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The Initial Reception of the Catechism


The amazing popular reception accorded to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the United States, as shown by the huge volume of sales that the book quickly racked up, was in some ways duplicated by the official reception given to the Catechism here, notably, but not exclusively, by the hierarchy. Even before the English translation of it was available, the new Catechism had become the subject of numerous articles, lectures, and conferences; many Catholic organizations devoted special meetings and conventions to it; it was the topic of the hour.

There was even more than a flurry of press and media interest in this new compendium of Catholic doctrine, although some of it went no deeper than commenting on the new "list of sins" the book was said to contain.

By and large, the position and tone adopted toward the Catechism by most Catholic organizations and publications were respectful. Once it became clear that the Catechism was definitely coming out, even many of those who had earlier opposed it did not continue their public opposition. This was true even of some who had criticized both the idea of 101 any catechism at all and the draft of the work in progress that had been sent out to the bishops of the world for comment in late 1989. With the promulgation of the Catechism, many early critics were suddenly to be found back in the main­stream again, "loyal sons and daughters of the Church".

In subsequent chapters, we shall be looking closely, and more than a little critically, at just how sincere some of the apparent public "conversions" to the cause of the Catechism really were. In any case, much of the newly minted favorable comment on the book rather quickly gave way to criticism again, as soon as it became clear that the Holy See was not going to release the original English translation of the Catechism.

This original translation was made using the so-called "inclusive language" favored by radical feminists, that is, language that avoids the use of "he" or "him" in a generic sense referring to all human beings rather than just to adult males. This explosive—as it turned out—issue of "inclusive language" was the primary thing that delayed the appearance of the Catechism in English for more than a year. This issue will be examined in more detail in the next chapter.

Regarding the general reception of the Catechism, the attitude of the U.S. bishops was almost wholly positive. In 1992, the bishops established a special subcommittee of the Committee on Education of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) in order to handle the implementation of the Catechism in this country. It was this USCC subcommittee that made the arrangements for the publication and marketing of the book in the United States. The same subcommittee also prepared information packets about it, both for the media and for interested Church organizations and institu­tions around the country; it commissioned the preparation of articles and other material about the book and encouraged 102 various organizations to devote their conferences and conventions to it as well; and, finally, in keeping with the key role played by bishops in the Catechism project from the beginning, the subcommittee organized an all-day symposium on it for all the American bishops which was held in conjunction with their regular June 1993 meeting in New Orleans.

On the episcopal level, then, there was manifestly no visible neglect or downplaying of the importance of the Catechism. On the contrary, its appearance was treated as an ecclesial event of the first and greatest importance, and the bishops were clearly recognized and identified as the foremost interested parties in all that pertained to it. Most bishops appeared to take their role quite seriously in this regard.

"This emphasis on the bishops as principal recipients of the Catechism", implementation subcommittee chairman Bishop Edward T. Hughes of Metuchen, New Jersey, explained, "affirms our own responsibility as chief teachers in the Church and reenforces some of the concerns most of us have had about our somewhat limited role in the catechetical procedure. At times we may have felt that the content and methodology of our catechetical approaches were not really responsive to our leadership and teaching." Bishop Hughes further emphasized very clearly that his subcommittee's charge was "to plan for the implementation of the Catechism, not to debate its contents".1

The New Orleans symposium on the Catechism organized by the implementation subcommittee for all the American 103 bishops in the summer of 1993 was addressed in person by then Bishop Christoph Schönborn, secretary of the editorial committee of the Catechism. This same address was later reprinted in The Living Light and later still appeared as a chapter in the Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.2 In it the Dominican theologian and Austrian prelate explained among other things how the Catechism was based on "the hierarchy of truths" in a true and exact sense. The issue of the "hierarchy of truths" had been a big issue with some American theologians who had opposed the universal catechism project; it was alleged that the draft Catechism had failed to respect this principle.

Bishop Schönborn explained the issue admirably to the U.S. bishops at the New Orleans symposium on the Catechism: that there is such a "hierarchy of truths" does not mean in any sense that some truths are "less true" than supposed "essentials" of the faith (and might possibly, therefore, be downplayed or even laid aside). This latter idea, as a matter of fact, had been a very common misconception in certain theological and catechetical circles in the United States.

Bishop Schönborn explained, however, that the hierarchy of truths "simply means that the different truths of the faith are 'organized' around a center"; it involves the organic structure of the multiple and complex truths—all true!—that make up the whole of the Christian faith. The Austrian bishop explained that the Catechism of the Catholic 104 Church was consciously organized around the central truths concerning the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and also around the fourfold truths of the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, and Prayer.

