Architects of failure on the offensive: US theologians 'pan' new Catechism

Architects of failure on the offensive: US theologians 'pan' new Catechism

Michael Gilchrist

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's statement in the recently published 'Look Towards Christ' - that "the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too evident" - is only one of a succession of indictments from highly placed Church figures.

In April 1989, one of the staunchest supporters of the "new catechetics", Bishop Raymond Lucker of Minnesota, described such indictments as "devastating," admitting that if these were true, "there is no catechetical renewal and we have to go back to the '50s."

It was for this reason that the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome recommended the production of a universal Catechism. The latest draft of this catechism is now in circulation among the world's bishops with final publication expected around 1990-1991.

It is ironic that certain theologians, who have contributed to the Church's doctrinal and catechetical shambles since Vatican II should now be seeking to discredit the universal Catechism and to thwart serious attempts to undo the chaos, largely of their own making.

At the present time, a draft copy of the universal Catechism or "Catechism for the Universal Church" is circulating among the world's Catholic Bishops. Their observations will be taken into account in the final version of the Catechism.

Pope John Paul II had established a Commission for the Preparation of a Catechism for the Universal Church in 1986 following the recommendation of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. The Commission is headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Pope is hopeful that the Catechism will be ready by late 1990 in time for the 25th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

One member of the Catechism's drafting committee, Archbishop William J. Levada of Portland, Oregon, commented recently that Catholics concerned about the Catechism's content would be "pleased with the work of the Commission". The Catechism, he said, "will be of assistance in developing the really comprehensive materials that we need to have if we're going to have a truly educated next generation of Catholics, if we're going to have people who know their faith and are able to put that faith into practice."

The Archbishop's confidence is well founded to judge from the contents of the present draft.

The Catechism for the Universal Church is divided into three basic parts, the Apostles' Creed, the Liturgy and Sacraments, and "The Law of Christ", including the Ten Commandments, together with a lengthy introduction and an "epilogue" on the Our Father.

The Catechism contains hundreds of numbered paragraphs which allow for easy identification, with each containing cross-references to supporting passages from Scripture and the works of saints and scholars. A useful feature is the series of brief summary statements at the end of each section which could allow for memorisation.

The Catechism appears to be solid in its coverage and treatment of doctrinal and moral matters, with detailed references to Purgatory, Original Sin, the Ten Commandments and other "marginalised" topics. The final Catechism should prove an invaluable, authoritative reference point for all adult Catholics, and not merely Bishops and their advisers.

Those Catholics who have been concerned at the inadequacies of officially endorsed "guidelines" and recommended resource materials over the past 15 years or more will have reason to be heartened at the content of the Catechism, assuming that the present draft survives intact to final publication with perhaps a few refinements and improvements here and there.

However, from past experience, there is every reason to anticipate that the Catechism will suffer the fates of earlier, supposedly authoritative documents such as the Credo of the People of God, the General Catechetical Directory and Catechesi Tradendae unless more of the bishops play an active role in supervising or designing the new materials flowing from the Catechism. If the experts responsible for the fundamentally flawed new catechetics are unable to weaken the thrust of the Universal Catechism before final publication, they will certainly use whatever influence they have in each diocese to limit its impact.

In any other enterprise - whether commercial, sporting or political - where, to use Cardinal Ratzinger's expression, "catastrophic failure" had occurred over a period of 20 years or more, the normal process of accountability would have seen sackings, public disgrace and radically revised policies.

Discredited policies

The Catholic Church has proved, in practice to be an exception to such accountability. The products of 12 or 13 years of Catholic schooling continue to be illiterate in the faith and to leave their Church in droves, but, despite repeated complaints and detailed documentations of defects and abuses, little, if anything is done. Those contributing to the problems continue at their posts, pursuing discredited, outdated policies.

In the meantime, groups of theologians and catechetical experts are already doing what they can to discredit the current shape of the draft Catechism.

At the time when the proposal for a Universal Catechism was first announced, "gurus" of the new catechetics such as Thomas Groome of Boston College, a centre where many of Australia's catechetical experts have been formed over the years, reacted critically and sceptically at the very idea of a Universal Catechism in a statement reported in the monthly journal, Commonweal.

This situation was highlighted more recently in the findings of a group of American theologians and catechetical experts who studied the current draft of the Universal Catechism.

Fr Thomas J. Reese SJ recruited fifteen scholars in Scripture, catechetics, and systematic, moral and sacramental theology. Each was asked to study the Catechism and to write an analysis from his particular perspective. The first drafts of these papers were discussed at the end of January in a symposium sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Centre, a theological research centre at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

The overall opinion of the group was that the current draft of the Universal Catechism was "fatally flawed" and could not be "saved by amendments that only tinker with the text." The following were some of the specific criticisms.

Concern was expressed that some American bishops had not shared the draft of the Catechism with "their theologians or religious educators, which means that they will get no expert advice before they write their responses".

With further unconscious irony the above "experts" declared: "Passing on the faith to future generations is a vital responsibility of the Christian community. If the faith is not passed on, it dies. If the faith is passed on in a distorted fashion, future believers will live distorted lives."

To such experts, far from representing any "catastrophic failure", the post-Vatican II efforts "to update religious education to reflect the teachings and reforms of the Council" have been "for the most part successful". It was noted, however, that parents "became confused by the unexplained changes" and teachers and priests who were not always "well trained" had been attacked by "conservatives opposed to change." The major deficiency, it seemed, was in the "brainwashing" department.

