'Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church'

'Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church'

Michael Gilchrist

New Catechism under attack again from 'architects of failure'

Now that the new Catechism has been available since late 1992 (save in English), a new publication titled a Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church is due soon for publication by Geoffrey Chapman and the Liturgical Press. It is ironic that they are also the publishers in the U.K. and U.S.A. of the long-awaited English edition of the new Catechism. This latter factor will certainly provide an aura of authority to the so-called "Commentary" - on an equal footing, as it were, with the Catechism itself.

In 1990, fifteen U.S. academics at a Jesuit-run Woodstock Theological Centre symposium engaged in what proved to be a 'hatchet job' on the universal Catechism, then in draft form (see AD2000 April 1990). Their deliberations were later published as The Universal Catechism Reader under the editorship of the organiser, Fr Thomas J. Reese S.J. (see AD2000 November 1990).

Is the forthcoming Commentary therefore yet another case of the Church's "Loyal Opposition" at work, engaging in public "critical dialogue" with official documents so as to undermine them or reduce their credibility?

Edited by ex-Jesuit Michael Walsh, librarian of Heythrop College in the University of London, the Commentary contains contributions from an international team of 24 academics from an array of Catholic institutions of higher learning.

A close study of a draft copy of the Commentary to hand reveals that around one-third of contributors are evidently hostile towards the Catechism, another one-third variously (and at times constructively) critical and the balance generally supportive.

Nevertheless, the question to be asked is, why such a text at all? With words like "definitive", publicity material for the Commentary certainly indicates a far from modest purpose: "But how well does [the Catechism] represent the faith which it is meant to encapsulate? In this definitive Commentary, a team of distinguished Catholics drawn from theological faculties in London, Oxford, Rome, Louvain, Boston, Ottawa, and elsewhere around the world enter into critical dialogue with the text and relate its strengths and weaknesses." (Emphasis added).

Such talk of "critical dialogue" seems presumptuous given that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was

  • Requested by the 1985 World Synod of Bishops;
  • Commissioned by the Pope;
  • Overseen at every stage by a special Commission of twelve cardinals and bishops headed by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
  • Carried through ten separate drafts by a drafting Committee composed primarily of seven diocesan bishops who enjoy expert theological advice and assistance at every stage;
  • Submitted for review to all the Catholic bishops of the world, to all the bishops' conferences, and to major Catholic universities, with the result that nearly 25,000 separate proposed amendments (modi) were sent back and carefully considered (and many incorporated) by the drafting committee;
  • The final draft was personally reviewed by the Pope, who called for certain modifications;
  • Then promulgated to the world.

"Loyal Opposition"

Whatever the individual stances of the commentators, the only possible interpretation of the enterprise as a whole is that it seeks to subordinate the Catechism to its own versions of what is theologically correct. The expression "theological magisterium" used by one team member is revealing. There is, of course, no such thing. Theologians, however brilliant or even orthodox, do not possess any "magisterium." The Pope may have indicated that the Catechism is for "everyone" - not merely the clergy or the experts - and that it represents "what the Catholic Church believes", but many of the Commentary team think otherwise.

Fr John McDade S.J., believes that "in the composition of the Catechism, the best theological resources of the Church have not been utilised", Fr James L. Empereur S.J., declares that "the real Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church is still to be done" and Catherine Mowry LaCugna of Notre Dame University concludes that "local catechisms will have to compensate for the shortcomings of this Catechism."

Dr Lisa Sowle Cahill, Professor of Theology at Boston College and Past President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, judges that "the Catechism's insistence that the teaching on the sacramentality of all marriages between baptised persons has been part of Christian belief from the New Testament onward, and that even creation as presented in Genesis clearly requires monogamy and indissolubility, is fallacious" (emphasis added). Dr Cahill holds that indissolubility of marriage is "impossible" as well as "inequitable." The words of Christ represent merely an ideal.

Contradicting the Catechism's teaching (473) that "the human nature of the Son of God, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and manifested in itself every that pertains to God" (emphasis in the original), Fr Jacques Dupuis S.J. (on the faculty of Rome's Gregorian University) categorically claims that the human knowledge of Jesus was "limited".

Dr Monika Hellwig believes that it is "unfortunate that the text ... still uses the expression 'Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance'," because, according to her, "diligent Scripture study cannot find in the New Testament" any evidence for this. Yet the Council of Trent solemnly defined this as dogma. Apparently "diligent Scripture study" is now to take precedence over irreformable conciliar decisions.

Fr Philip J. Rosato, S.J. (Gregorian University) criticises the Catechism's treatment of the sacrament of Orders as ,conceptually inadequate and spiritually uninspiring" and adds that "most members of the theological magisterium would not consider ... female ordination and priestly celibacy ... dogmatic issues but canonical ones open to further revision as social conditions and pastoral needs change" (emphasis added).

Dermot A. Lane, with unconscious irony, having faulted the Catechism for its hard-to-read "traditional" language, proceeds to chastise it for lacking modern "conceptualities such as the turn to the subject and historical consciousness, the framework of modernity, process thought, and the emerging reconstructed post-Modern ecological frameworks" and calls for new "languages of faith such as the existential, the experiential, the anthropological, shared praxis, narrative and story variety ...". Fr Gabriel Daly, OSA, lends support, complaining that "[n]either process thought nor feminist critique has had the slightest moderating influence ... on the Catechism ... the greater part could have been written hundreds of years ago."

One wonders how readable the Catechism would have been had such experts held sway in the drafting process.

On the subject of feminism, a number of the contributors make reference to such matters as the "difficulty many experience in addressing God as Father" (Fr Gerald O'Hanlon, S.J.) or to what is styled the actual "oppressiveness of the use of Father" (Catherine Mowry La Cugna).

Original sin

Fr Daly - one of the more overtly hostile of the Commentary team - attacks the Catechism for upholding the Church's traditional teachings on angels and original sin, seeing in this a wider significance: "The Catechism on original sin represents a total victory for the pre-Vatican II mentality ... Perhaps the real key to understanding the strange preoccupation with devils is the 'restoration' program now being mounted by ultra-conservative elements in the Church ... We are dealing here with what has been aptly named 'a green beret church,' and it will find a congenial theology in these pages of the Catechism. Its members will not be at all disturbed by primitive demonology or historicised myths. This is their catechism. Others will have to pay the price for their fundamentalism and their wilful medievalism".

But many in the Church's educational institutions will find such comments congenial, viewing the Commentary - and not the Catechism - as "definitive". In which case, nothing will have changed, except of course the increasing rates of religious illiteracy and decreasing rates of religious practice over which minds like many of these Commentators have presided these past 25 years.

Not to be confused with the Commentary is the Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church - Book of References (Ignatius Press) due to be published in conjunction with the new Catechism. The Companion is to contain all the passages of Sacred Scripture, conciliar texts, papal documents, writings of the Fathers and of the Saints referred to in the Catechism, arranged according to the paragraphs in which the references are made. There are over 3,600 references in all.

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