Can Such Things Be?
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1992, the document described itself as "an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of the Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's tradition" (CCC 11). This would seem to be a pretty clear statement of what the Catechism is and what it contains, and the document would surely seem to be what anyone would think those professionally involved in Catholic theology or religious education would normally welcome as an essential and fundamental sourcebook for their fields.
But the times are not normal, and the evidence continues to mount that some Catholic theologians and religious education leaders, far from welcoming the Catechism with open arms, have instead been rather openly striving to downgrade the importance of the document and to limit its role and use. They seem to have been especially anxious to ensure that, where the work is used, they, the experts, will be the ones to dictate how it will be used (this must not be considered 247 as difficult or as far-fetched as it might at first sound, when we consider some of the positions in the Church's educational structure occupied by many of the malcontents and revisionists of this type).
These same people appear very uncomfortable with the idea that the book can just be purchased and used by, well, anybody; and that it can be consulted at any time to provide an authoritative statement of what the Church teaches in any given area. How can the religious-education establishment maintain its effective monopoly on religious education in such a situation? It has thus become very important in certain quarters that the Catechism not be seen as authoritative or, indeed, as anything very special at all.
As one catechetical expert wrote in a publication intended for, and primarily read by DREs, catechists, and those in what is increasingly today being called parish "ministry", the Catechism is merely "a point of departure". This expert, who is a professor of religious-education at the university level, confidently assures her readers throughout the Church's religious-education system that "the Catechism is primarily a reference book."'1
The author of a column in a series syndicated for use in parish bulletins adopts roughly the same view and appears to reflect the current consensus of the catechetical and theological establishments when he writes that the Catechism is "not a static end result. Since by its very nature the CCC is a reference work, it is not intended, e.g., for use in parochial schools, in its present form. . . . The CCC is rather meant to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms." Here the Pope's Fidei Depositum promulgating the 248 Catechism is actually quoted, but in a way that implies that the writing of new local catechisms is intended to be the only use of the Catechism. Since the whole project of a universal catechism started, in fact, it has been standard operating procedure for certain theologians and religious educators to quote the Pope and other high Church officials, with a great show of loyalty, on the current need for local catechisms, especially those "inculturated" in a particular region or country; in the meantime, the suggestion always is, the present Catechism by itself will simply not do.
"Future catechisms will capture the rich experience of their own Church as it continues to dialogue with a pluralistic society", the parish bulletin writer just quoted informs his readers in no doubt hundreds of parishes around the country. "Theologians, biblicists, historians, linguists, catechists, etc., will be asked to pool their talents for the good of the community." Apparently the pains already taken by the Pope and the hierarchy over more than seven years to produce and issue an accurate and comprehensive summary of Catholic teaching for all the faithful is not nearly good enough, and so now all these other experts are going to have to be called in. This same writer for parish bulletins is quite explicit about this: the good of the community "will . . . demand their improving certain areas in the CCC" (emphasis added). "What is most needed", according to this writer, is "the courage to change".2
Evidently this fairly uniform message has gone out about as widely as it has been within the power of the theological and catechetical establishments to disseminate it: the new 249 Catechism is really not all that important; if the Catholic bishops of the world have not labored entirely in vain on this project, they have apparently labored to little real valid or durable purpose; it all has to be reworked—such is the message.
It is a fairly consistent message too. For example, one of today's typical catechetical workshop "facilitators" told a conference in the midwest consisting of DREs, youth ministers, school teachers and principals, priests, and religious that "the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only one resource and was not written for everyone. . . . It is not even the full expression of our faith either", she said. This particular "facilitator", who has a doctor's degree in catechetics from the Catholic University of America and is currently a faculty member at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, said that she didn't "think catechetical materials would change much . . . because there is nothing new in the Catechism".3
This same message is not only disseminated, it is also received—at least some of the time. At the particular workshop in the midwest just mentioned, one of the participants was quoted as saying: "It helped me to see where the Catechism fits into Church and society. It's not the answer; it's a tool to help with faith" (emphasis added).4
It also seems to be a tool that many specialists in the craft of catechetics seem strangely reluctant to use. Sometimes it is eye-opening to read a popular-press account of a catechetical conference such as the one we have just quoted. A reporter writing down exactly what is being said, perhaps without realizing the larger significance of it, can highlight points that would perhaps otherwise be obscured by the in-group jargon that the new catechists normally employ to describe what they are doing. In the case of this particular catechetical conference in the midwest, it seems quite evident from the press report of it that the participants clearly got the message that the new Catechism contains nothing new, is far from being our only or perhaps even most important catechetical resource, and, in any case, is not even a full expression of our faith.
Furthermore, the significance of what appears to be a systematic downgrading and undermining of the Catechism here by this facilitator extends beyond the bounds of a particular catechetical conference that happened to take place in the summer of 1994. For the facilitator of the conference in question, it seems, is also one of the more prominent new catechetical professionals. It turns out that she has presented numerous day-long conferences to diocesan and pastoral leaders throughout the midwest, and thus her decidedly negative message about the Catechism has reached more than just one small audience. We learn all this from the foreword to a book she has written about the Catechism.
Yes: she is the principal author of one of the first commentaries on the Catechism to appear in English. She is Jane E. Regan, author of a book entitled Exploring the Catechism.5 This book, written with several collaborators, is specifically aimed at introducing religious educators, youth ministers, and others to the Catechism; it is intended to be part of the 251 "implementation" of the document. If we want to know what a lot of people are learning about the book, especially those who themselves have responsibilities of various kinds and at various levels in religious education, we need only look more closely at Jane E. Regan's Exploring the Catechism.
