SUMMONS TO FAITH: The Catechism as Proclamation


On 11 October 1992  in an apostolic constitution significantly entitled Fidei Depositum,  Pope John Paul II bequeathed to the Catholic Church, and to the church catholic, a comprehensive, authoritative, and evangelically robust summary of Catholic doctrine, a summary intended, borrowing the Pope’s own words with respect to the Second Vatican Council, to ‘calmly … show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith’ and to make ‘the truth of the Gospel shine forth to lead all people to seek and receive Christ’s love which surpasses all knowledge’ (p. 1).

I wonder if there has ever been a Pope since Gregory the Great more committed to world evangelization than John Paul II. In pursuing positive relations with the Muslim world, for example, this Pope believes that the next century will be an age of faith and that the shape and power of that faith will largely depend upon the world-historical encounter between Christianity and Islam. Is there a world Christian leader better positioned than he is to make alternative pronouncements? Assuming that he knows whereof he speaks, then those Catholic bishops who gathered from all over the world at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 were surely right to request a new universal catechism to replace the old Roman Catechism of 1556.  The Pope agreed: there would be a contemporary statement of the ancient faith to carry the church into the century of world evangelisation. ‘The faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light’ (p. 4).


Few thoughtful Christians would be surprised to learn that some Catholic theologians have taken exception to the new Catechism. Such an ambitious project could hardly be above criticism. But not a few theologians were raising objections not after but before the Catechism was written. Why, they asked, should this project be undertaken at all? Wouldn’t the very  notion of an abiding deposit of faith stifle theological debate and doctrinal renewal? What would it represent (they did not say but may have felt) but the lengthening shadow of Cardinal Ratzinger, and his reactionary master, upon the Roman Church? As one theologian reports, ‘cries of outraged indignation arose from certain theologians and religious educators’ when it became apparent that the Pope was seriously committed to what his Bishops had requested. The phenomenal sales of the book among lay Catholics, despite being written primarily for bishops and professional religious educators, suggests that the notion that the Catholic Church, of all conceivable institutions, should somehow deny itself the right to make a contemporary universal statement of its faith is as profoundly counter-intuitive to the practicing Catholic as it is to the Protestant observer. What was the objection: that there is no deposit of faith, or that it cannot be expressed in a new way, or that the Pope should not be in charge of it? Some critics, perhaps, found themselves wanting to escape the building without being seen to use any of the available exits.

Actually this anxiety about whether there should even be a Catechism was and is unnecessary on purely formal grounds. What doctrinal renewal can proceed without doctrine? Isn’t the very possibility of theological debate parasitic upon some concept of normative or orthodox teaching? Summary statements of faith such as the Catechism are an essential part of an ecclesial reality in which the possibility of debate and disagreement – the definition of the terms in which such debate can proceed or even be identified as disagreement – is real and worthwhile. The summary statement and the theological debate presuppose each other; what the one cannot prevent, the other probably cannot initiate and almost certainly cannot by itself sustain.

Summary statements of faith, the search for essentials, the production of confessions will always be a part of Christianity. It has to do with how this religion is situated in the larger social context. How are we ‘to find a bond strong enough to replace the world’? That question, in a phrase borrowed from Hannah Arendt, is at the nub of what we might call the catechetical problem. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, as in parts of the world today, that question never arose because the given context of daily life, its pervasive and unquestioned mythology, its cultic practices, its theological speculation, provided a comprehensive pattern of relationships and totalizing map of the cosmos that functioned as the source of ‘meaning’. Where the reality of all social intercourse and all experience of the material world are intensely sacred and completely shared within one’s known world, catechisms, creeds, and religious definitions are not necessary, they are not even thinkable. But ever since Abraham left the Ur of the Chaldees the children of Israel have never known the world as cosmos, as a given order of things conveying its own meaning at such deep psychic levels that unbelief is not an option. The early Christians were not accused of atheism for nothing and I suppose Abraham’s faith also must have been defined over against an equal and opposite experience of unfaith. Maybe Abraham was the first of the catechists, the first of those teachers searching for ‘a bond strong enough to replace the world.’

