Reception and the Catechism

Author: Fr. Stephen Brett


Stephen F. Brett

How are Catholics in the United States receiving the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Has the response been warm or frosty? The answers to these questions will determine to a large extent the genuine pastoral unfolding of the often neglected or distorted teaching of the documents of Vatican II and indeed shape the theological literacy of the Catholic faithful. In the face of criticisms directed against the Catechism, we need to find a framework in which questions of magisterial teaching, the local church, inculturation and Apostolic Tradition can be integrated and studied. I believe that such a context exists in the concept of "reception," which has received serious scholarly attention since Vatican II, in large part because it serves to explain the impact of an ecumenical council upon the church throughout the world. We can apply its implications to different views of the Catechism.

I. The Meaning of "Reception"

A recent article on the meaning of reception distinguishes between its classical understanding as the acceptance by local churches of the teaching of a Council and, in more contemporary usage, an ecumenical consensus arrived at through dialogue between churches.[1] Ironically, each of the uses of the term has application to the Catechism. Its introduction into the experience of the Church in the United States is illustrative of the first sense of "reception" as the response of a local church to the ordinary papal magisterium of the universal Church. While the direct textual and thematic links between Vatican II, the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the Catechism is apparent, the transmission of these texts (and the realities they describe) is not so apparent. An intense Romanophobic stance on the part of some has diluted, indeed distorted, the meaning of these historic documents and the sensus fidei which they authentically embody.

Current controversies also bring into play considerations that are virtually ecumenical, the more contemporary focus of "reception," for the perspectives of the Catechism and American catechetical presuppositions differ markedly, almost to the point where the respective positions amount to an "ecumenical" dialogue—two visions of church struggling to understand the other. It sometimes appears that theological critiques emanating from Western democracies propose a media-generated consensus fidelium rather than an interiorized sensus fidei in their response to authoritative ecclesial texts. The sociological starting point inevitably places a document in an "ecumenical" context that highlights differences and puts issues into an adversarial rather than integrative light.

This article will argue that the painstaking drafting and promulgation of the Catechism constitute a legitimate, authentic and indispensable "reception" of Vatican II. That is to say, its existence and teaching uniquely fulfill, in a substantive and not merely symbolic way, the magisterial identity of the Second Vatican Council. In proposing this argument, we will examine and critique alternative views which hold that the Catechism is (a) in some way unrelated to Vatican II, (b) of minor significance, or (c) a flawed document in discontinuity with the Council.

Few contemporary theologians have spent as much time as Avery Dulles, S.J. in studying the ground-breaking text of Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. In an essay on tradition as a theological source, Dulles points out that Dei Verbum speaks for the most part of "tradition" in the singular, whereas Trent, stressing the importance of objective content, had spoken of "traditions." Demonstrating his awareness of the interaction of history and doctrine, Dulles attaches importance to the historical means or modalities of "traditioning." Dulles, along with scholars such as Aidan Nichols and Jaroslav Pelikan, reminds us of the critical importance of historical deeds and decisions connected with the transmission of doctrinal formulas.[2] Expressions of belief are not merely academic abstractions but an essential part of the life and fabric of faith of the Universal Church:

The Constitution on Divine Revelation . . . insists on the nonverbal elements in tradition: Christ communicates the gospel not by his words alone but also by his dealings with others and his behavior (DV 7). The apostles transmit the gospel not only by preaching but also by examples and ordinances (institutiones, ibid.).[3]

Obstacles thwart transmission

Just as the owner of an automobile should be greatly alarmed with any transmission problem, so too the prospect of obstacles that thwart the transmission of a vital text can only trouble a Church historically determined to connect liturgy and belief, doctrine and life.

Led by Yves Congar, O.P., recent efforts to specify more precisely the nonverbal or historical means of transmitting apostolic tradition have underscored the importance of "reception." Congar has described it as "the process by means of which a church (body) truly takes over as its own a resolution that it did not originate in regard to its self [sic], and acknowledges the measure it promulgates as a rule applicable to its own life."[4]

By way of example, Congar examined the historical setting of liturgical changes to determine whether reception, non-reception, or something between these two poles, occurred. Congar cites the replacement of the "Gallican" rites in France in the nineteenth century by the Roman liturgy as a legitimate instance of reception but, in contrast, believes that the manner of substitution of the Roman liturgy for the Mozarabic liturgy in Spain used by Pope Gregory VII does not provide an instance of genuine "reception."[5]