Actually we have already encountered both this book and this author. In Chapter Two, we quoted from Exploring the Catechism in order to illustrate how the new catechesis so often downplays formal instruction in Catholic doctrine by, first, "naming the [whole] community as the agent of catechesis", in Jane Regan's words. Then catechesis itself is defined as not "simply instruction", again in her words, but as coextensive "with the ways in which faith comes to expression within our community—communal living, proclamation, teaching, liturgy, and service—and seeing those as both the context and expression of catechesis as well as its content" (emphasis added).6
It is true that all the expressions of faith in the life of the Church enumerated here are important and indeed necessary; they support and reenforce and bring alive the instruction in the faith imparted in catechesis. Pope John Paul II himself makes this same point in Catechesi Tradenthe, mentioning many other such supports and reinforcements of catechesis in the life of the Church such as pilgrimages, missions, participation in prayer groups, charitable activities, Catholic action groups, and so on.7
Nevertheless, catechesis in itself remains primarily instruction addressed to the mind. This remains true even when, as is generally the case in the United States, religious 252 educators are also responsible for the greater part of sacramental preparation. Even here, they are teaching their confirmandi, catechumens, or first communicants about the sacraments and their effects. The General Catechetical Directory actually narrows catechesis down to one form of the ministry of the word in the Church. According to the GCD, catechesis has to be distinguished from other forms of the ministry of the word such as evangelization (or missionary preaching), liturgy of the word, and theology.8
Thus, catechesis is not coextensive "with the ways in which faith comes to expression within our community"; certainly these things do not constitute its "content". Trying to make the whole "community", in all of its life and activities, "the agent of catechesis", as Dr. Jane E. Regan wishes to do, is already to lose the sharp focus that catechesis needs if it is to be effective. This becomes even more true when the doctrinal content of whatever actual instruction remains is further neglected or watered down, as is the case with much of our typical modern catechesis. This is no way to produce believing and practicing Christians, as the results of the new catechesis over the past thirty years attest. To say, in effect, that everybody is responsible for catechesis is like saying that everybody is responsible for alleviating poverty or curbing violence. In practice it too often means that nobody in particular is responsible, and hence nothing gets done.
The General Catechetical Directory has made the important point that catechists, because they are responsible for imparting a living faith, must indeed be more than mere teachers of a particular subject matter, even though the imparting 253 of such a subject matter—the doctrine of the faith —is indeed their primary task. "They are responsible", the GCD says, "for choosing and creating suitable conditions which are necessary for the Christian message to be sought, accepted, and more profoundly investigated."
It often seems that "choosing and creating suitable conditions" are the very things many catechists are most often involved in today, sometimes to the exclusion of the Christian message itself. Many of the new catechists seem to have heard only part of the GCD's message. Too often these new catechists seem to see their principal task as creating "experiences" that are supportive of faith; but meanwhile they sometimes forget that the faith has to be there first (by means of instruction) before it can be fortified. "Choosing and creating suitable conditions", however important, is not a substitute for instruction. The GCD takes for granted that instruction is primary and prior; and it further points out that "adherence on the part of those to be taught is a fruit of grace and freedom, and does not ultimately depend on the catechist; and catechetical action, therefore, should be accompanied by prayer." 9
And not only by prayer, we might add, but by the confidence that the true word of God will make its own way if only it is properly made known. Catechists do not have to be concerned with constantly providing "experiences" to their charges for fear the latter might become "bored". Nothing is less boring than the true faith, the story of our salvation, as a matter of fact, and it is this that has to be imparted. Moreover, now it is all there, in the Catechism; and so the task is to impart the Catechism, not to seek ways to avoid using it or perhaps even mentioning it.
How anyone could imagine that instruction is not necessarily central or that "the life of the community" could somehow become the equivalent of the content of the faith, as Dr. Regan asserts, is one of the mysteries of the new catechesis that few outside its own ranks have been able to comprehend. We clearly need to examine further this particular specialist's book Exploring the Catechism if we want to know what some of the new catechists are doing with the Catechism.
The book Exploring the Catechism treats in greater detail some of the same themes and principles that stand behind its author's catechetical-workshop assertions that the new Catechism is only one catechetical resource, that it was not written for everyone, that there is nothing new in it, and that it is not a full expression of our faith anyway. That someone holding such views on the Catechism should nevertheless be thought suitable to prepare a book about it might at first seem unusual; but her motives do become clearer as her particular approach to the Catechism is more clearly spelled out. "Each chapter is written with pastoral ministers in mind," the author explains, "supporting them as they critically read the Catechism" (emphasis added).
This is how Church teachings are now to be received at all levels, apparently: "critically". Religion teachers in the classroom are now apparently supposed to be mini-practitioners of the new theology and of the historical-critical method— yet one more way in which the catechist's role and function precisely as teacher of the faith has been misunderstood and misapplied by the new catechesis.
Jesus is never depicted in the Gospels, by the way, as 255 proposing his teachings for further discussion and possible criticism. No: Jesus customarily proclaimed his teachings to be accepted, assimilated, and acted upon. Whatever else the phrase "to teach as Jesus did" (the name of a pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops of a few years back) might mean, it cannot possibly mean to propose the truths Jesus revealed for "critical examination". Jesus taught "with authority" (Lk 4:32). The Church too has traditionally proclaimed the teachings of Jesus in the same manner, "with authority", inviting and accepting the same response of faith and action. That, indeed, was what the kerygmatic movement in catechesis was originally all about.
Yet some people today decline simply to accept Christ's teachings as they are authoritatively proclaimed by the Church, most recently in the new Catechism. The virus of theological dissent has penetrated so deeply into the Catholic consciousness today that many people now appear honestly to believe—mistakenly, of course—that Christ's teachings must necessarily be subjected to "critical analysis" rather than received and made the basis of one's life.
Unfortunately, many of these same people are to be found in the ranks of religious educators with formal responsibilities for teaching the faith to others. It is no wonder that some of them fail as badly at their task as the modern statistics show; for they have long since been trained to consider the Church's teachings as so much raw material to be processed further by them. They are now to be the final arbiters and judges of what the faith is. In Martin Luther's day, this was called "private judgment"; among modern new theologians and new catechists, it is often styled "mature faith". This is the approach that characterizes Exploring the Catechism.
The principal author of Exploring the Catechism tells us that "each person approaches the reading of the Catechism of 256 the Catholic Church from his or her own perspective. . . . As theologian, I ask a number of questions. . . . What theological perspective is reflected there? . . . What does the text mean for me?" (emphasis added).
