A New 'Local", "Inculturated" Catechism?
However, the Holy Father did include one important stipulation with regard to any such new "local", "inculturated" catechisms that might be prepared, namely, that they should "carefully preserv[e] . . . the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine."1
The Catechism itself reiterates this same basic message when it declares that it "does not set out to provide the 286 adaptation of doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by the differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed. Such indispensable adaptations are the responsibility of particular catechisms" (CCC 24).
From the moment the Catechism appeared, some Church officials have stressed the need for local adaptations of it, taking into account different ages, regions, situations, and cultures. Cardinal Jose T Sanchez, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, which has responsibility for catechisms, has declared that the Catechism actually "requires further inculturation on the local level".2
In April 1993, the Congregation for the Clergy sponsored a summit-meeting-type seminar on the Catechism in Rome itself, which brought together the heads of episcopal conferences and episcopal committees on education and other interested parties from the five continents to discuss how the Catechism could and should be locally adapted and inculturated in order to meet the needs of the people of various ages and conditions and in different geographical regions and cultures. This meeting declared that the Catechism was "not just one more text, but rather an ecclesial event rich in consequences"; it concluded that the "concrete manner of presentation" of any local, inculturated catechism would have to be "characterized by the groups to which it is directed: the community of believers, post-Christian society, or those who have not yet received the message of the Gospel"; but, finally, it specified that "no local catechism can contain any 287 element which is or may be interpreted as contrary to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church ."3
Addressing this same seminar, Pope John Paul II declared that the Catechism itself would continue to be the "type" and "exemplar" for any other catechisms prepared for local use. "It cannot be considered merely as a stage preceding the drafting of local catechisms. [It] is destined for all the faithful who have the capacity to read, understand, and assimilate it in their Christian living." The Pope further emphasized that the Catechism itself necessarily remains "the support and foundation for the preparation of new catechetical tools which take the various cultural situations into consideration and together take pains to preserve the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine."4
Thus, the Church has recognized from the beginning of the universal-catechism project that, however great its accuracy, comprehensiveness, and authority as a compendium of Catholic doctrine, the Catechism is not carved unchangeably in stone like the original Tables of the Law to be indiscriminately and unvaryingly imposed upon all of the faithful regardless of circumstances. Rather, the Catechism can and should be freely adapted, inculturated, excerpted, and summarized, provided—and this is an all-important provision— that it always remains this Catechism that is being adapted, inculturated, and so on.
It is necessary, in other words, that the Catechism itself always remain the solid basis of any claimed adaptation of 289 it; that it always remain the basic authority, "sure norm", and "point of reference" for any doctrinal statements made in any "local", "inculturated" catechism prepared for specific use in a given country or culture; that the authentic Church teachings reaffirmed by the Catechism not in any way be diminished or watered down in order to suit a particular "culture"; and, finally, that the original Catechism itself continue to remain available "for all the faithful who have the capacity to read, understand, and assimilate it", as Pope John Paul II has specified.
To put it yet another way, there is no reason why there cannot be an American-style, graded religion textbook series based on the Catechism for use in Catholic schools and CCD programs. In fact, such a series would be highly desirable—provided, again, it is truly based on this Catechism and authentically imparts its teachings; and also provided that it does not, for instance, simply make reference to it occasionally or perhaps pay lip service to it from time to time, while really emphasizing other things.
There can and should be religion textbook series based on the Catechism, in other words, provided that any adapted version of it does not continue the unfortunate postconciliar tradition of content-deficient and doctrine-deficient texts that have nevertheless often claimed to be fully Catholic and in accord with Church directives such as the General Catechetical Directory.
Another requirement for any authentic "local", "inculturated" catechism—a requirement the Roman documents tend to assume as often as they actually spell it out—is that any adapted versions of the Catechism for a given age, locality, or culture, when completed, should themselves be specifically authorized and approved by ecclesiastical authority. Thus, Fidei Depositum, as we have already seen, speaks of 289 "local catechisms duly approved by the ecclesiastical authorities", as if this were still observed in regular practice.
Fidei Depositum also speaks in this connection of approval by "diocesan bishops" and by "episcopal conferences", as well as of approval by "the Apostolic See". In his 1979 Catechesi Tradendæ, Pope John Paul II expressly said that "those who take on the heavy task of preparing catechetical tools, especially catechism texts, can do so only with the approval of the pastors who have authority to give it."5 The meaning here would seem to be quite plain: no setting up on one's own to produce and sponsor local catechisms; the Church has to approve what is published.
Actually, the General Catechetical Directory had already long since required that "before promulgation, [local] catechisms must be submitted to the Apostolic See for review and approval."6 It is far from clear, however, whether what seems to be a rather firm requirement here has really been honored.
Yet another difficulty in the way of producing acceptable local catechisms concerns the word and concept of "inculturation." This term has been often used and thus amply legitimated by high Church authorities, including both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, among others. Nor have today's theologians and religious educators failed to latch on to the term. They have generally greeted the idea of inculturation with considerably warmer enthusiasm than they have ever apparently been able to muster for the Catechism itself. Indeed the whole idea of inculturation 290 seems to have already become a fad, if it has not become something of a tail now busily wagging the catechetical dog. In many discussions, what comes through most strongly is not so much that the message of the Catechism needs to be imparted but, rather, that the book needs to be, precisely, "inculturated".
