The Ecclesiality of the Catechism

Author: Cardinal Gerhard Müller

The Ecclesiality of the Catechism

Gerhard Müller

Collective wisdom

We are publishing excerpts of an address given by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 17 May [2014] at St Patrick's College Seminary in Maynooth, Ireland.
The theme of this paper is the ecclesiality of the Catechism, that is, of its very nature the Catechism is a document of the Church. If we wish to grasp the full import of the Catechism we cannot simply read it as we would any other text. Its ecclesiality has subtle implications for how we approach this document.
Pope Saint John Paul II, in January 1985, convoked an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the 20th anniversary of the close of the Council. On that occasion the Synod Fathers expressed the desire that "a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions" (Fidei Depositum).
In July 1986, in response to this request from the bishops of the world, a Commission to oversee the drawing up of the Catechism was established. The decision was reached that this Catechism should be written not by scholars but by pastors, and so an editorial team was assembled, made up of bishops from as far afield as Argentina, France, Beirut and even Leeds in England. In this way the universality, the Catholicity, of the Church was expressed even in the drawing up of The Catechism. Moreover, to cite a single instance, during the drawing up of the text in 1989 a first draft of the text was sent out for consultation and over one thousand bishops responded to that draft of the text.
The then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "it is obvious that this work represents a signal event of Episcopal 'collegiality' and that in it the voice of the Universal Church speaks to us in all its fullness. [...] the Catechism is de facto a collegial work; canonically, it falls under the special jurisdiction of the Pope, inasmuch as it was authorized for the whole Christian world by the Holy Father in virtue of the supreme teaching authority invested in him. In this sense, the Catechism seems to me to furnish by its juridical character a good example of harmonious cooperation between primacy and collegiality corresponding both to the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council. The Pope is not speaking over the heads of bishops. On the contrary, he invites his brothers in the episcopate to join him in letting the symphony of the faith ring out. He draws together the whole and secures it with his authority, which is not something imposed from without but rather is something that gives the common witness its concrete, public validity" (J. Ratzinger and C. Schönborn. Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994, p. 26).
Far from being an imposition of the Roman Curia, the Catechism is the fruit of the Universal Church. It contains the collective wisdom of bishops, representing also the faithful of their individual particular churches, from all over the world. However, it should also be noted, the Catechism's representation of the Universal Church is not simply a cumulative matter, as if this character were dependant solely on the number of bishops contributing to the Catechism. Rather, the Catechism has its origin in the unique interplay of the college of bishops and its head, the successor of Peter. This structure, the college of bishops united to its head, is the embodiment of the Church's universality. The individual bishops embody the particular Churches, but they form one college united with their head and as such embody the universality of the Church. Consequently, the Catechism, in its origins, bears the traces of the Church's universality.
Furthermore, the content of the Catechism is drawn from the store house of the Church's treasures. It contains quotations from the saints, those sons and daughters of the Church who have in a preeminent way lived the life of grace within the Church. Amongst the saints quoted, I would draw your attention particularly to the Fathers of the Church. These are the early teachers of the Church's faith who are the first to inculturate the faith in the pagan world that surrounded them. In receiving and handing on the faith in these decisive early moments of the Church's life they leave an indelible impression upon the faith that is handed down to us today. It quotes from modern authors as well such as Blessed John Henry Newman. The Catechism quotes Ecumenical Councils and the magisterial teaching of the Church. It draws on the Church's liturgy both Eastern and Western. These prayers are the expression of the Church's deepest identity, her relationship to God. Moreover, as public prayers they are the outward manifestation of her self-understanding. Most importantly and most frequently of all, of course, the Catechism quotes Sacred Scripture, mindful that "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (St Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, Prologue, PL 24,17). Drawing from so wide a range of sources the Catechism reflects the richness of the Church and in doing so is able to offer "an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety" (CCC 18).
