Is the Catechism Irrelevant?

By Andrew M. Haines
August 13, 2018

I have to be careful how I say this, but I'm skeptical of the relevance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Especially when it comes to morality.

What I mean is, I believe everything the Catechism teaches, and by the authority it demands. And I think it's in many ways a tour de force of the modern Church. But it's not very useful to us in our present, highly polarizing moral debates. Actually, I think the Catechism can create more problems than it solves. In the hands of sophisticated, modern readers, it tends to turn the content of divine mysteries into a navel-gazing philosophy of religion.

Of course, cultural relevance has little to do with why the Catechism was written. And its lack of relevance today shows more about the distortions of modern Catholic intellectualism—and our modern mind—than any failure by the Church to teach and transmit the fullness of truth.

What the Catechism is supposed to be

In 2002, ten years after its publication, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the relevance of the Catechism for the Church. His comments are perhaps even more timely today.

To begin, he circumscribes the "meaning and limits" of a catechism:
The Catechism is not a theology book, but a book of the faith, for the teaching of the faith.
In other words, the whole significance of the Catechism derives from the source of its content: the deposit of faith. It's sole purpose is to assist with transmitting and teaching the faith.

Immediately, though, he warns:
In present day theological consciousness this fundamental difference is often not sufficiently present. Theology does not invent with its method intellectual reflections that one can believe or not—in such a case the Christian faith would be entirely a product of our own thought and no different from the philosophy of religion. Theology, if rightly understood, is rather the effort to recognize the gift of knowledge that precedes the reflection. (Emphasis mine)
If the Catechism is salutary, it necessarily conveys the truths of the faith. It might be theologically interesting, but that's not really important.

Still, the impulse toward theological creativity and clarity is strong. How does the Catechism fit alongside this basically good, natural desire of the intelligent faithful?
The relation between the given, which God offers to us in the faith of the Church, and our effort to appropriate this given in rational understanding, is a fundamental part of theology. The goal of the Catechism is precisely that of presenting this given that precedes us, whose developing doctrinal formulation of the faith is offered in the Church; it is a proclamation of faith, not a theology, even if a reflection seeking understanding is a natural part of an appropriate presentation of the teaching of the Church's faith and in this sense faith is opened to understanding and to theology.
So, according to its primary author and (arguably) the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, the Catechism is expressly not a theological work. And it shouldn't be interpreted as one. In fact, it cannot be "interpreted" at all, but must be accepted with filial devotion toward the Church's universal magisterium.

One "gift of knowledge" among many

But filial devotion is a shock to our system. If there's a definite sense to our present moment—Catholic or otherwise—it's a rejection of any "effort to recognize the gift of knowledge that precedes [intellectual] reflection." And none of us, if we're honest, can escape the maelstrom.

The problem isn't that we don't desire "gifts of knowledge." It's that what pass for such "gifts" are usually untested and, therefore, often turn out to be rot. Dominant political, social, and technological ideas are the ones served up in axiomatic style. A set of principles—consistent or coherent or not—said forcefully and repeatedly and portrayed with confidence is as persuasive now as ever. A truly modern invention, however, is the velocity and volume with which an exponentially increasing number of principles can be communicated. An echo chamber exists that engulfs any idea muttered into it. This condition doesn't escape our critical reflections; we're very aware of it. But we admit that we're powerless to overcome it.

All of this colors our ideas about the Catechism, too. The faith of the Church—given to us comprehensively a quarter-century ago—is one "gift of knowledge" among many. And we somehow sense that it's been caused by, and subjected to, the same sort of impulsive positivism as the rest of our popular culture and politics.

Knowledge by faith is mediated

Faith, however, is a special type of knowledge because its source is divine. So the "gift of knowledge" through faith need not fully express all the truth it contains—it can't. Thus, faith is not merely a natural accomplishment.