There now appears to be, in fact, a clear and present danger that some important elements of the Catechism might well be attenuated or even lost in the process of "inculturating" it. It is therefore important to understand exactly what the Church means by "inculturation". In Catechesi Tradendæ, speaking about what he calls "the message embodied in a culture", Pope John Paul II writes as follows:
Such is inculturation as the Church most authoritatively understands it. Its point is to bring the gospel to the culture, not to allow the culture to modify or undermine the gospel. However, Pope John Paul II also adds two further indispensable qualifications, which he believes are essential to any effort to "inculturate" the gospel, that is, embody it in a given culture:
Thus, the gospel cannot be separated from the original revelation that was accomplished in the cultural milieu of Jesus' time and place. We always have to refer back to that. We also have to refer back to the "culture" in which the authentic tradition of the Church has developed historically. Furthermore, it is not the gospel that has to change when it comes into contact with a given culture; it is the culture that needs to be changed. "To forget this", John Paul II concludes in this treatment of these points, "would simply amount to what Saint Paul very forcefully calls 'emptying the cross of Christ of its power' (1 Cor 1:17)".7
The resounding popularity that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has enjoyed since it first appeared is in some ways surprising when we consider the low repute in which catechisms in general have supposedly come to be held 292 in the postconciliar era. The fact that the Catechism has nevertheless proved to be so popular has probably set some people in the religious-education field thinking, even some of those who did not want to hear of catechisms any longer. Maybe there was something to be said after all about a catechism as an instrument for getting one's views across.
Moreover, with all the talk about "local" catechisms and "inculturation", even on the part of some of the highest authorities of the Church, the notion of producing a "local" American catechism, "inculturated" along the lines of modern American culture, rather soon came to be entertained by some of the people in the catechetical establishment. It could only be a matter of time before what was thought to be an attractive possibility would become a published and vigorously promoted reality.
No matter that the Pope has spoken of inculturation as bringing "the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture". Most people are unfamiliar with the Pope's ideas about this. Inculturation could just as easily mean for them bringing the culture into the Church, which, since Vatican Council II, many of these same people have assumed to be more "open" to the world in precisely this way.
Perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in all of Vatican II is the beginning of Gaudium et Spes, which reads, in the Flannery translation, as "the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts."8 This is both true and moving. 293
However, like other Church documents, like sacred Scripture itself, it always needs to be read in the context of the Church's whole teaching; it must not be read in isolation. In this specific case, it needs to be read along with the beginning statement of Vatican II's other great document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. This one reads: "Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15), it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church."9
This is the heart of Vatican II's idea of "inculturation". Yet the most persistent idea to be taken from Lumen Gentium appears, rather, to be that of equating the Church with the idea of "the People of God", which is only one of the models of the Church this Council document treats. It is true that Lumen Gentium includes an illuminating chapter on the People of God, a scriptural concept that goes back and includes God's original chosen people, with whom he made a covenant, and carries forward to include those who believe and are baptized into Christ today, the members of the Church.
As many are prone to forget, Vatican II also explicitly described this People of God as, necessarily, "guided by the sacred teaching authority of the Church (magisterium) and obeying it".10 However, such nuances are generally lost upon today's progressive religious educators, who are usually 294 content merely to celebrate and promote the simplistic idea that "the people are the Church" (and for some of these same people it also seems to follow that since "the people are the Church", the hierarchy is not the Church).
If we put together the three, basic, simplistic ideas that the people are the Church, that the Church is now supposed to be open to the world, and that a "catechism" may be an effective teaching instrument after all, we could easily come up with what a number of prominent members of the current theological and catechetical establishments now have come up with: we could come up with The People's Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults, a brightly colored paperback book that unselfconsciously claims on its outside front cover to be written: "By the People of God, for the People of God". 11
That is exactly what it says on the cover: "By the People of God, for the People of God". It thus not only invokes Vatican II; it suggests the Gettysburg Address as well. And it probably represents the first volume off the press in the United States attempting to lay claim to being one of the new "local", "inculturated" catechisms following up on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Of course the book does have real authors besides "the People of God": six of them, in fact. They are all identified on the title page, and their smiling faces, along with those of the book's three editors, appear on the back cover. Most 295 of the names will be familiar to those who are acquainted with the contemporary theological and catechetical literature in the United States (although no one would probably have suspected any of them of being willing simply to equate themselves with "the People of God"). Of the book's three editors, by the way, one is a bishop.
The pretentious subtitle, "Catholic Faith for Adults", seems expressly intended to convey the notion that there is perhaps some other kind of "Catholic faith" out there besides the one presented in this book for adults, a faith presumably not for "adults", one that could not hope to merit the same designation as the "faith" of those who write, edit, and publish—and read!—this one. In fact, the very way in which this book has been written, published, and promoted, virtually on the heels of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, suggests that it is the faith set forth in the latter that is thought not to be for adults.
Jesus Christ said: "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it" (Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17). The people responsible for this book instead pride themselves on "adult faith". Actually, applying the word "adult" to "faith" in this manner has become a fairly common code expression today for describing the typical Neomodernist version of the faith championed by today's self-designated "magisterium of theologians". It can hardly be said to refer to the concept of the "maturity of faith" that is set forth in the General Catechetical Directory.12
This book promotes itself with a couple of pages of enthusiastic blurbs inside, a number of them from well-known public dissenters from authentic teachings of the Church's real Magisterium. These blurbs bring out clearly why this 296 book is likely to be a big hit with the current catechetical in-group: the book is "drawn from human experience . . . , written in modern idiom for real people . . . , a truly contemporary catechism . . . , an adult follow-up to the new Catechism . . . , directed to mature Catholics . . . , presents Catholicism as the living faith of a people", and so on. The immediate implication is that these same things cannot be said of the Church's Catechism of the Catholic Church. No doubt that is why a "follow-up" was thought to be necessary so soon after the Church had completed her own Catechism.
According to the editors' introduction, this "People's Catechism attempts to bring life and a fresh understanding of the truths of faith contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, [but is] presented in a style and format that makes it a useable tool in adult faith formation sessions, small groups or Christian communities, ministry training programs, and personal enrichment or study."
The book employs "a catechetical methodology . . . in each chapter, with relevant passages from Scripture; stories from contemporary human experience; the teaching of the Church presented in popularized, understandable, existential language; questions for discussion and faith sharing; suggestions for putting faith into action; and shared prayer". Again, the implication is that the Catechism is not a "useable tool", does not present the teachings of the Church "in popularized, understandable, existential language". And so on.