In the conclusion to his address, Bishop Schönborn quoted the Catechism itself to the effect that it "emphasizes the exposition of doctrine. It seeks to help deepen the understanding of faith. . . . It is oriented toward the maturing of that faith, its putting down roots in personal life, and its shining forth in personal conduct" (CCC 23). The challenge of catechesis, he told the American bishops, is to combine "the objective truth of the Church's doctrines and the intensely personal character of the believer's possession of them".

No more pertinent point could have been made to an American gathering, even a gathering of bishops. In the United States, for more than a quarter of a century, the catechetical establishment in place had been vainly trying to produce a "maturing of . . . faith", and a rooting of it in personal life, without adequate reference to doctrine and, hence, to truth. Bishop Schönborn properly concluded, however, that "doctrine is not opposed to life. How can we live without understanding?"

Ironically, Bishop Schönborn shared a platform in New Orleans with one of the pillars of the U.S. catechetical establishment: the Warren Blanding, Professor of Religion at the Catholic University of America, Fr. Berard L. Marthaler, O.F.M. Conv., a noted American catechetical theoretician, opponent of "book-centered catechesis", and public dissenter from the papal encyclical Humane Vitae. In the mysterious way in which organizations sometimes go on blindly doing what they are accustomed to do regardless of new circumstances, Fr. Marthaler was one of those chosen to 105 brief the U.S. bishops on the new Catechism, even though he had been among those most visible in his public opposition to it.3

Fr. Marthaler was no doubt chosen for this role despite his opposition to the document—and his record of public dissent from Catholic teaching—simply because he was one of the most prominent and visible catechetical "experts in the field". Reliance on, if not actual subservience to, presumed professional expertise has practically become a superstition in the United States today and seems to take precedence over nearly every other consideration. What other explanation is there for inviting an opponent of the Catechism and an open dissenter from Catholic teaching to address the official teachers of the faith?

In his remarks to the bishops, Fr. Marthaler did not fail to inform their excellencies that he and his colleagues would certainly take a look at the Catechism: "The catechetical community will study the pages of the Catechism to see the light that it will throw on a whole series of questions that affect programs and methods" (emphasis added).4 No doubt the day had already passed when catechetical professionals might ever feel obliged to accept anything on the authority of the Church, even though their very mission derives from this Church. Thus, they would have to "study" the Catechism and "see", according to Fr. Marthaler. The new catechists themselves would be the ones to decide what is 106 suitable, and what can be accepted, out of all that Catholic bishops had labored so hard to produce for the whole Church.

Fr. Marthaler was nothing if not consistent here in reflecting the typical basic attitude of the new theologians and the new catechists The question is whether anybody in his audience of bishops ever took notice of this basic attitude or caught on to what he really represented.

The other speakers at this symposium organized by the USCC's Subcommittee for the Implementation of the Catechism were considerably more positive about the merits of the document. Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who had been one of the forty expert consultors during the drafting phase,5 saw the completed work as "an instrument that facilitates the supervisory role of the bishop", both as teacher and overseer of the catechesis in his diocese. Bishop Wuerl urged his brother bishops to take a personal and active part in implementing the Catechism in each diocese, both in the establishment of catechetical criteria based on the Catechism and in the training of teachers and catechists to use it.

The Pittsburgh Bishop further provided a number of practical suggestions as to how bishops could go about doing this. His suggestions included developing a diocesan team of core personnel, including both educational and administrative people, to coordinate and develop all aspects of the implementation process. He thought the bishop should be personally involved in the training at this level, so that the members of the diocesan team could then go on to provide the proper grounding in the Catechism directly to teachers, catechists, CCD and other parish volunteers, as well as to youth and campus ministry people. Bishop Wuerl also 107 thought that the sessions in which the bishop himself was involved might well be videotaped for representation to other groups down the line.6

Bishop Wuerl's contribution to making the Catechism better known, by the way, was not restricted to his efforts in his own Pittsburgh diocese or at conferences such as this New Orleans one. Bishop Wuerl writes a monthly column on the faith in the Catholic publication with the largest circulation in the United States, the Knights of Columbus magazine Columbia. Since the publication of the Catechism, he has been regularly and rather systematically expounding it in these columns, thus familiarizing a very wide audience with its basic content.

The New Orleans symposium on the Catechism also included other positive presentations, one by the director of an archdiocesan catechetical office (in the archdiocese of New York) and another by an archdiocesan director of religious education (in the archdiocese of Boston). All in all, the USCC Subcommittee for the Implementation of the Catechism demonstrated both imagination and zeal in seeing that this new doctrinal sourcebook of the universal Church was properly launched in the United States. And the U.S. bishops generally responded both positively and seriously to its advent.

