More than twelve years after the end of the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, the Church continues to evaluate and reflect on one of the most significant pontificates in history. And no assessment of his extraordinary papal era can ignore one of his greatest achievements: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published exactly 25 years ago.
The first great Catechism since the Council of Trent in the 16and century – with an affectionate nod to the Baltimore Catechism which was a mainstay of American catechesis for much of the 20and century – the Catechism has proven to be a lasting and powerful teaching tool that remains absolutely invaluable.
Faith as an organic whole
The origins of the Catechism date back to 1985 and the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convened by John Paul II to mark the 20and anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. The synod studied both the reception and the implementation of the Council in the life of the Church, with particular emphasis on how to interpret its documents and teachings. This was a major step for the Church towards the clarity of the Council after an era of confusion and misinterpretation under the banner of a so-called “Conciliar Spirit”.
During the sessions of the Synod, a memorable intervention was made by Cardinal Bernard Law, then Archbishop of Boston, on the need for a universal catechism to serve as a reliable compendium of the Faith. “Some of the national catechisms are of great value,” he said, “but by themselves they are insufficient… The young people of Boston and Leningrad wear the same blue jeans; they sing and dance to the same music. It takes a unique form of catechesis.
Cardinal Law expressed the same thoughts and concerns of many Church leaders at the time, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He enthusiastically supported the idea of a universal catechism, and the year after the synod a commission was created to work on what everyone knew was a monumental project for the Church.
The Catechism Symphony
Pope John Paul II succinctly described the function of a catechism in his letter promulgating the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fidei Depositin 1992:
A catechism must present faithfully and systematically the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living Tradition of the Church and the authentic Magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers and saints of the Church, to allow a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God. It should take into account the doctrinal statements which, over the centuries, the Holy Spirit has suggested to his Church. It must also help to shed the light of faith on new situations and problems which had not yet arisen in the past.
The task of the commission created by this holy pontiff was obviously enormous. Reading the often overlooked book Introduction to the Catechism by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and the then bishop, later Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, one can appreciate the immense challenges that emerged.
One of the most obvious was how would it be structured and where would the weight of the text be placed?
From the start the commission decided that the classical model should be followed, and the greatest example was that of Trent, the Roman Catechism which was originally published in the 1560s and was one of the great instruments for priests parishes in the preservation of the faith during the Catholic Reformation and for the following centuries.
The Roman Catechism had a quadruple division – Creed, Sacraments, Commandments, Prayer – the very structure that was adopted by the committee for the CCC. And faithful to baptismal catechesis from the earliest times, with a first part modeled on the creed.
The committee has carefully considered the Roman Catechism (the Catechism of the Council of Trent), and examining the edition edited in the 1980s by Professor Pedro Rodriguez and his collaborators, they found that the Roman catechism was broken down into four parts: 22% for the creed, 37% (nearly twice) for the sacraments, 21% and 20% for the Commandments and the Our Father respectively – a clear imbalance in favor of the sacraments due to the sacramental controversy of the Protestant Reformation.
In the end, the new Catechism slightly shifted the weight: 39% for the creed, 23% for the sacraments, 27% for the Commandments and 11% for the prayer.
Nevertheless, both RC and CCC place the weight of the text on the first and second pillars. Christoph Schönborn reflected on this emphasis and the primacy of grace and the emergence of a kind of diptych:
In both documents, the first two parts alone form nearly 2/3 of the volume. Considering this fact, we can apply to the Catechism of the Catholic Church what the editor said about the Roman Catechism: indeed the doctrinal order of the CR does not have four parts but is presented as a magnificent diptych drawn of tradition: on the one hand the mysteries of faith in God, the one and threefold as it is professed (creed) and celebrated (sacraments): on the other hand the Christian life according to faith – faith acting through charity – expressed in a Christian way of life (decalogue) and in filial prayer (pater).
The message of this diptych is clear. Whatever method is used in catechesis – the RC and the CCC do not impose any specific method – primacy in catechesis must be given to God and his works. Everything man has to do will always be a response to God and his works. And the two catechisms of the Magnalia Dei are “the heart of the matter”. It simply corresponds to reality: God is the first; grace is first. This is the true hierarchy of truth. Catechesis must therefore lead first to the worship of God, to the proclamation of his great works, to the praise of his grace. (Introduction, 48-49.)
There was a central aim of having the whole document possessing an internal unity, which can and has been called the symphonic quality of the Catechism.
As Petroc Willey, Pierre de Cointet and Barbara Morgan wrote in their study, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the art of catechesis“An image employed by the authors of the Catechism is that of a symphony, and this may be particularly useful for our appreciation of the Catechism in several respects, including its basic structure…Like most symphonies, the Catechism has four movements. Within these movements, a symphony is made up of different musical notes and phrases, and this can be compared to the different beliefs the Church has about God and Jesus Christ, about the sacraments and prayer, and about the how we can act in order to respect our own dignity and that of others. Together, these beliefs form a beautiful and harmonious whole. (Catechetical Profession, 17-18).
The place of the creed
What is, of course, so striking about the organization is the great importance given to the Creed and the way in which the profession of faith is to be taught in such a way that the dogmas which the catechumens seek to memorize become not only a part of the intellect, but also their lives.
The Credo is obviously an integral part of it, especially in a time of confusion, cynicism and doubt. The Creed is also an antidote to the modern world, as it was in pagan Rome. But it is also the gateway to catechesis and formation in Christian life and worldview.
John Paul II, in his first address to the Catechism Commission, stressed the importance of the Catechism as a tool for a complete catechesis:
Certainly the catechism is not catechesis, but only a means or an instrument of it (Catechesi Tradendae, 28). Indeed, while the catechism is a compendium of the doctrine of the Church, catechesis, “being that ecclesial action which leads the Christian community and individuals to maturity in the faith” (General Catechetical Directory, 21), transmits this doctrine — with methods adapted to the times — so that Christian truth becomes, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the life of believers.
Pope John Paul II also noted in 1986: “The catechism which you are called to plan is situated in the great tradition of the Church, not as a substitute for diocesan or national catechisms, but as a ‘point of reference’ for them. It is therefore not meant to be an instrument of flat “uniformity”, but an important aid in guaranteeing “unity in faith” which is an essential dimension of that unity of the Church which “springs from the unity from father “. , of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Saint Cyprian, On the Our Father).
The Catechism itself expresses this when it declares: “there is an organic link between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights on the path of faith; they light it up and make it safe. Conversely, if our life is right, our intelligence and our heart will be open to welcome the light brought by the dogmas of faith. (CCC, 89.)
The Catechism becomes the foundation, that first door of learning through which the new Christian can walk to deepen his encounter with Christ and come to a basic understanding of who he is and what the teachings of Christ mean to us.
On this 25and anniversary, and at a time of immense anxiety and confusion in society and even in many corners of the Church, the Catechism remains a sure guide to clarity, knowledge, truth, love, holiness and life.
We would do well to remember the words of Saint Augustine which are given pride of place at the very end of the first pillar of the Catechism: “Let your creed be like a mirror to you. Look at yourself in him, to see if you believe everything you say, you believe and rejoice in your faith every day. (CCC, 1064.)