28 March 2011

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2)

In the first half of this piece, I pointed out that in declaring the CCC the doctrinal standard of Ordinariates, the Sovereign Pontiff did not intend to impose either a heavier or a lighter burden of doctrinal belief upon members of Ordinariates than upon other Catholics. I now go on to enquire what exactly the doctrinal standing of CCC is.

The highest form of legislation in the Roman Magisterium is an Apostolic Constitution. On October 11, 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote about the genesis of the CCC, and what its purpose was seen to be (Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum). On August 15, 1997, promulgating the Editio typica of the CCC, he repeated the crucial terminology of that Constitution in his Apostolic Letter Laetamur magnopere.

According to John Paul's narrative, the Synod of Bishops which met in early 1985 expressed a desire for a "Catechism or compendium of the whole of Catholic teaching, both of Faith and of Morals". It was to be a "point of reference" for catechisms or compendia which might be written in different regions. The pope says he adopted this intent ("Nostrum reddidimus hoc propositum"). He goes on to desribe the CCC as a "reference text" (this is is how the English translation renders the phrase "comparationis textum") for "catechesis renewed by the living founts of Faith". He goes on to describe it as an "expositio" of the faith of the Church and of Catholic doctrine, and describes it as a firm rule ("regulam") for teaching the Faith, and therefore a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. In Laetamur magnopere he says that the catechetical industry ("catechetica institutio") will find "an absolutely safe way for demonstrating the Christian message with renewed fervour ... from this document each master of catechesis will find a solid help by which he will be able, within the local Church, to communicate the single and eternal deposit of the Faith".

It is important to notice what the pope does not say. He does not say that new dogmatic standards are being imposed either on the Universal Church or on local Churches. There is no suggestion that any alteration is being made in the structure of domatic belief or in the degree of assent with which anything is to be accepted. What he does say is that the Tradition, as it currently stands, is being given a convenient summary and exposition so that those whose duty it is to teach that Faith will have a most valuable resource.

Communities, such as Anglicanism, which have existed for centuries without an effective magisterium will obviously be much empowered by having a clear account in one volume of what the Magisterium currently teaches. CCC, admittedly, is superficially in line with the continental instinct for all-embracing codes and much less like our Common Law tradition of a sackful of statutes, statutory instruments, European regulations, commentaries, case law, observations obiter, analogies drawn from decisions within other Common Law jurisdictions, and unwritten assumptions. But the latter style of things does require professionals who can reconcile and make sense of a mass of varied data. I suspect that many a parish priest will be feel empowered by having so much of the work done for him. That is the strength of the CCC.

But I do have an uneasiness about a possible misunderstanding of the status of the CCC among members of Ordinariates. The intelligent laywoman, layman, parish priest, as he/she works through it, is bound to come upon passages she/he finds not totally convincing ... pieces of logic which appear not quite to follow ... illustrations which he/she finds inept. The risk is that she/he might wrongly assume that every sentence in CCC is endowed with the same demand upon our assent, and might thus become discouraged at finding sections where assent is problematic. (It is helpful, in this respect, to read the intelligent and nuanced CDF commentary (1998) on Ad tuendam fidem, dealing as it does with the different levels and types of assent.) Put crudely, there are some things in CCC - such as, for example, the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrine that the Lord's Body and Blood are truly and substantially present in the Eucharist - which you are supposed to commit yourself entirely to with complete faith. On the other hand, there are things which are part of the Church's Tradition which any sensible Christian will just accept without bother, but which do not demand the assent of Divine Faith. If, after much prayer and infinite study, you were to come to the conclusion that the matter demanded a bit of a rethink, you would be entitled to your view, but you should still - as a member of the club - treat the established formulation with religious respect and not go around fomenting mayhem.

And we all need to remember that even ex cathedra pronouncements of the Roman Pontiff or similarly binding decrees of dogmatic councils have limitations as far as assent is concerned. We are not obliged to believe that the dogma has been expressed in the best possible way; simply that the definition was preserved from positive error. We are not required to accept or like or find plausible the arguments which are offered in support of the defined dogma. Above all, nobody insists that, as a matter of divine faith, we must agree that it was opportune to define this dogma at this time or in this way or, indeed, at all. It is most certainly decent, in all these matters, to treat the judgements of those whom the Holy Spirit has set over us with respect, obsequium, and to accept (unless we have very strong grounds for hesitation) that they know better than we do. But as far as the assent of divine faith is concerned, it is only the words of a formal definition which oblige.

What is true of ex cathedra pronouncements is all the more true of areas in which there has never been such a conciliar or papal declaration. A random example: the teaching in CCC about the Just War tradition. I have no criticism at all of this; I happen to subscribe with enthusiasm to this teaching. Back in the 1960s, as a 'bright' young priest, I was asked to write an article about it; I slanted my exposition in such a way as to make clear its bearing on the 'doctrine of nuclear deterrence'; and the editor deemed my piece too contentious to publish. But it is clear to me that this magnificent tradition does not make the same unconditional claim upon the ex animo assent of each one of the faithful as, for example, does the Doctrine of the Hypostatic Union. The section on prayer*, moreover, which comes at the end of the Catechism, is an afterthought which, I imagine, most Christians will find helpful. But it is not presented to us as a piece to every sentence of which unconditional assent is demanded.

As both clergy and laity use the Catechism, it is, I think, very important for them to remember that not everything in it is proposed for assent in the same sort of way. If you do find something in it which you don't like, then, as Corporal Jones used to advise, Don't panic. _________________________________________________________

A Fr Jean Corbon, a Dominican of Oriental rite, dashed it off in Beirut as the bombs thumped down around him during the Lebanese civil war.


Joseph Shaw said...

Well said!

If you want to know what degree of authority a claim in the Catechism has, look at the footnotes. Is it referring to an infallible definition? An encyclical with a claim to be reiterating the constant teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium? Or something else?

Sacred Scripture contains all that the Holy Ghost wishes it to contain, and nothing that the Holy Ghost does not wish it to contain. The infallible anathemata of General Councils and ex Cathedra pronouncements of Popes are not of the same authority: they are merely protected (by the Holy Ghost) from positive error. Statements of lesser authority than these are not even protected from error.

You can spot the confused neo-conservatives when they say Vatican II was 'guided by the Holy Spirit'. No, that's Scripture! We need to keep these things straight or we are all up the gum tree.

Michael said...

Fr. Corbon also wrote a book called "The Wellspring of Worship". I'm going to risk assuming that you have read it. What do you think of it?