Once the book was actually launched, though, this particular subcommittee gave way to another committee, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, a body that continues in being at the present time. The archbishop of Indianapolis, the Most Reverend Daniel Buechlein, was 108 made chairman of this latter committee, which immediately became involved in such questions as providing guidance for the use of the Catechism in secondary texts, evaluating catechetical materials in the light of the Catechism, serving as a clearinghouse for any textual errors discovered, developing plans for the electronic and mass-market editions of the work, distributing video and other materials related to it, as well as considering, along with the bishops' regular Education Committee, the idea of a possible U.S. national catechism, based upon the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Once again, this Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism evidenced great concern that its implementation be properly and expeditiously carried out.7 "'Whenever the Catechism is used," Archbishop Buechlein declared, "we want to be sure that it is done with integrity and wholeness."8 This attitude seemed to be an accurate reflection of U.S. episcopal sentiment generally.

Thus, at the level of the bishops, the reception accorded to the Catechism of the Catholic Church was every bit as positive as the popular reception accorded to it. Both the bishops and the public saw the appearance of the Catechism as a major and very welcome event in the life of the Church, and they treated it as such.


From the moment the Catechism was promulgated, the U.S. bishops were urged to get personally and actively involved in 109 implementing and promoting it. Some bishops seized upon the opportunity with alacrity.

Cardinal John O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, for example, in the course of the year 1994, preached a year­long series of homilies on the Catechism from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Collected and printed, this series of homilies constitutes one of the best existing commentaries on the Catechism produced in the United States.9

Cardinal O'Connor was evidently much taken with the Catechism from the outset; he obviously studied it with great care and was profoundly influenced by it. Both his own talent and, no doubt, a lifetime of pastoral practice gave the Cardinal a special knack for selecting and quoting basic "doctrine" from the Catechism, which he then immediately applied to the faith and life of the Christians in his congregation, illustrating his exposition with lively and pertinent remarks and examples, often anecdotal. One imagines he rarely lost the attention of his cathedral congregation while preaching these homilies on what so many religious educators continue to claim is "dry", namely, Catholic doctrine.

In order to provide an illustration of how effective this pastoral method was for expounding and applying the doctrine of the Catechism, we shall look at only one of Cardinal O'Connor's series of homilies, the thirty-ninth, preached on November 27, 1994.10 In this homily, dealing with the subject of prayer as that important subject is treated in the fourth part of the Catechism, Cardinal O'Connor substantially 110 covered paragraphs 2623-724. He first related prayer to the liturgical season, which happened to be Advent:

During Advent we are doing the final section of the Catechism, which is on prayer. This is so appropriate because this is the period of expectancy, of prayer, of getting ready. It is the period during which we are reminded of the longing of the entire human race for the potential of salvation after Original Sin. It is the period during which we are reminded of the longing of the Israelites when they were on pilgrimage in the desert after having escaped from slavery to the Egyptians, wandering, weary, lost, confused just as are we so often, praying that they would get to the Promised Land, which is the symbol of heaven. Advent is a reminder of those nine months of prayer, in which surely Mary was engaged, praying to the Father, praying to the Son within her, awaiting His advent, awaiting His birth on Christmas Day.

Having established the close correspondence of sustained prayer with the season, the Cardinal did not fail also to relate the scriptural readings for the day to his general theme of prayer. As it happened—as so often happens where the Holy Scriptures are concerned—the readings for the day were particularly appropriate to his subject. They included

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances"; and, marvelously, these readings also included Luke 21:36: "Pray constantly for the strength to escape whatever is in prospect, and to stand secure before the Son of Man."

These readings provided a wholly natural and unforced entrance into a discussion types of prayer set forth by the Catechism: the prayer of blessing and adoration (CCC 2628); of petition (CCC 2629); of intercession (CCC 2634); of thanksgiving (CCC 2637); and of praise (CCC 2639). 111

Cardinal O'Connor discussed each of these types of prayer in his homily, sometimes reading what the Catechism says about them, other times explaining it in his own words, and yet other times illustrating it by quoting, for example, the beautiful Canticle of Daniel from the same morning's Divine Office in order to illustrate the nature of the prayer of blessing ("Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord / Praise and exalt him above all forever").

In some cases, the Cardinal included an often simple example of how people today relate to or are affected by the various types of prayer. In the case of the prayer of blessing, he noted:

Yesterday I was in an airplane and one of the flight attendants came and sat beside me for a moment and asked me, "Will you give me a blessing?" I said a little prayer over her. This is a very beautiful, common Hispanic custom. Many times when I meet Hispanics in New York, even on the street, they will ask me for a blessing.

