'The Catechism of the Catholic Church': Confronting the post-Christian world

'The Catechism of the Catholic Church': Confronting the post-Christian world

B.A. Santamaria

The initial reception of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church', already published in French, Spanish and Italian editions, has been encouraging. In the meantime, the English language edition has been delayed over 'inclusive language' problems. There is no doubt that the new Catechism simply follows the doctrinal paths of earlier 'universal' Catechisms. As Cardinal Ratzinger charged the drafting committee: "Create no new doctrines." Ultimately, the successful implementation of the 'Catechism' will depend on whether fundamental reforms to the Church's educational structures actually follow its publication.

This article was originally published in 'The Bulletin'.

On 8 December last, Pope John Paul II solemnly promulgated The General Catechism of the Catholic Church. For some arcane reason, the event had been anticipated by the publication of the French edition by the Paris publisher Plon on 16 November. Priced at $US25 per copy, present sales have exceeded 600,000. The Italian and Spanish figures are 100,000 in each case with large reprints ordered. The English edition was held up as the result of a conflict between the drafting committee and exponents of "inclusive language". Finality has, however, been reached and while the date of publication is uncertain, it is expected within two months.

A catechism is simply a compendium of the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Catholic Church, of their foundations in the Bible or Tradition and, to a limited extent, of their underlying justifications. While a catechism may incidentally assist in commending the Catholic faith to non-Catholics, its essential purpose is to state clearly what the teachings of the Church are, and equally clearly that teachings in conflict with them are not. It is essentially a work of definition and exposition.

Today's challenge

The new General Catechism is the first published since 1566. Its predecessor was drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the teaching of which it encapsulated. The Council of Trent was the decisive event of the Counter-Reformation. The challenge to the Catholic Church at that time came from Lutheranism and Calvinism. Both were doctrinally Christian with large areas of identity with Catholic belief. Today's challenge is incomparably deeper. It is that of a post-Christian world deeply addicted to the materialism of the consumer society, while philosophically nihilist. The radical change brought about by the process of secularisation means that the new Catechism deals with new questions. The intellectual and spiritual foundations of Catholicism nevertheless remain the same.

The consistency of Catholic teaching throughout the ages could be illustrated by pointing to the similarity of structure between the basic teaching of the new Catechism and that of its predecessor of 1566. An even more remarkable comparison is that between the structure of the new Catechism and that published in 1281, almost three hundred years before Trent, after the Provincial Council of the English Catholic Church at Lambeth.

The "scheme" of that Catechism, writes Eamon Duffy in his recent monumental work The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992) "was structured round the Creed; the Ten Commandments and Christ's summary of these in the dual precept to love God and neighbour; the seven works of mercy; the seven virtues; the seven vices; and the seven sacraments, and was intended to provide a comprehensive guide to Christian belief and practice."

The Catholic of 1281 would thus have found himself at home with the Catechism of 1992.

The new publication is divided into four major sections: The Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, Prayer. These were described by Cardinal Ratzinger, the architect of the Catechism, as the "four classical and master components of catechesis." Ratzinger's charge to the drafting committee was clear: "Ask no further obligation of faith, create no new doctrines. Simply present Catholic doctrine".

The mandate has been faithfully followed. The doctrines of the Fall, of Original Sin, of the existence of the angels, of heaven, hell, Satan are as they were taught by Trent - and by Lambeth - three hundred years before Trent. Christ founded a Church. He ordained priests (but not priestesses). The Resurrection is historical fact which actually happened, physical reality and not merely the product of the imaginings of Apostles, traumatised by the sufferings and death of their master. The entire traditional Catholic moral code, not merely in the field of sexual morality but with reference to that of financial morality as well, is to be found in its pages. Altogether, the Catechism in its French edition, comprises 581 pages of text, 95 pages of excellent indices and 2865 numbered paragraphs.

While Cardinal Ratinger was the ultimate architect of the new document. the new Catechismdid not originate with the Vatican. It arose as a result of the request of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops which met in 1985, carried by a majority of 146 to 6 with 2 abstentions.

The drafting committee was composed of seven bishop-editors, one each from Argentina, Chile, USA, Britain, Spain, Italy, and France. Their work was co-ordinated by Bishop Christoph Schšnborn, now Auxiliary Bishop of Vienna. Successive drafts were circulated, criticised, corrected. The first draft was sent to the 3000 Catholic Bishops in November 1990, who were given six months to furnish their replies. Altogether they proposed 24,000 amendments.

Nearly 80% of the Bishops approved the first draft. Another 12.1% classified it as "satisfactory", subject to some reservations; 4.8% said that it was "negative", while 5.2% found it "unacceptable." The final draft was approved by the same overwhelming majority. A non-believer may - indeed will - consider some, or all of, the doctrines untrue or even nonsensical. Nobody can rationally deny, however, that whether they are right or wrong the Catechism represents the beliefs of the Catholic Church which the Church proposes to its members, acceptance of which is expected as a condition of continued membership.

