A Catechetical Establishment
From the time the idea for a universal catechism was first broached, there were those within the Church who were critical of the whole project. Many of these critics were to be found in the ranks of academics, theologians, and religious educators, and, in general, among people involved in Church affairs—seemingly, the very kind of people who should have been interested in a clear, consistent post-Vatican-II statement of what the Catholic Church holds and teaches.
But the fact is, in the postconciliar era, Catholic doctrine has not been the principal interest of many of the people most heavily involved in Church affairs. Nor has the appearance of the Catechism so far seemed to have changed many minds on this score. Nor do many of those seem to have been converted who never wanted any catechism in the first place.
Those familiar with the religious-education scene in the United States in the postconciliar era will already have some 164 inkling of the reasons why today's typical new catechists, and the theological gurus who stand behind them, do not like the new Catechism. They do not like it because it asserts definite truths, whereas they tend to prefer indefinite, interminable "searching"; because it is cognitive and doctrinal, whereas they would prefer something more social and "experiential"; because it is traditional, whereas they almost always prefer something new; because it is authoritative, whereas they invariably prefer "consultation" and "democracy", regardless of whether these things even apply to the case; because it is concerned with redemption from sin by Christ and looks to our sanctification in this life and salvation in the world to come, whereas they almost compulsively prefer self-help, self-expression, "community", and vague uplift, combined with a this-worldly social activism.
These and similar preferences are widely shared today within what we may call the catechetical and theological establishments in the United States. If pressed, of course, most members of these establishments would probably hasten to deny that they object to Catholic doctrine as such. For one thing that would surely give the game away, once and for all, and they badly need to maintain their positions within the Catholic education structure.
As likely as not, they will say that they prefer the diversity and particularity of many different national and regional expressions of Catholicism to any single "Vatican-mandated" compendium of Church teachings. Of course, in expressing such a preference, they normally do not address the question of whether their preferred "national and regional expressions" are compatible with the Church's teachings (in today's era of dissent, this can no longer be assumed).
Since, however, in spite of all the antecedent objections that were raised against the whole idea of a catechism, the 165 Pope has nevertheless mandated a single, central modern expression of the Church's faith and morals, theological and catechetical establishmentarians accustomed to today's ways of thinking are now faced with a problem: What to do about the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The reactions to the Catechism, especially from within the catechetical establishment, have accordingly been quite interesting. One theology professor has recently summarized the principal reactions among modern catechetical professionals probably as well as anybody ever could summarize it:
To this perceptive recital of the ways the current catechetical establishment is tending to look at the new Catechism, we can add the comment of a former diocesan director of religious education, who has announced to the world that, if we are to read the Catechism in an "adult way", the "sure teaching" that the Pope has assured us the Catechism contains "must be in dialogue with the actual practice of the Christian" (emphasis added).2
In other words, if there are Catholics out there who do not believe and follow what the Church teaches, as certain, 166 recent polls and studies certainly do seem to indicate, then the task of the religious educator is no longer to reaffirm what the Church nevertheless still does teach, as the Catechism attests; the task of the religious educator is rather to enter into "dialogue" with this disbeliever about what his "actual practice" might be.
Suddenly, "actual practice" seems to have been placed on the same level as what the Church teaches. Some of us might strain to recall where in the Gospels Jesus Christ ever dealt in this manner with the sinners he encountered (or where he mentioned that we must receive his message in an "adult way" for that matter). But then that was presumably back in a period before the potential of "dialogue", as we understand it today, had been brought out in all its fullness.
This same diocesan director of religious education also believes that the Catechism "will contribute to the continuing tension of balancing the weight of the tradition with the insights of theology" (emphasis added)3 —as if "the tradition" needed to be "balanced" with anything, or as if "the insights of theology", even valid ones, were even remotely on the same level as what has been guarded, interpreted, developed, and handed down in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit for the sake of our sanctification and salvation ("the weight of tradition").
Actually, the idea of "balancing" what the Church teaches with "the insights of theology"—presumably theology at variance with what the Church teaches; otherwise what is being "balanced"?—is unfortunately consistent with the idea that we should simply "dialogue" with Catholics who reject in their "actual practice" what the Church teaches. No doubt we should remain in touch with such Catholics, if possible. 167 But this continued contact should be primarily in order to attempt to bring them back; any "dialogue" with them that does not include a reiteration of what the Church does in fact teach would be dishonest. We owe them our witness to the authentic message of Christ, as the Church bears witness to it and as it is now systematically and authoritatively laid out for us in the Catechism.
Unfortunately, however, this is not always very clearly seen today. We keep encountering these same ideas about dialogue and balancing with alarming frequency, in fact, as we look at what some of our religious educators are doing today. We are therefore obliged to point out that these ideas are fundamentally mistaken. Indeed, they are actually ruinous to the idea of the faith as true.
A religious educator "sent out" by the Church cannot legitimately take any other position but that what the Catechism teaches is true, just as it is also incumbent upon all who wish to follow Christ to believe these truths. Christ most emphatically did not say: "Go, therefore, and dialogue —and balance what I say with what others say!"
The Catechism itself quotes Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humane (no. 14), to the effect that we are "to treat with love, prudence, and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith" (CCC 2104). But the Catechism nowhere suggests that the faith itself can be downplayed or diluted in any way when approaching those in ignorance or error, even if they are "modern Catholics". It is a characteristic idea of our own decadent modern culture, not of the Catholic faith, that we may simply "split the difference", where matters of fundamental truth or principle are concerned.