Turning to the prayer of adoration, Cardinal O'Connor first quoted the essence of what the Catechism says about it and then added his own comments relating this to the immediate experience of his congregation:

"Adoration is the first attitude of human beings acknowledging that we are creatures before our Creator. It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Savior who set us free from evil" (CCC 2628).

The prayer of adoration must include a sense of reverence. We must have a sense of reverence for the Christ that we will receive in Holy Communion today. If we are really going to pray, we must try to concentrate when we come up here despite all of the distractions, despite the 112 number of people in this packed cathedral. We must try to achieve this one-to-one union with Christ. I always ask the ushers to be very gentle in directing people toward a particular priest when the lines get heavy so that there is no pushing or sharpness. This should be a moment of great reverence, as when Almighty God called to Moses from the burning bush. When Moses was arriving he said, "Take the shoes from off your feet because the ground on which you stand is holy ground."

Similarly, in explaining the prayer of intercession, the Cardinal illustrated it by an immediate and concrete example:

This moves us then to the prayer of intercession. Yesterday, as I walked along the street someone said to me, "Say one for me." I hear that so often. People will stop me, not because I am anybody, but because I am a priest. They see the collar and they will stop me and say, "Father, my wife is sick. She just learned she has cancer. Will you say a prayer for her?" Or "I have just lost my job. Will you say a prayer for me?" This is what is called prayer of intercession. It goes all the way back, as far as we know, at least to the days of Abraham. It is a very unselfish form of prayer.

Again, explaining the prayer of thanksgiving, the Cardinal linked it, as the Catechism itself does (CCC 2637), to the Eucharist:

The very word "Eucharist" means a thanksgiving. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving. We have just celebrated the civil feast of Thanksgiving. So often we forget that that feast was established in the early days of our Republic as a thanksgiving to Almighty God for delivery from religious persecution in Europe, a delivery from the elements here. It was a feast in thanksgiving for 113 survival in this new world. Did we celebrate it in that fashion?

And so on. It is evident from the few examples taken from Cardinal O'Connor's thirty-ninth homily on the Catechism of the Catholic Church that expounding the essential doctrines of the faith is in no way alien to the preaching and practice of the faith; nor is it in any way tedious or unrelated to people's lives. Cardinal O'Connor instantly found one example after another to illustrate the "doctrine" he was expounding. Why is this so difficult for some modern religious educators? Why do they find doctrine "boring"? What is less boring than the "good news" of our sanctification and salvation in Jesus Christ?

Having expounded and explained the types of prayer, Cardinal O'Connor then went on in this homily to treat, briefly, "the tradition of prayer" (CCC 2650-62), including, especially, how prayer relates to the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; "the way of prayer" (CCC 2663­82); and, finally, "the expressions of prayer" (CCC 2700–724), including vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer—all in all, a rather remarkable series of subjects to be treated in a homily from the pulpit before an average Sunday Mass congregation.

Obviously, neither Cardinal O'Connor nor any other homilist could treat comprehensively in one homily a topic as large as what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about prayer. But it is surprising how much he could and did cover in an interesting way in one single homily. And surely no congregation can be unimpressed when the Cardinal Archbishop himself pays such close attention over many weeks to a single enterprise, expounding the Church's doctrinal heritage from the new Catechism. It is a pretty safe 114 bet that anyone who sat through all, or even most, of the homilies that the Cardinal Archbishop of New York devoted to the Catechism emerged with a pretty solid regrounding in exactly what the Catholic faith says and is.

This is precisely where a whole generation of new catechists fell down. They ceased to see the faith as interesting because they ceased to focus on the fact that the faith is, first of all, true. It possesses the truths that pertain to our sanctification and salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church can thus help us to restore the priority and primacy of truth, as Cardinal O'Connor has clearly grasped.


Cardinal John O'Connor of New York was not the only U.S. bishop to greet the advent of the new Catechism as an event important enough to justify such efforts as devoting a year­long series of homilies to commenting upon it. Other bishops greeted the work with equal seriousness. For example, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey, was one of a number of bishops to issue a pastoral letter on the Catechism. His pastoral letter proved to be especially timely and pertinent to the real significance of the document. It is worth more than a superficial glance here, as it is indicative of what can be done with the Catechism now that we have it.

Entitled Looking to Christ in Faith,11 this pastoral letter had as its announced aim the implementation of the Catechism. 115 Cardinal Hickey unambiguously declared on the first page of it:

This is not a pastoral letter about family heirlooms. It concerns the living faith of the Church, which is expressed in a complete and trustworthy manner in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. . . . I am calling for a fundamental change in attitude about the important work of sharing the faith of the Church with others.