Or again: "What is the connection between a catechism and my ecclesiology, my sense of the nature of the Church?" This is surely private judgment with a vengeance. Dr. Regan does sometimes pose real questions, such as: What is the nature of the Church? or: What is the role of the Magisterium of the Church? It is just that she does not seem to see the Catechism as in any way providing the answers to such questions. Indeed she explicitly rejects the idea that the book could provide "the answers to our questions".
She claims at the same time to reject going to the other extreme as well; that is, she does not include herself among those deploring and denying the idea of any catechism at all, those in her description who scorn a catechism as laying down a "party line". Oh no! the Church may issue a catechism if that is what the Church wishes to do; it is just that someone with a Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America, apparently, need not be bound by what the Church does.
In fact, at one point Dr. Regan betrays only too tellingly her real sympathies when she characterizes the Catechism as something that really might bring about the possibility "that the life-giving spirit of inquiry within a pluralistic Church will be silenced".
"The life-giving spirit of inquiry within a pluralistic Church"—as if it were any "spirit of inquiry within the pluralistic Church", and not Christ and the real Spirit, which "gives life" within the Church! Old Voltaire and his Enlightenment friends surely did not labor in vain; a couple of centuries later, their disciples are apparently to be found 257 in the ranks of the Church's trained and working theologians.
Dr. Regan's book on the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes several introductory chapters on the background of catechesis, catechisms, and the new Catechism. These contain standard material and are competently done, for the most part; there is no need to dwell on them. What is interesting from our point of view is that the author often cannot avoid displaying her own theological orientation and bias even when she is treating purely factual material. She comments, for example, that while a catechism is concerned with "uniformity", a directory allows for the possibility of "unity with diversity" (probably because a catechism explains doctrines so plainly that it is no longer easy to explain them away; it is always easy, on the other hand, to "interpret" the general "guidance" that a directory gives, that is, it is always possible to decide not to be guided by the guidance provided).
This same general approach is evident when Dr. Regan criticizes medieval society for trying "to present the Christian mystery as distinct propositions suitable for memorization"; or as being "entangled in lists and propositions unconnected with lived faith". As it happens, of course, the "lived faith" of medieval society raised up artistic monuments to faith that have never been equaled either before or since. Anyway, the present age is surely not in any position to be criticizing the "lived faith" of anybody. The present era can hardly pretend to give lessons to any other era at all, considering how little faith is generally respected today, or how little it is apparently able to affect our decadent society in any real way.
The first part of Exploring the Catechism sets the work in context and was written by Dr. Regan herself. In the second part of the book, she includes four other authors, 258 who help provide the commentary on the four pillars of the Catechism itself, the Creed, or Profession of Faith, the Sacraments, the Commandments, and Christian Prayer. Dr. Regan herself wrote the commentary on the Sacraments, entitled the "Celebration of the Christian Mystery", as well as providing an overview of the whole. In the latter, she explains that the aim of her commentary is "to probe", to undertake a discriminating reading of the Catechism. She and her colleagues hope to present "theological concepts or understandings that are presumed in the texts but not always clearly explicated".
Thus, "theology" is what is presumed to be at the heart of this modern compendium of the Church's faith. Instead of accepting gratefully the gift that the teaching Church has presented to the faithful of our own and future eras, Dr. Regan sees her primary task and that of her collaborators as entering "into the multifaceted dialogue that exists between the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the thoughts of contemporary theological discourse, between the theological presentation"—she apparently means the Catechism's presentation of the Church's faith—"and their own experience as people of faith" (emphasis added). Once again, the "experience" of people is considered to be on a par with what has been revealed and handed down in the Church.
One possible explanation for this seemingly "naturalistic" approach comes from Dr. Regan's commentary on the Sacraments included in the book. In discussing grace, she gives fairly short shrift to what the Catechism itself says about it in comparison to what Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner has to say. The latter is quoted as saying that grace "is the comprehensive radical opening up of the person's total consciousness in the direction of the immediacy of God, an opening up 259 that is brought about by God's own self-communication".10 Where this leads, in Dr. Regan's view, is to the conclusion that "grace can be experienced."
While an attempt is made to express this in the "nuanced" terms that modern theology claims to favor—after all, the truth of this kind of statement does depend upon what one means by it—the fact nevertheless remains that, in a commentary on a catechism, or authoritative statement of the Church's faith, there is at least one fairly serious problem about pursuing such a line of thought in the way Dr. Regan does pursue it. For the Catechism teaches very plainly that: "Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved" (CCC 2005; emphasis in the original).
The Council of Trent, to which reference is made in this paragraph of the Catechism, teaches that "no one can know with a certitude of faith which cannot be subject to error that he has obtained God's grace."11
So which is it: Can grace be experienced or not? The Catechism, basing its teaching on a dogmatic decision of a general council of the Catholic Church says No. A single modern theologian is interpreted as saying Yes. Somewhere along the line the fact that certain solemn teachings of popes and councils are irreformable seems to have been forgotten. 260 Actually, the Rahner view is, again, typically "nuanced". Dr. Regan cites another passage from Rahner which seems to indicate that what the Jesuit theologian thought could be experienced were really "moments of self-transcendence", in Dr. Regan's words. It is not clear whether this is the same thing as grace in Rahner's view. Still, how are catechists and pastoral ministers supposed to sort out this kind of thing? What is the point of a commentary that simply makes everything more complicated and at the same time seems to deny doctrines of the faith clearly stated by the Catechism?
It is not our intention here to enter into a debate about any part of the theology of Karl Rahner. The point we are concerned with here is that a commentator on the Catechism of the Catholic Church thinks it is her task to "correct" the Catechism using the opinions of a modern theologian as her pretext and authority. The average reader of her commentary, presumably one of our new catechists or modern pastoral ministers, is unlikely to end up with very much respect for a Catechism treated in such a cavalier manner.
Again, Dr. Regan appears to deny—although the denial is couched in another involved and "nuanced" statement— that the sacraments of the Church "give grace", as those instructed via the old Baltimore Catechism once learned. The new Catechism also very plainly says that, "celebrated worthily in faith, the Sacraments confer the grace that they signify" (CCC 1127; emphasis added); and that "the Sacraments are efficacious signs of grace . . . by which divine life is dispensed to us" (CCC 1131; emphasis added again).
