Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Catechism and the Year of Faith

On Thursday, October 11, in his motu proprio Porta Fidei (“The Door of Faith”)[*], Pope Benedict XVI officially opened the Year of Faith.  Thursday was chosen because it marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, and because “[it] also marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a text promulgated by my Predecessor, Blessed John Paul II [Fidei Depositum, 1992], with a view to illustrating for all the faithful the power and beauty of the faith” (Porta Fidei 4).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is itself a remarkable achievement.  Originally promulgated in French in 1992, when the English version hit the bookstands a couple of years later, it quickly rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for some weeks.  Revised once since then, it has become, as JP2 intended, the “sure norm for teaching the faith” (FD IV), the first reference of choice (outside of the Bible) for many Catholic writers. 

It’s also virtually become the ultimate “argument ender”, which is something of a misuse of its function. 

Certainly, the Catechism is an admirably comprehensive synthesis of two thousand years’ teaching and thought; it’s almost (but not quite) safe to say that “If’n it ain’t in the Catechism, the Church don’t teach it!”[†]  At the same time, though, Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead rightfully point out that the Catechism doesn’t distinguish between doctrines that are de fide (formally defined as part of the revelation) and those that are merely sententia communis (not formally defined but generally accepted).[1]  Indeed, for all its comprehensiveness and depth, the Catechism is by its nature only the beginning of one’s education in the faith, and constantly points outside itself to Scripture, patristics, conciliar documents and writings of the saints.


Why, then, is the Catechism used like a club in internal squabbles, like the “Lies and Lila Rose” flap last year?  Pretty much because October 11 also marked the beginning of fifty years of struggle over the soul of the Church in the West, in which period the very meaning of the words “Catholic” and “Christian” have been in danger of being lost.  For much if not most of this period, the bishops of the Church in America all but surrendered apostolic authority, preferring rather to keep the peace through negotiation and “crisis management” than to set their collective foot down as the primary teachers and conservators of the Faith.

To this point — 1962, I mean — the Baltimore Catechism had been the standard textbook for children receiving instruction in the Faith.  Say what you will about the Baltimore Catechism, it was a very effective tool for teaching what we believe, if not necessarily why we believe those things; when combined with the socializing effects of attending parochial schools run by first- and second-order religious, a young Catholic might have fallen away by the time he graduated high school, but he knew precisely what he’d stopped believing.

By the time I entered parochial school in 1970, the Baltimore Catechism had been swept away, along with much else of value, by a flock of reformers who claimed to be inspired by Vatican II even while throwing out much that the bishops of the Council specifically named to be kept.  In its place, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine substituted materials that had neither staying power nor real relevance to catechesis, much of it seemingly devoted to putting Catholicism’s beliefs amidst those of other religions (so that they would learn to play nice with others, I suppose).  By the time the English edition of the Catechism came out, functional ignorance of the tenets of the Faith was the rule rather than the exception for the majority of Catholics … many of whom would eventually become “ex-Catholics”.

The intrusion into this merry state of affairs of a virtual encyclopedia of authentic Catholic beliefs, in the midst of the “reformers’” attempts to water Catholicism down to something more palatable to liberal Protestants, came as an unpleasant surprise, and the reformers lost no time in dissing and dismissing the Catechism. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect for the Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism and for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ruefully remarked, “What has been written so far about the catechism [has been] for the most part rather one-sided.  Thus it could seem that it was really a list of sins and that the church wanted most of all to tell people what they could not do.” 

Of course, the Catechism was and is far more than “a list of sins”; it’s not too hard to imagine its critics mailing in their objections without once cracking the covers of the book, just as many of them would later criticize the new English translation of the Mass without having seen so much as a preface.  But for those laymen, priests and bishops who were looking for a crowbar with which they could pry the reformers out of the classroom and reintroduce orthodoxy into catechesis, the Catechism was no less than a Godsend.

October 11, 1992, then, could be marked as the date when the “reform of the reform” truly began.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a casual read, something to pick up when Dancing with the Stars has signed off (and you’re just not all that into Castle — sorry, Crescat).  First, it’s primarily a reference point for the construction of more workaday catechetical materials, such as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism by Mary DeTurris Poust and David I. Fulton.[‡]  Second, since it’s meant to be instructive, the style is very impersonal.  If anything, it’s meant to be read with a study guide and a notebook, not with a bag of Fritos and a can of Diet Pepsi (though who am I to keep you from noshing?).  If you read it for pleasure, you’ll never finish it — no, I won’t tell you how it ends.

However, if you’re at all interested in exploring the Faith of the Church, then this is where you start.  If you intend to hold yourself out as Catholic, then the best thing you can do is study the Catechism to learn what the Church really teaches, and avoid the kind of cherry-picking done by quasi-Catholic organizations like Catholics For Choice and New Ways Ministries.

Above all, don’t try to cram it all down in a week or two.  FlockNote.com currently is running an email campaign: just give them your email address and they’ll send you a little bit of the Catechism to reflect on each day.  You can add that to the services that send you Bible and saints’ quotes … ain’t the Internet wonderful?

So welcome to the Year of Faith.  Here’s praying that the next year finds us drawing closer together in belief and practice as we rediscover the true meaning of John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


[*] As with most papal documents, the apostolic letter is titled after its opening words; the “door of faith” is a reference to Acts 14:27:  And when [Paul and Barnabas] arrived [in Antioch], they gathered the church together and declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
[†] The only omission of any significance I’ve found so far is that “admonishing the sinner”, once considered one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, is not mentioned as such in CCC 2447.
[‡] By the way, Ignatius Press publishes a Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that quotes, sometimes at length, documents and texts that the Catechism only footnotes, which makes it a handy resource.  And no, I don’t get anything for linking you to Amazon … more fool me.


[1] Wrenn, M. J.; Whitehead, K. D. (1996). Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ignatius Press, p. 208.