"A fundamental change in attitude" on this subject, of course, is exactly what the Church has needed for a good while now Cardinal Hickey recognized that the Catechism did not arrive on the scene a moment too soon:

The need for the Catechism is great. To discover that need we do not have to look far. A recent poll published in the New York Times indicated that only 33% of Catholics of all ages believe in the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. Some 17% do not believe that the Lord Jesus is really divine. Either many people were not instructed properly or else they have difficulty accepting what they were taught. Some, I am sure, are simply confused, because the Church's faith is often misrepresented in the media and popular literature, including religious literature.

In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Hickey candidly admitted the reality of the catechetical situation in the archdiocese. Virtually the same thing could be said about practically every other diocese in the United States. His pastoral letter is thus worth quoting at some length on this point, for it rather accurately describes where we are in this country, catechetically speaking.

But this letter is not just about a national problem; it is primarily about a local problem, which I invite you to address 116 with me. We need to do a better job of guarding and transmitting the deposit of faith within this Archdiocese. Yet improving the way in which the faith is taught is not just a matter of working harder or employing new strategies. It means changing our attitudes and priorities; it entails a conversion process in ourselves and in our homes, parishes and schools.

Cardinal Hickey correctly identified some of the tendencies in modern catechesis that have contributed to the current low state of knowledge of the faith and education in the faith. Some of the points he made are pertinent enough to be spelled out here. He identified the following "tendencies":

  • "A tendency to filter all Church teaching through vague and tired categories like 'liberal' and 'conservative' or 'pre-Vatican-II' and 'post-Vatican-II' " On this point, the pastoral letter quotes Pope John Paul IIs apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum to the effect that "the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light."

  • "A tendency to place Scripture in opposition to doctrine." Here the pastoral letter points to the necessary and inseparable interconnection between Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church.

  • "A tendency to think that only the principal doctrinal teachings of the faith require our assent." Here the pastoral letter repeats Archbishop Christoph Schönborn's point about the central truths around which the faith as a whole is organized, pointing out how the Catechism itself "helps us see how all the truths of the faith are related to one another and how they all demand our assent".

  • "A tendency to undervalue the role of precise doctrinal statements in religious instruction and formation." Here the pastoral letter quotes the Catechism itself (CCC 89) to the effect that "dogmas are lights along the path of faith" and 117 are a necessary means for "interpreting the meaning of what we experience and the purpose of life itself".

  • "A tendency to doubt that doctrinal statements refer to something real." Here the pastoral letter points out how "the Catechism insists on the reality of the faith we celebrate, profess, and live. The Son of God really did assume our human nature; Christ really did rise from the dead; at Mass the bread and wine truly are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ." And so on.

Since Cardinal Hickey's admirable pastoral letter sees so clearly the reality of much present-day catechesis, it is not surprising that it goes on to prescribe a definite series of concrete steps to be taken in the archdiocese of Washington in order to implement the Catechism properly. This list of remedial steps is both realistic and sensible and would serve equally well in almost any diocese.

In a preamble to these "Archdiocesan Efforts", the Cardinal also points to the most essential of all requirements for the proper use of the Catechism when he says: "The first step in implementing the Catechism is for each of us to welcome it as believers." In addition to this indispensable step, Cardinal Hickey then lays out what is to be done through­out the archdiocese. We quote verbatim from his pastoral letter:

  • The Catechism is already being used to gauge the adequacy of religious education textbooks. Only those texts which faithfully reflect and effectively communicate the Church's teaching in its completeness will be approved for classroom use.

  • On the basis of the new Catechism the entire Catechist Formation and Certification Program will be revised. Master Catechists will be expected to have a thorough knowledge of the content of the Catechism. Lesson 118 plans for both the basic and the intermediate levels will be amended and expanded to reflect clearly the content of the Catechism.

  • Seminarians from the Archdiocese of Washington are expected to be thoroughly familiar not only with the contents of the Catechism but also with its practical, pastoral application.

  • The Catechism will become a basic textbook for the formation of permanent deacons. Each course will be based on the appropriate section of the Catechism. Candidates for the permanent diaconate will be examined on their knowledge of its contents.

  • Training for all non-ordained parish ministries such as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and parish evangelists will be based on the Catechism.

  • During the coming year [the archdiocesan newspaper] will feature weekly articles that will systematically cover the content of the Catechism.

  • All programs of evangelization will be carefully evaluated and revised in light of the new Catechism.

  • Family life and marriage preparation programs will be reviewed and enriched with reference to the teaching of the Catechism.