In order to avoid misrepresenting what Dr. Regan appears to be trying to say on this subject, it is worth quoting a paragraph in her own words concerning how the Catechism presents what she calls the "theological concept" of the term "grace": 261
In other words, the Catechism has, once again, erred grievously; and above all, we must imperatively guard against any "magical understanding" of the sacraments!
It is extremely unlikely that either the bishop-authors who composed this Catechism or the commission of cardinals and bishops who approved it are ignorant of the thought of Karl Rahner. If, nevertheless, they decided not to include some of his views on grace in the Church's official modern account of her own faith, it would not be the first time that the Church has declined to take up the thought of one of her theologians. Some of the greatest saints and doctors of the Church have similarly been passed over in this manner when it comes to composing catechisms. In this situation, it ill befits theologians who are themselves supposed to be "sent out" by the Church to be second-guessing the Magisterium and adding in things that, in their opinion, should have been included. This would seem to be particularly inappropriate when what is added appears to contradict 262 what the Catechism says. In the nature of the case, this can only confuse the potential end-users of this commentary.
The chapter commenting on the Creed in Exploring the Catechism was written by Michael P. Horan of the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Like Dr. Regan, Dr. Horan holds a Ph.D. in religious education from the Catholic University of America. It certainly cannot be said that CUA's School of Religious Studies is having no impact on the current religious-education scene in the United States.
Dr. Horan is a careful writer, and at first it appears that we really are going to get a genuine commentary on how the Catechism presents the Profession of Faith. He begins by correctly pointing out that the Catechism's presentation of revelation is based squarely on that of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. He calls this the "invitation-response" view of revelation; it draws heavily on the contemporary return to original scriptural and patristic sources—ressourcement—which preceded, accompanied, and has followed Vatican II. This approach links sacred Scripture inseparably with sacred Tradition. Unlike most other commentators, Dr. Horan actually praises the Catechism's use of the historical-critical method so that both "the Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith" are basically presented.
However, ominous early signs do appear in Dr. Horan's text. Among them are the author's reference to "the importance of human experience" and his disparaging observation that Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic 263 Faith, Dei Filius, displayed an understanding of revelation as "propositional" (why the human mind's natural tendency to organize and express knowledge and thought in "propositions" is not understood or admitted to be an integral part of "human experience" is rather difficult to fathom).
Dr. Horan traces back to the Enlightenment the modern view that the human being (which Christ became) is first of all "an individual in freedom". This is the reason, in his view, why theological work today must begin with the humanity of Jesus and work up "from below"—as if it were the Enlightenment and modern democracy, currently failing so badly to meet real human needs, that must necessarily govern the expression of a revealed faith handed down from a very different historical era. However that may be, Dr. Horan is critical of the Catechism for beginning with a "Christology from above". The following paragraph from the Catechism illustrates what he calls a "high-descending Christology":
In this single paragraph, the Catechism quotes Scripture, St. Irenxus, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas Aquinas to make its point. Dr. Michael Horan nevertheless believes that starting with Christ's humanity instead would have been a more "creative use of theology". He evidently shares the same position 264 articulated by Dr. Regan when she averred that pastoral ministers should "critically read" the Catechism. For his part, Dr. Horan believes that "catechetical leaders might well review the theology that shapes this document, as well as the Christology that would complement this work" (emphasis added). In other words, again, "catechetical leaders" —the professionals, the experts—are to have the last word, not the hierarchy, not the Catechism, not only about what is actually taught in the classroom but about what the faith is in its essence. Presumably, again, the hierarchy can issue all the catechisms it pleases containing the "official" teachings; it will then be for the "catechetical leaders" to "review" these teachings.
One of the things Dr. Horan himself appears to have decided about Christology is that "more information on the historical Jesus would help catechetical leaders who need to refer to a compendium of faith as Catholic minds currently analyze and articulate that faith." He himself singles out only two of many possible areas in which he believes modern scholarship has provided the wherewithal "to complement the approach and content of Christology found in the Catechism". They are: the Jewishness of Jesus and his commitment to the reign of God.
Actually, it is not clear who would wish to argue about the importance of either of these two themes. Least of all does the Catechism dispute them. Nor does it seem that modern scholarship has any monopoly on them. What we soon discover, though, is that Dr. Horan brings the first one up mostly in order to stigmatize "the sin of anti-Semitism among Christians" (which the Catechism naturally also condemns; see for example paragraphs 537 and 839). But it is hardly as if anti-Semitism were the main problem faced by Christians today, fifty years after the defeat and death 265 of Adolf Hitler. The Holocaust that challenges us today is surely rather that of the unborn being legally slaughtered by the millions around the world. However, the moral problems to which Dr. Horan seems most attuned are likely to be the same politically correct ones stressed by today's secular liberals.
Similarly, his mention of the preference of Jesus for the poor as shown in the Gospels serves principally as the platform from which he can then recommend such aberrations as "liberation theology, feminist theology, and black theology" (his words), which, whatever else they may have accomplished, have surely done very little if anything for the real poor. On the contrary, it can be shown that they have surely done a great deal of harm.
In any case, the Catechism pointedly inculcates such things as active love for the poor (CCC 2443,2462-63), the moral responsibility of wealthy nations (CCC 2439-40), poverty as an evangelical counsel (CCC 915 and 944), and poverty of heart in imitation of Christ (CCC 2544-47). It is the Catechism, not today's typical ideologues, that indicates the true Christian path to be followed in approaching the poor and downtrodden; the Church's own book is outstanding here in setting forth the Church's true social teachings. Nor is it clear that these things are in any particular need of being "complemented" in accordance with Dr. Horan's preferences. Has modern scholarship of the type Dr. Horan invokes really added anything new or unique here? Anything to justify the kind of freelance "reviewing" and "complementing" of the Catechism he advocates?
Dr. Horan certainly seems to think so: "Biblical hermeneutics functions not only to enrich theological conversation", he writes, "but has a direct bearing on the pastoral life of the Church." In his view, the Catechism definitely 266 requires "supplements and amplifications" on these and no doubt many other points.
