"Drawing from the riches of both the Eastern and Western traditions ... it is a truly universal Catechism"
The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992 is the successor to the Roman Catechism of 1566 as an authoritative, Papally-promulgated exposition of the Catholic faith, presented in 2,865 numbered paragraphs (581 pages in the French text with another 95 pages of excellent indices). This review considers the just-released French edition as we await the soon-to-be-published English edition.
Drawing from the riches of both the Eastern and Western traditions of the Universal Church, it is a truly universal catechism that can serve as a reference point for all lesser catechisms and religious curricula, while being used itself as a text book in seminaries, teachers' colleges, universities and in advanced adult education. The popularity of the book worldwide will be enormous. Within the first month of its release in France all 300,000 copies printed had been sold.
The Catholic faith is expounded fully under the four major parts of the Roman Catechism: the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, Prayer - but under new headings: 1. The Profession of Faith, 2. The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, 3. Life in Christ, 4. Christian Prayer - the "four classical and master components of catechesis" as Cardinal Ratzinger called them in his catechetical conference at Lyons in January 1983.
Under these headings there are some wholly new sections that the Catechism of 1566 did not have. Within the first part are chapters or articles on Revelation, Sacred Scripture and the four senses of Scripture (115-118).
The second part opens with a superb exposition of the Liturgy, with emphasis upon it as a sacred saving action where man encounters God. The third part, before entering into the Decalogue, treats in detail of man's call to happiness, human liberty, human acts, passions, conscience, virtue, sin, the moral law, grace and justification and the Church as teacher of the moral life. There is also a chapter on the Church's social teaching which, among other things, reiterates the principle of subsidiarity (1893-5).
Every few pages there is a section "In Brief" containing a series of propositions summarising the essentials of what has been said. These "have for their purpose to give suggestions to local catechesis for synthetic formulas for memorisation" (22).
"The principal sources are Sacred Scripture, the holy Fathers, the Liturgy, and the Magisterium of the Church" (11). Magisterial teaching is taken from ancient credos, 17 of the 21 Ecumenical Councils, smaller councils and synods, Pontifical documents, Vatican documents and Canon Law (Roman and Eastern). Vatican II is quoted abundantly, the Roman Catechism is directly quoted 25 times and St Augustine and St Thomas are quoted frequently. John Henry Newman is quoted three times while Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (died 1906) is the most recently quoted of individuals.
One excellent feature is the frequent illumination of doctrine with citations from Roman and Eastern liturgies, especially in the second part. Equal weight is given to Occidental and Oriental traditions, e.g., in the mystery of the Holy Spirit's procession in the Holy Trinity (248); in the treatment of Confirmation, where East and West differ about the ordinary minister (priest or bishop 1312-3) and time of conferral (at baptism or later 1290-2); similarly for marriage where the Latin Church sees the spouses as the ministers of the sacrament whilst the Oriental liturgies see the priest as the minister (1623). In this respect, in its "breathing with both lungs" of East and West, as Pope John Paul II desires, the new Catechism surpasses the Catechism of 1566.
The Catechism is outstanding but does not contain novelties, nor should it: the doctrine on Original Sin and the fall of man in Adam is just as the Council of Trent taught it (396-409); Satan and Hell are real, not myths (391-5, 1033ff) - so too are angels (328ff) and guardian angels (336); transubstantiation is taught (1376), as are Purgatory and indulgences (1030-2, 1471ff); Christ made the apostles priests at the Last Supper (1337) and priestesses are impossible (1577); the Resurrection actually happened - "it is impossible to interpret the Resurrection of Christ outside the physical order, and not to recognise it as a historical fact" (643), and the "hypothesis according to which the Resurrection would be a 'product' of the faith - or credulity - of the apostles is without consistency" (644); contraception is condemned as a sin against marriage (2366-72). In short, the Church teaches again all that she believes and teaches.
The first part contains a very full expose of the Incarnation and Redemption.
The moral section (the third part) is a magnificent exposé of Christian morality. The Ten Commandments are firmly set within "life in Christ."
A small section of interest is one on the five "commandments of the Church" (2041ff), where each one is described briefly and based on a canon in the Latin an Eastern Codes of Canon Law.
The tabernacle should be situated "in the most worthy place in the Church with the greatest honour" (1183, quoting Mysterium Fidei of Paul VI) - nothing about hiding the tabernacle, putting it out of sight, out of mind.
One editorial weakness is that the Latin original of some brief classic quotes is not given where it would have been helpful to have it in a footnote, e.g., the "Exultet" (Easter Vigil chant) quoted at 412, a medieval rhyme at 118, a Corpus Christi hymn at 1381, and others.
For the English version of this Catechism, the translator(s) would do well to make their own the near-literal translations from the Latin wherever ceremonies of the Roman Rite are quoted, rather than just lift them lazily from the ready made ICEL official mistranslations. The French edition unfortunately uses the liturgical translations (e.g., at 1449) which are about as accurate as our ICEL ones. The English edition should also correct three misprints "verbo" not "verbum" at 1386; "DeV" for "Dominum et Vivificantem" not "DV" for "Dei Verbum" at 1433 note 6; Jn 1:29, not Jn 1:19 at 608).
Our job as Catholics is to push this Catechism everywhere. It is not "pre-Vatican II," it is 1993 — it is perennial. It is the eternal Word speaking through the perennial teaching of His Church.
Fr Peter Joseph is a priest of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga. He teaches Scripture and Dogma at the diocesan seminary, Vianney College.