  • Workshops and other programs in the area of social justice sponsored by the Archdiocese will be based on the Catechism.

There can be no doubt that the implementation of only some of the above items in any diocese would quickly result not only in a tangible and verifiable improvement in education in the faith—but in the knowledge and practice of the faith as well. 119


On the record, it seems quite evident that the bishops of the United. States have greeted the Catechism of the Catholic Church with appropriate and even quite admirable seriousness and application. The efforts and initiatives on the episcopal level—we have cited only a few of the concrete instances by way of example—cannot be anything but very encouraging to anyone concerned about the Catholic faith and its future in the United States. These efforts and initiatives complement and reenforce those taken by the Holy See and the episcopate worldwide to inaugurate the new era of evangelization and catechesis signalled by the publication and dissemination of this Catechism. Christ's plan of grounding the Church on the apostles and their successors can thus again in our day be definitely shown not to have failed.

It cannot be said, however, that the Catechism has been greeted with equal acceptance, seriousness, and enthusiasm at all levels within the Church. In particular, the current theological and catechetical establishments in the United States, as is rather well known—and as Cardinal Hickey's treatment of the subject in his pastoral letter on the implementation of the Catechism rather candidly and dramatically confirms—have long been opposed to doctrinal catechesis and the use of catechisms. At various stages in the process of the Catechism's preparation, some of the prominent people in both of these two establishments did not scruple to attack it.

It is true, as we have noted, that public opposition to the Catechism became more muted once it was clear beyond any doubt that the Church was indeed going to proceed to the 120 issuance of a universal catechism. At that point discretion became the better part of valor, and at the very least lip service became more commonly paid to the proposition that, of course, all those involved in religious education would without question now sincerely commit themselves to implementing what could no longer be prevented.

Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that all the earlier opposition to the project of a catechism has now been dissipated or rendered harmless. Some of it may just have gone underground. Certainly many of the people who opposed the project of a catechism are still around; many of them still occupy crucial positions in the catechetical establishment. While their opposition was more open, vocal, and even vehement in the past, it may now seem to some of them more prudent to wait out the current period of the Catechism's remarkable initial popularity. The wind may shift again, after all, some of them may be thinking.

As catechetical expert Fr. Berard L. Marthaler told the U.S. bishops themselves, "a peculiar trait of American culture is the enthusiasm with which we greet the new. At times it seems like sheer faddism that causes us to latch onto the latest book, buzz word, or technique as if it were a panacea, only to discard it when something newer comes along. There is danger that even the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a best-seller at Christmas, will be collecting dust on the shelves by Easter."12

Certainly that could happen if some of those with formal responsibilities for implementing it are, in reality, desirous of putting it on the shelf. The "danger" of this is surely much greater if the religious educators themselves view the whole thing with anything less than enthusiasm. Certainly, 121 too, the high level to date of episcopal attention to questions related to the implementation of the Catechism is almost bound to diminish with time and with the inevitability of episcopal diversion to new priorities. The initial phase of admirable, hands-on oversight by the bishops could thus rather quickly give way to a new period of benign neglect of what is happening on the catechetical front. That would mean that more responsibility for actual implementation measures would fall back into the hands of the professionals in religious education, who are, after all, still in place—and some of whom have a far from unblemished record of enthusiasm for the new Catechism.

Meanwhile, the question remains of how well all the positive episcopal directions and exhortations concerning the Catechism have been filtering down into the structures of the Church's educational system. Opposition to catechism-based teaching and learning has been strong in professional religious-education circles virtually since the end of Vatican II. In an earlier chapter we noted instances where the catechetical experts have not scrupled to undermine express measures taken by the hierarchy to remedy the doctrinal crisis in catechetics. Opposition to the project of a universal catechism was likewise strong from the time the idea was first seriously broached at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985. Nor was this open opposition notably long-suffering—or even always temperate—in expressing itself.

One example of this was especially notorious. When the draft provisional text of what became the Catechism was circulated to all the bishops of the world at the end of 1989, it was sent sub secreto. This invoked the same kind of confidentiality that would normally be respected in the secular world of today for an organizational "policy statement" 122 still in the process of being prepared. Organizations have a right to keep their own documents under wraps until the definitive version of what the organization itself has to say is ready to be presented in the form preferred by the organization. Published exposés of such uncompleted drafts are rightly considered to be both unethical and unprofessional, just as failure to respect time "embargos" on press releases and similar documents is generally so considered.

