Pope 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 the 1985 synod was also extraordinary in the ordinary sense of the word.
This sparked an almighty row over a book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report, which set the terms of the debate in the Synod hall. It was the Synod that proposed an interpretive key that links the 16 documents of Vatican II, through the image of the Church as communio, a communion of disciples in mission; thus the 1985 synod accelerated the transition of the church 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, Youngstown Bishop James Malone, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 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 wrong about this, and Pope John Paul II promulgated the catechism on October 11, 1992.
For those expecting a question-and-answer format like the old Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church came as a surprise. Although divided into 2,865 small sections, 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 the patristic catechumenate. Thus, the four parts of the catechism 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 12 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 two parts of the catechism shed light on God’s action in our search – the very first section of the catechism speaks of the divine invitation to communion, while the sacraments are described at the beginning of the second part as the continuation of the earthly life of Christ in us: as Pope Leo the Great said, “what was visible in our Savior has passed into his mysteries”.
The third and fourth parts describe our response to God’s action through moral life and prayer. The third part is a rebuke to the rigorists and laxists who continue to misunderstand Christian morality as a form of legalism: the moral law is important, the Catechism insists, because it is the landmarks provided by revelation and the reason for the pilgrimage to 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 has made a tremendous difference over the past 25 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 although there is still considerable work to be done to deepen the reform and renewal of catechesis, the simple fact of catechism has helped to end the silly season of religious education while establishing a reference and a compelling and in many cases quite nicely written model for the future.
If you haven’t read it, this silver jubilee is a good opportunity to do so. Then share the catechism with a friend.
Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Professor of Catholic Studies at the Washington Center for Ethics and Public Policy.