Catechism-thumping

13 05 2010

I was reading recently the comments of Cardinal Schonborn against the Vatican bureaucracy, citing that the powers that be in the Church should re-consider their approaches toward “re-married” Catholics and people in “committed” homosexual relationships. I have no real comment on that aspect of it. But my own thoughts tended more to be along the lines of, “hey, isn’t this the guy who edited/wrote the Catechism of the Catholic Church?”

And that’s when it really struck me that I am very annoyed by people who “catechism-thump”; that is, by people who think that the book completed in 1993 is now the end all and be all of Catholic thought. I guess this goes back to my recent post wherein I pointed out that the ideological prerogative of Catholicism has changed from giving deference to centuries-old tradition to that of only respecting the “latest thing”. (Some try to bend over backwards to show that the “latest thing” is merely the latest edition of tradition: an oxymoron if there ever was one.) My own question is: how can a book be so authoritative if it is less than twenty years old, and parts of it are now questioned by the very person who helped write it?

We have a tendency to think of truth as a very young thing, a very dynamic thing. We see the past primarily as a failure; as some sort of burden that we have to give consideration to even if it pains us. We have learned from the past, and therefore what we say about it now is far more authoritative than what it said about itself. But really, the most consistent Catholic position is that the truth is a very old thing; that what has been tried is the only criterion to know what is true. Twenty years is not enough time for something to become canonical, or for it to take upon itself the burden of the memory of millenia.

Barring that, however, it is astounding how much unfortunate audacity such a document contains in that it seeks to comment on everything from sexuality, immigration, economics, theology, and technology, as if it were proper for the Church to have a position on all of these. Perhaps the excuse can be given that the Church must comment on these things as part of its mission in a multinational, late capitalist world. But the Church at the very most can be a compass to society; it cannot replace it. Nor can it seek to have a position on something that does not immediately effect faith and morals lest it limit legitimate discussions over the course of the body politic. Such commentaries speak less to the Church becoming more and more engaged in the world, and more to the increased separation of the sacred and profane; a program that the Church itself encouraged at Vatican II. Instead of the profane being influenced by the uncoerced insights of the sacred, it is increasingly coming to the conclusion that it does not need the sacred at all.

People will protest that the Catechism serves as a useful tool for evangelization, that such a compact volume will serve to give guidance to simple people regarding various issues that may be of their concern. To that I say that pretending that the realities of the modern world are simpler than they really are does no one any good, even though it can assuage some consciences. Perhaps Schonborn’s second thoughts, if they are indeed what they seem to be on the surface, speak volumes concerning this complexity. But for those who still want some book that has it all, I would recommend the more modest Roman Catechism from the period of the Council of Trent.


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11 responses

19 05 2010
Michael Liccione

Gentlemen:

The purpose of a catechism is to present the teaching of the Church. The CCC fulfills that purpose. That it does not supply an Ott-ish way of distinguishing the various levels of authority behind the teachings it presents is not crucial for fulfilling its purpose. Such distinctions would only invite debate that the genre itself is ill-suited to addressing. If you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with the genre itself. But I don’t think you do. So I take it you’re complaining not about the genre, but about its use by some to try to settle questions it is not designed to settle.

That said, I think the CCC does a good job doing what it’s designed to do. It allows people to know what the Church officially teaches across the whole range of relevant topics. And that, I have found, is sometimes important in debate, where both Catholics and non-Catholics often misunderstand or misrepresent what the Church teaches.

Incidentally, MZ, it’s interesting you brought up CCC §1261. I find that paragraph a classic instance of development of doctrine: it gets beyond, without condemning, prior views on its topic. Yet something I posted at the First Things blog a few weeks ago caused more controversy about it than I realized was out there.

Best,
Mike

19 05 2010
A Sinner

“For purposes of debate, it is a tool for distinguishing between theological opinion and authoritative doctrine. I find it very useful for that purpose.”

Except the CCC DOESNT distinguish that. It puts the Nicene dogmas right alongside some prudential opinions on democracy, the salvation of those outside the Church, nuclear disarmament, and immigration….which, while all of them are valid theological opinions (contrary to what some rad-trads think), and are the opinions held by the current administration…are certainly not doctrine, and it is confusing that the Catechism presents them largely without distinction so that many Neocons believe the Catechism can be taken wholesale as definitive on all these things.

“The fact that people confuse what is in the catechism as each point having equal dogmatic authority is indeed indication of this lack of nuance, and this is not snobbish to point this out.”

Exactly, not all its points are equal.

19 05 2010
Henry Karlson

“The notion that the CCC is too “lacking nuance” to be a reliable source for representing Catholic teaching is just snobbish.”

No, not really. The fact that people confuse what is in the catechism as each point having equal dogmatic authority is indeed indication of this lack of nuance, and this is not snobbish to point this out.

19 05 2010
M.Z.