A vital link with Vatican II Congar affirms the importance of reception at the Second Vatican Council:

That the concept of reception is still valid was shown adequately by Vatican II in its envisaging a collegial initiative emanating from the bishops, which could be a 'verus actus collegialis' only if the pope approved it 'vel libere recipiat.' . . . This text speaks of the reception of the privilege of the bishop of Rome that Vatican II so firmly reaffirmed and to which history bears adequate witness. It constitutes an authentic statement regarding reception since it is a matter of consent (by means of judgment) by one church body to a resolution put forward by others. Apart from this, law as at present knows no case of reception (so far as I am aware) other than acceptance by the pope, and, after him, by the world episcopate, of new bishops of the Eastern rite elected to their patriarchate after a mere 'nihil obstat' from Rome, but neither named nor confirmed by the Holy See.[6]

One can readily find internal confirmation in the pages of the Catechism of its vital link with Vatican II. Hundreds of references to the documents of Vatican II are cited. These citations abound on each page, serving not as "proof-texts" but as the warp and woof of the Catechism. The Catechism is indebted for its themes to Vatican II to such an extent that it is no overstatement to say that there could not be a Catechism without the preceding Council.

This phenomenon is hardly without precedent when we recall that the Roman Catechism emerged as the direct legacy of the Council of Trent. It exercised an enormous impact upon the life of the Church in the era of the Counter-Reformation.

There are some surely who would concede to their dismay that the Roman Catechism did in fact incorporate the debates, decisions, texts, and expressions of Trent into the liturgy and catechesis of the Church. Such critics, lamenting what they would consider the polemical hard edges of the Roman Catechism, would invoke the second meaning of "reception" cited above, namely, ecumenical consensus, and argue that the Roman Catechism delayed or prevented real reception from occurring insofar as it precluded a genuine dialogue with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the other Reformers.

But such an approach which attaches more weight to denominational debate than to the unfolding of apostolic teaching within the ambit of the Catholic communion does not situate the center of magisterial teaching in the matrix of papacy and council but seeks in a quixotic fashion for a hypothetical "consensus" to emerge from the mix of contrary views. In effect, consensus replaces communion. In suggesting that truth emerges from the clash of opposites rather than from the organic development of theology at the service of faith, such an ecclesiology is indebted far more to Hegel than to the Holy Spirit. It is true that dialogue with other points of view has a long and distinguished pedigree in the history of theology, not least of which are the varied responses to cultural currents found in patristic writings. But it ought not to be overlooked that an ecumenical council is itself a powerful dialogue with many perspectives. Trent did not merely "react" to Luther but attempted to find terms, methods and pastoral approaches that could validate its understanding of the Catholic heritage, including, of course, Apostolic Tradition. Not to permit a Council to implement and apply the fruit of extensive reflection and spirited discussion clearly sacrifices the historical integrity of the council on the altar of ideology. Genuine ecumenism is served best by allowing each tradition to unpack its own self-understanding. The Roman Catechism was in a sense the indispensable pastoral corollary of Trent, even as the Catechism of the Catholic Church constitutes the irreplaceable pastoral corollary of Vatican II. Notwithstanding the anxiety of its critics, its existence and promulgation demonstrate the development of doctrine identified by John Henry Newman, considered by many to be a precursor of Vatican II.

This is not to suggest that the theological opus of a Council can be considered monolithic; the historical accounts of Trent by Hubert Jedin and contemporary accounts of different perspectives document amply the presence of a healthy plurality of approaches. Nevertheless, the documents that emerge from conciliar debate represent not so much human consensus and political compromise but a theological synthesis, a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit, illuminating and directing the universal Church. We see in history the genuine Paradosis of the Paraclete, the development of monuments of tradition which contextualize the questions of a particular age.

Is the Catechism. marked by any explicit or even implicit rejection of the teaching of Vatican II? Assuredly not! The indebtedness of the Catechism to the Council is not merely citational but substantive: an ecclesiology of communion, a renewed sense of sacrament, a moral theology which stresses virtue and beatitude, an examination of prayer as public, mystical and intimately personal. Any purported clash with or diminution of the Council implicitly starts from the flawed premise that a disembodied "spirit" of Vatican II captured the Zeitgeist of the 1960s pop culture, a venture in revolution rather than renewal.

The kind of development recognized by Newman in his classic work has as its hallmark continuity, not rupture. It would appear that those who might criticize the Catechism as in some way at odds with Vatican II have an impossible burden of proof to meet when a continuity of participants, themes, texts, and texture links Council with Catechism.