This can be spelled out in terms that might receive a more sympathetic hearing by saying that Christianity is more a social than an experiential phenomenon, a faith more catholic than gnostic. Highly experiential forms of Christian faith tend to be individualistic and therefore tend to weaken the ties that bind believers to one another and to Jesus. The Anglican Bishop, Rowan Williams, observes that gnostic Christianity, ‘using’ Jesus to launch the believer through a powerful initiatory experience into an intensely spiritual world of self-discovery or -recovery, works against any strong differentiation between master and disciple, so that Jesus’ identity paradoxically comes to depend upon or is taken up in the experience of the disciple (as happens in some forms of pietistic and in most forms of new-age Christianity), and against any strong identification of the initiate with a ‘natural’ society, a public, social context of faith consisting of institutional, narrative, and moral norms. Continuities of Christian faith and life through space and time are important to communities that have come to know themselves as communities, and as communities that stand under the judgment of the authoritative, though variegated, narratives about Jesus. This suggests that, while the critical role of the theologian is important to the well being of the Church, it will never be able to eliminate the felt need, shared by church leaders and members, for summary statements of faith that bind the community together by reassuring the community that it is still in touch with and under the authority of the original Jesus story and still moving forward within trajectories that can plausibly be said to originate in that story.

Ironically, the critical role of the theologian, insofar as she herself wants to participate in and be taken seriously by that same community, and wants to speak prophetically for the sake of  that community, also depends on these ties. For distance and difference are crucial to the prophetical or converting power of the Jesus story. The community has a stake in ensuring that the story they tell is the same story that was first told and so needs both bishops (i.e., church leaders) who strongly assert its universally binding character and theological critics who will aggressively question whether in fact leaders and followers have got the story right. Williams points out that the gospel narratives by their nature entail the notion of orthodoxy since the story ‘resists any schematisation into a plan of salvation that can be reduced to a simple and isomorphic moment of self-recognition in response to illumination.’ (‘Does it make sense to speak of pre-Nicene orthodoxy?’,  in Williams, ed. The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, p. 16.) Caring about that story and its normative expression is thus a powerful identity-forming characteristic of the community. Both stating the normative form of the Jesus story, and, precisely because it is crucial to the community, squabbling about that normative form, are what this community is about. Thus the Jesus story binds the community together not only by providing a common set of beliefs but, even where those beliefs are in dispute, by itself being the very thing that is disputed. ‘Orthodox’ Christians argue about this  story; gnostic Christians tend not to argue with one another at all since self-definition through experience does not encourage the notion of community formation through historical continuity with the founder and the foundations of the faith.

Authorised catechisms, in other words, intending to defend the critical and converting presence of the real Jesus against subjectivising or reductionist accounts of him, actually make possible and promote meaningful theological debate within the church just because of that critical presence. In mandating a new, universal catechism, the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 only did what Synods and Bishops are supposed to do, and that is to sustain a bond strong enough to replace the old world with a new community of faith. This is only a recent variation on the almost obsessive flurry of letter writing that was held in the early church to be a defining characteristic of a catholic bishop. For a bishop was nothing if not a Christian leader trying to keep open the lines of communication between contentious churches through incessant worry about and statement of the common faith that bound them together. Theologians are paid to be dubious, they cannot help but be part of the problem – bishops might otherwise too easily think they have succeeded in instructing the faithful where they have only succeeded in impressing themselves. But asking bishops not to write authoritatively about matters of faith is not much different than asking apostles not to write authoritatively about matters of faith. It’s just not in the cards.

Simone Weil, speaking from a perspective somewhat closer to the gnostic vision, puts the point like this: ‘by one of those laws of nature which God himself respects … there are two languages which are quite distinct … there is the collective language and there is the individual one. The Comforter whom Christ sends us … speaks one or other of these languages, whichever circumstances demand, and by a necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them.’ (Waiting on God, p. 45) Something like that is true here. Popes will authorize things like universal catechisms and theologians will, from time to time, personally dissent. That is in the cards.


‘The first and last point of reference of this catechism will always be Jesus Christ himself, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”’ Had this programmatic statement appeared at the beginning of the Catechism, that would have been reason enough for celebration. That it occurs unself-consciously as late as paragraph 1698, and as part of the preface to Section Three on Christian conduct, is more than any Protestant had the right to hope for. The christocentrism of the catechism is no formality; it shapes the whole. Indeed, the Augustinian perspective in this particular preface is notable. Catechesis for new life in Christ, we are told, should be ‘a catechesis of the Holy Spirit’, ‘of grace’, ‘of the beatitudes’, ‘of sin and forgiveness’. In fact, it is in this section on morality that we find an article on grace and justification.

