The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 25

George Weigel

John Paul II called the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 to assess what had gone right and what had gone wrong in two decades of implementing the Second Vatican Council. In Vaticanese, it was styled “extraordinary” because it fell outside the normal sequence of synods. But Synod-1985 was extraordinary in the ordinary sense of the word, too.
It occasioned an almighty row over a book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report, that pretty well set the terms of debate in the Synod hall. It was the Synod that came up with an interpretive key that linked the sixteen documents of Vatican II, through the image of the Church as a communio, a communion of disciples in mission; thus Synod-1985 accelerated the Church’s transition to the Church of the New Evangelization. And it gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

At a press conference shortly after the Synod, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, the president of the U.S. bishops conference, was asked about the new catechism the Synod fathers recommended. Don’t worry, Bishop Malone, replied, you’ll never live to see it. The bishop was, of course, wrong about that, and John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church on October 11, 1992.

For those expecting a Q&A format like the old Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was a surprise. While divided into 2,865 bite-size sections, the Catechism is a discursive exposition of Catholic faith in full. Its structure, which mirrors the Catechism of the Council of Trent, reaches back to the early Church and the patristic catechumenate. Thus the Catechism’s four parts reflect the four pillars of Christian initiation: the “Profession of Faith” (the Creed); the “Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (the Sacraments); “Life in Christ” (Christian Morality); and “Christian Prayer.”

Each of these four parts is then subdivided. Part One begins with a reflection on revelation and our response to it before examining the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed, the baptismal creed of the ancient Roman Church. Part Two is structured around the seven sacraments. Part Three vastly enriches the Tridentine pattern by beginning with the Beatitudes and our vocation to beatitude or happiness, which sets the framework for the exposition of the Ten Commandments. Part Four begins with a meditation on Jesus and the Samaritan woman, explaining the Lord’s “thirst” for souls as the beginning of prayer, before illustrating Christian prayer through the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Thus Parts One and Two of the Catechism illuminate God’s action in seeking us out – the Catechism’s very first section speaks of the divine invitation to communion, while the sacraments are described at the beginning of Part Two as the extension of Christ’s earthly life in us: as Pope Leo the Great put it, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” Parts Three and Four then outline our response to God’s action through the moral life and prayer. Part Three is a rebuff to those rigorists and laxists who continue to misconstrue Christian morality as a form of legalism: the moral law is important, the Catechism insists, because these are the guideposts provided by revelation and reason for the pilgrimage to beatitude and happiness, the goals of the moral life. Part Four speaks forcefully of “the battle of prayer,” the fight “against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has made a considerable difference over the past twenty-five years, because it was one crucial answer to the question posed to me in 1996 by a great first-generation Christian, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Speaking of one problem Synod-1985 was called to address, the cardinal asked, “How can [anyone] join a group of permanently confused people who don’t know where they’re going?” And while there’s still considerable work to be done to deepen the reform and renewal of catechetics, the mere fact of the Catechism helped end the silly season in religious education while establishing a compelling, and in many cases quite beautifully written, benchmark and pattern for the future.

If you’ve not read it, this silver jubilee is a good occasion to do so. Then share the Catechism with a friend.

COMING UP: Fencing with bigots

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…being an imaginary dialogue between a nominee to a Federal appeals court and members of the Committee on the Judiciary of what once imagined itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body”…

Senator Proudie: I note, Professor Valiant, that Catholic dogma plays a considerable role in your judicial thinking. That bothers me, frankly, because it would seem to threaten rights many people have worked long and hard to protect. Perhaps you could relieve my anxieties?

Professor Valiant: “Catholic dogma” plays no role whatsoever in my theory of judging, Senator. It’s the job of the legislative branch, in either the states or the national government, to enact laws within the bounds set by the Constitution. It’s the job of a federal judge to determine those bounds and to give statutes their proper meaning. This approach to judging has nothing to do with “Catholic dogma.”

Senator Proudie: Do you believe that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided?

Professor Valiant: As a lower-court judge, Senator, I would apply all governing Supreme Court precedents in cases that come before me. Beyond stipulating that, I do not think it appropriate for a nominee to the federal bench to comment on issues on which I might have to rule.

But if you were to ask me a more general question, Senator, as to whether I think that the Supreme Court can get it wrong on occasion, I would say “yes.” I think the Supreme Court got it wrong in 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sandford, when it held that an African-American whose ancestors had been brought to the U.S. as slaves could not be a citizen and thus had no legal standing. I think the Supreme Court got it wrong again in 1896, when the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld segregated public facilities in the states. Would you agree that the Supreme Court got it wrong in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, Senator?

Senator Proudie: [Incoherent muttering.]

Senator Gantry: Professor Valiant, I went to Catholic schools for years; loved those dear, sweet sisters, just loved ‘em. So I think I know what it means to be a good Catholic. Do you think you’re a good Catholic, Professor?

Professor Valiant: Senator, the state of my soul is surely a matter between me and my pastor, and between me and God. As I understand it, this committee room is a place for public inquiry by the Judiciary Committee into my qualifications for the federal bench. It is neither a confessional nor a rectory parlor for spiritual direction.

But I do remember, Senator, that, in the course of my own education in Catholic schools, we were required to read the Constitution of the United States; perhaps you were, too? And there I find, in Article VI, the unambiguous statement that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.” So if you will permit me, Senator, I regard your question as not merely impertinent but unconstitutional, and so I decline to answer it.

Senator Gantry: [Splutters.] Well, I certainly didn’t mean to apply some sort of “religious test” to your qualifications for the federal bench, Professor….

Professor Valiant: Thank you for clarifying that, Senator. As an expression of my gratitude let me suggest that, out of respect for the Constitution, we just drop the subject. So I won’t inquire into precisely what you did intend.

Senator Gantry: [Inaudible; something to do with “…da Bears.”]

Senator Defarge: Professor, could you tell us what you think of Senator John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960s presidential campaign?

Professor Valiant: It’s not altogether clear to me, Senator, what my views of that speech have to do with my qualifications for the position to which I have been nominated. But I will say this. John F. Kennedy faced deep-set, anti-Catholic bigotry in his run for the presidency. Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., who can hardly be accused of special pleading, once called anti-Catholicism the most entrenched prejudice in American history. So whatever I think of the way in which then-Senator Kennedy handled the bigots of his day, perhaps we could all agree that such bigotry has no place in the 21st-century United States?

Senator Defarge: [Unintelligible expletive deleted].