Actually, this book probably will appeal immediately to the average religious educator today. It has the requisite "catechetical methodology", the "questions for discussion", and the rest of the pedagogical apparatus that catechists today have come to expect.
The immediate appeal that the book will almost certainly 297 have, however, is unfortunate because this book is almost a caricature of nearly everything that is bad in modern religious education today. The Scripture quotations are often random and not necessarily or systematically linked with themes of the faith in the book, almost as if they were included merely to show that "Scripture" was indeed being included. The stories are often inferior fiction; often they seem pointless, and sometimes they even border on the vulgar. The teachings of the Church are presented only sporadically; sometimes they are seriously misrepresented and even contradicted.
The doctrinal omissions alone in this book are glaring. In no way can the book claim even to come close to presenting the General Catechetical Directory's "global adherence to Christ's gospel as presented by the Church" or as "contributing to the gradual grasping of the whole truth about the divine plan".13
Given the slant of the book, the questions for discussion are heavily weighted toward the subjective and the impressionistic (for example, "In your experience, is God distant, silent, 'other,' or close, reassuring, a friend?"). Since a severely truncated version of the faith is being presented, the "faith sharing" is as likely as not to be "faith obscuring". Many of the suggestions for putting the faith into practice are wholly indistinguishable from secular liberal political activism. The prayers are limp and often banal.
This is a book by and for people who have precisely lost the excitement and romance of orthodoxy, as described in the famous volume of that name by G. K. Chesterton. These people secularize and trivialize the faith of Jesus Christ in exactly the same way that many modern religion textbooks 298 do. To believe the faith of Christ in its fullness, as it is now set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they prefer a version of the faith set forth by the modern "magisterium of theologians". They are apparently oblivious to the impertinence entailed in coming out with a volume such as this following the publication of the real Catechism. The editors actually describe the latter, in a typical jargon-phrase, as merely adding "foundational clarity to the essence of the Catholic expression of Christianity"—again, as if there were some other and better "expression" of the faith besides the Catholic one.
One of their principal aims seems to be to change the way Catholics have been catechized; they may not succeed in getting much across to their charges by their new methods, but at least they are not going to give them what they used to get. Traditional Catholics are simply considered "too rote in their faith or too non-reflective".
This book claims to challenge "its readers not simply to know about God passively"—but it is not really, and never was, a question of passivity versus activity. In their desire to promote "activity" and what they call a "living faith", the new catechists have succeeded at least in this, that they have produced an entire generation, and more, who do not know about God in the fullness with which the Church presents him. Nor will this book contribute much, if anything, toward remedying that state of affairs.
Unperturbed, the editors go on repeating the typical received maxims of today's theological and catechetical establishments, despite the fact that these have not been shown to work. For example:
In keeping with this liberal view, this book was written, we are told, by representatives of the diverse People of God, including "laity and women"—again unlike the Catechism of the Catholic Church, since the latter was written by bishops and therefore obviously cannot claim to be as "representative" as this one. We begin to see what the editors apparently mean by "the People of God". What they mean is what in the culture is currently referred to by the expression "politically correct". We shall see that the book generally reflects this outlook. We therefore do not apologize for referring to this so-called People's Catechism, in the examination that follows, as PC.
PC is not arranged in exactly the same four parts as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The latter's part one on the Creed, or Profession of Faith, is covered by two different authors here in PC, one writing on the "Foundations of the Faith" and the other on the "Message". There is a part three on the Sacraments and a part four on the Moral Life. There is no separate treatment of Prayer in PC, however; apparently the prayers that are included in each chapter were considered sufficient.
PC's "Foundations of Faith" section was written by William J. O'Malley, S.J., a teacher of English and theology at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, New York, and a five-time winner of a Catholic Press Award. Actually, Fr. O'Malley is a skillful and entertaining writer, if that were the only or even the most important question involved in catechesis. His attitude toward the faith found in the Catechism, however, as evidenced by his contribution to this volume, is something else again. Moreover, his negative attitude appears to be of fairly long standing, since this same Fr. William O'Malley is another one of the writers who tried to ambush the draft Catechism in the notorious 1990 Universal Catechism Reader.14
Fr. O'Malley's basic approach is breezy and "with it", probably what is thought to be the most effective approach for prep schoolers nowadays. It is certainly the approach that many of today's new catechists try to take as well. They all seem quite undeterred by the fact that, on the evidence, this approach scarcely boasts a shining record of producing very many believing and practicing Catholics. Nevertheless, like George Santayana's famous "fanatics", they tend to "redouble their efforts after they have forgotten their aim".
Like today's new christologists, Fr. O'Malley typically starts "from below", with "our intelligence". Drawing on modern psychology, he tells us that "the function of adolescence is to critique certitudes uncritically 'taped' from parents, 301 teachers, peers, and the media, to find which square with objective reality and which do not." Apparently this is the way the faith is to be approached too. Jesus said: "Do not fear, only believe" (Mk 5:36). The Evangelist wrote in order "that you also may believe" (Jn 19:35). Father O'Malley, however, prefers to "critique certitudes". "Adult faith", he tells us, "is a calculated risk based on reasoning about objective facts."
No, it is not: the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this unmistakably clear, echoing Vatican I: "What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe 'because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived' "(CCC 156; Dei Filius no. 3).
Fr. O'Malley has got it all wrong, clumsily attempting to inspire what he calls "adult faith" by equating it with the methods of scientific and inductive inquiry. Reason, both inductive and deductive, does play a role in the development of faith, of course; but Fr. O'Malley is out at sea about how it all works, having cast himself adrift from the moorings provided by the Church of God.
He does say a lot of nice things about God, Jesus, creaturehood, natural law, and so on. He really does still appear to be in some sense a sincere believer in Jesus and, even to have retained something of a Catholic outlook, at least in some respects (although, Protestant-style, he will arrive at all his own conclusions regarding Jesus, thank you). Given the position independent of the Church that he has adopted, however, he says a number of other things that can in no sense be considered nice, or even acceptable, in a presentation that purports to be Catholic. Some of his assertions, in fact, contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church as plainly 302 as does the definition of faith we have just quoted from his account.