Here if anywhere we might have expected to find an unevangelical moralism. Moral convictions might have been treated predominantly with reference to natural law and conscience as if they were not essentially grounded in the gospel, as if morals could be severed from their source in dogmatic and ascetical theology. But what we find instead is an eloquent resolve to situate the commands of God (deontological ethics) firmly within a context that is teleological and eschatological. The authors offer us a conception of the good and they incite the reader to the hope of transcendent fulfillment.

There are many passions. The most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed. (1765)

That is the teleological dimension. Here is the eschatological counterpart. For this pleasure and joy in the good, ‘the good promised by God’ (1700), has a heavenly goal.

The Beatitudes take up and fulfill God’s promises from Abraham on by ordering them to the Kingdom of heaven. They respond to the desire for happiness that God has placed in the human heart. (1725)

The Beatitudes teach us the final end to which God calls us: the Kingdom, the vision of God, participation in the divine nature, eternal life, filiation, rest in God. (1726)

By the beatitude of heaven we discern the shape of the good life outlined in the commands of God. The human person, we are told, is ‘ordered to God’ and ‘destined for eternal beatitude’ (1711). John Paul’s own hand is surely visible here. For this construal of the Church’s moral discourse as evangelical proclamation bears the same features found in the grand opening section of Veritatis Splendour.

What we find in the least expected place, we are not disappointed to find everywhere. Early on, in the opening, doctrinal section of the Catechism, we read that ‘at the heart of catechesis we find … the Person of Jesus of Nazareth’ (426) and we are encouraged to believe that from the loving knowledge of Christ ‘springs the desire to proclaim him, to “evangelize,” and to lead others to the “yes” of faith in Jesus Christ’ (429). But we should not mistake the christocentric focus of the Catechism for a kind of Protestant christomonism or pietistic ‘jesuolatry’. The Catechism is decisively Trinitarian for this Jesus leads us ‘to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make[s] us share in the life of the Holy Trinity’ (426). The first paragraph of the fourth and concluding section on prayer neatly summarizes the book in trinitarian perspective:

“Great is the mystery of faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three).  (2558)

But the key statement for understanding the Catechism comes at n. 234:

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith … It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.” The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men …

It is important for Protestant readers to know how important this is to many Catholic commentators. The trinitarian and christological bearing is not, in their view, to be taken for granted. They point out how patristic sources outweigh scholastic ones – next to Augustine and Aquinas, Irenaeus is the most heavily quoted authority – and how this in turn accounts for the strong biblical and salvation history ‘feel’ of the document. While the ecumenical dimensions of the Catechism undoubtedly, and understandably, relate most explicitly to relations between Rome and the churches of the East, Protestant scholars should not underestimate the degree to which the Catechism has encouraged, or perhaps even freed, some of its Catholic expositors to unobtrusively highlight aspects of the document that implicitly take into account historic concerns of the Reformation. The dynamic of grace issuing ‘in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God’ (2558) pervades the book. No dead orthodoxy this.


None of this should be taken to mean that Protestant readers will approve of all they find. The ecumenical generosity that informs the Catechism comes from a serenity born of confidence – this is Rome expounding Rome, make no mistake. But that very serenity tends to discourage narrowly partisan polemics. The crucial weaknesses are bound to be ones shared by Catholics and Protestants alike whether conservative or progressive. Two criticisms will indicate the kind of things I think we should be looking for as the Catechism comes under long term scrutiny.

First, we might wonder about the wisdom of beginning the work with a section on epistemology. Is it true that ‘before expounding the Church’s faith’ given in creed, sacraments, moral and ascetical theology ‘we must first ask what “to believe” means’ (26)? We may of course choose this course – many confessions do – but there is something essentially modern about this practice of placing method before content that does not comport easily with the otherwise classical orientation of the document. More disconcerting still is the decision to begin the theological epistemology with a chapter devoted to the human capacity for God and then move to revelation and then to human response. This procedure – starting with the concept of revelation and then surrounding it with sections on anthropology – necessarily gives the opening pages a subjective shape. It is as if the writers have inadvertently decided to expound the Apostle’s Creed  in light of Augustine’s Confessions , which is certainly present here, rather than the Confessions in the light of the Creed.