It is too much to say that the decision to publish a new General Catechism was taken specifically in order to end the incipient schism which exists within the Catholic Church. Signs of schism are not apparent in every continent. Even where they do exist, they are not equally pronounced or visible. Nevertheless the factors which have precipitated the de facto schism within the Anglican communion are equally present in the Catholic, even though the essential distinguishing factor of the Papacy offers the possibility of a successful resistance within the Catholic Church, which was not available to the Anglican communion. It is, of course, for this reason that the attack on Papal authority is central to the case of the 'dissidents' within the Church.

Although it is not 'done' to speak of the potential for schism among Catholics (many tend to believe that it is either overblown, or that even, if it is not, it is wrong to 'wash dirty linen' in public), some of the best minds within the Church have been forthright in declaring that incipient schism is an accurate description of what has been happening since the end of Vatican II.

In many Catholic seminaries throughout the world, the influence of 'advanced' theology is widespread, as it is in many universities, teacher training colleges, and not a few official Catholic newspapers. Theologians who still profess to be, and are accepted as Catholic, not infrequently deny that Christ knew that He was God; that He ever intended to found a Church; that He ever ordained priests, male or female; or that the Real Presence actually exists in the Eucharist, let alone that it eventuates through the process defined by Trent as Transubstantiation.


"Views like those", wrote Professor Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and a Catholic convert, "might be combined with some religious belief in which Jesus played an important role, but not with anything recognisable as the Christian religion.

"What, without lack of charity, we may legitimately find astonishing is this: that people who have adopted positions that imply that, from the earliest times, the Catholic Church, claiming to have a mission from God to safeguard divinely revealed truth, has taught and insisted on the acceptance of falsehoods, falsehoods enshrined in her most sacred books, and is, accordingly, as much of a fraud as her enemies have always maintained, should think it proper to teach such views to those in training for the priesthood.

"And indeed, their actions are helping to transform the Church into something distinctly fraudulent" (New Blackfriars, October 1987).

Dr. Anthony Kenny, Master of Balliol, among the best-known of contemporary British academics, was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in July 1955, sought and received dispensation from Holy Orders in 1963, and thereupon gradually abandoned all religious belief. Of this anomalous situation, he writes at the end of his autobiography:

"I am old-fashioned enough to believe that if the Church has been as wrong in the past on so many topics as forward-looking clergy believe, then her claims to impose belief and obedience are, in the form in which they have traditionally be made, mere impudence" (The Path From Rome, p.203).

How all of this appears to an intelligent outsider was perhaps best summed up by those who scripted "Yes, Prime Minister", who had Sir Humphrey Appleby describing theology as "a device for enabling agnostics to remain within the Church", to whom God is little more than an "optional extra". As the Italians would say "non é vero, ma é ben trovato".

How far will the publication of the new Catechism go in curing the seemingly fatal erosion of Catholic belief?

The French member of the Catechism's drafting committee was Mgr Jean Honoré, the 72-year-old Archbishop of Tours, a former director of France's National Centre for Religious Education. He has spent a lifetime in the field of catechetical instruction.

"The Roman Catechism, as such", he said, in answer to this question in a recent interview, "is not going to solve anything. War, Napoleon used to say, is an art which depends entirely on how it is conducted. I think the same thing about catechesis. It is an art which depends on how it is imparted. And what is subject to scrutiny today is the method adopted in religious teaching as much as its content."

In other words, what is contained in an inanimate book cannot assume any reality in the minds of those who are meant to assimilate its contents, unless the teachers themselves are educated to, and expected to, teach it; unless Catholic universities and teacher training colleges teach the teachers accordingly; unless 'dissenting' theologians are no longer appointed to teaching positions whence they form the minds of lecturers, teachers, students in ways which directly negate the Church's essential teachings. No respectable organisation would insist on anything less.

As to the likelihood of ultimate success in this new enterprise, the reader's guess is as good as the writer's.

The insolent disregard, throughout the Catholic world, of earlier and equally important Papal documents - Humanae Vitae; Paul VI's Credo; the earlier General Catechetical Directory; and John Paul Il's Catechesi Tradendae - encourage little optimism. As the Belgian Jesuit, Cardinal Danielou, once correctly insisted, "it is the non-use of authority that is creating our problems."

Nobody, however, should doubt the urgency of the situation. There is very clear evidence that, after the enormous moral and financial investment in Catholic schools, less than 10% of those who finally leave the class-room have any real knowledge of Catholic doctrine or regularly attend Mass: a condition which by the end of the decade, unless radically attacked, will leave a mere 10% of the Catholic population practising what is a largely ersatz religion.

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