Faith also entails mediation. And the gift of knowledge it bestows is constantly "re-presented" through the Church to new people in new ways. Ratzinger continues about the Catechism:
If one bears in mind that it is thus addressed not only to individuals with very different levels of preparation, but to all the continents and varied cultural situations, it is evident that this book cannot constitute the point of arrival in a process of mediations, but must undergo further mediations closer to the different situations. If it were to become more directly "dialogical" for a specific milieu—for example the Western intellectuals—, it would adopt their style, and be beyond the grasp of all the others. Therefore, its style had to remain above specific cultural contexts and seek to address people in this way, leaving further cultural mediations to the respective local Churches.
The whole faith requires mediation, but probably the most noticeable dimension lies with the Church's moral teaching. Ratzinger admits that this was "the most difficult section" of the Catechism to write, both because of debate around moral "structural principles" as well as ever-emerging questions and practical situations.
The Catechism does not claim to present the only possible form of moral theology or even the best systematic form of moral theology—this was not its mandate. It sets out the essential anthropological and theological connections that are to be the components of human moral behaviour. Its starting point is found in the presentation of the dignity of the human person, that is at the same time his greatness and the reason for his moral obligation.
This appears like a weak claim, especially in a modern age when the Church's "gift of knowledge" is but one among many, entrenched, diametrically opposed worldviews. The "dignity of the human person" can be easily relativized, and in the right setting it can give license to almost any behavior.

Christian ethics surpass the law and virtue

The brilliance of the Catechism as a teaching book is exactly what makes it weak—even harmful—as a source for theological clarity. Paired with a modern, Western mindset that's heavily shaped by the analytic-scientific schools of the twentieth century, the Catechism evokes stricter, more literal value than it can provide.

Moral teaching is again the flashpoint. But by the same token, this difficulty uncovers a vital dimension of Christian intellectualism that is largely absent from popular debates.
Christian moral theology is never simply an ethics of the law, it surpasses even the realm of an ethics of virtue: it is a dialogical ethics, because the moral human action develops out of the person's encounter with God, therefore it is never an activity in itself, self-sufficient and autonomous, pure human achievement, but a response to the gift of love and thus a being drawn into the dynamic of love—of God Himself—who first of all truly frees the person and brings him to his true high dignity. Moral action is never simply one's own achievement, but neither is it only something grafted on from outside. True moral action is wholly gift, and nevertheless precisely so wholly our own action, while what is our own is only unfolded in the gift of love and in turn the gift does not invalidate the person but rather fulfills him. (Emphasis mine)
This "dialogical ethics" is not incidental to Christian morality; it's the very stuff that makes it unique. In one way, morality is absolute because its source—God—is absolute. In another way, morality is relative because it depends on "the person's encounter with God" and a personal "response to the gift of love" of God. Morality is therefore not exactly a zero-sum game. And the Church's moral teaching, while binding and authoritative, is not merely descriptive, but must also contain an infinite and inscrutable mystery.

Thinking with the Church

I've often believed, per the old phrase sentire cum ecclesia—to think with the Church—, that "with the Church" isn't the hard part; "to think" is. Catholic intellectualism doesn't require just sharp critical skills or fluent prose or impressive vocabulary. It lives and dies by submitting the intellect to the "gift of knowledge" that's the content of faith, and by the effort to recognize it prior to reflecting on, or making judgments about, it.

Thus, the Catechism is a magnificent tool for those who wish to know the faith, since it prepares the mind to operate by pointing toward the universal Truth that causes all thinking.
[T]he Catechism does not intend to present a closed system. In the search for an ethics inspired by Christology, it is also necessary to remember that Christ is the Logos incarnate, that He wishes therefore to awaken our human reason to its power.
The Catechism, per the mind of its author, is also keenly self-aware. It does not purport to do more than it can.
Those who search for a new theological system in the Catechism, or for surprising new hypotheses, will be disappointed. This is not the concern of the Catechism. Drawing from Sacred Scripture and the complex richness of tradition in its many forms and inspired by the Second Vatican Council, it offers an organic vision of the entirety of the Catholic faith, which is beautiful in its entirety—with a beauty in which the splendour of the truth shines forth.
Finally, the medium itself is designed to outlast those who believe it could or should do more—those for whom "thinking with the Church" is merely articulating a popular, albeit sophisticated consensus.
The present relevance of the Catechism is the relevance of the truth formulated and thought afresh once again. This relevance will remain intact far beyond the murmurings of its critics.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.