Respect, however, was hardly the predominant attitude adopted by an aggressive group of self-appointed theologians and other experts who promptly organized a "scholarly symposium" highly critical of the draft under the auspices of the Woodstock Theological Center located on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The scholars assailed the draft from almost every quarter, publishing some of their papers against it in America and Commonweal as well as later in book form.13 They even called a press conference to draw maximum public attention to their open efforts to discredit the draft Catechism and undermine the authority of the Church.

The conclusion reached at this Woodstock symposium was that the draft was "fatally flawed" and that it failed to "reflect contemporary developments in Scripture, history, liturgy, catechetics, and moral theology, as if the last thirty years [had] never happened."14

We need not dwell here on the unedifying spectacle of such Catholic theologians, exegetes, canonists, liturgists, and catechetical experts (including, alas, one bishop). In a previous work, one of the present authors provided a brief 123 chronicle of their efforts.15 An anonymous author, "Catholicus", also subjected the views of some of the participants in this same Woodstock symposium to critical analysis in a book called DOA ("Dead on Arrival").16

On the whole, the attack launched by this pretentious Woodstock group proved to be more ideological and polemical than scholarly. All they really succeeded in doing was to demonstrate their fundamental disloyalty to both the process and the product that the Church had instituted. The quality of the completed Catechism wholly gives the lie to their—as seen in retrospect—frantic and even desperate efforts to discredit it.

In any case, once it was clear that the Catechism could no longer be stopped, the focus shifted from attacking it outright to somewhat more subtle efforts to belittle its significance and usefulness for the Church of today. This was the line adopted by yet another symposium of experts, this one held in the spring of 1993 under the sponsorship of the School of Religious Studies of the Catholic University of America. This symposium signaled the advent of what was evidently a new tactic on the part of the theological and catechetical establishments: namely, go through all the motions of accepting and receiving the Catechism, meanwhile stressing all the ways in which it was still inadequate and therefore still in need of adaptation, "inculturation", and, 124 in general, mediation and interpretation by—who else but the experts of the religious-education establishment themselves?

This new tactic of smothering the Catechism in a farrago of professional expertise included, if the 1993 Catholic University symposium was any gauge, pointing out all the ways in which the Catechism, as approved by the Church, was much too complex and difficult for the average Catholic, even while it also failed to include all the desired insights of modern scholarship. At the same time, the new tactic meant constantly reminding everybody how the mind-set of the Catechism simply did not "fit" with modern American culture (as if today's grossly decadent and anti-Christian culture could possible serve as a model for anything Catholic!).

By the time all these points, and yet others, had been made about the Catechism, little was left of the original Catechism itself. What the Synod had recommended, what the bishops had labored so hard to produce, and what the Pope had promulgated with such confident high hopes for the universal Church was effectively reduced to something marginal and secondary in the minds of anyone listening to this kind of treatment by members of the catechetical establishment.

The anonymous author of the book called DOA, mentioned above, devoted the major part of his analysis to this conference held in May 1993 at the Catholic University of America. This author found, and documented, an all-pervasive and fundamental anti-Catechism bias on the part of the theological and catechetical professionals assembled at this conference—which was supposedly organized to expound and explain the Catechism. We do not have to cover this same ground here but can simply refer readers to the DOA study. 125 It is of no little interest and significance, by the way, that the very volume that the Paulist Press published of the official transcripts of most of the speeches delivered at this 1993 conference at the Catholic University of America on the Catechism substantially confirms the testimony of DOA. Although the speakers at this conference tended to be prudent in manner and very concerned to appear "moderate"— as the author of DOA in fact described them—nevertheless, even a hasty reading of the proceedings yields such strictures against the Catechism as former CUA Professor Gerard Sloyan's harsh judgment that the Catechism "cannot be promoted as a dependable book for use as it stands because of the uneven quality of its treatments. . . . It requires a second, revised edition very soon." According to Fr. Sloyan, the Catechism "cries out for nuance, supplementation, and correction".17

Then there is the erroneous judgment of current CUA Professor of Theology Dr. Peter Phan, who alleged, in reference to the Catechism, that "while Vatican II is copiously cited, its spirit, as many commentators have lamented, is conspicuously absent." Dr. Phan's contribution evidences further fears about the Catechism: "To affirm tout court that 'the old law is a preparation for the Gospel' (CCC 1982) runs the risk of anti-Semitism"; worse than that, "these formulas can be turned into shibboleths by conservatives to gauge the orthodoxy of current and future catechisms."18 In other 126 words, we must object to the Catechism's presentation of Catholic doctrine because it might give aid and comfort to "conservatives".

Surely this is nothing but modern political correctness: a professor at the Catholic University of America is more concerned not to appear a "conservative" or an "anti-Semite" than he is to appear a professing Christian. At least he has not lost the concept of sin (being "conservative" or "anti-Semite"). But this is scarcely Catholicism. Ideology now apparently counts more than faith in CUA's School of Religious Studies.