II. The Reception of the Catechism: Damming with Feints of Praise

The sense of published responses to the <Catechism> by individuals long associated with what might be called "the catechetical establishment" have ranged from serious caveats to shrill alarms. One can see a weather reporter pointing grimly to the arrival of a wintry blast of dangerous storm patterns on the weather map. Some have suggested that the Catechism not be distributed widely to the faithful, that it is not designed for classroom use, that it is only a set of guidelines and certainly not a text to be read at home, that it is only a framework for adaptation and not the result of the adaptation, that it represents merely one ecclesiology among many rather than the fruit of the Council. We are told far more about what the Catechism is not, than what it is, what we are not to do, than what we might do. At this point we are ready to put on a trench coat and flee for the hurricane shelter.

What ecclesiology explains such a chilly reception? It would appear that many voices connected with the catechetical establishment are concerned that the Catechism proceeds along a different path than do their products and efforts since the Council. From a human standpoint one can understand the reluctance to take a second look at one's efforts, but mounting evidence testifies to the generic illiteracy of youngsters on matters of the greatest importance. To charge that such illiteracy exists is not to attack anyone, least of all individuals in search of fundamental truths or writers of textbooks seeking to address the problem. But a problem there is. A financial advisor who neglects to inform a client when bank records indicate bankruptcy is incompetent. A catechetical establishment that will not face up to failures of method and pedagogy is comparable to the S & L industry which too long denied the existence of failed financial institutions.

Two additional points should be made about the "knowledge deficit" on the part of many Catholics. First, secular scholars have recognized that, for different reasons, students have not learned essential lessons about cultural literacy. In his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. began the task of alerting students at different levels of instruction about foundational concepts of culture. So the statement that Catholic students are unfamiliar with their faith is not an isolated datum nor in any way an attribution of bad faith to catechists but a frank acknowledgement of a phenomenon already confirmed by scholars in many disciplines.

Second, to say that Catholic students do not know their faith is not to charge them with being stupid. Students cannot be blamed for what they were never taught. At a time when former Secretary of Education William Bennett's The Book of Virtues has become a best-seller, one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic high school student who could identify the cardinal virtues. Ironically, CCD students, hectored on how to feel but neglected on how to think, can find in the Catholic tradition on the virtues a splendid contribution to the unity of head and heart so essential to real education. Our students, like the rest of us, are selectively educated. They have learned, or will be forced to learn, far more about high-tech gadgetry than preceding generations. But how they translate that knowledge into wise choices should be the concern of catechists. It is indeed the concern of the Pope.

Think of a patient going under the frightening MRI tube in a hospital. The patient knows nothing of what the doctors and technicians are observing but the images resonated provide a detailed, 3-D picture of the inner workings of the patient's metabolism! On one side, there is highly detailed information, on the other side, there is a lack of awareness, if not fear. Do we not find some troubling analogies in our catechetical landscape today? The "implementation" of the Catechism should not be permitted to dam up a potent source of Catholic thought. It should be permitted to flow without constraint into the minds, hearts and souls of the faithful. Anything that impedes the flow of this historic text into the lifeblood of the Church in America smacks of either elitism or gnosticism, neither a desirable option.

III. Immunizing the Catechism through Superficial Adaptation

Even the harshest critic of the Catechism must concede that in some sense it is a spiritual good. (It is painful even to be forced to extract such a concession for a reality of profound richness, an inexhaustible treasure of truths and goods which flow from an enriched Catholic tradition.) But we can at least start with that modest premise and move to an urgent conclusion: the Catechism must not be given a minimalist response of polite indifference or condescending, benign neglect.

The historical possibilities of such a nonresponse are sketched in the insights of another essay on reception in history:

Reception as an ecclesiological reality implies the formation of a corporate openness which takes place through bearers of reception who may be juridical or nonjuridical authorities. When a significant spiritual good is newly introduced into a global perception of the life of faith and thereby begins to affect the practice of the faith, a new synthesis of understanding and practice of the faith is initiated. Since this threatens the equilibrium of the community's self-understanding, it may cause a serious negative reaction in some quarters. Elsewhere, the good may be immunized by a superficial adaptation. Examples of these alternative reactions can be illustrated from the history of the early general councils of the church or from the way in which Vatican II's teaching has been 'received' or 'rejected' within segments of the Roman Catholic Church.[7]

Will there be a "corporate openness" to the Catechism? How energetic and enthusiastic have been our local "bearers of reception"? The warning signs are already apparent that the Catechism is viewed in some quarters as a source of disequilibrium. It may very well threaten the self-understanding of some within the catechetical establishment who are sincerely but wrongly convinced that the papacy of John Paul II is a problem. The substitution of a private agenda, no matter how idealistic or well-motivated, for that of authentic church teaching can simply not be allowed to happen. If Catholics in the United States are "immunized" against the enormous spiritual good which the Catechism represents, it means that even more generations of young Catholics, struggling with issues of increasing complexity, will be denied a vital resource in their efforts to know what it means to be Catholic and what it is that God expects of them.