We could cite a fair number of similar aberrations, large and small. Considerations of length and space, however, must limit us to commenting upon only two of the other subjects he treats: (1) what he calls "the rock-bottom, nonnegotiable beliefs of Christian doctrine"; and (2) his treatment of "figurative language" in Scripture.
The very concept of "rock-bottom, non-negotiable beliefs", of course, already suggests the existence of other beliefs that are negotiable. From the moment we adopt this point of view, we have already moved into the realm of pickand-choose Catholicism. This, of course, is exactly the way many of those who like to invoke Vatican II's notion of a hierarchy of truths do approach things: while there surely are some beliefs that are nonnegotiable, they reason, others are not; they are therefore up for grabs. Which ones?
Or, more fundamentally: Who decides which ones? Once we have reached this point, we have already turned responsibility for deciding this over to the private judgment of theologians, if not, again Protestant-style, to that of simple, individual Bible readers. Henceforth the very concept of a Church Magisterium becomes devoid of any plausibility or meaning.
Fr. O'Malley's own choice of "rock-bottom, non-negotiable Christian doctrines" is comprised of the following four:
 Jesus-God died in order to rise and share with us liberation from the fear of death and to offer us a share in the aliveness of God right now.
 We celebrate our oneness with Jesus-God in a community of service and in a weekly public meal.
It is hard not to notice how even the language of an otherwise good writer such as Fr. O'Malley becomes forced and stilted when he leaves the broad highway of the Church's authentic faith in order to go joy-riding on secondary roads of his own choosing. Fr. O'Malley goes on to explain and discuss his four core doctrines. He quotes scriptural proof texts that firmly establish them, in his view, and then he summarily calls for belief in them! Those who do not believe them are simply not Christian, he declares. He thus has his own clear doctrine of "orthodoxy" ("anathema sit!") based on these four doctrines. On the basis of them, he dares to say, in other words, what he and his confreres now deny the Church the right to say, namely, what orthodox doctrine is and who are and are not Christians.
Have we not arrived at a rather evident absurdity here? The Catholic Church can no longer teach with authority what her doctrines are or say who belongs to her communion, but an English and theology teacher at Fordham Prep can! However absurd it may seem, Fr. O'Malley is quite serious about it all, he who can so easily make light of Catholic teaching in general. He returns more than once to his "rock-bottom, non-negotiable doctrines" in the course of his narrative, explicitly using them at one point to justify the licitness of dissent from Catholic teaching:
Some devoted Catholics take strong exception to other Catholics' beliefs that conflict openly with the Vatican. Yet they remind us that, as long as we agree on the nonnegotiables—the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the anti-materialism of the gospel, and worshiping and serving 304 community—there is no need of schism, much less excommunication. And they remind us that God gave us intelligence before God saw need to give us the magisterium.
But what if someone disagrees with the nonnegotiables too? Surely, in today's climate, working theologians could be found at almost any convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America who might disagree with at least the first two of these four nonnegotiables. What standard does Fr. O'Malley have for judging in that case? Will "schism" and perhaps even "excommunication" have to follow then, even for him?
Otherwise, how is he going to be able to insist on maintaining the four nonnegotiables? How is he going to manage otherwise than the Church has had to try to manage when certain of her children have risen up against her and denied her teachings? How is mere "intelligence" going to resolve the problems posed in this case for Fr. O'Malley's "magisterium of one"?
Obviously, to ask these questions is to answer them. We are not sanguine that Fr. O'Malley himself is going to recognize the absurdity of his position; nevertheless we believe it is our plain duty to point out that nobody with such a position ought to be "catechizing" anybody else.
We can only make mention of one other issue raised by Fr. O'Malley's deplorable treatment of the "Foundations of Faith" in this People's Catechism: his views on "figurative language" in Scripture. He deals with the general subject of figurative language quite well and imaginatively, as a matter of fact, pointing out how often we regularly use figurative language in our speech and writing. This leads him to ask why, suddenly, everything has to be "literal" when it comes to sacred Scripture? 305
The answer, of course, is that it does not. Nor has the Church ever said that it did. The Catechism expressly says, for example, that "the account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language"; but the Catechism also goes on to affirm that this figurative language "affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man" (CCC 390). In other words, the Catechism teaches, language can be figurative all right; nevertheless some of the things expressed by figurative language can also be true and real. What things? The short answer, for Catholics, is: the things that the Church's Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, declares to be real.
Fr. O'Malley's views on this end up diverging quite markedly from the Catechism's. For him the main point about figurative language is that "stories can tell very real and important truths about human life without having literally, historically occurred." This is a true enough statement as far as it goes. He gives as examples Æsop's fables and similar folk tales. He could as easily have instanced the parables of Jesus, since presumably neither the Good Samaritan nor the Prodigal Son were real people.
But he decides to go much farther. He aims to show that some, or even much, of the Gospel narratives consist of "stories" that did not, in his view, "literally, historically" occur. He divides the Gospel accounts into "actual historical events", "obviously fabricated stories" (in which he does include the parables), and "stories the Catholic community made up".
How does he know all this? Modern Scripture scholarship, how else? We are back to the question of who decides. Who decides which scriptural accounts are actual historical events, which obviously fabricated, and which fabricated by "the Catholic community"? Again, modern Scripture scholarship is supposed to provide the answers. He tends to treat even the most tentative of scholarly hypotheses as so much established dogma, if only someone belonging to the "magisterium of scholars" has advanced the view somewhere: the Gospels were not written until A.D. 65 at the earliest, Mark's was the first Gospel, and so on. It is all depressingly conformist.