The Catechism, quoting both the Gospel of Matthew and Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen 168 Gentium, insists that it is one of the primary duties of all Christians to uphold the faith in its integrity at all times:
One important gauge or measure of how religious educators are carrying out their responsibilities in this regard is: How are they receiving the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Do they accept it as coming to them with the authority with which Christ endowed the Church? Do they intend henceforth to make it the basis—the "point of reference" —for what they are teaching? Or are some of them perhaps anxious to resist or evade the implications for the teaching of the faith that the Catechism now brings? One of the best ways to find the answers to these questions is to take a closer look at how some of the leading religious educators in the field are treating the Catechism, how typical members of the catechetical establishment are responding to it. Let us look, then, at a typical example.
One of the first commentaries on the Catechism of the Catholic Church to appear in English was authored by two members 169 of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio: Dr. Brennan Hill and Dr. William Madges. Their book is entitled The Catechism: Highlights & Commentary. For convenience we shall henceforth refer to it as H & C.4
It is an important book, and not only because it appeared so quickly after the Catechism itself, was fairly widely publicized in religious education circles, and was almost immediately favorably reviewed in religious-education journals. 5 It is important because it is more than just a book. For one thing, an only slightly abridged version of the book appeared in seven successive issues of The Religion Teacher's Journal between September 1994 and April/May 1995, and thus it represents a commentary that has undoubtedly reached a sizable number of the people in religious education. For another thing, its publisher also simultaneously issued a series of six heavily promoted catechist-training videos based upon it. Also, an Australian edition of the book came out at the same time as the American edition.
In short, H & C represents what thousands of religious-education directors, teachers, and catechists are hearing and learning about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is surely no exaggeration to describe the book, along with its serialized version and the videos that go along with it, as one of the more significant responses to the Catechism from the catechetical establishment.
Why, indeed, have a Highlights & Commentary on the Catechism at all? Why not just use the Catechism itself, which is what would occur to the average person? One of the favorable 170 reviews of the book provides one clue when it speaks of the "somewhat complex and tedious structure of the Catechism itself" and finds this book of Hill and Madges "invaluable for parish DREs, clergy, pastoral ministers and other Church professionals who aren't likely to wade through the Catechism itself".6
Professors Hill and Madges also provide their own answer to the question. Unlike many other readers, they too found the text of the Catechism "quite long and rather difficult to read and understand". So they developed this book out of a desire to answer the following questions:
We note immediately from this explanation, incidentally, that, unlike the Catechism itself, H & C employs so-called "inclusive language" ("person . . . he or she"). This is pretty consistent throughout the text, in fact, even when the authors are supposedly summarizing articles in standard English from the Catechism, without adding any comment of their own. The following is an example of this:
In short, H & C restores exactly what the Holy See thought it had eliminated when it rejected the original English translation of the Catechism done in inclusive language and insisted on a translation in standard English. H & C's decision to resort to an artificial form of speech that the supreme authority of the Church had specifically seen fit to exclude is, unfortunately, only too symptomatic of many other things in this book. This particular abuse is carried to the point where paragraphs 2566-69 of the Catechism, for example, are summarized as: "God has always called people to relationships with God's self. All religions give evidence of humanity's search for God and their [sic] response to God's initiative."
From the kind of language in this "summary", we can surely catch something of a glimpse of how the whole Catechism in English would have read if Rome had not intervened.
The basic method of the volume is to summarize the content of the Catechism in a series of very brief articles and then to provide a short "commentary" by the authors on the content that has thus been summarized. The authors openly state that one of their primary intentions is "to place the teachings of the Catechism into dialogue with other trends in contemporary theology" (emphasis added).
So here is that code word "dialogue" again! What it appears to signify in this context is that the Catechism just cannot be taken by itself. No: it has to be taken in "dialogue with other trends in contemporary theology", and otherwise interpreted for the catechist by experts such as Professors Hill 172 and Madges. For them, "contemporary theology" evidently enjoys a position and prestige that puts it on the same level, if not above, the level of the Catechism itself. Presumably what the Catechism says represents merely one "theology", and hence the "other trends", implied to be of equal validity, must be used to supplement the Catechism.
In addition to providing their own interpretation and comparison with other theological trends along with their summary, Professors Hill and Madges also list "suggested readings" for each chapter, some of which would scarcely reenforce the authority of the Catechism as normative for Catholic belief and practice, since not a few of these "suggested readings" are by open, and, in some cases, notorious, dissenters from Catholic teaching.
We shall cite only a few examples that indicate that this is indeed the way Professors Hill and Madges understand the meaning of the "commentary" they provide in H & C on the summarized text of the Catechism. Typically, they blandly note how this or that contemporary theology or theologian "goes beyond" what the Catechism says. Or else they remark that this or that theological view represents a "broader perspective" than the one adopted by the Catechism—as if such a "perspective", merely because it is "broader", would automatically take precedence over God's word mediated for us today in the Catechism guaranteed by the authority of the Church.
