Synods, doctrine and change of catechism: interview with Stephan Kampowski


In addition to the question of the role of the Catechism in the life of the Church today, there is also the question of how far it is or should be in step with the times – and how it could possibly be exchange. How is it done? Pope Francis, after all, has set a precedent.

According to the testimony of Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was then intensively concerned with the editing of the Catechism, the members of the editing committee had taken two fundamental decisions from the start in order to avoid the danger that the Catechism will become obsolete soon after its publication. First, they deliberately avoided incorporating the latest theological and exegetical assumptions, including their own. These would have been old and obsolete in a very short time. On the contrary, they cite and rely on permanent sources: Holy Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the Councils. Secondly, they wondered if they should start “inductively” with an analysis of the present, to which faith should then relate, or if, conversely, they should start “deductively” from faith, present it, then leave it to people of various times and places to draw the appropriate conclusions for themselves. They had chosen the latter approach. What is presented in the Catechism is therefore the Depositum fidei, which through all times and all places is considered the sure deposit of the faith. The content of the Catechism does not include ephemeral theological hypotheses or sociological analyzes which constantly need to be adapted to the latest social and historical developments.

However, it may still happen that the ecclesiastical authority deems it appropriate to reformulate passages from the Catechism. In order to properly address this issue, it may be helpful to briefly review the history of the Catechism writing process. In fact, the current version, as we have it now, is already a revised edition. The Catechism was originally written in French, then translated from that language into others. In 1997 the so-called editio typica appeared in Latin, which has now become the authoritative version for all translations of the work into other languages. From the start, the plan was to use the development of the editio typica as an opportunity to make improvements, to check and, if necessary, correct source references, and to improve possibly inaccurate wordings.

Most of the changes made with the publication of the editio typica were of a formal or stylistic nature. However, one change deserves special attention. It’s paragraph 2267 on the death penalty. In the original 1992 edition, it was a fairly brief passage, urging the authority of the state to resort to bloodless means whenever sufficient to ensure public order and safety. . Then, in 1995, the encyclical Evangelium vitae was published, in which Pope John Paul II takes a much more critical position on the death penalty than that previously expressed in the Catechism, raising the question of whether the Catechism should not be revised on this point. indicate. Since at that time the editio typica had not yet been published, a revision was possible without any formal fuss. The publication of the editio typica was therefore taken as an opportunity not only to refine the formulations, but even to insert a very relevant change in terms of content. The section originally had 54 words in English, then grew to 149 words in that language. He not only clarified the initial statement, but finally added a strong nuance: “As a consequence of the possibilities available to the State for effectively preventing crime, by rendering the person who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without him permanently deprive him of the possibility of redemption – the cases in which the execution of the culprit is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent”. The quote is taken from Evangelium vitaen. 56. How did this change enter the Catechism? First, a theological discussion on the matter had been going on for a long time. Second, there was a masterful decision given by the encyclical. Only then, finally, was the result inserted into the Catechism.

In his address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on October 11, 2017, Pope Francis took another step in the direction already taken by John Paul II. Referring to “the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent popes” and to the “change of conscience of the Christian people”, he spoke of the need to address even more adequately the question of the penalty of dead. It was necessary “to reaffirm that whatever the seriousness of the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it undermines the inviolability and dignity of the person”. Nr. 2267 of the Catechism was then rewritten for this purpose in 2018, receiving its second major overhaul. According to Pope Francis, the new formulation is not a contradiction with previous doctrinal statements, but a harmonious development of Church teaching due to a growing awareness of the dignity of the human person. We can see in the new formulation of n. 2267, at the instigation of Pope Francis, a logical consequence of the concern already expressed by John Paul II.

As a matter of principle, when considering possible modifications of the Catechism, it should be remembered that the authority of its statements is as great as the authority of the sources from which it draws. The Catechism is not a magisterial document aimed at making decisions on matters concerning faith or morals. Rather, it sets out those things on which, in the opinion of its drafters, a decision has already been made. What the Catechism states has no authority from being stated in it. It is rather the reverse. A doctrine enters the Catechism because it is taught with authority. However, development is not excluded. Rather, it is to be expected. As Pope Francis writes in the aforementioned address, “Those who love, yearn to know the loved one better, and to discover there the hidden wealth that appears every day as something completely new.” As the mystery of the person of Jesus is inexhaustible, there is a constant development, understood as an unfolding and deepening, of the understanding of who he is and what he tells us.

Bishop Bätzing recently suggested modifying the Catechism on the subject of homosexuality. However, it took six years of intensive work by a competent commission before the current Catechism was presented and adopted in the early 1990s. there a new advice to do it?

We must remember that the task of the Catechism is to propose the faith. Its purpose is to proclaim the faith and not to make doctrinal decisions or advance theological hypotheses. It is true that even a truth considered fundamental enough to enter into the proclamation of the Church can sometimes benefit from a more precise formulation. When dealing with historically contingent truths, it may indeed be necessary to rephrase a question in light of new circumstances, as happened with the question of the death penalty. Doctrinal development means to deepen, deepen things and, where necessary, reformulate them more precisely according to new historical circumstances, such as a change in the commonly accepted meaning of a given word, the general acquisition of a meaning new or deeper consciousness or the generalized loss of old consciousness, which then can no longer be taken for granted. It’s a thing. It is quite another thing to suddenly say the opposite of what the Church has always taught since apostolic times. After all, the question you are referring to here is not simply that of replacing an expression which, perhaps due to recent linguistic developments, might be perceived as insensitive and to which one wants to find a more polite equivalent without touching to the content of the statement. No, what is called into question here is the heart of the problem. Now, in my opinion, the substance of the problem has already been sufficiently clarified by the authority of the Magisterium of the Church in the light of Sacred Scripture and of Apostolic Tradition, so that even a new ecumenical council cannot have the authority to affirm the opposite of what the Church has always taught.

But even if someone thought that the question was finally not yet decided, it is clear that the Catechism cannot be the place from which to begin to revisit it. The Catechism serves to proclaim the foundations that are considered theologically and doctrinally sound. Now, if one wanted to call into question the certainty of a truth that the Catechism proclaims certain, one would have to begin with theological debate, in the refuge of the academic seminary. Supposing that a scientific and theological discussion has indeed established notable results, then one would have to appeal to the Magisterium, drawing its attention to the fact that what has been widely considered fundamental is in fact probably not so after all. , or that it should, in any case, be better expressed. It may have depended to a greater extent on contingent historical circumstances than initially assumed, or the words have undergone a change in meaning over time, so that new formulations must be sought. A decision of the ecclesiastical teaching authority would then be required. After a clear and firm expression issued by this authority, its ordinance must then be introduced into the Catechism, as was done for the teaching on the death penalty.

Given the inherent meaning of “theology,” “magisterium,” and “proclamation,” the path for eventual modification of the Catechism — always understood in terms of organic doctrinal development — must be this: discussion theological, magisterial decision, catechetical expression. To want to change the Catechism first is to put the cart before the horse. The Catechism should not be turned into an instrument to shorten theological discussion and prevent magisterial decision. This is speaking in general terms. On the given topic, I think there is a clear magisterial decision, so having a theological discussion about it is out of place. And of course, even more inappropriate is to use the Catechism to address the issue. The Catechism serves to proclaim the faith; he talks about what is part of the faith and of the Christian life and which is considered certain, certain enough, for example, to risk being baptized, which can possibly mean breaking with one’s family of origin, exposing oneself to the persecution of his former co-religionists, to the point perhaps even of risking his life. The proclamation of the faith confronts us with a radical choice which obliges us to put our whole life on the line. Theological differences must be settled elsewhere.


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