Let us critique two positions which would minimalize or even repudiate the impact of the Catechism. First, it is argued by some that non-reception, namely, pastoral indifference or nonobservance, invalidates the teaching. Here the time frame of reception is important. It took more than fifty-six years for the Nicene creed to be "received" into the universal Church. Half a century of "synods, excommunications, exiles, and imperial interventions and violence" (Congar's phrase) characterized the initial "non-reception" of Nicaea. Moreover, Congar carefully notes that the level of acceptance subsequent to a Council, its reception, does not confer authenticity upon the conciliar teaching:

In this respect, reception is no more than the extension or prolongation of the conciliar process: it is associated with the same essential 'conciliarity' of the Church.... It is not reception which bestows their legitimacy upon a conciliar decision and an authentic decree: they obtain their legitimation and their obligatory value from the authorities who have supported them.[8]

Congar's scholarship removes the claim of some that pastoral opposition or dissent to magisterial teaching thereby constitutes a non-reception and nullifies the validity of the teaching. (Applied to sexual ethics, this spurious argument, advanced by dissenters to Humanae Vitae, is exploded by the epistemological reality that sinful conduct, far from invalidating moral precepts, is precisely the reason why moral precepts exist. The prevalence of violent crime does not invalidate moral precepts against violent crime.)

A second argument advanced against the Catechism is that it fails to account for cultural differences between the American experience and the Roman teaching. In response to this invocation of inculturation, a cover, it seems, for doctrinal divergence, we can make several observations: (1) no culture enjoys absolute status as the clearest path to living the Gospel; (2) even secular philosophers are increasingly critical of the fragmentation, loss of vision flowing from a common good, tribal balkanization and consumer-driven narcissism of the American cultural scene; (3) the positive features of the American culture, such as the flourishing of democracy, do not negate or circumscribe the mandate of the Church, given by Christ, to proclaim the Gospel and hard truths traceable to Gospel teaching. The Gospel is best grasped when its sharp edges are shown to be manifestly counter-cultural. The neuralgic reaction to the Catechism by some actually illustrates that the Catechism has not allowed the Gospel or Tradition to be domesticated.

In the last analysis, our concerns are not so much with the canonical, pastoral and magisterial authenticity of the Catechism, for its authority, promulgated with unimpeachable historical precedent and world-wide input, is self-evident and beyond reasonable cavil. Our concerns must be rather with the education and formation of generations of believers, present and future. The Catechism is not a handgun to be kept out of the reach of the innocent, safely locked away in a steel vault, but an oasis of truth flowing back to the streams of apostolic witness to the Lord of history. If I may paraphrase a famous riposte about the meaning of the Church as Mother and Teacher, Reception, si, Rejection, no!


1 Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., s.v. "Reception," The New Dictionary of Theology. See also Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., "Reception Past and Present," Theological Studies 47 (1986) 497-508.

2 See Aidan Nichols O.P., The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991) and Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1989) 5 Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700).

3 Avery Dulles, S.J., The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 95.

4 Yves Congar, "Reception as an Ecclesiological Reality," in Giuseppi Alberigo and Anton Weiler (ed s .), Election and Consensus in the Church, Concilium 77 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) 43-68, at 45. This article is a condensed translation by John Griffiths of "La 'Reception' comme realite ecclesiologique," Revue des sciences et theologiques 56 (1992), 370-403.

5 Ibid., p. 55.

6 Ibid., p. 45. Congar cites Lumen Gentium 22 and Christus Dominus 4 as texts which illustrate and clarify the meaning of "reception."

7 Edward J. Kilmartin, "Reception in History: An Ecclesiological Phenomenon and its Significance," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 21 (1984): 34-54, at 37.

8 Congar, p. 64.

Taken from:
The October 1994 issue of
The Homiletic & Pastoral Review
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