Knowledgeable and perceptive readers of H & C, however, will not fail to note that the kinds of instances mentioned by the authors, as often as not, modify, undermine, and even nullify what the Catechism itself says. The whole point of the exercise seems to be not to "comment" on the text so much as to let religious educators know what they should really think about what the Catechism says. 173
Those with reasonably long memories will recall that this is exactly the way the catechetical establishment has typically dealt with official Church documents and directives in the postconciliar era. Faced with unwelcome documents from the hierarchy, the catechetical establishment has regularly prepared its own "commentaries" on them and provided its own "suggested readings" about them. This is how the catechetical establishment dealt with Rome's 1971 General Catechetical Directory, with the U.S. bishops 1973 Basic Teachings for Catholic Religious Education, and with the 1978 U.S. National Catechetical Directory.7
The method adopted in H & C is ideal for this kind of exercise. The book first "highlights" what the Catechism says in its short summaries; and then, in effect, it takes as much back as the authors wish by explaining what the "broader perspective" is or how some modern theologians have "gone beyond" the Catechism's position. We need to look at a few examples of exactly how this method is carried out.
The Catechism reaffirms, for example, as the firm teaching of the Church, that the existence of God can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason but that because of human sin and other natural human limitations revelation and grace are necessary (CCC 35-38). H & C summarizes this adequately enough in this instance (although this cannot be said of all its summaries); but then, in the commentary, the book goes on to say:
In other words, the revelation and grace given through the Church, which the Catechism is at such pains to emphasize, turns out to be not so necessary after all, since human beings have all been "graced" in any case. We are not, by the way, taking any position here on the theological opinions of Rahner or Lonergan as they are described in H & C; we are simply showing how Professors Hill and Madges insist on viewing the Catechism in a modern theological perspective that the document's bishop-authors consciously and expressly avoided, confining their exposition to the faith of the Church.
H & C thus insists on including what the Church decided should be left out. Not incidentally, in this case, what is thus reinstated on the sole authority of the two commentators happens to be a favorite theme of the catechetical establishment: revelation and grace and the whole great and magnificent drama of salvation history all tend to boil down in the end to "human experience" anyway!
It is no accident, in this regard, that the H & C summary simply passes over in silence paragraphs 57-65 of the Catechism concerning the role of Abraham, Israel, and the prophets in divine revelation. This kind of simple omission 175 of what is not thought important is unfortunately typical of the book's summaries of the articles of the Catechism generally.
And in this same perspective, it is no longer any surprise that the commentary goes on to emphasize that "revelation is understood to be given to all . . . [promoting] a deeper respect for truth claims of other churches and religions. [This] alerts people to be attentive to revelation as it emerges through personal and communal experience."
Far be it from us to belittle "respect for . . . other churches and religions". The Catechism does inculcate this within the proper perspective. The way H & C represents it, however, distorts and exaggerates almost beyond recognition the Catechism's position. The way H & C represents it, we as well as many catechists reading this book might get the idea that the Catechism need not be considered so important after all: for all we really need to do is start getting in touch with our own feelings!
So much for grace and revelation, then. Let us look at another doctrine of the Catechism as H & C summarizes and, then comments on it. In the section dealing with God the Father, H & C, in its summary, while granting that God has revealed himself as a "Father", scarcely goes beyond mentioning that word. In its commentary, however, it emphasizes that:
Yes, but the Catechism's ecological dicta cannot even remotely be considered in the same perspective as is given in this very strange paragraph, which so indiscriminately legitimates things as foreign to the Catechism's perspective as process thought and liberation theology at the same time that it ascribes to the Catechism an immanentist tendency that really belongs to the "modern theology" the authors are trying to add to the picture.
Moreover, an important dimension of the truth content of the Catechism is lost when God's primary revelation of himself as "Father" is minimized the way it is here and when it is implied that a "Mother" image might do just as well. As a modern theologian who will undoubtedly never be quoted by Professors Hill and Madges explains: " 'Fatherhood' is eloquent of God's transcendent origination of the world." Fatherhood stands for transcendence, while motherhood implies immanence. Even while it recognizes God's immanence, the main thrust of Scripture is to emphasize his transcendence. The meaning of the primary male-gender imagery for God in Scripture accordingly signifies "the discontinuity between God and the world". The masculine gender is "the gender farther from the process of 'birthing. . .' In himself, as the Catechism points out, God is neither male nor female: that fact does not, however, justify our transgression of the (theologically crucial) rules of biblical 177 discourse"—namely, understanding God's revelation of himself as primarily a "Father".8
Professors Hill and Madges, however, are evidently unconcerned about "the rules of biblical discourse". Rather, they are concerned to equate "motherhood" with "fatherhood" where God is concerned precisely because they are interested in promoting God's immanence ahead of his transcendence, contrary to the usage in Scripture—and in the Catechism.
In any case, explanations of this muddled type hopelessly distort the basic meaning and thrust of the Catechism. What the latter actually says that may have prompted the assertion that "both feminine and masculine images" of God's love are equally "acceptable" is that God's "love for his people is stronger than a mother's for her children" (CCC 49); and that God's "parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood" (CCC 239) (emphasis added). This latter article, in fact, is precisely the one where the Catechism points out that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. In any case, this purely descriptive language can in no way justify the implied idea that "motherhood" is used as frequently or as effectively as "fatherhood" in God's basic revelation to us of his own nature.
It would seem to be evident here that H & C is using the Catechism merely as a peg on which to hang some of the authors' own favorite ideas and ideologies. And it is these same ideas and ideologies, not what the Church herself has issued, that the religious educator seeking to understand the Catechism through a book such as this is going to get. 178
In order to grasp the misleading method used by Hill and Madges in The Catechism: Highlights & Commentary, it is worth tracing a particular doctrine or theme through the book to see how it is consistently treated. Let us, therefore, look at how H & C deals with the question of sin, particularly Original Sin, both in the parts of the book dealing with the Catechism's part one, on doctrine, and in those treating part two, on the Sacraments.