It was then questioned whether a Catechism for the Universal Church was necessary or possible since writers of local catechisms would have the same resources available to them as the writers of the Universal Catechism. There was an absence, it was said, of the adaptations demanded by "inculturation" and the draft reflected "a particular culture and a particular school of theological thought."

(One might add that most currently used catechetical guidelines and resources have their own "new church" biases and these biases have proved highly unsuccessful. A fresh "bias", particularly one reflecting the mind of the Magisterium and not merely locally promoted theological opinions, could do no worse.)

Another criticism alleged "compartmentalising faith from life and worship." The Catechism's structure of Creed, Sacraments, Commandments and Lord's Prayer was seen as falling "into the trap of presenting Christianity as a series of doctrines to be believed, a set of commandments to be followed, and sacraments to be received without any explanation of how belief affects life and celebration". For example, belief in God as Creator should lead to "concern about the environment".

The Woodstock "think-tank" then alleges that the Catechism "makes no attempt to distinguish what is essential in its teaching from what is less important". The "hierarchy of truths" is said to be overlooked with "no distinction ... made between infallible teaching and theological opinion." Ignoring such distinctions say these experts, is likely to confuse the faithful.

Such comments from ones who have contributed much to the post-Vatican II confusion are ironic, to say the least. They are also typical of the "minimalist" approach of some contemporary theologians which seeks to narrow the range of authoritative Church teachings leaving the field wide open for endless public speculations on "non-infallible" topics. In any case, infallibly defined dogmas such as the Assumption and Immaculate Conception have been notably absent (or watered down) in modern pupil-centred catechetics materials.

Nor is there any danger these days that concern for the environment will be overlooked in Catholic schools; one hears of almost nothing else. The problem has been that many Catholic schools have busied themselves with "life and celebration" at the expense of doctrines and Commandments. Critics of the Catechism, like those pursuing the outdated experientialist approach, are out of touch with the real world. Their views should be disregarded accordingly.

"Cafeteria Catholicism "

The Universal Catechism will certainly contain all that is required for Catholic belief and practice, whether of greater or lesser significance - and who is to decide where to "draw the line"? The mentality behind this kind of objection tends to promote a pick and choose "cafeteria Catholicism".

The Woodstock experts were also critical of so-called "proof-text" use of Scripture to bolster doctrinal teachings: "Anyone who learns the faith from such a Catechism will be confused when confronted with the results of contemporary Scripture studies."

On the contrary, this is a major strength of the Catechism. One is left guessing as to which particular Scripture quotes are misused in the Catechism. In any case, it is the Church's Magisterium, not the much-vaunted "contemporary" Scripture scholarship which has the final word on such texts when applied to doctrines, sacraments or disciplines.

The existence of a vocal and influential "parallel magisterium" of theologians and other experts effectively usurping hierarchical teaching authority has been a major problem in the contemporary Church. This phenomenon was dramatically highlighted by the "Cologne Declaration" and its defiance of papal authority.

The "parallel magisterium" is especially protective of its perceived role as chief interpreter of Vatican II. Hence its representatives at the Woodstock Theological Centre were understandably piqued at what they saw as the Catechism's "selective and sometimes mistranslated" quotes from the Council documents and a playing down of "the ecumenical and outward-looking thrust of the Council".

But it has been an exaggerated ecumenism and "openness" to the world which have particularly contributed to religious indifferentism and worldliness within the Church. The Catechism undoubtedly seeks more balance in these areas.

The Woodstock experts then argue that the Catechism "lacks an appreciation of history and development of doctrine".

But the role of any Universal Catechism is not to offer the latest theological opinions to the faithful on the lines of Fr Richard McBrien's mis-named Catholicism. Any official Catechism's task is to offer the Church's magisterial teachings. If the Catechism is to be a model for materials used in schools and colleges, it needs to err on the side of orthodoxy.

The Church has already suffered from a surfeit of runaway theologies available over every counter and sheltering under the umbrella of "development". Twenty years ago one prophetic Melbourne bishop described what was being prepared for future generations of Catholics as "spiritual thalidomide".

By all means let a "hundred flowers" bloom in rarefied theological circles. In the meantime, the average Catholic needs to be informed of the Church's approved teachings, free of contemporary fads and opinions.

The Catechism's critics find "the sexist language of the text ... unacceptable" adding that "Catholic feminists" would not approve of "language that speaks of the sexes" as "being equal but complementary". For most Catholics, this might appear a strength rather than a limitation.

Among "numerous other problems" found in the Catechism was "the treatment of Jesus" which reflected "a Christology that stresses his divinity so much that his humanity is almost lost." Even accepting this claim, it is also true that recent catechesis has tended towards the opposite extreme; some redressing of the balance is obviously in order.

The Woodstock experts then conclude: "The covering letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, Chairman of the Catechetical Commission, asks bishops for specific amendments and suggestions. This presumes that the draft is fundamentally correct in content and method.

"On the contrary, the document is fatally flawed. It cannot be saved by amendments that only tinker with the text. If this were a draft submitted to an ecumenical council it would deserve an overwhelming non placet from the bishops. At a minimum the bishops must ask for more time to consult with experts and the faithful before sending in their responses."

On the contrary, indeed! Those theologians and others responsible for the past, and continuing catechetical mess are the ones deserving of the non placet. They are "yesterday's men".

The Universal Catechism offers a heaven-sent opportunity to make a fresh start. But strong leadership will be needed if the Woodstock mind-set is not to prevail.

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