V. Practical Directions for Using This Catechism
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.
Today's (Thursday's) post will go up tomorrow (Friday) at this same site. Sorry for the inconvenience!
Part Four: Prayer in the life of faith
17 The last part of the Catechism deals with the meaning and importance of prayer in the life of believers (Section One). It concludes with a brief commentary on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Section Two), for indeed we find in these the sum of all the good things which we must hope for and which our heavenly Father wants to grant us.
The final of the four pillars of the Catechism is the section on prayer. As we saw last week the Catechism uses classical outlines to arrange its material; the third section on morality follows the outline of the Ten Commandments while going far beyond the original context and usage of the Commandments in developing a modern Christian school of theology. The same is true in the fourth section of the Catechism on prayer, in which the second part organizes itself around the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
There is no footnote in the Catechism for this paragraph, so presumably the use of the Lord’s Prayer is taken as a given for any discussion of a prayerful format. Certainly this is true for the vast majority of Catholics for whom the Our Father (like the Hail Mary) is something of a prayer mantra; hence the great devotion to the rosary. Likewise, the editors of the Catechism no doubt saw great advantage in using the most familiar prayer in the Christian treasury as a teaching instrument, a strategy which has considerable pedagogical advantage. However, those of you following the Vatican II blog entries on Mondays and Saturdays are already aware that in the early 1960’s (and certainly before and after) there was great distrust by the Roman Curia of “theological experts” who were primarily scholars of considerable repute, many of whom had published before the Council and would themselves or through their students continue their work through the present day. The Curia’s main concern was the fear that the biblical and historical scholars might raise questions about aspects of Church teaching or practice that might prove embarrassing.
Over the last century or so Biblical scholars have given the Our Father the great attention it deserves. Recent analysis seems to concur that the Our Father—or at least the first portions of it—have strong historical probability as being among the ipsissima verba or very words of Jesus. And that’s where the problem begins, because the Our Father is a highly radicalized prayer, so much so that in the second half of the twentieth century the words of the prayer served as the inspiration of a number of works on Liberation Theology. I still have my copy of The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation from 1983 but my 1977 copy of Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as Subversive Activity is missing, possibly confiscated by the Swiss Guard when I went to Rome in 2013 to get it autographed by Pope Francis.
I should add here parenthetically that while I respect the work of liberation theologians on behalf of the poor, my training was in Western European/U.S. conceptual style of religion and theology; in very recent years, however, particularly with the papacy of Pope Francis and the shift in U.S. and world economic trends, I have to say that the theological concerns of justice as put forward in documents like Laudato Si have caused me to reevaluate my somewhat limited worldview of the possibilities of Catholic theology.
My renewed interest in the Our Father, however, came by another route. I have been studying the historical/scriptural theology of Father John Meier, at this juncture A Marginal Jew II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994, notably part two on Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom.) Meier’s research—now widely respected in the Catholic academic community—leads him to conclude that the most primitive layer of Jesus’ preaching accessible to historical method was his announcement that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Those of you following the Gospel of Mark through Cycle B have no doubt noticed this emphasis by Jesus. Consequently, Meier holds, Gospel references to the Kingdom of God or Reign of God must pay close attention to what the Kingdom of God would have meant to Jesus.
Somewhere along the line I have heard it said that Catholics would recoil in horror if they knew what they were really praying for in the Our Father. Meier writes that by the time Jesus parted ways with John the Baptist, he went forward with three components of his message well established: (1) the coming of the day of judgment was soon, imminent; (2) the world order as then known would be turned on its head, as described in the Hebrew Scripture apocalyptic, and (3) some form of baptism or washing was necessary as a preparation for this new and indescribable Kingdom of God.
Mark does not have an “Our Father sequence” as such (nor does St. John.) But Matthew and Luke do so, and even with Luke’s tendency to somewhat “domesticate” the starker elements of Mark, the Lord’s Prayer is a remarkable statement; the constraints of time keep us from a closer analysis today, but consider the phrase “thy kingdom come.” The petitioner is actually praying for two things, as the Gospels speak of the Kingdom as (1) already here, as in the miracles recorded by Mark, and (2) yet to come, as described in great and terrifying detail in the three synoptic Gospels. The Christian petitioner is acknowledging the opening phrase of the prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” by asking for a hastening of the end time when the name of God will be fully glorified before all.
The phrase “thy will be done” embodies the entire corpus of Jesus’ teaching, what Matthew would call the “the Law and the Prophets,” what Jesus says he has come to bring to perfection. The fact that the Hebrew prophets were without exception advocates of a just society means that the petitioner is calling for that manifestation of the kingdom where prophetic justice rules. There is a strong element of “enjoy it while you have it” in the Our Father, exemplified so well in Luke’s description of Lazarus the poor man who dies at the rich man’s gate. Luke’s account of Abraham’s words should give us a chill: “My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now he has found consolation here [in the Kingdom] but you have found torment.” (Luke 16:19-31)
I wonder if the Catechism’s editors will drive this home when the time comes.