It is astonishing what large and far-reaching conclusions some people believe can and must be drawn from the overall rather meager results of some two centuries of "biblical hermeneutics" and historical-critical method. Not that the Church opposes these things: on the contrary, she firmly encourages them and has recently issued a very fine document on biblical exegesis that, while carefully laying out all the advantages of the various approaches to studying the sacred Scriptures—a study she deems "indispensable"—at the same time understands that the principal aim of exegesis "is the deepening of faith. . . . Catholic exegesis does not have the right to become lost, like a stream of water, in the sands of a hypercritical analysis."
As for the historical-critical method, though it is necessary and valid for what it does achieve, it cannot, in the Church's view, "lay claim to enjoying a monopoly. . . . It must be conscious of its limits. . . . When historical-critical exegesis does not go as far as to take into account the final result of the editorial process but remains absorbed solely in the issues of sources and stratification of texts, it fails to bring the exegetical task to completion" (emphasis in the original).13
The bishop-authors of the Catechism were not unaware of the modern study of the Scriptures and of its most salient results. Most of these, where applicable, have been incorporated into the Catechism—as they were into the documents of Vatican II. Where the liberal exegetes appear to go wrong is in imagining that modern scholarship has really established anything that requires the traditional faith handed down in the Church to be changed in any important feature. It hasn't happened: the Church's faith has survived what in some cases was a very hostile onslaught carried on by a certain type of modern exegesis.
What is even more surprising is how exaggerated the claims can be today about just what it is that modern Scripture scholarship has accomplished. Today some exegetes believe, and catechists are encouraged to teach, some of the favorite conclusions of modern Scripture scholarship with the same certitude formerly reserved for dogmatically defined truths.
In spite of its achievements, modern Scripture scholarship nevertheless remains an inexact and indeed often highly speculative discipline. It cannot, for example, affirm with any real scientific certainty that the Gospels were not written until some thirty to seventy years after the events they recount, although this is almost universally claimed.14 Nor can it prove that Mark's was the first Gospel or that there really was a "Q" document, another favorite theory usually taught as established truth.15 It cannot really prove that John's is a "late, theological" Gospel or even that the Gospels were originally written in the Greek-language text that we possess.16
All these questions continue to be debated among competent scholars, and even those issues on which there is a 268 "consensus" today among modern scholars are sometimes far from being established according to any really foolproof scientific methods. There is certainly no justification for teaching these theses to schoolchildren or catechumens as if they were supposed to supersede the Magisterium's authoritative statements of the faith.
After all, almost all the "historical facts" we possess about Jesus of Nazareth and the origins of Christianity are found in the New Testament itself. Christianity necessarily stands or falls on what is there. And we have therefore been in possession of most of these same "historical facts" since well before the historical-critical method was ever devised. Since this method has been developed, one of the most remarkable things about it is how many different interpretations of the "historical Jesus" it has come up with while studying essentially the same set of "facts". This has been evident at least since Albert Schweitzer published his The Quest for the Historical Jesus back in the early part of the present century. There was, for example, Schweitzer's own view of the Jesus who expected the end to come at any time (some of our new theologians and exegetes are still parroting this view today).
And there have been, to name only a few of the other pictures we have been given of the "historical Jesus", Jesus the dreamy Galilean romantic, Jesus the political revolutionary, Jesus the messianic plotter, Jesus the magician and wonder-worker, Jesus the Mediterranean peasant, and, lately, Jesus the marginal Jew.
Dr. Horan, referring to the Catechism's paragraph 522, complains that the Catechism treats "the mysteries of Christ's life, not as they may have been historically, but as they are remembered and celebrated liturgically". Well? Which one of the above Jesuses would he have the Catechism adopt? 269
Merely to suggest that the Church's faith might possibly be grounded in any findings of modern historical-critical scholarship is already to demonstrate the essential foolishness and futility of such a project.
Rather, for the eyes of faith, the consistency and integrity with which the Catholic Church has continued to present the same Jesus she has always presented—including, most recently, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—is a considerably more impressive and persuasive thing than all the modern achievements of "biblical hermeneutics" put together. (Of course, some of us continue to believe that the Church has had some special help in achieving this, as in some of the other features of her life and teaching!) The idea that catechists, instead of handing on the Church's faith, are now supposed to take their "content" from the theories of modern scholars and pass this on to their charges would perhaps be laughable if it had not already proved to be so tragically harmful to catechesis and to faith in our day.
In the rest of his commentary, Dr. Horan offers essentially the same criticism of the Catechism's treatment of the Church as he did for its treatment of Christ. He finds that the document's treatment of the Church is, again, "from above". Moreover, in his view, the findings of modern scholarship once again have not been sufficiently taken into account. Even though he concedes that the Catechism follows Vatican II's Lumen Gentium when dealing with the Church, as it earlier followed Dei Verbum when dealing with revelation, he is unhappy because so much stress is laid on "the institutional and universal character of the Church".
For example, he notes that paragraph 765 of the Catechism depicts Jesus as founding his Church on the Twelve, thus "endow[ing] his community with a structure", whereas 270 modern scholarship has supposedly "come to the knowledge that there were a variety of leadership models present" in the early Church.
But the same caution is necessary in dealing with historical scholarship as in dealing with biblical scholarship. The alleged "variety of leadership models" in the early Church often seems to be based on pretty slender evidence, sometimes on purely "negative" evidence (for example, on the fact that no "monarchical bishop" is mentioned in certain texts). But we have very few texts of any kind regarding the detailed structure of the early Church. The "model" of bishops, presbyters, and deacons that emerged and was quickly ratified by the universal practice of the Church is surely not incompatible with whatever "structure" Christ did endow his infant Church with. Such evidence as we possess does not seem to provide the basis for any revision of the authentic tradition of the Church in this matter, and it is this tradition that is ably and accurately reflected in the Catechism's treatment of the whole matter.
Meanwhile, it is emphatically not true that modern scholarship has established that Jesus did not found his Church on the apostles; or that he did not intend that these apostles should be succeeded by successors, that is, the bishops. Lumen Gentium covered all of this same ground in any case, and so it is impossible to invoke Vatican II against the Catechism. Yet that is essentially what Dr. Horan does when he concludes his commentary on the Profession of Faith by remarking that the Catechism "should be used in the context of Vatican II".