Catholicism is not a philosophy. It is a revealed religion. This means the content of our faith is not the product of human ingenuity. It is beyond the scope this paper to fully explore the relationship between philosophy and theology, but these remarks are by no means meant to disparage the achievements, or necessity even, of rigorous philosophical thinking. Faith is in harmony with reason. St Paul in his letter to the Romans talks of offering a "rationabile obsequium" (Rom 12:2). Literally this means a "reasonable worship" is to be offered to the Lord. Reason, philosophical speculation, has an important role in preparing for Revelation. We know God's creation in the light of human reason. It helps us to articulate the faith and is of great service in mediating the faith to others.
However, truth to which we give our assent in faith is not based on the philosophical speculations of an isolated individual. As a revealed religion the Catholic faith is of its essence dialogical. The content of our faith pre-exists our apprehension of its truth. God reveals himself. God speaks, and only having first received God's self-revelation in his Word, can the individual then give his or her assent. This is what St. Paul means when he says in the letter to the Romans (10:17) "Faith comes from what is heard". The believer does not make his or her own truth; rather there is a quality of "givenness", a positivity, in Revelation that precedes the individual.
Catholics believe the Church was founded and willed by Jesus Christ. It is the mystical body of Christ through which he continues to be present. Quoting from acts of the trial of St Joan of Arc, the Catechism recalls the saint's simple yet profound understanding of the Church's nature: "About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing and we shouldn't complicate the matter" (CCC 1474). Christ is the eternal Word that God speaks into human history to reveal himself. The Church continues this role: the Church is the custodian of Revelation.
The Catechism was written more than two decades ago and there can be no doubt it is a product of its time; but simply stating this does not necessarily entail that it is now obsolete. Nor does the admission of the historical and. culturally conditioned nature of the Catechism undermine its status as "a sure norm" for us. Far from trapping us in the blind alley of historical relativism, the presence of a historical and cultural provenance is exactly what one would expect of an ecclesial document.
The Church is founded by Christ. We have said it before but it bears repetition, in Christ the eternal Word of God enters into human history. God in becoming man draws the conditions of time and space to himself. The eternal Word is born in a particular place, at a particular time and within a particular culture. The Incarnation does not nullify human history, rather the conditions of human history become the means through which God reveals himself to humanity. The historicity of the Incarnation is, of course, shared by the Church that Christ founded and, consequently, the Catechism, precisely because it is a document of the Church, also exhibits a historical quality.
As I have written: "In effect one of the essential constitutive elements of Christian revelation is its transmission in history [...] In this way the theme of historicity does not constitute a threat to the dogmatic concept of truth (i.e as a relativisation of essentialist "eternal" truths). Quite the opposite is true. Christian dogmatic theology has as its point of departure the self-revelation of God in history" (Katholische Dogmatik Für Studium und Praxis der Theologie, Freiburg: Herder, 2012, p. 38).
The Catechism's mode of expression and the concepts used are historically and culturally conditioned. They reflect the history of the Church and the human striving, under the influence of God's grace, to articulate the self communication of God. This, however, is not a stumbling block. One must remember that God reveals himself in history to historical beings. An ahistorical statement of the Church's faith would misrepresent both God's revelation and our reception of this revelation as human beings. Consequently, insofar as the Catechism is an instrument whose finality is that of drawing us into discipleship and a relationship with God, historicity is one of its necessary facets. Were the Catechism not historical, it could not be "a sure norm".
The Catechism is a public document and therefore it uses shared language. Consequently it raises issues about the relationship between the private internal faith of the individual and these public shared words of the Catechism. What is the function of these words with regard to the individual believer?
Fundamentally words communicate an intellectual content, a meaning, which by the act of communication they render publically accessible. Words then have a double reference. They express, first, a meaning, but, secondly, this meaning is addressed to an audience. St Augustine draws our attention to this in his great homily on the birth on St John the Baptist. He writes: "When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine. In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine" (St Augustine, Sermon 293 PL 38, 1328).

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