10 It is therefore no surprise that catechesis in the Church has again attracted attention in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which Pope Paul VI considered the great catechism of modern times. The General Catechetical Directory (1971), the sessions of the Synod of Bishops devoted to evangelization (1974) and catechesis (1977), the apostolic exhortations Evangelii nuntiandi (1975) and Catechesi tradendae (1979) attest to this. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 asked “that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed.”13 The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, made the Synod’s wish his own, acknowledging that “this desire wholly corresponds to a real need of the universal Church and of the particular Churches.”14 He set in motion everything needed to carry out the Synod Fathers’ wish.
Paragraph 10 is a tiny vestige of a much greater narrative on the implementation of the Council Vatican II, since all of the named documents refer back to and responses to the grand corpus of documents produced by this Ecumenical Council (1962-65). My own desktop paperback copy of this Council’s documents run to 1015 pages. This output is even more remarkable when one considers that the Council only met for three months per year, and much of the first session in 1962 was a titanic struggle of the world’s bishops to wrestle the agenda away from the ultraconservative Cardinal Ottaviani and the forces of the Curia.
There are countless books of commentaries on the Council itself, its documents, and its “reception,” a term I referred to earlier in the week. While the Catechism in para. 10 quotes Paul VI as considering the Council “the great catechism of modern times,” it is also true that when the Council was adjourned for the final time in December 1965, no one had precise mandates as to the implementation of this massive tome of literature. The documents are themselves uneven; splashes of brilliance break through from time to time in what was the mother of all committee work projects. Authors rushed drafts to the floor for committee votes, and like many a predecessor, postponed implementation of specifics for study and implementation in years to come.
(For the record, Vatican II actually had its own “Deep Throat,” a priest participant who wrote surreptitiously under the name of “Xavier Rynne,” for New Yorker Magazine and whose writings have earned him, under his real name, a page on Amazon.)
Difficulties soon emerged in countries like the United States where the thirst for change got ahead of the studied process of implementation. While this was most evident in matters of liturgy, catechetics was not spared. Para. 10 notes the General Catechetical Directory of 1971, the Vatican response to trends and confusions, notably a drift toward a more process development of the Faith in Western countries and away from the older question-and-answer format. I discovered a fine summary of this 1971 era in a University of Maryland Master’s Thesis by Matthew Davison Ingold, written in 2006. I call attention to pp. 81-109 for those with the inclination.
A series of Vatican documents would follow, generally in conjunction with Synods of Bishops, an ancient practice restored by Vatican II. Evangelii nuntiandi (1975) is probably the best of the lot, an excellent missive by Paul VI calling for an energized missionary effort in countries like ours where “other” was already becoming a larger denomination of its own. It was a great honor for me to study for a week as a young pastor under this encyclical’s greatest proponent in the United States, the humble but highly competent Paulist Father Alvin Illig. (Several of us came upon him in a coffee shop in St. Petersburg and plopped ourselves at his table, badgering him to become Catholic, a prank he seemed to enjoy immensely….particularly when we discovered he left us with his bill.)
Catechesi tradendae (1979) of John Paul II marked an ideological and a political sea change in the development of catechetics, and we have seen that CT is a major source for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If we look at the progression from CT in 1979 to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, we find a report of growing desire of bishops for a catechism or compendium of all matters of faith and morals that would in fact become the Catechism at hand. Para. 10 is fairly clear that the 1985 Synod is the birth of the contemporary catechism, and that the pope was responding to the clamors of bishops to make this happen.
The truth is somewhat more complicated. Synods, like political conventions, are scripted as a rule. Extraordinary Synods are not attended by all bishops but only those singled out for special invitation. (Pundits as we speak are reading much into Pope Francis’ guest list for the extraordinary Synod on the Family later this year.) I do not have a “Xavier Rynne” to describe the workings of the 1985 Synod, but it is general knowledge that several ranking Churchmen were lobbying hard for a “catechism” and just as importantly, a machinery to enforce its use. It is also public knowledge than one such advocate was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, the same Cardinal who retired in disgrace with the break of the sex abuse scandal in Boston.
That said, it is still hard to gauge whether in fact a large majority of bishops desired a new catechism in 1985. Para. 10 implies strongly that the pontiff was responding to strong grass roots requests. It is safe to say that John Paul was desirous of a reform of catechetics. His work for clarity in faith formation is entirely consistent with his efforts to harmonize liturgical practices, correct theological dissent and error, and in particular to reverse a trend of secularization in traditionally Catholic nations such as France and Ireland. Para. 10 may have gone a bit overboard in making the Pope a humble servant of the international episcopacy, but it also leaves no doubt that he would do “everything needed” to make this Catechism come about.