"We might do well to understand that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not the end of the search to provide catechesis", he writes. "It is a beginning. It is a source to which leaders may turn first, but they may not stop there." 271
We may be reasonably sure that Dr. Horan's "catechetical leaders" will see to that.
The two remaining commentaries on the moral life and on prayer in Exploring the Catechism continue along the same freewheeling lines already established by authors Regan and Horan. We need not dwell upon these latter two commentaries at any length. The task of these commentators is thought to be to read the Catechism "critically" and, where deemed necessary, to provide a view "corrective" of it in accordance with the reigning opinions of the modern theological and catechetical establishments. There is no discernible perception among these authors that perhaps the Catholic Church has in any important sense "spoken" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Everything the Pope has said about it in promulgating and promoting it curiously seems not to count for anything with these authors.
The commentary on the Catechism's treatment of the moral life, entitled "Life in Christ", is contributed by Fr. Timothy Backous, O.S.B. Fr. Backous is chaplain of St. John's University in Collegeville and has a doctorate in moral theology from the Alphonsianum in Rome. Like Dr. Regan, Fr. Backous is described as giving catechetical workshops around the country, so we should not underestimate the degree to which his views will be the ones absorbed by catechists being "trained" to "implement" the new Catechism.
Fr. Backous begins his contribution to this volume with a rather condescending reference to those who find the current state of the Church's morality to be in "crisis"; he remarks 272 that these are the kind of people by whom the Catechism will be "enthusiastically welcomed".
On the level of theory, of course, one of those who finds the current state of the Church's morality to be definitely in "crisis" would seem to be none other than Pope John Paul II himself, who includes in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, among other pointed comments on the same subject, the statement that "within the context of the theological debates which followed the Council, there have developed certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with 'sound teaching' (2 Tim 4:3)." 17
On the level of practice, of course, one would not really have to go far beyond the current divorce or abortion statistics among Catholics to conclude that here, too, the Church's morality is surely in a very deep crisis situation. Or it is only necessary to recall the fact that today's Catholic politicians, speaking generally, apparently no longer believe that what they vote for need have any relationship whatsoever to the moral law of God as proclaimed by the Church. Indeed, many of them positively assert that they can and must vote for what the Church has definitively held to be against the moral law of God. And meanwhile, Catholic voters, who have surely heard all these issues publicly raised, go right on helping to return these same Catholic politicians to office. Fr. Backous would surely have a hard time making any case that the Church's morality is not in crisis; but then, of course, he does not try.
Very possibly, the current worldwide crisis of morality— one need think only of the agenda of the 1994 population conference in Cairo, for example—was one of the principal 273 reasons why the Pope and the hierarchy promoted the project of a universal catechism so vigorously in the first place. Merely to take note of the fact that a moral theology professor who also conducts catechetical workshops apparently does not think the Church's morality is in crisis today already provides at least the beginning of an explanation of what is wrong with this particular moral theologian's commentary on the Catechism's treatment of the Christian moral life.
Generally speaking, Fr. Backous describes the Catechism's treatment of morality accurately; he may even approve of it in certain respects. He properly points out how the Catechism's treatment of morality closely follows that of Vatican II and is therefore "positive", emphasizing our vocation to beatitude, our freedom, and the necessity of developing virtues ahead of its treatment of sin (although the Catechism, of course, in no wise underestimates the reality, power, seriousness, and evil of sin). Fr. Backous further properly notes the emphasis of both Vatican II and the Catechism on social morality (but improperly appears to see this as lessening the importance of morality for the individual person).
Where his treatment most obviously goes wrong is in his basic attitude toward the Catechism (and hence, necessarily, toward the Church's Magisterium, which lies behind it): he appears to share the view of many theologians today that the primary theological task is to serve as the final, decisive arbiter in religious matters. The theological task, in a word, is to correct the Catechism where it is seen to have gone wrong or fallen short. Thus, he criticizes the Catechism for remaining "act centered" in moral matters, rather than person centered. And, characteristically, he quotes in this connection one moral theologian who thinks that the Church's responsibility is to provide "consolation" for the 274 divorced and remarried and another moral theologian who thinks that the Church's judgment that certain acts such as blasphemy, perjury, murder, or adultery are intrinsically wrong is "too fixed and that more openness to uncertainty is in order".
In criticizing the Catechism for being act centered, incidentally, he apparently fails to grasp that, if it did not have this particular focus, it could scarcely draw the distinction— of which he strongly approves—between homosexual persons, who continue to possess goodness and human dignity, and homosexual acts, which are always disordered and evil. Similarly, he is precisely wrong, especially in a sex-obsessed society, in downgrading the gravity of sins such as masturbation (here he introduces his own word, "shaded", instead of the usual "nuanced"; the latter word has become the typical Wagnerian Leitmotiv in the contemporary theological literature whenever modern theologians want to water down the Church's authentic moral teaching considered by them too harsh and judgmental).
Fr. Backous faults the Catechism further for not being as open to the modern world as he thinks Vatican II was. Apparently he has little noted the modern world's precipitous slide, precisely in the years since Vatican II, into an unprecedented moral decadence that Pope John Paul II has rightly now had to label a "culture of death". Indeed, it would seem that the Pope has now consciously added to the Church's list of "intrinsically evil acts" three new ones by the solemn manner in which, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitæ, the "Gospel of Life", he has condemned abortion, euthanasia, and the killing of the innocent.18 275
Fr. Backous also sets up an artificial conflict in the Catechism between "obedience" versus "responsibility". Certainly "responsibility" is a positive factor that is rightly to be stressed and fostered whenever possible. But it is in no way opposed to obedience. On the contrary, it is our responsibility to be obedient—obedient to the calls and commands of the living God. We are all strictly called, for example, to the "obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5; 16:26); the Catechism notes that this is the source of our moral life (CCC 2087). Jesus Christ himself "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb 5:8). The Catechism teaches that "the obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing" (CCC 1009). What is the problem some modern theologians always seem to have with obedience?
