How the new Catechism can impact on the secular culture

How the new Catechism can impact on the secular culture

Archbishop Barry J. Hickey

The challenge facing the Catholic Church with publication of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' is not merely how best to implement it in the Catholic classroom, lecture theatre, parish and home, but also how to strengthen its impact on the 'unchurched' in the wider community and on the secular culture itself. Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth takes up these questions in the following article which is adapted from a talk he gave recently to a residential seminar for priests in Sydney.

In the Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Donum, which introduced the Catechism, the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, stated that it was a sure norm for teaching the faith, that it was an instrument for promoting unity within the Church, and it would provoke a renewal of the Church in the Holy Spirit, that it would be a "symphony" of the faith, that it would lead to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ, and would be a compendium and sure reference for local catechetical texts.

The Pope asked the faithful to use the Catechism in "fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to Gospel life" (3). He also stressed its evangelising potential in asking the Blessed Virgin Mary "to support with her powerful intercession the catechetical work of the entire Church on every level, at this time when she is called to a new effort of evangelisation" (3).

It would be wrong, therefore, to see the Catholic Catechism as simply a defence of Catholic teaching under attack. It is much more. It is a tool of evangelisation, a handbook for the New Evangelisation that will speak afresh to people who have turned away from Christ.

It affirms anew positions that the world rejects, believing that only the Good News of Jesus Christ is able to enlighten the dark corridors along which modern people are searching, fulfilling the longings of the heart.

In turning to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a tool of evangelisation we must look to our own openness to conversion to Christ as well as to the transformation of the world.

Of the many ways in which the Catechism is a useful tool for evangelisation today, I wish to refer to three specific areas:

1. The marketplace of ideas.
2. Principles of moral actions.
3. Human sexuality.


If the principles outlined in the Catechism are to evangelise or re-evangelise the Western world, Catholic thinkers must be at the intersection of religion and public life. It is not sufficient to withdraw from current moral and ethical debate and to work only at the level of personal faith, because culture is so pervasive and influential.

The only answer, it seems to me, is to enter the philosophical and moral debates of our age, to penetrate them with the spirit of Christ.

It is not an impossible task, because it has been done before. Since the collapse of Communism and the Marxist philosophy that sustained it, we have witnessed the triumph of secularism, particularly secular humanism and, as far as religion is concerned, indifferentism.

The secular viewpoint is widely considered to be the only valid one in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like Australia, because it cannot identify itself with any one group or religion. While this has some surface appeal, it nevertheless has the effect of relegating religion to the private sphere, nullifying any influence it might have in the public arena.

Furthermore, the secular approach has taken on the characteristics of a religion itself. Morality is determined democratically and introduced into legislation. Freedom of choice is enshrined by law and God is excluded from public life. Secular humanism takes the place of other totalitarian regimes like Marxism or Freemasonry or Nazism in trying to suppress religion by relegating it to the private sphere where it has no say in public life.

We should not accept such a situation in the effort to evangelise modem culture.

We see the religious viewpoint currently rejected in the issue of euthanasia as we have seen it in the past in the issue of abortion. Those with a religious perspective are told to keep out of the debates because they have no right to impose their religious views on other Australians.

Views are certainly imposed, but they come from the dominant "secular" religion.

It is in this area that we must bring the truths of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and present them in such a way that their force is persuasive to the secular mind.

The Catechism does not reject the modern world. It recognises its values and its defects, and urges a productive dialogue that will open it again to the transcendent, and restore those values that are truly human and therefore from God.

One of those who have undertaken the task of dialogue with the modern world is the convert Richard John Neuhaus who speaks of the "Catholic Moment." He sees that in the recent collapse of ideologies such as Marxism, the Church is in a very good position to penetrate the world of secularism and religious indifferentism because it has a coherent body of truths that can fill the vacuum in modern ethical and metaphysical thinking.

Fr Neuhaus has presented positions on current ethical debates that are faithful to the teaching of the Church and, at the same time, presented in the conceptual framework of the modern mind.

Some of the titles illustrate the point: on euthanasia - "Always to care, never to kill;" on abortion - "Caring about women, caring for the unborn"; on embryo research - "The unhuman use of human beings."


The Catechism does not speak just to Catholics on these issues. It speaks to the modern world. There is hardly an area of greater conflict between the religious view and the secular view than the search for the basis of moral actions.

The Catechism links moral actions with human dignity, claiming that "the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God" (1700).

This does not cut any ice with the secularists.

The Catechism affirms that by the use of reason a person can recognise the duty to do good and avoid evil. God's command makes itself heard in the voice of conscience which must be followed. It is to be properly formed in the light of the Word of God and the authentic teaching of the Church.

In this the Catechism is obviously pointing to our objective moral order which is independent of us, and in which "there are acts which, in and of themselves, independent of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object: such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery" (1756).