As has been fairly widely noted, the Catechism unambiguously reaffirms the Church's doctrines of the Fall of man and Original Sin. According to the Catechism, the Fall involved a real deed "that took place at the beginning of history" (CCC 390), as the Second Vatican Council also plainly taught: "Although set by God in a state of rectitude, man, enticed by the evil one, abused his freedom at the very start of history."9
This is the traditional teaching of the Church; and the Catechism does not fail to reiterate it (cf. CCC 397). There is no way to evade or avoid this doctrine, however "hard" a saying it might seem to the Neomodernist mentality. If you want to be a Catholic in the true sense, you are obliged to believe in Original Sin.
Typically, though, H & C tries to blur the whole thing:
We should note here how quietly and imperceptibly what is actually a firm teaching of the Catholic Church simply becomes "the view found in the Catechism". This characterization is slipped in so naturally and unobtrusively that it almost inevitably seems to be all right; the reader tends not to balk at it but simply to read on. If the authors had emphasized the point, saying, in effect, "we are defying the authority of the Church and asserting contrary to it that the notion of a historical fall from a state of original justice is nothing more than a 'view' which the Catechism happens to espouse, although 'other theologies' today have different ideas", the reader's suspicions might have been aroused.
As it is, H & C's soothing method tends to raise minimum misgivings of any kind, and the religious educator is thereby more easily brought to have a different view of the Fall and Original Sin than the Church clearly states in the Catechism.
What H & C lamely describes in this paragraph as a "universal tendency that is influenced by sinful structures", the Catechism unequivocally describes as "the tragic consequences of the first disobedience" (CCC 399). According to the Church's teaching, the tendency to sin had a concrete, specific cause, namely, the actual sin of our first parents. H & C's "sinful structures" did not just happen to be there. 180
As the Catechism relates, much more truly and capably than H & C:
The very next article of the Catechism remarks that "after that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin" (CCC 401). For their part, however, Professors Hill and Madges think "pollution and exploitation" are what need "to be stressed at this time. . . . Likewise today thereis a profound awakening to the truth of the equality of genders", they say.
H & C's treatment of sin generally recalls nothing so much as the sort of Pelagianism to which most modern religious liberals today still tend to subscribe. In this connection, it is salutary to recall what Pope John Paul II wrote on this same subject in his too often neglected 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia. In this document, the Pope spoke inter alia of the typical modern usage that "contrasts social sin and personal sin . . . in a way that leads . . . to the watering down and almost the abolition of personal sin." This approach to the problem of evil and sin, according to the Pope, derives "from non-Christian ideologies and systems". "Blame for sin is to be placed not so 181 much on the moral conscience of the individual, but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity such as the system, society, structures, or institutions."
This, of course, is exactly how Hill and Madges approach the question in their reference to "sinful structures". This may be a common fashionable "out" for modern theologians unwilling or unable to affirm the faith of the Church in the matter. Pope John Paul II nevertheless makes it abundandy clear that "whenever the Church speaks of situations of sins, or condemns as social sins, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result and the concentration of many personal sins."10
In dealing with the sacraments instituted by Christ as, among other things, specific remedies for sin, H & C again evidences serious problems. On the subject of Original Sin, the book actually asserts that in the Catechism's treatment of baptism "there is not the former emphasis on removal of Original Sin." In another place, the H & C commentary informs us that "Original Sin is a later notion that is not constitutive of baptism."
On the contrary, however, the Catechism's paragraph 1250 plainly affirms that "born with a fallen human nature and tainted by Original Sin, children also have need of a new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the children of God, to which all men are called." Similarly, paragraph 1263 says that Original Sin and all personal sins are forgiven by baptism, while the very next numbered paragraph, 1264, restates the Church's traditional belief concerning the temporal consequences of sin. 182
But it is in its treatment of the sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation (including personal confession of sins), that the basic approach of H & C can be most clearly seen. We have pointed out that the book's basic method is first to summarize (more or less) what the Catechism states and then, in effect, to modify or take back whatever is deemed necessary by the way the commentary is worded.
Thus, the Catechism says that confession of sins to a priest "is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance" (CCC 1456). H & C, however, informs the reader, who in all likelihood is a religious educator trying to become properly grounded in the Catechism, that "some scholars continue to maintain that the actual confession of sins is not integral to the sacrament."
The Catechism further specifies that "children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time" (CCC 1457). This firm requirement of the Church is actually enshrined in the new 1983 Code of Canon Law.11 H & C nevertheless assures the unsuspecting religion teacher that "there seems to be a consensus that young children do not have sufficient moral awareness or responsibility to commit serious sins, and are thus not obliged to confess their sins before receiving communion" (emphasis added). We might ask: "Consensus" among whom? Theologians? Religious educators?
This statement directly contradicts both the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law, but this is evidently not sufficient to secure the book's removal from catechist-training programs.
But there is more. The Catechism further teaches that mortal sin, if "not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness . . . 183 causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell" (CCC 1861). This is very serious. H & C, however, trivializes the very notion of mortal sin—like many Neomodernist theologians, they prefer the term "serious sin"—and instead informs the reader, perhaps someone teaching people whose souls could be lost as a result of unrepented sin, that "the term 'fundamental option,' although it is not used in the Catechism, has gained acceptance among many moral theologians and religious educators as a way of describing the direction of one's moral life."
