Launching The Catechism For Australia

Author: Archbishop Hickey


Archbishop Hickey

An address by Archbishop Hickey at the National Press Club, 22nd June 1994

Here is the full text of Archbishop Hickey's address to mark the launch of the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for Australia at the National Press Club in Canberra, on Wednesday.

The Catechism, published in Australia by St Paul's, has attracted much attention and criticism, issues Archbishop Hickey tackles in his address. He launched the Catechism on behalf of Cardinal Clancy, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, who was in Rome to attend a meeting of Cardinals.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes its appearance at a time of enormous cultural, political and spiritual upheaval. It could even be said that it is precisely because of the rapid pace of change and the consequent uncertainty and confusion in the minds of many that the Catechism has appeared.

It comes at a time of considerable psychic turbulence, when the inner world is restless, when doubt and confusion have replaced former certainties, when the religious spirit is left empty by modern secularism, when the pressures of social atomism are fragmenting society, and when individuals are left to choose their own system of values. It makes people fearful and alone, longing for the support of a community that shares beliefs and values.

It makes its appearance in a Western world that subjects all authority to democratic scrutiny, that is suspicious of external authority and reluctant to accept a pre-existing moral order.

The Catechism appears at a time when new spiritualities are circulating, when monism and pantheism are gaining ground again, when we hear that the whole universe, of which we are but a part, is a conscious living unity and that we and God are one. Though not directly challenging New Age spiritualities, the Catechism strongly affirms the transcendence of God.

This Catechism appears within the Catholic community at a time of self-questioning, of internal hemorrhage, of dissent from traditional Church teachings and of struggles about Church authority. It appears within a culture that is often alien to the Gospel, in which Catholics struggle to be faithful members of the Church and full participants in the contemporary world.

The Church through its leaders has witnessed this confusion and has sensed the serious challenges to faith of Catholics today. It has sensed the underlying cry for truth and for a strong moral basis for living, and has responded with a simple, clear exposition of the beliefs held by the Church down through 2000 years of history since Jesus Christ.

Pope John Paul II described the aims of the Catechism with great simplicity is to hand down nothing else but "the Catholic Faith that comes to us from the Apostles, to allow the Christian Mystery to be better known, and to revive the faith of God's people". (Catholic Report).

The origins of the present Catechism are to be found in a request made by the Bishops attending the Extraordinary Synod in Rome in 1985, called to evaluate the period of 20 years since the end of the Second Vatican Council.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston introduced the idea at the Synod, adding "In a shrinking world—a global village—national catechisms will not fill the current need for clear articulation of the Church's faith." (Origins 15.27 443)

He asked that a Universal Catechism be produced in the light of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.

An earlier Catechism of the Catholic Church had been mandated by the Council of Trent in 1566. Vatican II did not itself mandate a catechism, probably hoping that the post-conciliar euphoria would usher in a return of the world to Christ. Like most '60s movements there had to be a time for reappraisal. The euphoria about the triumph of the Kingdom of God was quickly dissipated in the turmoil and complexities of a world wrecked by war, racism, and moral confusion.

The Catechism went through many stages in its gestation.

l. Requested by the synodal bishops in October 1985, it was commissioned by the Pope in July 1986. He set up a commission of 12 cardinals under the chairmanship of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

2. The same year the commission appointed a drafting committee of seven diocesan bishops, and theological advisers, who over time prepared 10 separate drafts based on directives of the Commission.

3. In November 1989 a projected catechism was sent to all bishops throughout the world for their response. More than 24ÿ000 suggested amendments were returned which were then considered for the final edition of the text.

4. For two more years the successive drafts were considered and revised by the Commission till the definitive version was produced in February 1992 in French. This was unusual, because most Vatican documents are published first in Latin. In this case French was used to speed up publication. The Latin text is near completion.

5. After a few minor amendments it was approved by the Pope on 25th June 1992. The French text was promulgated on 8th December 1992, in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum. Editions in other languages followed shortly after.