We could cite more examples of the same type from the official speeches given at this CUA conference reprinted in a book that purports to be an "introduction" to the Catechism. But the two examples we have cited already indicate clearly enough the mind-set of these modern religious educators supposedly introducing the book. Can such remarks by a Fr. Sloyan or a Dr Phan really be considered in any sense an "introduction" to it?

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has styled the Catechism "a precious, splendid, profound, and timely gift for all."19 Fr. Gerard Sloyan, however, judges it "uneven" and in   need of "correction". Dr. Peter Phan, for his part, sees conservative "shibboleths" in it. Whom should we believe about this? In whom should we place our confidence here? How does the new magisterium of theologians stack up against the real Magisterium?

More disturbingly, how did the likes of Fr. Sloyan and Dr. Phan ever get into the business of "introducing" a document 127 of which they apparently think so little in the first place? And at the Catholic University of America no less! It would seem to be a pretty serious business when the "national" Catholic university to which the faithful are asked to contribute through their parish envelopes is found sponsoring and subsidizing the subversion of the Church's Catechism.

But we should not make any mistake about the influence of such academics as these; they are not isolated cases. This was not just any conference. Those who were the presenters as well as the several hundred people who were in attendance virtually all hold positions somewhere in the Church's official religious-education system. The conference addresses were not only published in book form by the Paulist Press —which billed the volume as the "introduction" to the Catechism in this country—the talks were also videotaped for wide distribution in training programs on the Catechism. And no doubt they are being widely used for that very purpose now, owing especially to the name and prestige of the School of Religious Studies of the Catholic University of America.

The question has to be asked: How could such important aspects of the implementation of the Catechism in the United States be allowed to fall into the hands of people like Fr. Sloyan and Dr. Phan? 128


1. Bishop Edward T Hughes, Chairman, Subcommittee for the Implementation of the Catechism, USCC, "Report to the Spring General Meeting of Bishops, June 22, 1992", The Living Light, summer 1993, 78.

2. Christoph Schönborn, "Major Themes and Underlying Principles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church", The Living Light, fall 1993; and in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Christoph Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 37-57.

3. See the chapter Fr. Marthaler contributed to the Universal Catechism Reader, an open and savage assault on the draft Catechism by a number of the prominent members of the U.S. theological and catechetical establishments; the book was edited by Fr. Thomas J. Reese, SJ., and published by HarperCollins in San Francisco in 1990.

4. Berard L. Marthaler, O.F.M. Cony., "The Catechism of the Catholic Church in the U.S. Context", The Living Light, fall 1993, 70.

5. Mentioned in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, March 8, 199o

6. The Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, "The Diocesan Bishop's Perspective on Implementing the Catechism", The Living Light, fall 1993, 73-78.

7. See "Agenda Report: Documentation for General Meeting", National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., November 14-17, 1994, 94-95.

8. Quoted in Indianapolis News, June 15, 1994.

9. Cardinal John O'Connor, A Moment of Grace (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

10. Cardinal John O'Connor, "Ways to Pray", thirty-ninth homily on the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, reprinted in Catholic New York, December 1, 1994.

11. Cardinal James Hickey, Looking to Christ in Faith, A Pastoral Letter on the Implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Washington, September 14, 1994.

12. Marthaler, "Catechism in U.S. Context".

13. See Reese, ed., Universal Catechism Reader.

14. Ibid., introduction, II.

15. See Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn, Catechisms and Controversies: Religious Education in the Postconciliar Years, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991). For commentary on the Woodstock Center's 1990 Georgetown symposium against the Catechism, see, esp., 5-22, 38-64, and 68-73.

16. See DOA: the Ambush of the Universal Catechism (by "Catholicus") (Notre Dame, Ind.: Crisis Books, 2993), esp. 53-66 on the Woodstock symposium.

17. Gerard S. Sloyan, "The Role of the Bible in Catechesis according to the Catechism", in Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Traditional Themes and Contemporary Issues, ed. Berard L. Marthaler (New York and Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1994), 34.

18. Peter C. Phan, Ph.D., "What Is Old and What Is New in the Catechism", in ibid., 65.

19. Pope John Paul II, "Discourse on the Occasion of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church", quoted in The Living Light, summer 1993.

Chapter 4

This above book has been discontinued by Ignatius Press and is being reproduced with the permission of Ignatius Press and the copyright holders.

Copyright ©; Kenneth D. Whitehead and the family of the late Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn. 1996 & 2009.

Version: 5th June 2009

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