What they fail to mention here is that the Church not only does not mention this "fundamental option" idea; the Church has specifically considered it and rejected it. The disingenuous comment that the idea is "not mentioned" in the Catechism provides no hint whatsoever of this firm Church position; indeed, it is probably intended to be misleading.
No one professionally involved in theology and religious education at the university level, as Professors Hill and Madges are, can possibly be ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church has fairly recently, and amid no little publicity and controversy, decisively and definitively rejected the fundamental-option theory. In 1975, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics, Personæ Humane, firmly adopted and explained the Church's position on this point.12
Some of the votaries of the theory have nevertheless continued to try to advance it. The Church's response has been to reject the theory even more strongly and firmly, as Pope 184 John Paul II did in his 1993 encyclical on the Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor.13 The fundamental-option theory is not mentioned in the Catechism because it is contrary to the teaching of the Church. In the light of the specific magisterial pronouncements that exclude it, the disingenuous comment that the term "is not used" in the Catechism but that it has "gained acceptance among many moral theologians" evidently cannot repose upon any other theory but one that sees moral theologians as taking precedence over the Church's Magisterium.
The fact that two theology professors feel able to go on advancing the theory anyway, in spite of the Church's explicit rejection of it, in a work intended to familiarize people who teach the faith with what is in the Catechism illustrates rather dramatically the basic problem of how the Catechism is being received in the United States. The openness with which these two professors feel able to contradict the Church is symptomatic. They proceed as if this were now the established practice in theology. They have no doubt observed from fairly long practical experience that they are quite unlikely to be called to account or suffer any consequences for misrepresenting and undermining the Church's contemporary statement of what she holds and teaches, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The examples we have cited up to this point from The Catechism: Highlights & Commentary, by Professors Hill and 185 Madges, can surely serve to illustrate both the nature and the flavor of the book in question. Under normal circumstances, these examples would probably suffice to make the point we have been trying to make, namely, that the implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is in too many instances being given over to professionals "in the field" who do not, in fact, accept the Catechism. To go on at length citing other examples in the same vein could, we recognize, open us up to the charge of beating a dead horse.
Unfortunately, the circumstances are not normal when what purports to be a "commentary" on an authoritative Church document actually serves to undermine and even contradict that same document—and nevertheless remains perhaps one of the most recommended and frequently used of all instruments in the United States for training DREs, teachers, and catechists in the significance and contents of the Catechism.
What this means, bluntly, is that the horse is not dead. As long as H & C goes on being used—or its serialized chapters in The Religion Teacher's Journal, or the video series based on it—at least some religious-education professionals will go on deriving their basic ideas about the Catechism from this source. Just as they will go on in their turn conveying these same ideas to those in their charge, whether catechists, volunteers, or even catechumens and children in the classroom. This is a situation that should be considered intolerable by the Church.
In order to preclude any possibility of a doubt about the things we have been saying, therefore, we feel constrained to cite a few more examples from H & C—examples that not only reenforce our contention that this book is unsuitable as a commentary on the Catechism but that also show 186 that the book was surely intended by its authors to replace the Catechism in the hands of today's religious educators, substituting in the minds of the latter its variant message in place of the Church's message. H & C's authors consistently appeal, and want their readers to be in the habit of appealing, to the findings of modern scholarship and modern social science rather than to the Catholic tradition. For them it is what the experts think, not what the Church has handed down, that is now to be transmitted.
To detail and explain all of the errors of H & C would no doubt require a book longer than the original. The excerpts that follow, however, should at least be sufficient to show that this kind of a book should be eliminated from any Catholic religious-education enterprise:
The Use of Scripture in the Catechism
The Self-Awareness and Divinity of Christ
The Pope and the Bishops
The Catechism Faulted for Not
The Indissolubility of Marriage
Enough. It evidently does not matter to these authors what the Catholic tradition is or what the Catechism says; today's experts and specialists will in any case henceforth decide what we are to believe and do, and this is also what they will pass on to those to whom they have access. In citing these examples of the interpretations given to some of the Catechism's authentic teachings by this H & C volume, we have selected only a few excerpts. We could have quoted 189 questionable material from virtually any page. The "faith" being expounded by Professors Hill and Madges is not, in crucially important ways, obviously the same faith that is set forth in the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Theirs is rather a "faith" based primarily on a supposed consensus of the acquired knowledge of modern scholars and scientists, which is to say, it is not a faith at all in the sense of credenda that the Church authoritatively proposes to us. Rather, it is a mere collection of opinions that, tomorrow, could well be different from what they are today. The idea that anybody could ever be "saved" by such opinions is derisory on its face, but then it is not clear the degree to which today's Neomodernists even believe in salvation any longer anyway.
So little do Professors Hill and Madges regard the Church's settled decisions on faith and morals, apparently, that they even at one point place the term "Protestant errors" in quotation marks. Nobody is in "error", theologically speaking, it seems, since it is scarcely even to "theology" that anyone looks any longer, but rather to the discoveries of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other secular sciences, the better to understand the phenomenon of "faith". (These disciplines, of course, should be appropriately used by people of real faith, but Hill and Madges, like many modern writers, do not seem to notice when supernatural faith affirmations simply become obliterated by the supposed requirements of modern knowledge.)