He quite confidently asserts, for example, that "Peter probably did not say, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God' "—something for which, in the nature of the case, neither he nor any scholar will probably ever have any really decisive, probative evidence, either for or against, beyond the "evidence" we all possess, along with the Church, in the well-known plain words of the Gospel. Catholics do not believe the Gospels because modern scholars have turned up evidence that Jesus did or did not actually say this or that. Catholics believe the Gospels, as St. Augustine said long ago, on the authority of the Catholic Church.
In this particular case, the Church has solemnly taught, in a dogmatic constitution from one of her general councils, that she "has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained, and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels .. . whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day he was taken up".15
Fr. O'Malley's narrative betrays no hint that he is even acquainted with Vatican Council II's Dei Verbum, where the Church has officially addressed all the major questions raised by the modern study of Scripture. The Church has also provided 307 her own very careful and very plausible answers to these questions. Although difficulties, anomalies, and many unanswered questions will no doubt always remain in anything as varied and complex as the Bible, there can be no doubt at all that the Church's own witness in Dei Verbum to her steadfast and abiding faith in sacred Scripture, as it has been handed down to us, represents a much more impressive and satisfying account of the matter than all the modern theories and methods that continually attempt to deconstruct Scripture.
And the Catechism of the Catholic Church closely follows Dei Verbum in its treatment of Scripture, as even some of the Catechism's detractors have admitted. A Fr. O'Malley, however, is evidently more interested in trying to weed out "literalists" or "fundamentalists" who might be lurking about, unconvinced of the blessings that have flowed from the use of the historical-critical method.
PC's part two is on the subject of "The Message: the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds". The authors are husband and wife, Mitch and Kathy Finley. Mitch is a writer and five-time Catholic Press Award winner, and Kathy teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. The Finleys refer to and quote the Church's own words—notably, Scripture, the liturgy, Vatican II, and the Catechism—more frequently than the other authors, and they are also more likely to approve of what they quote, it seems. Their particular presentation exhibits the fewest signs that the real purpose of PC is to give the reader the honest lowdown about "adult faith" today, something 308 the Catechism of the Catholic Church has supposedly failed to do in a manner acceptable to certain modern ideas about catechesis.
Where the Finley presentation chiefly falls down is in the disparate, disjointed, and even miscellaneous way in which it treats a topic that needs to be presented much more systematically. Their topic, after all, specifically treats the "Message", the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. This subject matter takes in a lot of territory, which the Finleys manage to touch upon only in a few selected spots. While selection was surely necessary in the space allotted to them, their very method prevents them from getting very far into any of the themes they do broach.
Each of their chapters begins with a little story or vignette, sometimes composed by them: a husband and wife reflect on their marriage; a young man compares the splendors of the King Tutankhamen exhibit with the even greater splendors of God's creation; a woman discovers that her family inevitably goes along with her in spirit, even when she goes on retreat. Other times the stories or vignettes are summarized from known authors such as Garrison Keillor or Shusaku Endo. For the most part, there is nothing wrong with these stories. It is sometimes hard, however, to discern what connection they have with the doctrine that is supposed to be expounded but that is often, instead, barely touched upon in the authors' preoccupation with "human interest".
In general this approach to the Creeds fails to bring out either the depth or the meaning of the great mysteries of our faith, or sometimes even that fact that there are any such great mysteries: creation, sin, redemption, the mystery and mission of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.
While the exposition of the great truths contained in the 309 Creeds might normally be expected to elicit gratitude, wonder, and awe, the approach here is determinedly down-to- earth, folksy, and chatty: nobody here but the People of God! Contrary to the claims of the editors of this volume in their introduction, this is most emphatically not the way to teach the truths of the Creeds. Trivialization of them is almost impossible to avoid when they are approached in this fashion. The Finleys actually quote a number of advertising jingles to illustrate the topic of redemption, for example. The point in this case seems to be how badly today's popular culture misuses such words as "redemption" and "salvation". So it does; we always knew that. But that is no excuse to descend to the same low level, while ostensibly catechizing people in the truths of the Catholic faith.
Moreover, like all of the authors of this volume, the Finleys tend to be conventionally modern and quite secular in their orientation, even when explaining specific religious and theological themes. For example, in their treatment of sin, while they do carefully explain the difference between venial and mortal sins, what immediately occurs to them as an available remedy for sin is not the Church's sacrament of Reconciliation; they never mention it, in fact (although they do mention in passing that "in Baptism we die to sin"). Instead, in one of their "Faith in Action" recommendations, they invoke step five in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where reforming alcoholics are supposed to admit "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs".
Our purpose in citing this example is not to belittle either the idea of making amends or the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous; the latter have undoubtedly helped many people. But in what is supposed to be an exposition of the Christian message as professed by the Catholic Church 310 in the Creeds, the fact that the authors do not even advert to sacramental confession as the Church's primary remedy for sin is only too symptomatic of the book's entire treatment: these authors are simply determined to be relevant and modern.
They are apparently equally determined to be politically correct. One of their introductory stories is about a young engineer who, as a result of reading Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris, comes to an acute crisis of conscience as a result of working in the U.S. defense industry (not that this viewpoint is necessarily to be despised; but it is in no way a clear-cut moral issue, either). The command in Genesis to exercise dominion over the earth inevitably suggests to them the importance of ecology: "We are to use the earth's natural resources gently and take care that we leave the environment the way we found it." The role of the Jewish people in salvation history immediately raises for them the question of the Holocaust, and Christians are admonished as severely as they are ever admonished about anything in this book to avoid anti-Semitism.
