Thursday, December 19, 2013

BkRev: Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Holy See, Catechism of the Catholic Church (with modifications from the editio typica), New York, Doubleday, 1997 (publication of English translation of 1997 Latin second edition), 826 pages.

(In the lower right hand column, see the key words "Catechism" and "Catholic" for more posts summarizing my notes on the role of the Catholic Church in the war between mysticism and reason in the USA today.)

DEVELOPMENT OF THIS CATECHISM. For some projects, the Catholic Church moves rapidly. In 1566, Pius V (pope, 1566-1572), acting under the authority of the Council of Trent, quickly developed a comprehensive catechism. (For the idea of "catechism," see the Dec. 15, 2013 post.) However, severely limiting the audience facilitated the writing of the 1566 catechism. The authors of the catechism of 1566 directed it to clergy, that is, priests and bishops, not to the mass of untrained Catholic laymen. The authors expected the clergy to use the catechism of 1566 as a guide in instructing laymen who were joining the Church. This narrowly used catechism stood without major revision for 400 years.[1]

In the years 1962 to 1966, the Second Vatican Council met to set the direction of the Church in the modern world. Among other projects, the Second Vatican Council produced "doctrinal statements and pastoral norms" as guidelines meant to be applied to the whole Church (p. 2) In 1985, John Paul II (pope, 1978-2005) convoked a synod of bishops to ensure that the Second Vatican Council's work was actually used to reform the Church. (p. 2) 

The bishops meeting in the synod said they saw a need for a revised catechism, a collection of principles and practices which all Catholics should know. The bishops expected the revised general catechism would be a reference for briefer catechisms developed in each region for each region's special needs. (pp. 3 and 11)

In the next year, 1986, John Paul II established two committees to produce the new general catechism. The larger committee had twelve bishops and cardinals as members; it was responsible for producing the catechism. The second committee was advisory; it had seven bishops who were experts in theology or in the writing of catechisms. (p. 3) Through nine drafts, the committee of seven wrote the catechesis and the committee of twelve reviewed it. The two committees sought review by the other bishops of the world. (pp. 3-4) After a series of revisions, translations, critique by the papacy, and further revisions by the committee of writers, the Church published the new catechism. The book reviewed here was published in English in 1997—thirty years after the Second Vatican Council.

THEME OF THE BOOK. At one level, this long book is simply a record of the information that the Church today thinks all Catholics should know. At a second level, the book defines Catholicism: These ideas make Catholicism what it is. Some of the ideas here are shared by other Christians, but other ideas distinguish Catholics. At a third level, I think, this book as a whole shows the serious reader that the Church—which is the successor to the apostles Jesus named and sent into the world to spread his ideas—covers everything that is most important in life: what we should believe about God and the world, how we should behave in the world, what the Church should do for its members (perform sacraments, for example, to connect this world to the supernatural world), and how we should pray to God.

The answers this book provides are sometimes particular: doing certain rituals at certain times, such as the sacrament of anointing the sick (also called the sacrament of "extreme unction" when applied to a dying person). (paragraphs 1499-1525) At other times, the answers are fundamental principles which the individual Catholic must then apply to his situation. An example is the long discussion of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments which God mystically revealed to man.(Paragraphs 2072 and 2083-2550)

The point is that Catholicism applies to everyone, everywhere, and at all times—which is what a worldview does. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a 756-page distillation of all of that.

RELIGIOUS PURPOSE OF THE BOOK. An "apostolic constitution" written by John Paul II (pope, 1978-2005) is a preface. This eight-page letter ("To my Venerable Brothers … all the People of God") serves several functions. First, this letter is in part a statement of papal approval, an important step in a hierarchical Church. Second, the letter connects this catechism to the assignment that Jesus gave to his church (the apostles and other followers) two millennia ago: preserve my words and take them to everyone in the world. (p. 1) The Catechism, the preface says, primarily presents the positive ("the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith"), rather than attempt to rebut the many errors that arise from misunderstanding or misrepresenting Christian doctrines. (p. 1) 

RELIGIOUS SOURCES FOR THE BOOK. In one long sentence, Pope John Paul II lists the four sources for the Catechism and states the two main purposes of the Catechism: 

A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of [1] Sacred Scripture, [2] the living Tradition in the Church and [3] the authentic Magisterium [the authority of the Church to teach], as well as [4] the spiritual heritage of the Fathers, Doctors, and saints of the Church, to allow for [1] a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for [2] enlivening the faith of the People of God. (p. 4, square brackets added)

In the same statement, Pope John Paul II vaguely alludes to the Holy Spirit, a mysterious entity that, in some unspecified manner, conveys information from God to man. (p. 4) The Holy Spirit appears frequently in this catechism. The Church refers to the Holy Spirit to explain many of the Church's positions. As far as I can tell, the Holy Spirit is the deus ex machina of Christianity.

USES OF THE BOOK. Who might use this book? Pope John Paul II, in his cover letter identifies two uses of this book: 

This text is given to them [the Catholic faithful who advocate Christianity to others] that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Ephesians 3:8). … The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us [Catholics] to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes. (p.6, with square brackets added)

STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK. The Table of Contents shows that the authors divided the book into parts and then successively into sections, chapters, articles, and sub-articles. The authors have numbered every paragraph so that the authors can refer readers to earlier or later paragraphs for further explanation. Unobtrusive footnotes identify the sources of quoted passages in the Bible and a variety of Church documents.

This Catechism of the Catholic Church follows the same general order developed under Pope Pius V in 1566. Part One describes beliefs, which are what Christian take on faith. Part Two describes the liturgy (Church rituals), especially the sacraments, in which Christians celebrate the beliefs they hold on faith. Part Three describes the Christian ethics that guide Christian actions, as stated in the Ten Commandments. Part Four describes praying. (p. 5)

EMPHASIS ON INTEGRATION. The Catechism of the Catholic Church frequently states or implies a need to present Christianity as an integrated body of ideas and actions. Examples are "the 'symphony' of the faith" (p. 4); the need for "unity and coherence" in the text of the Catechism (p. 4); repeatedly seeking consensus, at least among some groups (p. 4, "Bishops of the whole world" and "the harmony of so many voices" and others); "the wonderful unity of the mystery of God" displayed in the Catechism (p. 5); and the aim of this modern catechism as "presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards faith and morals" (p. 11).

The book itself emphasizes integration: 

This catechism is conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety. It should be seen therefore as a unified whole. Numerous cross-references in the margin of the text (italicized numbers referring to other paragraphs that deal with the same theme), as well as the analytical index at the end of the volume, allow the reader to view each theme in its relationship with the entirety of the faith. (p.13)

FLAWS OF THE BOOK. The book needs a glossary, especially for special Catholic terms such as sensus fidei (sense of the faith), magisterium (the mysterious Church teaching authority), and mystery (a hidden knowledge). However, the index is detailed and helps readers locate definitions or at least discussions of key concepts such as "faith." A Catholic dictionary at hand will make reading this catechism easier and more productive.

CONCLUSION. Is this a book for general readers? No. Is this a book for general students of the war between reason and mysticism in our time? Probably. It locks in one place all the key points that the most powerful mystical organization in the USA today presents to its members—and which they presumably spread into the non-Catholic culture. Is this a book for observers of the Catholic Church in particular? Yes.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

[1] "Catechism of the Catholic Church," Wikipedia, December 5, 2013.

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