When you say the CCC is not a substitute for theology, I’m considering that a lack of nuance. To be specific, a number of commentators attempted to use the catechism as a proof text to argue an allowance for torture. With immigration, we see the catechism used as a proof text for why someone’s position is actually allowable. I hate to write too much here when I think we are likely in substantial agreement. I’m sure you are more than familiar how that CCC is abused in arguments.

I will dispute your claim on authoritative doctrine. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote himself that that the Catechism does not enjoy its own authority. The CCC claim (1261) that we have reasonable hope that unbaptized infants enjoy the beatific vision would be one example of a claim that certainly isn’t doctrinal, although supportable as theological opinion.

16 05 2010
Michael Liccione

MZ:

JP2 envisioned the CCC as the basis for developing local catechisms. It was considered too detailed to function as the text for “Catholicism 050” itself. I agree. The notion that the CCC is too “lacking nuance” to be a reliable source for representing Catholic teaching is just snobbish.

That said, the CCC is not a substitute for theology. For purposes of debate, it is a tool for distinguishing between theological opinion and authoritative doctrine. I find it very useful for that purpose.

Best,
Mike

16 05 2010
M.Z.

The Catechism is a tool. As with all tools, it works best when it is used as it is intended. What it should be used for is Catholicism 050 questions, not even 100-level questions. Its answers need to be understood as lacking nuance. They need to be understood as insufficient for entering into debate.

14 05 2010
Michael Liccione

Arturo:

Instead of the profane being influenced by the uncoerced insights of the sacred, it is increasingly coming to the conclusion that it does not need the sacred at all.

I have noticed no such thing. What I have noticed is that many people want “spirituality” aplenty, including the sense of the sacred, but without the inconvenient moral and intellectual demands of “religion.” That is very much the situation Christianity faced during its infancy in the Roman Empire. We have reached that pass again for a number of reasons that you and I have addressed, with areas of both agreement and disagreement. But I don’t think Vatican II aggravated the problem. Vatican II was a belated change that, in itself, is not enough to alleviate the problem. The change was from saying the Same Old Thing in the same old way to saying it in new ways. People don’t listen because it’s still the Same Old Thing, and they basically know it.

Best,
Mike

13 05 2010
sortacatholic

Okay, let’s say for a moment that Cdl. Schonborn really thinks that committed gay relationships are peachy keen. (This is a hypothetical, and probably counterfactual statement.) So? It’s up to him and no one else to clarify what his statement means. Certainly, it’s not the role of pundits like Fr. Fessio to step in and try to ameliorate the situation on his behalf.

The current spate of dissent from certain corners of the church over discipline and doctrine is actually refreshing. Prelates are speaking their minds with provocative, and perhaps even scandalous, ideas. So far, Cdl. Schonborn hasn’t gotten the Roman smackdown for what he’s said. Until very recently, the “catechism thumping” that Arturo speaks of had been elevated to a yardstick of corporate discipline. Previously, “orthodox” prelates in favor with the Church could get away with indiscretions such as sheltering abusive priests so long as they publicly recited Catechism points. Perhaps now the statements of individual prelates will be solely judged by their congruence of their statements to Catholic teaching. The public and disingenuous recitation of the Catechism to cover for provocative/scandalous personal positions should, and might, decline within a truly open marketplace of ideas.

Sometime previously, Arturo mentioned the Foucaultian construct of “institution” in the post-French-Revolutionary West. Perhaps this nearly 225 year construct will fade with the atomization of hierarchical opinion.

13 05 2010
Sam Urfer

Not that I like to use the Catechism to bash people over the head (though it is hefty enough to do so), it is handy to have an indexed source for when people make erroneous claims that “The Catholic Church teaches X” when is ain’t so.

13 05 2010
A Sinner

To be clear, Schonborn never said we could approve of homosexual relations, just that a committed relationship is probably better on many levels than promiscuity. As for the remarried communion thing, I have no idea. Perhaps he thinks we should take a more pastorally pragmatic Orthodox approach towards annulments/divorce and be less legalistic about it. I can’t read his mind, but it isn’t necessarily all heresy.

I agree with you that “the Church” cannot actually have a position on things like immigration or technology which are outside the scope of Revelation. But individual hierarchs (and that includes the Pope and the Vatican apparatus) can have an official administrative position on these topics. Part of their role as pastors is not just putting forth the objective principals, but trying to help people decide what are the prudent applications.

The problem comes, as you say, when these things are portrayed as “the Church’s teaching”. This isn’t just a post-Vatican-II phenomenon, the Syllabi also represent this sort of mindset.

It needs to be made clear that all these things are Prudential matters that Catholics are free to debate and discuss as long as they all hold to the essential doctrinal principals. That doesn’t mean that the current administration can’t have a policy position it personally acts by, but it needs to be made clear that these do NOT bind Catholics.

I discussed this specifically related to “religious liberty” and the SSPX dialogue on my blog here:
http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/05/tolerance.html

13 05 2010

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