The point is not that we should not respect the environment, the Jewish people, or the consciences of individuals. The Church teaches that we should. Nor is there anything wrong with reiterating the Church's teaching about these things. But the whole presentation in this section is supposed to be about the Creeds! The ease and regularity with which the authors slip into the conventional, politically correct positions of the day, while talking about almost anything but the Creeds, is indicative of the relatively modest place to which they, like all the authors in this book, tend to assign questions of mere "doctrine". Why we get so little doctrine of any kind in what is supposed to be the major doctrinal portion of the book is a legitimate question. 311
Moreover, some of the doctrine that we do get is at times a bit shaky. Quoting paragraph 1250 of the Catechism on how baptism frees us from bondage to "a fallen human nature tainted by original sin", the Finleys go on to explain that this is "perhaps best understood not as a personal sin committed by a historical first man and first woman (Adam and Eve). Rather, the point of the Adam and Eve narrative in Genesis—and the concept of 'original sin'—is to acknowledge and explain the mystery of evil in human existence and in the world and its impact on us."
Unfortunately, as we have already seen in dealing with Fr. O'Malley's "figurative language" above, the Catechism unmistakably teaches that the Genesis story "affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of history" (CCC 390). How can they miss such things? Or be excused when they miss them?
Once again, in dealing with baptism, the Finleys begin their explanation by warning: "Baptism is not magic." Like Fr. O'Malley, they seem unusually concerned to correct possible misconceptions arising from the way Catholics were formerly—and the suggestion is, wrongly—catechized. For example, they remark that "earlier generations thought of the Church itself as the kingdom of God." Earlier generations? Vatican II plainly teaches that "the Church is the kingdom of God already present in mystery."16
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what these PC writers really want is a very different kind of Catholic from the "passive", "accepting" kind, with his rosary beads and (as they tend to believe) his various hang-ups and guilt trips. They want modern up-to-date activists and do-gooders— without the encumbrance of what they evidently see as a lot 312 of dubious doctrinal baggage. That, unfortunately, is one of the principal "messages" that comes through in this part supposedly devoted to the message; but for the most part the latter gets lost along the way.
The new catechists appear to want to change the world into something not easily distinguishable from the modern secular liberal's vision of a changed world. In order to accomplish this, they believe they have to eliminate a good deal of what Catholics were formerly taught in favor of teaching positive, activist precepts. Were they ever to succeed with this approach, it is quite unlikely that the world would be significantly changed for the better. What the results of the new catechesis to date is likely to show, however, is that, continuing this approach, we are going to have nothing more than another generation committed to a vague and vapid do-goodism, with little attention paid to the great and awesome truths of our sanctification and salvation in Jesus Christ.
So much for the specifically "doctrinal" part of this pretentious People's Catechism: it is not a "message" that is likely to inspire very many people.
PC's part three on the Sacraments was written by two religious sisters, Sr. Kathleen Hughes, R.S.C.J., academic dean and professor of liturgy at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and Sr. Barbara Quinn, R.S.C.J., a pastoral associate at a Chicago parish who is now also completing a doctorate in "ministry" at the same Catholic Theological Union. It is not reassuring to learn, after reading this part, that one of the coauthors, Sr. Hughes, is a member of the 313 advisory committees for both the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). If the view of the sacraments expressed in this part is shared on either of those two committees, we are in trouble.
Sr. Hughes and Sr. Quinn are unfortunately no improvement on the Finleys in their use of little vignettes to illustrate their topics. The "sacramental principle" in their account is thus actually introduced by the citation of a letter from a "friend" testifying to how her deceased father's "presence" remained in the house after his death through the objects ("symbols") pertaining to his former life there. This analogy is both weak and misleading because sacraments, while being visible signs, truly do also confer something real, that is, grace, God's own life. The "signs" or "symbols" of the deceased father left behind, however, only represent or call to mind his former "real presence" in the house, while he was still living; but there is nothing real about these symbols themselves.
PC's rather consistent fashionable political correctness is present in this part too. The topic of "Finding One's Place in the Church's Sacramental Life" is actually introduced by the story of Oskar Schindler of Schindler's List. Nearly all of PC's applications of Christian beliefs and principles to life similarly turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the concerns of today's dominant secular liberal culture. This "catechism" is "inculturated" in the sense that it is consistently accommodating to the modern culture found today in the United States. PC's authors are so "bold" and "prophetic", like those of America or Commonweal magazines, or the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, that they almost always exactly reflect the current secular liberal Zeitgeist.
Since this is the part of the book that is supposed to expound the Church's sacraments, though, the way in which these religious-sister authors do define and explain the sacramental system cannot but be disquieting. They adopt what has now become a standard technique by beginning with a correct definition, the old Baltimore Catechism's definition of a sacrament as an "outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace". But it very quickly becomes clear that this definition, according to the authors, "must be expanded and enriched by contemporary phenomenological insights". This they undertake to do, and voilà!: a sacrament has suddenly become "an event, at decisive moments in the life of the community that celebrates in symbolic language the experience of encounter with God in Christ dead and risen, in the life of the community and its members" (emphasis added).
The authors emphasize that a sacrament is "an event, not a thing, but a vital action of the Church. . . . Sacraments are celebrations, which means that they give public, ritual expression to our human religious experience through patterned activity and symbolical language (words, gestures, objects, music, space and time)" (emphasis in the original).
Now not all of this is completely wrong; they could hardly get it all wrong and still be intelligibly talking about the same sacraments with which all Catholics are familiar. Nevertheless, the emphasis they adopt is misplaced, heavily stressing the symbolical and experiential aspects, while never directly stating that it is God who gives his life to us in the sacraments. This emphasis that they adopt cannot but end up giving a distorted view of the sacraments. Their view, in our estimation, is a markedly naturalistic one.
But then, in their view, the whole of reality is a "divine milieu" (Teilhard de Chardin). The worlds of nature and 315 grace have become virtually indistinguishable. The sacrament of Reconciliation has become "starting over again after failure", in their words. "Jesus demonstrated no interest in lists of offenses", they remark a little later on the subject of this same sacrament, to which it can only be replied that Jesus expressly enjoined the keeping of the Commandments, which he went to the trouble of specifically enumerating (cf. Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20). And St. Paul, of course, was not at all loath to compile "lists of offenses". Indeed, one of his lists has become perhaps the classical, definitive one: "all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, .. . envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, . . . gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient, . . . foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (Rom 1:29-34 Such "lists" would seem to occupy a rather venerable position in the history of the Church; nor is it at all clear where the liberal dislike of "lists" arises from or what is wrong with them.