Like many "social justice" advocates whose supernatural faith has apparently long been fading, this type of modern thinker often compensates by placing an exaggerated stress on building a better world, usually without reference to the problem of sin or the faith of Christ; and this, indeed, is the very thing catechists are now supposed to be stressing in 190 the classroom. The "social gospel" evolved in a similar way in Protestantism, as the articles of traditional supernatural faith fell by the wayside, one by one. What have people got except a "social gospel", after all, if they no longer believe in sanctification and salvation in Jesus Christ in the sense in which the Church holds and teaches this?
In H & C, this same this-worldly, "social" bias is seen in the book's quite uncritical promotion of liberation theology. This highly questionable theory and movement is praised and promoted throughout the book. Liberation theology clearly does seem to represent a "faith" upon which the authors have pinned their hopes. There is not the slightest hint in any of their references to it, however, of how critically the Church's Magisterium has had to judge certain aspects of liberation theology. 14 Certainly it is not a topic that is given any attention in the Catechism, although the latter does give an accurate and even an admirable account of the Church's authentic social teachings.
But the fact that liberation theology is not a Catechism theme in no way embarrasses these authors of their supposed "commentary". In accordance with their typical practice, they simply relate that "liberation theology goes beyond the focus of the Catechism when it emphasizes Jesus' preference for the poor" (emphasis added).
The "suggested readings" provided in H & C are of a piece with the rest of the volume. The authors apparently see nothing irregular or incongruous whatsoever in recommending in what purports to be a commentary on the 191 official teachings of the Catholic Church the books of authors who have been open and in some cases even belligerent dissenters from those teachings. Included among these dissenting authors are Fr. Charles E. Curran, Fr. Berard L. Marthaler, O.F.M. Conv., Fr. Richard McCormick, S.J., Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., Fr. Gerard S. Sloyan, and Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether.
What conceivable benefit, for example, could the catechist preparing to teach the faith derive from following H & C's suggestion to read Sr. Joan Chittister's Womanstrength: Modern Church, Modern Women? The author is the religious sister who "preached the homily" at the 1994 Call to Action convention in Chicago.
"Chittister got a ten-minute standing ovation", Call to Action News later reported. "The electrifying effect on the crowd came not just from the novelty of hearing a gifted woman preach in a Church that disallows woman preachers. It struck resonant chords of faith in the congregation because it went back to the basics—the Gospel call of Jesus to the Church." The view of "faith" held by this group is surely as singular as its idea of what the "Gospel call" consists of.
In keeping with the spirit of a self-named "Catholic" group that openly and proudly does what it knows to be disobedient because it is disobedient, Sr. Chittister, "rephrased" the four marks of the Catholic Church found in the Creed —one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—as "ecumenical, spiritual, inclusive, and ministering."15
Is this the sort of author that should be recommended to catechists? Apparently it is, at least in the view of commentators 192 Hill and Madges, since they have most definitely included her in their list of "suggested readings". They are hardly adverse to a little "rephrasing" of things themselves, after all, as we have seen.
We have dealt at great length, and quite deliberately so, with The Catechism: Highlights & Commentary (H & C), by Brennan Hill and William Madges. For this is a book through which significant numbers of religious-education directors and teachers are currently being introduced to the Catechism. They are being quite expressly told that the Catechism is not really all that important for people "in the field", and that the "official" doctrine it lays out is just one "theology" among many others.
Furthermore, as we noted earlier, this Hill and Madges work is more than just a book. H & C formed the basis of seven catechetical training sessions sponsored and promoted by The Religion Teacher's Journal in the course of the 1994-1995 school year.16 The text of H & C was substantially reprinted in monthly installments in this journal, published by H & C's publisher, and widely read by DREs, teachers, and catechists. The articles, as they appeared in the RTJ, were illustrated, significantly, by a special logo-like design heralding "the Old Teaching and the New", the "old teaching" presumably being all that is now passe in the view of the present catechetical establishment. On the evidence of H & C, of course, it is precisely the contents of 193 the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself that is frequently considered to be passe and has to be "gone beyond".
Reprinted in The Religion Teacher's Journal, of course, H & C will undoubtedly reach many who will never see the book itself. Moreover, the text was not merely reprinted in the pages of RTJ; the journal prepared and distributed special lesson plans to enable diocesan and parish DREs to use the H & C materials to train their teachers and catechists. These lesson plans were printed in a supplemental newsletter, DRE Directives, which RTJ supplies to subscribers to more than one copy of their journal—that is, most likely, to parishes, catechetical offices, and the like.17
From the average religion teacher's point of view, these lesson plans are actually quite helpfully and imaginatively done. Certainly they are in a format with which modern religion teachers are familiar. DREs are encouraged to assemble their catechists for an opening prayer service, along with a Bible, "a lighted candle, and any symbols that represent the presence of Christ, you and your catechists." The DRE is then supposed to lead the catechists in short prayers and readings in which the catechists participate. The whole thing comes across as quite a nice way of training and motivating catechists.
As the RTJ lesson plan proceeds, following the prayer service, further indications begin to appear that also remind us that we are, after all, dealing here with the new catechesis:
Give each catechist one of the small slips of paper [which the DRE had been instructed to have on hand] and ask him or her to silently and briefly reflect on this question: 194
We should note that the emphasis here is on what faith means "for you" and that indifference to "right answers" is conscious and explicit—the imagination strains at trying to wonder what the prophets or Jesus himself would have thought of the idea that revealed faith is a subjective feeling or "right answers" are not important.
