universities, the challenges of kings and princes, and the appearance of significant heresies. A major achievement was Gratian’s Decrees, a summary of teachings that served the Church well and today is recognized as the template for contemporary Canon Law.
The work that probably most resembles the present day Catechism is The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563); the 1978 edition I happen to own notes that this 293-page text was intended to refute Protestant errors and to generate a true reform of the Catholic Church. Arguably this was the intent of the 1994 Catechism, too, except that Protestantism on the whole was less a worry to John Paul than what we might call secular influences: relativism, indifferentism, materialism and the like. The decrees of Trent find their ways into today’s Catechism in multiple footnotes. What is interesting, too, is that just one year after Trent a true “catechism” also appeared, the Roman Catechism as it has been called, but this work was targeted to priests serving parochial settings.
Catechisms as Catholics have generally understood the term—simple summaries of important basic beliefs—have been composed in great numbers until well into the twentieth century. Among them are the Catechism of St. John Neumann, nineteenth century bishop of Philadelphia; St. Pius X, c. 1900, available here on line; the Baltimore Catechism, product of the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884; and the “Penny Catechism” produced in Great Britain about a century ago.
Which brings us back to our question at hand about the nature of the Catechism of John Paul II in 1994. It is fairly clear that the CCC was not composed as another brief compendium for handy reference by the faithful. Para. 12 indicates a pecking order of reception: first, the Catechism is intended for bishops, who by Church Law are the primary catechists in their dioceses. The text is a tool for assessing the Catholicity of Catholic faith formation. Para. 12 goes on, interestingly, to address itself to “redactors of catechisms,” i.e., composers and publishers of classroom texts, to insure fidelity of parish and diocesan enterprises. The implication of para. 12 has been assumed in one important way by the USCCB, which reviews catechetical series and issues an approved list on its website here. During the NCEA Convention in Orlando, however, I was told by several publishers mentioned here that the USCCB does not have the manpower to assess the proliferation of internet sites, blogsites, and community based education projects that simply spring up and do not seek approbation. Caveat emptor. (Disclaimer: as owner of “The Catechist Café” I purchased a membership for the site in the USCCB—for a hefty price, I might add—alongside religious orders and other Catholic organizations in my Orlando Diocese, so as to be available for Church scrutiny of contents at any time.)
A subsidiary effect of para. 12 has been a more intense scrutiny of speakers and presenters and their fidelity to Catholic teaching. For a number of years I presented on mental health issues at the annual NCEA Convention. When I switched to the religious education speaking track this year, the vetting was more intense than the previous years combined.
Para. 12 rounds out the Catechism’s intended audience as priests and catechists. It adds that the text would be “useful reading” for the general faithful. I would agree; the CCC is a much better literary product than its predecessors. Thus the thrust of this paragraph makes clear that the Catechism is the present authoritative summary of what constitutes official teaching of the Church Tradition. Future popes may, of course, issue catechetical directives with different emphases to face new problems or needs. History has made that clear.
11 This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church’s Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium. It is intended to serve “as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries.”15
Admittedly it has been a while since we actually analyzed the Catechism on a Thursday as promised, and if you feel a little lost, you can fortunately scroll down the page to the past entries in sequence to catch the flow of the narrative. Para. 11 opens a section on the “usages and readership” of the text. I recall at the time of its publishing that the Church went to some pains to reassure members that the Catechism was not a stand-alone text to replace all others in pastoral and educational settings, nor was it an 1880’s Baltimore Catechism on steroids. Rather, the Catechism was published as “an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic Doctrine.” Again, commentators of twenty-some years ago understood the work as the “reestablishment” if you will of the body of Catholic belief, an authoritative guide for Catholic educators and publishers.
Not mentioned in para. 11 is the fact that by 1994 there were several other syntheses of Catholic belief of similar size and breadth. In 1966, just one year after the close of Vatican II, the Dutch bishops commissioned what is known today as The Dutch Catechism. At 590 pages this text integrated the work of modern day theological scholarship, questioning the existence of Limbo and asserting the multiple source theory of the Pentateuch. Stephen H. Propp’s review at the book’s Amazon site is quite good. The text received an imprimatur—official Church clearance--though in the 1970’s Pope Paul VI instructed that certain corrections be made, which were indeed completed for future editions. A more traditional but highly literate catechism of 660 pages, The Teachings of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, appeared on U.S. bookshelves in 1976. The aforementioned Propp has another excellent review at the work’s Amazon site. As an aside, I should note that one of the book’s authors, Father Ronald Lawler, was my professor for two semesters in Catholic University’s School of Philosophy.
By far the most comprehensive attempt at a one-volume Catholic synthesis is Catholicism by Father Richard P. McBrien. My own volume—at 1291 pages-- was published in 1981, though reprints and updated edition have followed. (McBrien died earlier this year.) In checking Amazon statistics, this work continues to sell briskly through the present day. McBrien wrote with something of a mission: to reconcile traditional teaching with the challenges of modern scholarship and a post-Enlightenment milieu. Thus, there is speculative element to the work. McBrien’s bishop in 1981, William E. McManus of Fort Wayne, declined to issue an imprimatur on Catholicism, given its speculative nature, but the bishop wrote a congenial two-page explanation explaining his decision and commented favorably upon the effort which appears at the book’s beginning.
None of these works—certainly not Lawler’s—was the object of public castigation from Rome. But as we have discussed in earlier posts, most post-Vatican II popes—and certainly John Paul II—were desirous of more clarity and precision in the catechetical process. Moreover, none of the above cited works were commissioned by the Vatican; a compendium originating from the worldwide body of bishops and promulgated by the Holy Father would carry a measure of authority far beyond the regional efforts of individual theologians or national conferences of bishops.
Para. 11 speaks of a synthesis of faith and morals, which puts the editorial emphasis squarely in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas in terms of method and outlook—Aquinas, of course, is remembered for his Summa or great summary of all natural and revealed truth-- and an effort to convey these long-standing teachings “in the light of the Second Vatican Council.” The Achilles Heel here is defining or discerning precisely what was/is “the light of the Second Vatican Council.” A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of the “Spirit of Vatican II” and in the last decade prior to Benedict’s retirement scholars and Curia officials have labored mightily to define the role of the Council in the Church’s history and the influence it should wield. Curialists have been quick to argue that Vatican II is just “one of twenty-one” [Councils] while many theologians and progressive commentators view the Council is a historical “game change” I recommend Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? by John O’Malley and my review of that work.
The paragraph goes on to cite the sources of the Catechism: the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s magisterium or teaching authority. This summary is a very wide introductory one: each of these components is extremely broad, certainly beyond our time and space to assess here. In just eleven paragraphs we have seen that magisterial statements (that is, from popes, councils, synods) far outnumber the others so far. The balance between the Sacred Scriptures and the application of Scripture by the Church to moral teaching in particular will be an interesting dynamic to observe as the Catechist unfolds. The source for para. 11 is the final report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops 1985, the synod that initiated the project of the Catechism itself.
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Because of travel and teaching, I have been unable to continue our study of the Catechism for the past month or so. However, it is my hope to resume on July 23, or July 30 at the very latest. Thanks for your patience. I hope your summer is progressing well.