Not surprisingly this procedure is followed in a traditional Catholic manner; revelation is presented as something like the perfection of reason. But that is not quite my complaint. Within its own principles as an anti-subjectivist account of faith, would not the framers of the Catechism have been well advised to subsume the order of knowing within the order of reality? After all, the Bishops did resist the temptation to begin with a fully orchestrated account of humanity’s situation in the modern world. This they believed would inevitably have been too parochial and would have quickly dated the whole project – their perspective was going to be more universal, they would at least aim at a timeless exposition of Christian truth. (We can only quess at what we have been spared in the way of a eurocentric experiment in apologetics.) What they could not do, however, was to entirely overcome their fear of what progressives would inevitably have called the heavy-handed deductive approach to their task. Thus the somewhat intellectualist introduction.

By contrast, the classical Christian mind instinctively prefers to put the being and reality of God before the problem of method and before any discussion of anthropology. Part One of the Catechism is an exposition of the Apostle’s Creed, but in the Creed the ‘I believe’ is self-effacing, in the Catechism it is self-regarding. The Creed does not have a preamble on what it means to say ‘I believe’ and perhaps for the very good reason that we do not believe in belief. ‘The overexamined life,’ as a Jewish philosopher has recently said, ‘is not worth living.’ (David Shatz, in Thomas Morris, ed. God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, p.263.) There is just a hint of that overexamination here.

My second concern is related to the first. We can be grateful for the distance the Catechism places between itself and the idealist tradition of scholars like Karl Rahner. Cardinal Ratzinger points out how the commission responsible for the document considered, then dismissed the suggestion that the work be tied together using titles like ‘The Church Believes’, ‘… Celebrates’, ‘… Lives’, ‘… Prays’. This systematic but loose ecclesiocentrism would have suggested to some that Christian truth resides in the consciousness of the Church rather than in an external, objective reality, much as, in the work of some Catholic theologians, the resurrection is more an event in the mind of the believer than in the life of Christ.

The document can be read, therefore, as a deliberately realist alternative to the German idealist tradition prominent in modern Catholic theology. But the Catechism shows some signs that it too moves within this orbit and is open to a more critical reading as a kind of reformed idealism. One key to this  reading is the doctrine of creation and its relative absence in the already praised third part of the Catechism. We have noted how morality is ordered to the Good, but to the Good of what? To the Good as seen by conscience, as conceived by the human mind, but not as embedded in the created order. The Good provides a source and a destiny for human action but where are the created goods and worldly purposes that constitute the immediate reality within which human agency is played out?

Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested by conscience. (1751)

The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience. (1780)

The Catechism knows much of a transcendent moral order transparent to the human mind, rather less of a moral order evident in God’s creation. In one sense this moral order is understood to be objective – and in this sense it is squared off against relativist ethical theories – but it is perhaps only objective by being trans-subjective – in which case it is still fundamentally subjective, objectively present in the mind of God, accessible to the human mind, but, for all that, still a mental reality.

Does the Catechism require such an unfriendly reading? Perhaps not, but it is at least susceptible to such a reading. One is struck by the frequency of appeals to conscience and reason, often unaided human reason, throughout the document. ‘“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.”’ This ‘“is man’s most secret core and his sancutary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depth”’ (1776). Had the notes not said otherwise, one might have looked this up in Kant. For among the sources of morality listed in the Catechism – the object chosen, the intention, and the circumstances (1750) – we find no comparably eloquent references to the created order that God has made, has redeemed, and to which human beings must conform. The ‘circumstances’ turn out to be mitigating, not created, they diminish or increase agent responsibility as ‘secondary elements of a moral act’ (1754) but they do not shape or determine it. The Catechism, like the Idealist philosopher, does not do what is so importantly done in that other famous ‘law of the heart’ text, Jeremiah 31:33, where the internal covenant is immediately followed by a highly charged, three verse reference to the ‘fixed order’ of creation as a witness to the faithfulness of God. That reference puts us at the core of Old Testament political theology. To refer to the doctrine of creation is one habit of the biblical mind missing from the Catechism.

Theologians are paid to be dubious. So also pastors with theological pretensions. But these reservations should not be taken more broadly than intended. The Catechism is a gift to the whole Church. It is a special gift to non-Catholics who, standing outside the internal conflicts over Catholic theory of morals and authority, can afford to assign both praise and blame to the work at little personal or professional expense. If this Catechism has a provenance within a species of theological idealism, this is only to say that it has a intellectual history and a cultural context. But what it owes to Athens, it owes a hundred times more to Jerusalem. What Barth did for dogmatics, John Paul II and his Bishops have done for catechesis, they have made it a powerful servant of the Church’s proclamation. It deserves no end of respect and will repay repeated reading. It stands within the reflected  splendour of the truth it so powerfully announces.