Speaking about the Eucharist, Sr. Hughes and Sr. Quinn mention the "simple meal" that the early Christians allegedly shared. "Could Jesus really have intended to leave us a last will and testament based on such an ordinary and necessary human activity?" This, of course, is exactly what the Last Supper was not: a simple meal. Nor is the Eucharist today to be equated with the "eucharistic meal" the authors keep referring to. "Could the way to God and the way to holiness truly be as close to us as sharing a meal with friends?" they ask artlessly.
The answer to this question is, of course, most emphatically: "No!" The Eucharist has never been a simple "meal with friends". From the beginning, the Eucharist has been a memorial ritual solemnly and strictly enjoined upon us in which Jesus continues to give himself to us in a unique way. 316 To imagine it as a mere "meal with friends" is to forget WHO JESUS IS.
Yet again, in another connection, these authors are able to ask: "Isn't Eucharist celebrated each time a family welcomes relatives at holiday time, when a maître d' creates an atmosphere of gracious dining that invites graciousness from those who gather, when a person goes without in order to send money to a relief fund for a famine-stricken people?" The answer, again, is: "No!" However meritorious these acts that they describe, they are most distinctly not "Eucharist".
We cannot go on at any length attempting to detail the many things that are either misleading or are quite simply wrong about this particular treatise on the sacraments. Suffice it to say that the same approach we have seen up to this point has been consistently followed by these authors: they state a thesis that is at least minimally intelligible to the instructed Catholic; then they go on to explain and qualify it virtually beyond recognition. The "institution of the sacraments by Christ" is yet another case in point.
This particular teaching is a rather hard one to get around without openly declaring that one has simply renounced the Catholic faith. For this teaching was solemnly defined by a general council of the Church, the Council of Trent, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, echoing the Church's contemporary Magisterium, has not failed to restate it more than once (CCC 1084, 1114, 1117, and so on). Srs. Hughes and Quinn, however, do not allow this to bother them unduly. "Institution by Christ", they write, "simply means that the Church has evolved a pattern of sacramental activity over the centuries as it attempts to remain faithful to Jesus' life and ministry." In other words, "institution by Christ" evidently simply means for them "institution by the Church". 317
Their descriptions of the particular sacraments are consistent with this position. All the sacraments "evolved", it seems. Baptism, which they call "Initiation", was "forged as the community tried to address the growing numbers attracted to membership. . . . The community chose a rite of water and word. . . . Other questions and other needs gradually gave rise to other Sacraments." And so on. In this remarkable account, we even learn at one point that "Jesus Christ was not a priest" (the Letter to the Hebrews to the contrary!).
It is true that many unanswered historical questions do surround the development of the sacraments within the Church of Christ. There is perhaps little concrete evidence that some of them were understood and practiced exactly as we understand and practice them today. In the nature of the case, we may never possess the evidence that would be necessary in order to clear up some of the questions that have been raised. But, again, the "evidence" here is mostly negative: the historical record is simply silent about some of the questions that have occurred to us.
But the Church's firm tradition in this matter of "institution by Christ" cannot simply be laid aside on the basis of such arguments from silence. The utterly cavalier way in which Sr. Hughes and Sr. Quinn present a largely fanciful theory of how the Church herself instituted and developed the sacraments is not a legitimate stance for Catholic theologians to take. The Church has solemnly taught, and now in the Catechism has plainly reiterated, that the seven sacraments were "instituted by Christ". That is where a Catholic theologian is obliged to begin. However this phrase is to be explained, and whatever the historical evidence that can be brought to bear on it, it still necessarily constitutes 318 the basis of any teaching about the sacraments that is truly Catholic—or else the Church herself is a fraud and a sham.
The fact that the authors, editors, and publishers of this People's Catechism apparently do not understand such an elementary point is just one more reason why this book is an unreliable guide to Catholic faith of any kind, much less "for adults".
PC's part four on the Moral Life was written by Timothy E. O'Connell, Ph.D., who is a professor of Christian ethics in the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University of Chicago. He is the author, inter alia, of Principles for a Catholic Morality, and thus he appears to be a member in good standing of the current theological establishment.
After what we have seen in the first three parts of this book, though, we cannot be unduly surprised to learn that his presentation on the moral life begins with a reference to Disney's The Lion King. Unfortunately, too much of this part, like the rest of the book, is on this same level. The very next reference to contemporary culture in this author's presentation is to the absurd George Burns movie Oh, God. This kind of approach cannot but trivialize the subject matter, although Dr. O'Connell's contribution is an unusually earnest one when compared to those of some of the other authors.
He claims to believe in a "teaching Church", and, on a number of critical questions, he does state the Church's teaching, which he generally characterizes as "strong". He even includes a chapter on the great moral issues posed for 319 society today by the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, issues that liberals of the type represented by the editors and authors of this book generally prefer to downplay or even bypass. More characteristically, though, he also includes "ecology" in the chapter dealing with these grave moral issues, as if the destruction of the environment, however valid a concern, were even remotely on the same moral level as the deliberate killing of human beings.
Even though he does raise the issues of abortion and euthanasia, he does not really engage them on any deep moral level. The challenge for Catholics faced with the legalization of these evils in the society in which they live, he writes, is "to remain involved in the community of moral discourse". Why could he just not say, as the Pope does in his recent encyclical on the Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitæ, that these evils are intolerable for Christians and have to be opposed? For Dr. O'Connell, however, the "emphasis ought to be not on fervent questioning as on candid questioning". He is quite sure that most people involved in abortions "are not persons of intentional bad will", although it is not at all clear how he knows this.
His typical solution to the problem of the legalization of the sheer evil of euthanasia turns out to be his recommendation that people should be "challenged to develop technology and social structures to the point that euthanasia becomes obviously inappropriate" (emphasis added). "Inappropriate"? Euthanasia is gravely wrong and destructive of the very idea of human dignity. Why can something like this not be said plainly?