It is at this point in the lesson plan that we come to a section entitled "What the Catechism Says". When we see how this subject is handled, we can no longer be in any doubt that we are indeed dealing with the new catechesis here:
And so on. The emphasis is on "experience" and on what catechists "think" the "Christian Mystery" means, not on what it does mean. The questions deliberately lead the catechist away from what the Catechism says and encourage them to focus on their own experience. The very notion that it is one of the functions of a teacher to convey knowledge to other minds is almost wholly obscured here as well, as it is so often in the new catechesis generally. The practice of dividing everybody up into "small groups" in order to "share questions and concerns" (as the lesson plan later instructs the DRE to do) is similarly one more indication of how the new catechesis is almost wholly involved with "process" and not with "content"—even when, as in the present case, the subject is content ("What the Catechism says").
When looking at a lesson plan such as this, it is discouraging to reflect that one of the reasons why the new catechesis has been able to establish itself so firmly today is that the new catechists customarily put together their concepts and approaches for teachers in such prepackaged formats. This is one of the marks of modern "professionalism" in catechetics; experts, consultants, and publishing houses have sprung up all over to provide these ready-made lesson plans and teaching guides to Catholic schools and CCD programs.
Publishers of religious-education materials solidly based on the teachings of the Church sometimes do not compete well in this regard. This may be because they have often tended to think it enough simply to present the authentic faith without all the paraphernalia of lesson plans, precanned questions, "activities", and the like, which the new catechesis never fails to provide. Actually, the Church herself, in issuing the Catechism, in certain ways seems to regard the task as essentially done, now that the authentic faith has been laid out. This is to fail to reckon with the well-established 196 custom of DREs and teachers to look almost automatically to already prepared religious-education materials as the basis of their teachings, not to what the pope and the bishops may have issued.
The average teacher or catechist today is, typically, grateful for the help in organizing classes, formulating the questions to be asked, and so on, that comes with using a regular series of religion books and materials. This average teacher or catechist does not normally reflect on the fact that this emphasis on "process" in no way insures that the content presented will be doctrinally sound.
The same thing, unhappily, is true of the six video presentations produced and distributed by Twenty-Third Publications at the time H & C came out. This video series is entitled The New Catechism: Catholic Faith Today,18 so there is definitely a claim being made to present the Catechism in this series, as well as a claim to expound the Catholic faith.
Moreover, this claim is evidently taken quite seriously. This video series has been favorably reviewed in the current catechetical literature, one review calling it "a lively and interesting look at a very interesting text" (meaning the Catechism). "Parish DREs and pastoral leaders need all the help they can get in making the Catechism accessible to a broader Church audience", this review opines.19
This video series was expressly designed to be used along with the Hill and Madges volume, H & C. In the typical fashion 197 of modern religious-education materials, the brochure accompanying the videos provides a ready-made "model program", as well as "suggested questions for discussion and reflection". As we have noted, the catechetical establishment in the United States has rarely failed to understand the very real need of the average religion teacher for outlines, prepared lesson plans, discussion questions, and so on. Beautiful and compelling as the true faith of Christ presented by the Church is, it does not always win out over catechetical revisionism in a culture that otherwise thrives on packaging, process, and pizzazz.
And so the Hill and Madges videos, too, come with all the usual modern catechetical accoutrements, not excluding detailed directions about how the catechists using the materials are to proceed ("Catechists might at this point cluster according to the grade level they teach and discuss practical methods and activities"; "Adult education groups may also divide into smaller groups to share their stories and reflections on the videos").
When the videos themselves are viewed, the inevitable first impression is that there simply could not be two nicer guys than Professors Hill and Madges. The same thing is true of their copresenters, two religious sisters who also teach at Xavier University: they are all thoroughly nice people. The whole approach seems to be for the presenters to come across as relaxed, warm, friendly, nondemanding, non-dogmatic people. Nothing about them could even remotely suggest today's modern media stereotype of religious people as tense, shrill, intolerant, and judgmental. Whatever else these videos achieve, they certainly avoid these stereotypes (religious habits, Roman collars, and other symbols of authority and rigidity are similarly absent, for the most part, from these videos). 198
As to the discussion about the Catechism itself, it is quickly made clear, in the video entitled "Introduction to the Catechism", that this magisterial document itself actually represents a process of instruction. The focus is on discussing Vatican II and contemporary thinking, the sharing of one person with another, and feeling comfortable in a personal relationship with God. There is mention of the Catechism too, of course, but what is said about it is evidently intended to be more soothing than challenging.
In the midst of all the bland discussion, however, the presenters do manage to establish that no catechism from Rome is ever going to preempt "ours". There will definitely have to be developments and changes; and here the "inculturation aspects" are presented as especially "invigorating".
Each of the six video presentations has its own theme: Faith in God and Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church, Liturgy and Sacraments, Morality and Social Justice. But the actual substantive discussion of all these topics is in fact quite sparse throughout the entire series. Typically, the presenters mention what the theme is. But then, very quickly, they fasten upon a favorite subject such as, for example, "experience". Then they proceed to develop that: how Karl Rahner established that our own reflection on our inner experience gives us access to God, for example; how all we have to do, in effect, is to be open to the God within us.
