The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 25 | George Weigel


John Paul II convened the 1985 Extraordinary Synod to assess what had gone right and what had gone wrong during the two decades of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. In the Vatican it was called “extraordinary” because it was outside the normal sequence of synods. But Synod-1985 was also extraordinary in the ordinary sense of the term.

This caused an almighty argument during a book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report, which pretty well defined the terms of the debate in the synod hall. It was the Synod that proposed an interpretative key linking the sixteen documents of Vatican II, through the image of the Church as communion, a communion of disciples on mission; thus, the 1985 synod accelerated the Church’s transition to the Church of the New Evangelization. And that gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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

For those who expect a Q&A format like the old Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was a surprise. Although divided into 2,865 bites, the Catechism is a discursive exposition of the Catholic faith in its entirety. Its structure, which reflects the Catechism of the Council of Trent goes back to the primitive Church and to the patristic catechumenate. So the CatechismThe four parts of 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. The first part 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. The second part is structured around the seven sacraments. The third part considerably enriches the Tridentine model, beginning with the Beatitudes and our vocation to beatitude, or happiness, which sets the framework for the exposition of the Ten Commandments. The fourth part begins with a meditation on Jesus and the Samaritan woman, explaining the “thirst” of the Lord’s souls as the beginning of prayer, before illustrating Christian prayer through the seven requests of the Our Father.

Thus, the first and second parts of the Catechism illuminate the action of God in seeking us. the Catechism’The very first section speaks of the divine invitation to communion, and the sacraments are described at the beginning of the second part as the prolongation of the earthly life of Christ in us: as Pope Leo the Great said, “this which was visible in our Savior has passed into his mysteries. The third and fourth parts then describe our response to God’s action through moral life and prayer. The third part is a rebuff for the rigorists and laxists who continue to misinterpret Christian morality as a form of legalism: Moral law is important, Catechism insists, because these are the beacons provided by revelation and the reason for the pilgrimage towards bliss and happiness, the goals of the moral life. The fourth part speaks forcefully of “the battle of prayer”, the struggle “against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, from union with God “.

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

If you haven’t read it, this silver jubilee is a good opportunity to do so. So share it Catechism with a friend.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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