Part Three: The life of faith
16 The third part of the Catechism deals with the final end of man created in the image of God: beatitude, and the ways of reaching it—through right conduct freely chosen, with the help of God’s law and grace (Section One), and through conduct that fulfills the twofold commandment of charity, specified in God’s Ten Commandments (Section Two).
Paragraphs 14-17 indicate the four divisions of the teaching content of the Catechism. The first (14) spoke of the works of God through the Trinity: creation, redemption, sanctification. The second (15) outlined briefly the work of the Church in its sacramental nature, visible and effective. Today (16) we see the nature of man and his destiny to holiness, grace and free will, and the living of purpose through charity, specified in the text as The Ten Commandments. Next week (17) will discuss the life of prayer, arranged around The Our Father.
Paragraph 16 has no footnote, nor does it (or the other three headings, for that matter) make direct reference to any previous catechism in terms of its organization. Father Bernard Marthaler, author of The Nature, Task and Scope of the Catechetical ministry: A Digest of Recent Church Documents (2008), opens with a fine review of papal teaching on the subject of religious education and catechism (1ff) and notes a repetitive theme dating back to the end of the Council of Trent. The most significant papal pronouncements come from Benedict XIV in 1742 and Clement XIII in 1761. In both cases the popes believed that the poor state of religious instruction was due to deviation from the official catechism produced after the reform Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catechism.
Reading Marthaler, I was motivated to look at the text of the Roman Catechism. I found it on-line here, and the opening outline is intriguing. Edited by St. Charles Borromeo shortly after Trent, perhaps around 1570, this is a document of considerable length—340 computer pages—and in many respects resembles the modern day Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). The Roman document is divided into four sections: the Creed, the Sacraments, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and The Our Father. In other words, our present day Catechism, in terms of its organic structure, is nearly identical to the Roman Catechism. I did mention in a previous blog that the Roman Catechism was intended for priests in teaching and preaching ministries; we have noted that the present day Catechism has a similar intent, extending it to all catechists and particularly to Church publishers. The era after Trent saw the compilation of many simpler “peoples’ catechisms,” by such noted sources as St. Peter Canisius, St. John Neumann, the United States bishops (the “Baltimore Catechism” series begun in the 1880’s, and even Pope Pius X around the turn of the twentieth century. Popes like Benedict XIV and Clement XIII saw this proliferation as troubling even in their own time, but the Roman Catechism in truth was hardly a layman’s teaching tool.
The present day Catechism, of course, has benefited from several centuries of advanced scholarship. In no way can it be said to be a repetition of the earlier Roman text. I came across a rather extensive discussion in the Roman book on why Catholics should not drink from the cup at Mass, but it did not mention the actual “agenda” of the explanation—that an outspoken advocate of the shared cup was the Czechoslovakian reformer\heretic Jan Hus, burned at the stake during the Church Council of Constance in 1415. Today’s Catechism has the benefits of the teachings of Vatican II to enrich and broaden its discussions.
For such a brief text, para. 16 contains a number of complicated and disputed questions both within and outside the Church. The term “final end of man” is virtually synonymous with “the nature of man” or Christian anthropology, a branch of theology as well as modern philosophy we will revisit in discussions ahead. The definitions of the meaning of man as put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas was developed considerably in the twentieth century, by Father Karl Rahner among others. The term “beatitude—and the ways of reaching it”—is the gateway to the theological conundrum of God’s efficacious or powerful saving grace and man’s freedom to sin and, in effect, “damn himself.” This controversy has raged under numerous names: in St. Augustine’s day in the fifth century the priest Pelagius held that man could be saved by his own good works; a millennium later John Calvin would hold that God “pre-destines” some to be saved, the principle of predestination.
Para. 16 speaks of the conduct necessary to remain true to our created end, as specified in the Ten Commandments. For those undertaking Hebrew Scripture study for the first time, it is often a shock to look at the Pentateuch (Biblical books of the Law) and discover that for all the simplicity of the Ten Commandments, there are over three Biblical books (notably Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) that explicate the Decalogue. “Thou shalt not kill,” for example, actually meant that one was forbidden to kill another freeborn Hebrew male. Subsequent laws permit stoning of adulteresses (see Jesus’ response to this in John 8: 1-11) and others guilty of a variety of legal and moral infractions. As to the Sixth Commandment, we find a peculiar directive that the wife of an enemy soldier may be carried off by a victorious Hebrew warrior, but he must give her thirty days to grieve before bedding her.
The term “Ten Commandments” has a theological usefulness in that it reveals God’s intent that we live a moral life consistent with our destiny. The Bible in its entirety makes it clear that the ten precepts underwent a gradual understanding curve—actually, in a healthier and more intensive observance of spirit, truth be told. We know in our present day that the discernment of moral issues continues, and often with controversy. Para. 16 does not mention this fact here, but have no doubt that later discussion of the moral life will not always be so tranquil.
I have been out of the house all day today, and I regret that that the Catechism post is not ready. I will have it up tomorrow (Friday) as para. 16 does overlap with our usual Friday topics of morality and spirituality.
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