Deplorably, Fr. Backous quotes here in support of the false dichotomy he has erected between obedience and responsibility two dissenting California Jesuits, Fr. William Spohn and Fr. Francis Buckley, both of them contributors to the Universal Catechism Reader, the attack on the draft of the Catechism sent out to the bishops for comment in 1989.19
In keeping with his apparent view that the ultimate "magisterium" belongs to theologians by virtue of their learned expertise, Fr. Backous quotes theologians such as these quite indiscriminately. The mere fact that they are theologians apparently entitles them to his respect; certainly he does not read them "critically" in the light of the Church's true Magisterium. And so it is no surprise that he ends up citing and recommending such open and persistent public dissenters from authentic Church teaching as Josef Fuchs, Charles Curran, Richard Gula, Richard McCormick, and Bernard Haring. In short, what we have in this commentary is a fundamentally irresponsible treatment of part three of the Catechism—hardly anything the catechist in the classroom needs to be "trained" in, alas!
We may bring our examination of Exploring the Catechism to a conclusion by a very brief look at its final commentary, this one on part four of the Catechism, which deals with the subject of Prayer. The joint authors of this commentary are Fr. Francis Kelly Nemeck, O.M.I., and Sr. Maria Theresa Coombs, both of the Lebh Shomea contemplativeeremetical house of prayer in south Texas. Judging by the bibliography that is included, we conclude that these two are the joint authors of a number of books on spirituality and prayer; the same bibliography indicates that they are also familiar with an almost bewildering variety of other writers and topics, some perhaps sound from a Christian point of view, others very decidedly not.
Their ineluctable orientation toward the usual fashionable modern causes and isms quickly becomes evident through their calls for more attention in spirituality circles to such things as psychology, ecology, feminism, and the like. Their view of the Catechism's widely praised treatment of prayer is both negative and hostile. As authorities against it, they often quote their own books. In general, they find the Catechism's part four on Prayer to be "a smorgasbord of ideas about prayer, few of which are developed".
It gets worse. They write:
Noting that the Catechism "contains no meaningful discussion on Progress in Prayer", Fr. Nemeck and Sr. Coombs compose their own. It strikes us as a "smorgasbord of ideas about prayer".
The arrogance in considering themselves able to do what they think the Church signally failed to do in the Catechism is surely singular enough. Yet it is matched by the very plan and execution of the whole book, whose principal author, Dr. Jane E. Regan, concludes the work by announcing breathlessly how:
There we have it: the Catechism has to be "changed", 278 "clarified", and made more "readable" and "usable"; what is needed is a "new text".
Can such things be? That some of the very people who are writing the commentaries and conducting the workshops implementing the Catechism of the Catholic Church do not themselves accept it in a fundamental way? That it is not, in fact, being received in some of those very circles where it should perhaps have been most enthusiastically received, namely, among those who have been "sent out" by the Church as teachers of the faith to others? That, before its ink is even dry, some of these same people really aim to replace it with their own versions of the faith?
We have now looked at several different commentaries by various members of today's theological and catechetical establishments. On the evidence of all of these works, the conclusion is pretty hard to avoid that their real aim is to subvert the Catechism, not to implement it.
How widespread is the problem? In the absence of a methodical scientific survey, it is difficult to say. But if seemingly "standard" commentaries produced by faculty at supposedly Catholic institutions and published by putatively "mainstream" publishing houses that otherwise do a lucrative business in the Catholic market can seriously offer to the Catholic public as "commentaries" on the Catechism the works we have been examining in these pages, then quite a few things would seem to be rather seriously wrong in the way the Catechism is being implemented.
Moreover, the problem is widespread, even if we cannot say exactly how widespread. In the remainder of this 279 chapter, let us look—more cursorily—at yet another one of the commentaries that has appeared in English on the Catechism, this one produced in Australia about the same time that the Catechism itself became available in English in June 1994. This commentary is entitled The New Catechism: Analysis and Commentary.20
Once again, this commentary is more than just another published book or academic exercise; the papers comprising it were mostly prepared by faculty members of the Catholic Institute of Sydney for a two-day in-service seminar on the Catechism for the clergy of the Archdiocese of Sydney. So the book represents yet another example of how people— in this case clergy—are actually being "trained" to regard and use the new Catechism.
Moreover, this commentary has not gone unnoticed in the catechetical world generally. It was reviewed, on the balance very favorably, in the summer 1995 number of The Living Light, where the reviewer remarked that, as one of the first commentaries on the Catechism produced in English, it "enjoys pride of place. Later commentaries of this genre will turn to it. No library or catechetical center should be without it."21
The editor of the volume, Fr. Andrew Murray, S.M., immediately sets what will be the fairly consistent tone of A & C (as we shall designate it for convenience's sake). "The Catechism is best seen", the editor avers, "as something that has been proposed by the Magisterium for reception in the Church. It has arrived and has to be dealt with." 280
At least he is frank We also note that he thinks that it has merely been proposed by the Magisterium for reception. Nor will he and his colleagues be loath to decide what they will or will not receive in it, either—always in their own fashion, of course. Fr. Murray warns the reader in advance about what he calls "the difficulty of making an acceptable compendium of the totality of Catholic teaching" (thus signaling at the outset that this Catechism is not acceptable). And he is similarly quick to point out how lamentably, in his view, the book "has failed to take into account modern learning and circumstances".
"The Catechism itself carries Roman authority", he specifies (whatever that means). "This will lead some, no doubt, to claim almost infallible status for it", but "nothing could be further from the truth", he quickly assures his reader, as if the Church's infallible teachings were the only Church teachings that have to be assented to and believed by Catholics. In justification for his position on this, he falls back on the new theology's tired and tendentious interpretation of Vatican II's teaching on "the hierarchy of truths", which we have encountered before, notably in the last chapter. Invoking the hierarchy of truths has practically become a mantra for some modern theologians, but Fr. Murray seems to be entirely unaware of any irony inherent in this.
