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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Thoughts on the New Catholic Catechism

By James E. Biechler

I've been hearing a lot these days about a new "catechism" put out by the church. One article said it was the first catechism for over 400 years. When I was a child we had the Baltimore catechism. That couldn't date back 400 years because there was no Baltimore that long ago. Can you bring some of your usual brilliance to this question and explain what's going on?
--M. W., Long Island, NY 

Thank you for your confidence! What follows may not be brilliant but I think you will find it helpful in understanding and in evaluating this recent publication event. My initial reaction was against dealing with your question because it does not seem to bear on the matter of the rights of Catholics. Both our organization and this column are concerned with people's rights and the matter of the new catechism does not seem to threaten, jeopardize or infringe upon Catholic rights. After looking at the catechism and experiencing some reactions to it I now see that the whole affair does touch upon our rights as Catholics. 

In the first place Catholics have a right to have the gospel preached to them. Even canon law states that "the Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments" (Canon 213). I know of a parish in which the Sunday homilies are concentrating on the new catechism. I also know of a parish in which the pastor had the new catechism placed on a pedestal in the front of the church and asked all present to touch the catechism as a sign of their acceptance of it. To my knowledge he has never done the same with the bible or the lectionary containing the gospels. The quasi-idolatrous message here is that the catechism takes precedence over the word of God. 

Here is an interesting statement written and published by the bishop of Madison (Wisconsin). "The Catechism is a comprehensive and authoritative statement of what we as Church believe and teach....Companion volumes to The Catechism of The Catholic Church are The Bible, Vatican II Documents, Liturgy of the Hours and sound catechetical guidelines" (The Catholic Herald, October 20, 1994, p. 3). I doubt that the bishop wished to relegate the Bible to the grand status of being a "companion volume" to the catechism! The bishop of Madison is not alone in suggesting that the catechism has a status equal to that of definitions and documents of an ecumenical council. Recently the United States Catholic Conference promulgated a series of questions and answers on the new catechism. Those that I read in the local diocesan paper very carefully created the impression that, yes, the catechism does have an equal authority even though couched in a different form. In fact, the catechism "has the advantage of demonstrating the harmony that exists among those teachings." This leaves the ordinary Catholic with the impression that the catechism is not only equal to the councils, it "has the advantage" of being superior! The same conclusion was drawn by the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, director of the conservative Institute on Religion and Public Life. He called the catechism "the baseline of authentic Catholic teaching." 

No one who has examined the catechism can deny that it contains a wealth of material from the scriptures, the general councils, the Fathers, and the great theologians. But it also contains a veritable "toxic landfill" of questionable opinion, outdated theology, and misleading, scandalous teaching. There is no evidence, for example, that marriage, "under the regime of sin" as the catechism puts it (#1606), is "threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation." Married relationships (#1607) "were distorted by mutual recriminations...a relationship of domination and lust...burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work." In contrast, (#1618) by renouncing marriage one can "follow the Lamb wherever he goes," one can "be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him...." After all, it says, "marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away" (#1619). Once this is said, it is clear that those who marry really do not wish "to follow the Lamb wherever he goes" and are really "not intent upon the things of the Lord." 

We learn to our surprise that only a "man" can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. And lest you think that term includes women as the catechism nearly everywhere else assumes, in an English usage more anachronistic than a bishop's jeweled ring or coat of arms, the catechism finds it necessary to give the Latin vir in parenthesis. Why is this a fact? Because Christ and the apostles chose only men to carry on the church's ministry. This is news to historians and scripture scholars but it is now a "truth" enshrined in a catechism which has the authority of the scriptures and the ecumenical councils. 

Don't look to the catechism if you wish to find the church's teaching on labor unions. So far I haven't been able to find any reference to the right to form such associations. This is not surprising in view of the American hierarchy's long struggle against such associations within Catholic institutions. (Cardinal O'Connor of New York is among the few honorable exceptions which only serve to illustrate our point.) And we're not surprised to find plenty about papal authority, to see most references to episcopal authority, ecumenical councils, and collegiality trumped by the customary caveat requiring agreement of the Roman Pontiff. Finally, everyone knows how the Vatican refused to accept the first English translation of the catechism because it incorporated gender-inclusive language with the result that the present text is an embarrassment to all of us. For anyone interested in the belief and practice of the Catholic Church, Richard McBrien's newly revised Catholicism is a much-preferred alternative to the catechism. 

I have felt it necessary to emphasize the catechism's faults because the message we're getting from the hierarchy makes excessive claims for the work's place and importance in the church. It is the use to which the book is put that bears close scrutiny. To place it alongside the scriptures and the documents of the general councils smacks of idolatry, the sin of giving divine qualities to human products. Of all the "strange gods" spoken of in the First Commandment, this is one of the "strangest." 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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