6. An English translation was ready before the promulgation on 8th December 1992. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston presented a translation from the French that had been prepared by Father Douglas Clark of Savannah, Georgia with the help of two committees of scholars, one from the United States, the other from England.

Cardinal Law presented the text to the Pope on 4th December 1992, expecting it to be released throughout the world within a few weeks.

7. In fact it has taken 18 months to appear. While it was difficult for outsiders to discover what the holdup was all about, resulting in considerable frustration and impatience from Bishops' Conferences and other interested parties, we now know that Rome was not happy with the principles of translation used. What had been asked for was an accurate translation from the French. What they received was a translation that while applauded for its elegance, contained a number of stylistic editorial omissions additions that were not considered appropriate in a translation.

8. The Commission on the Catechism requested Archbishop D'Arcy of Hobart to help revise the English version in order to make it a more accurate translation from the French. His text underwent further amendments in Rome until it reached finality.

9. That work completed, the English version in its final form was presented to the Holy Father for approval and was subsequently published and made ready for use.

10. The edition we have today was published by St Paul's Publications, Sydney. It has incorporated a number of reproductions of Christian art, including an Aboriginal representation in wood of Mary pregnant with the Child.

What is a catechism?

A catechism is, tautologically enough, a tool for catechesis, that is a tool for teaching the content of the faith.

There have been and there are many ways of passing on the teachings of the faith. It happens formally and informally in families as parents speak to their children. It happens in the liturgy as the central truths of the faith are communicated through words, actions, signs and ritual. It happens in discussion groups, in the study of Scripture, and in the sharing human experiences. It takes place on the occasion of a funeral, or a birth, or a marriage or in consoling friends in grief or in difficulties.

A catechism is a formal direct way of describing what the Church teaches, so that it can easily be imparted to others

There have been many examples of large and small catechisms throughout history, mainly since the time of Aquinas and the scholastics who saw that Revelation, as a body of revealed truths, could be categorised. I have mentioned the large Catechism of the Council of Trent. Martin Luther himself used a small catechism as a teaching tool. St Robert Bellarmine SJ devised a catechism using the question and answer format, a style that has lasted till very recently.

Catholics who were instructed before the Second Vatican Council will be very familiar with the so-called "penny catechism", a brief, concise outline of the teachings of the Church in question and answer form.

Modern catechetics does not favour such texts on the grounds that children should arrive at an understanding of the faith through reflection on their own experience. Others would disagree with that approach and regret the removal of catechisms from the classroom.

This present Catechism is not in question and answer form. It is more a compendium of Catholic teaching to be used as a source book for other catechetical texts for specific purposes such as schools, parish groups, seminaries, home groups and chaplaincies.

Courses for adult education or adult instruction for new Catholics would draw heavily on the Catechism.

Teachers in Catholic schools will use the Catechism as a source book and as a point of reference in their classroom teaching. Most dioceses in Australia have developed guidelines for classroom teaching. I am sure that dioceses will now review their guidelines in the light of the Catechism, and in all probability, include detailed references to source material in the Catechism. I believe this will unify our teaching across the country, give confidence to parents about the teaching in Catholic schools, and be a great boon to Catholic teachers and Catechists.

How Is the Catechism Structured?

The Catechism is in four parts or books, and follows a well established sequence: the Creed, the Sacraments, Christian life and Christian prayer, with each succeeding chapter building on the previous one.

There is an internal unity within the Catechism, the centre of which is the person of Jesus Christ and his redeeming love.

Book One poses the universal questions about human existence and the possibility of communication between God and us. With this rationale it examines the 12 statements or articles of the Creed, the ancient profession of Apostolic faith.

Book Two covers the Church's liturgy and worship of God and its sacramental life. It is this section that has already attracted favourable comments for depth, subtlety and eloquence.