The claim is even made, in passing, that the Catechism itself begins with "human experience". (Not exactly: while the Catechism properly discusses the human capacity for God, it also stresses how it is really God who first comes to man; man's proper relationship to God is a response. See part 1, section 1, chapters 1-3 of the Catechism itself. As Archbishop Schönborn has characteristically pointed out, the first word 199 in the Catechism is "God", and roughly two-thirds of its text is also devoted to God.)
When such a method as this is followed, the Catechism itself, and what it says, quickly recedes into the background. And, although some truths do occasionally get stated, such as the fact that faith is a gift from God, the real emphasis is placed on our own experience and how even revelation itself is not just something that happened two thousand years ago. It is something that is ongoing; it is around us and in us. Hence we need to look into the real-life stories of people today for the confirmation of our faith. This, essentially, is how the presenters proceed throughout.
It is not clear how these presenters would interpret the teaching of Vatican II—the Council about which they otherwise talk so much—to the effect that revelation, properly speaking, ended with the advent of the Christian economy as the New Covenant; and that "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord, Jesus Christ."20 Obviously, this is also the teaching of the Catechism (CCC 66). Of course the Catechism also points out that revelation, while it is complete, is not yet always fully explicit. This is where "development of doctrine" legitimately comes in; but this does not mean just adopting many modern ideas wholesale, as today's Neomodernists often seem to imply.
Viewing this particular segment of these video presentations, one of the present authors wrote down in his notes at this point: "They pretend they are talking about the Catechism, but they are really talking about themselves and their experiences." The idea of the series, precisely, seems to be, 200 while mentioning the Catechism from time to time, to get away from it as soon as possible and get into "stories", and "community", and "sharing".
This proved to be a consistent pattern extending throughout all six of the video presentations, taking up a wholly disproportionate share of the video time in a series nevertheless billed as being about the Catechism. In addition to the presenters themselves, other participants were brought in to provide audience reaction and to share stories and experiences: undergraduate and graduate theology students, DREs, teachers, and so forth, all apparently chosen carefully according to contemporary canons of "political correctness": there were males and females, old and young, clerics and lay people, naturally of several different races.
Another advantage for the presenters in having such a plethora of "audience reaction" is that the presenters then subtly become no longer quite as responsible for what is said. Although the whole presentation was always deliberately bland and low key, there were nonetheless a number of explicit anti-Church and anti-Catechism sentiments expressed by various participants in the course of the six videos, such as when scriptural readings were characterized as "highly offensive to women", the purpose of marriage characterized as "well being", or the Creed described as now "changed". One woman went on at length on the subject of "reconciliation" between friends, as if this were equivalent to the sacrament of the same name.
In general, all the participants seemed well grounded in the philosophy of Hill and Madges. And far be it from the presenters on the videos ever to correct any of the "shared faith experiences" when the participants diverged from the teaching of the Church as plainly set forth in the Catechism. Correcting misconceptions about the faith and reiterating 201 authentic doctrine would no doubt have broken the spell of relentless niceness that characterized all of these video presentations. After all, as one of the "audience reactors" expressed on one of the tapes, speaking of moral behavior: "If people cannot live up to an ideal, then those who fail feel excluded."
Incidentally, if any reference was made, anywhere, on any of these six videos, to the name or teaching of Pope John Paul II, then we missed it. The Pope who promulgated the Catechism, a towering figure on the world scene today, was evidently not one of the topics about which any "stories" or "shared reflections" were considered worthwhile. Meanwhile, the story about how the mystical experiences on his deathbed brought St. Thomas Aquinas to the conclusion that all his writings were "straw" was recounted mainly in order to bring out the opinion that knowledge and learning are not all that important.
Any impartial judgment about these six video presentations, supposedly designed to help religious educators introduce the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the promotional brochure about them advertises: "everything you need to know about the new Catechism in a user-friendly video series"—would have to conclude that they quite lamentably fail to fulfill their announced purpose. Rather, these videos seemed to us to have been almost designed and intended to downgrade the importance of the new Catechism in favor of business as usual as the catechetical establishment has been accustomed to conduct it. They essentially present a hodge podge of all the failed theories of the past thirty years that have afflicted the new catechesis, while very, very little that was either accurate or attractive was ever presented about the Catechism.
If the Hill and Madges book, The Catechism: Highlights & 202 Commentary, along with the lesson plans and video presentations based on it, represent a typical response of today's catechetical establishment to the Catechism of the Catholic Church —and unfortunately it is hard to doubt that it is anything but typical—then we have to conclude that the Catechism is not being received by the catechetical establishment in the United States.
This is a very sad outcome, of course, because catechists are surely among the most important of all the apostles "sent out" by the Church. This is true in the very nature of what is involved in the teaching of the faith. Some of today's professional new catechists, however, on the evidence of this commentary and the videos based on it, seem not very concerned even to attempt to conceal their reluctance to be apostles of the authentic faith of the Church and of Christ that is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
An abridged version of this chapter appeared as an article in The Catholic World Report, October 1995.
12. Congregation for the Doctrine Of the Faith, Personæ Humane, December 29, 1975, no. 10.
18. Brennan Hill and William Madges, The New Catechism: Catholic Faith Today (video cassettes "designed to be an aid to those desiring to use the Catechism for teaching"), Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Conn.
This above book has been discontinued by Ignatius Press and is being reproduced with the permission of Ignatius Press and the copyright holders. It is hoped to remove typos in the coming months.
Copyright ©; Kenneth D. Whitehead and the family of the late Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn. 1996 & 2009.
Version: 10th May 2009