Thus, it is already clear from the introduction alone that, in this volume, we are dealing with yet another commentary on the Catechism in which the theologians and experts in place have arrogantly set themselves up to mitigate what they see as the harm the Catechism will do. Indeed, they have set themselves up, again, to correct an unwanted document from the Magisterium.
Not all of the contributions to this volume are equally negative and hostile. A couple of the papers are straightforward 281 and valid theological commentaries, but in the case of these authors, the question that has to be asked is: What are they doing in such company, if they really accept the Catechism as authoritatively coming from the Church with the guarantee of the Holy Spirit? Can orthodox commentators really be insensible to the harm their colleagues are inflicting on the very idea of an authoritative teaching Church by the critical way in which they approach this Catechism? Is academic prestige or standing so important to them that they can acquiesce in what they, precisely because they are trained theologians, must realize, are efforts to undermine the Catechism and the Magisterium? Why is there no "peer review" of the work of colleagues who seem to have departed in their work from the only possible basis from which anyone can legitimately "do" Catholic theology, namely, God's revelation to us in Christ as mediated to us by the Church?
We cannot get into a detailed analysis or critique of this volume. We can cite only a few of the statements made in some of the papers in order to demonstrate that the dominant theme in this commentary, as in the other commentaries we have examined, is the way in which the theologians and experts are the ones who must take charge of receiving the Catechism and who must see to it that this reception is basically negative.
The commentator writing on "Faith in the Creator God" in A & C, Fr. David Coffey, finds that "the Catechism is not notably successful, even in its own terms." This is so, in his view, because the Magisterium's own documents were relied on in the drafting of the work rather than the views of theologians such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and John Courtney Murray. "The mentality of the Catechism", this author concludes, "is that of the Latin Roman theology manuals of the 195os complete with their tendency to integralism, 282 their lack of historical awareness, and their hermeneutical naivety." To put it bluntly: the Catechism "has been left behind by modern theology", according to Fr. Coffey.
"The good news", for this author, "is that episcopal conferences and dioceses are free and indeed encouraged to produce their own catechisms." We can imagine what these catechisms will be like if the bishops are so unwise as to call on their Fr. Coffeys to produce them!
Another contributor, Dr. Neil Omerod, writing on "The Narrative Christology of the Catechism", is quite favorable to the document's "biblical approach", as contrasted with what he calls the "more dogmatic, Scholastic approaches of past catechisms". Still, according to him, it "makes no significant attempt to make contact with contemporary culture"; and hence "there is a large task of inculturation that still needs to be done." The Catechism should definitely "not be seen as a 'stand alone' document".
Another one of the commentators, Fr. Richard Lerman, contributes a paper on the Church entitled "The Place Where the Spirit Flourishes"—an interesting characterization, considering the fact that the Catechism deals with the Church in the chapter on the Holy Spirit (no doubt because the profession of belief in the Church follows the profession of belief in the Holy Spirit in the Apostles' Creed). But in the midst of all the sometimes interesting questions that Fr. Lerman brings up, what really leaps to the eye is the realization that, if the Catechism is really as bad as he and some of his collaborators judge it to be, then the Holy Spirit is obviously not flourishing very effectively in the Church at the moment, at least as far as the writing of catechisms is concerned. Perhaps we are supposed to believe instead that the Holy Spirit has effectively provided to the theologians of the Catholic Institute of Sydney the proper 283 guidance that the bishop-authors of the Catechism did not enjoy.
However that may be, the kinds of complaints found in this paper are only too familiar: "The Catechism's failure to adopt a historical consciousness means that it cannot commend itself as a modern document. . . . It is also naive and reveals a lack of appreciation of contemporary society. It would surely be the task of any local catechisms to remedy this deficiency" Etc., etc.
Sr. Marie Farrell, R.S.M., in her contribution to A & C entitled "The Catechism's Approach to the Blessed Virgin Mary", hopes that "during the preparation of local catechisms"—this is surely now being almost universally taken for granted as perhaps the principal result of the issuance of the new Catechism: namely, that substitutes are now to be prepared for it forthwith and everywhere!—"during the preparation for local catechisms," Sr. Farrell hopes, "issues raised by feminist theologians concerning Mariology will be given due consideration. . . . Criticism from feminist as well as ecumenical circles suggests that theological reflections on the quality of Mary's femininity be pursued along the lines of 'sisterhood,' since it allows for freedom in ways that 'motherhood' (which binds a child) does not."
Quite apart from the untold harm that the radical feminist concept of "sisterhood" has done not only to the religious life but also to marriage and the family and, most especially, to the status of the child (considered a burden on women instead of a blessing), Sr. Farrell's notion that Mariology should pursue this sort of thinking is also simply contradictory, when we consider that Mary's preeminent dignity resides, precisely, in the fact that she was the mother of God!
Another contributor, Fr. Gerard Kelly, specifically writing 284 about "The Reception of the Catechism", believes that its "publication . . . should not lead to uniformity in the Church. . . . The words and expressions it uses are [not] always the most appropriate for the people who live in our particular culture at this time in world history. It may well say things that our people are not ready to hear." This, indeed, has been a problem for Christianity for a rather long time now: there are things in the Church's message that "people are not ready to hear".
Our particular culture, in fact, is probably especially prone to decide that the words of life that the Church transmits to us from Jesus constitute "a hard saying" (Jn 6:60), one to which our culture is not inclined to listen. But since when are Christians supposed to hold back on the message of Jesus on the grounds that there are some who do not want to hear it? What is probably unusual today, by comparison with some other eras in the history of the Church, though, is that many of the Church's own sons and daughters, including many of those specifically "sent out" to teach the faith, today seem inclined to side with the culture against the message of Jesus!
Can such things be? Can these really be the reflections of the faculty of a Catholic institute concerning a foundational document of the Catholic Church solemnly promulgated by the Church's supreme authority? We can only await with some trepidation the kinds of "local", "inculturated" catechisms that such people are likely to produce.
This chapter appeared in part in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, fall 1995.
11. "The General Council of Trent, sixth session, Decree on Justification, chapter 9, in J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, rev. ed. (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1975), 526.
Copyright ©; Kenneth D. Whitehead and the family of the late Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn. 1996 & 2008.
Version: 10th May 2009