By liturgy is meant the community's praise of God in sacred rituals through, in and with Jesus, Lord and Saviour. The Sacraments are central to Catholic life as sources of grace as they celebrate God's love in the context of human life and events.

Book Three outlines how Christians are to live. Morality is seen as practical fidelity to Christ in daily living. In this section the moral teachings of the Church are presented as part of a call to forgiveness and new life. It is not simply a list of sins.

Book Four is on Prayer, that is, on raising the heart and the mind to God. It deals with the inner life of the Christian in union with God. The Lord's Prayer, the "Our Father", is explored as the ideal and model of Christian prayer.

This traditional format enables a clear and comprehensive presentation of the Church's doctrine and moral teachings.

It quotes extensively from Scripture and Spiritual writers, drawing heavily on the early Fathers of the Church, to show both the antiquity and the modernity of its teachings. The Catechism is not a theological treatise, even though it does incorporate theological insights in its attempt to speak to the modern world.

In its moral teachings there is nothing essentially new except in its focus on modern issues. It reinforces the teaching of the ages while addressing certain contemporary issues such as racism, tax avoidance, drug and alcohol abuse, and dangerous driving. It also addresses recent bioethical issues and the duty to care for the environment.

Present too, perhaps for the first time in such a clear presentation, are the Church's teachings on social justice and social responsibility.

A valuable feature of the Catechism is the index subjects and themes, Scripture references, quotations from Church documents, Canon Law, Fathers of the Church, spiritual and theological writers and the Saints.

This will make the Catechism very accessible.

For Whom Is It Intended?

I have referred to its use by teachers and catechists and in the preparation of catechetical texts.

It will also be invaluable for priests in preparing their homilies and for spiritual writers and theologians.

Such is the interest in the Catechism, that I believe it will be appreciated by the Catholic laity as a valuable addition to their library. If parents are the first teachers of the faith to their children, they will find this volume simple and clear, with a wealth of explanatory material to illustrate its content.

Since the Catechism is addressed to Bishops, they too will make use of it personally as well as setting it as the definitive text against which national catechisms and other teaching resources will be drawn up.


Long before the Catechism was finalised it had its critics.

There was a fear among some theologians that it would severely limit theological inquiry and discussion. Some have felt that it would put a limit on lines of inquiry and rule out certain theological positions as untenable by Catholics.

However it was not meant to initiate another Inquisition or witch-hunt. It avoids any polemical tone in its presentation. Nor does it stifle theological speculation and inquiry, which is a legitimate function of theology. It sets boundaries without inhibiting true development of insight and the unfolding of the deposit of truth.

Some have said that it does not reflect the thinking of many contemporary theologians. To that I am inclined to say "Thank God", but, to take that criticism more seriously, it makes no attempt to do that. Its purpose is to state clearly and simply what Catholics believe.

One commentator has faulted the document on the grounds that it lacks, and I quote, "modern conceptualities such as historical consciousness, the framework of modernity, process thought and the emerging reconstructed post-modern ecological frameworks". (Dermot Lane in the Catholic World Report, April 1994, p32). The Catechism does not attempt to do that.

It is a mistake to think of it as a theological treatise, arguing a case, or debating modern theological currents. It is fresh presentation of ancient beliefs, and needs to be accepted as such.

Is It Complete?

As an outline of Catholic belief its coverage is comprehensive but not complete.

No book can ever contain the totality of the Catholic faith because the faith is primarily an experience of God not just a set of truths. It is a love of Jesus Christ and a desire to follow him not a recital of formulae. It is a call to unity with God through participation in the Body of Christ, the Church, not a check list of orthodoxy. In other words the Faith is as much a matter of the heart as it is of the mind.

In this Catechism I hope Catholics and others interested in knowing the truths of the Catholic faith, will find that their hearts are drawn to a deeper love of God and of one another as they read the teachings in all their simplicity,

In launching the Catechism in Rome the Pope expressed the desire that it would revive the faith of the Catholic people.

May I express the same hope and conviction as I launch this Catechism in Australia.