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.