The secular view is quite otherwise.

In rejecting the existence of an objective moral order it makes all morality ultimately subjective. Laws are framed to protect and uphold values that the consensus or majority of the people hold in common, but reference to God as a source of right and wrong is rejected. We see this in debates about euthanasia, abortion and embryo manufacture and disposal.

The matter is even worse than that. Without God, conscience does not simply seek the truth but makes it true. If one believes that adultery or suicide is right for him or her, then that judgement makes it right. The law then becomes the practical arbiter of right and wrong in the absence of any more objective source.

Without God, morality becomes personal, subjective and ultimately anarchic because others may not arrive at the same judgement as we do.

What is the evangelising role of the Church in this area?

Veritatis Splendor (1993) insisted on the existence of absolutes in morality. It supports the Catechism in asking that this affirmation be part of the dialogue with modernity, because the opposite is moral anarchy with ultimately disastrous consequences to the human race.

Will the Church's voice be heard?

It is hard to say because of serious divisions among Catholic theologians. For instance, there are many theologians who embrace the principle of proportionality rather than absolutes in moral decisions. In proportionalism one asks whether the positive values outweigh the negative values in human actions, and determine behaviour on the judgement made. This is not far from the Protestant "situation ethics."

It must be pointed out, lest it be forgotten in the discussion of "life" issues, that Catholic moral positions cover the whole range of human behaviour and critical issues from personal sexual morality to issues of social justice. There is no justification for Catholics being concerned for matters of sexual morality while remaining indifferent to social justice concerns and vice versa.


The teaching of the Church and the ways of the world are seriously at odds on the matter of human sexuality. Neither is there much unity among Christian Churches any more.

The Interim Report on Sexuality produced this year by an Assembly Task Group of the Uniting Church in Australia examines current attitudes in sexuality and attempts to place them in a moral and Christian context. It is particularly concerned about the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people in the Christian community. It also reflects on the admissibility of sexual intercourse before marriage.

The Report affirms the primacy of personal decisions in sexual activity, avoiding any suggestion that any of these activities are wrong in themselves. Decisions are to be based on asking key questions such as: "How can our actions in this situation best reflect the love, faithfulness and grace of God that comes in Jesus Christ?" "Will this sexual expression enrich and enhance the relationship?" "Is the decision to engage in sexual behaviour a truly equal and mutual decision?"

This Report is to be presented, after comments are received, to the Eighth Assembly of the Uniting Church which will meet in Perth in July 1997.

Neither can we presume that civil legislation will support the traditional Catholic teachings.

There is before Federal Parliament at present a Bill to amend the Equal Opportunity Legislation to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality. Many fear that this Bill will prevent any criticism of lifestyles that do not accord with Church teaching, and give them legal protection and new rights.

So where does the Church stand in her role of evangelisation, of presenting the Good News about sex?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly believes that the teachings of the Church on sexuality protect personal dignity, respect marriage, procreation and true human love. There is no hint that sexual activity is a matter of personal choice.

There are norms imprinted in human nature and expressed in Scripture that point to an objective moral order that is to be sought and accepted. Based on this objective external moral order, the Catechism says about homosexuality that "homosexual persons are called to chastity" (2359). It acknowledges the difficulties people have with sexuality, especially disordered tendencies, refuses to blame people for the tendencies that develop, but calls them to live by the God-given norms that regulate sexual behaviour.

If we are convinced that Church teaching is Good News for all, including homosexual, married and unmarried and divorced people, we have no alternative but to present the vision anew to our Catholic people and engage in dialogue with the world to present a view that we believe is far more beneficial to humanity than the current permissive views surrounding us.

Courage, prayer and serious theological reflection will be needed before we can spread this aspect of the Good News. The Church will respond, I am sure, because holding views that are out of season has never intimidated her.

There is, of course, much more. One could talk of the catechesis that will lead us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; or lead us along the great journey to eternal life through prayer, or talk of the entry into the divine mysteries that enlighten our minds, the words of Scripture that penetrate the heart, the nourishment of the Sacraments along the way and the joys of forgiveness and inner peace in the family or people of God.

One could also look at the conversion to love which affects all relationships and carries over to a genuine love for the poor, and the call for human societies to respect the rights and dignity of every person.

Fundamentally, the Good News produces a deep and lasting change, a true conversion that turns one to God and to one another in love.

The three topics here have been chosen because they speak of the evangelical task of the Church in the modern world in areas where fundamental differences exist about right and wrong, about how moral decisions are made, and about the difficult questions surrounding human sexuality.

No amount of internal dissension nor unpopularity constitute insurmountable obstacles to the Church's call to evangelise. After all we have the promise of Jesus that "the gates of hell" will not prevail against her.

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