From his treatment of sin and evil, even though he freely concedes that such things do exist, and even discusses them at some length, it would be hard for the reader to conclude that sin and evil, at bottom, ever really are all that wrong. 320
For there are always explanations, mitigating factors (as even the Church recognizes, of course, but in a markedly different perspective from his).
In Dr. O'Connell's perspective, there is almost no recognition at all that God has actually commanded anything or that the Church truly insists on reiterating what God has commanded. The characteristic approach of the ancient prophets—"Thus saith the Lord!"—is entirely alien to his own approach to the moral life.
Similarly, he rarely indicates that the Church "holds" or "teaches" anything. His most characteristic way of indicating a Church position is to say something like "our tradition teaches." He is always talking about "our tradition" as if, since it is only "our tradition" after all, it could well be different from what it is—and, indeed, we can never forget also that there are all those other "traditions" out there as well. Marriage, for instance, is for him the "setting" within which "our culture" says sexuality may be legitimately exercised (he is going to have a problem with this one, considering that "our culture" has lately been steadily legitimizing the exercise of sexuality outside of marriage!).
The moral urgency for human beings of doing good and avoiding evil, which the Church's own moral teaching never fails to bring out, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is something that is notably absent from Dr. O'Connell's treatment of the moral life. In his treatment, morality becomes bland and attenuated. At the moment when St. Maria Goretti was about to give up her own life in defense of her chastity, she said to her assailant: "God does not wish it!"
Ultimately, down deep, this is the reason why all of us must always strive, with God's help and in the face of whatever difficulties, to try to do good and avoid evil: because 321 God does wish good for us and, at the same time, cannot tolerate evil from us. Nobody would ever be likely to sacrifice life or limb, as did St. Maria Goretti, or even convenience or advantage, merely because "our tradition" might wish it. Yet Dr. O'Connell explicitly states that the idea that God might ever "demand" anything represents what he calls "cheap legalism". This is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the Christian moral life.
The fact remains that the Commandments are from God, however this uncomfortable fact may displease some modern moralists. There are things God most emphatically does "wish" from us, and that is the basic reason the Commandments were given to the human race in the first place. Jesus specifically reiterated the same Commandments by name. The Church has similarly never failed to emphasize and lay them out, including, most recently, in the Catechism.
The approach of this modern author, however, like that of some of our other modern moral theologians, is deliberately to blur and obscure the sharp edges of the human moral life, to trivialize and homogenize the awesome nature of all our acts in the sight of God. Just as earlier authors in this volume came up with one of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a fitting remedy for sin, so Dr. O'Connell also comes up with the remedy of "counseling or participation in a Twelve Step Group" in the same way. Just as an earlier author came up with his own list of "rock-bottom, non-negotiable doctrines" in place of the Church's teachings, so Dr. O'Connell comes up with his own version of the moral life reduced to what he calls "children's categories" for "interpersonal living": these are, according to him. play fair, leave other people's stuff alone, tell the truth, don't snoop, keep promises.
Not that there is anything wrong with this list as far as 322 it goes. Children do often have a keen sense of morality and justice on which grace and proper catechesis can build. In this case, however, we have to ask whatever happened to the boast of this book that it represents "Catholic faith for adults"? How can he reduce the moral life in this way and imagine that this reduction is acceptable? St. Paul said: "When I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Cor 13:11), and we can only wonder, confronted with this presentation, why some moral theologians apparently cannot manage the same transition.
In summary, what can be said about a book such as The People's Catechism, styled "Catholic Faith for Adults" and "written by the People of God, for the People of God"? This book is more than just trivial and pedestrian; it is more than just misleading and tendentious; it is simply wrong on many counts.
The sponsors and authors of it have a very serious reality problem. At the very moment when the Catholic Church, with the issuance of her new Catechism, has integrally reaffirmed her traditional doctrine and morality in the face of the increasingly disintegrating modernity she encounters in the world all around her, these people stand up and determinedly, almost frantically, come out, in effect, in favor of key aspects of that same modernity!
All of the editors and authors of PC hold official positions in ostensibly Catholic entities and institutions. One of them is actually a bishop (although one who previously signaled his negative attitude toward the Catechism by contributing a chapter to the notorious Universal Catechism Reader). The 323 fact that PC is the work of such visible members of the current theological and catechetical establishments in the United States gives this book the appearance of credibility as a possible "local", "inculturated" catechism of the kind that even Pope John Paul II has said needs to be prepared.
But this book is not one of them. The kind of local catechisms John Paul II had in mind were to be based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church; they were to bring the Church's faith to the culture, not water down the Church's faith in the interest of accommodating the culture.
What the authors and editors of PC have produced, however, is a caricature of a real catechism, a parody. Just as Voltaire once quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire, so this book does not present the Catholic faith, nor is it for adults; nor, in fact, is it a catechism.
An adaptation of this chapter was published in Fidelity, November. 2995.
1. Pope John Paul II, apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum on the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, October 11, 1992, no. 4 (Fidei Depositum is reprinted in the front of all the editions of the Catechism that have been published in the United States to date).
2. Cardinal Jose T Sanchez, "Inculturation of the Catechism at the Local Level Is Necessary", in Reflections on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, comp. Rev. James P. Socias (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1993), 103.
8. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, no. i, in Austin Flannery, O.P., ed., Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing Company, 1975), 903.
11. The People's Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults. "By the People of God, for the People of God." Edited by Raymond A. Lucker, Patrick J. Brennan, and Michael Leach. Written by William J. O'Malley, SJ., Mitch and Kathy Finley, Kathleen Hughes, R.S.CJ., and Barbara Quinn, R.S.CJ., and Timothy E. O'Connell (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995).
Copyright ©; Kenneth D. Whitehead and the family of the late Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn. 1996 & 2008.
Version: 10th May 2009