Reading through the Catechism

The Institute of Catholic Culture has asked me to teach a course for their Magdala Apostolate, which provides formation for nuns. I’ll take the sisters straight through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, commenting on it section by section and fielding their questions.

The idea for an updated universal catechism came from Bernard Cardinal Law in a gathering of bishops in 1985. He argued:

Iuvenes Bostoniensis, Leningradiensis et Sancti Jacobi in Chile induti sunt ‘Blue Jeans’ et audiunt et saltant eandem musicam.

That is to say, young people of Boston, Leningrad, and Santiago in Chile all wear blue jeans and listen and dance to the same music—so why can’t they share a common explanation of the faith? Why should catechesis be strictly local when everything else in their lives has been overtaken by the global village?

Law’s statement interests me not only because it is a good point but also because he made it in Latin. While the idea of a catechism took off, those in charge of the project soon found that it was impossible to write it in Latin: the scholars working on it didn’t understand each other well in the Church’s language, so they switched to French, which turns out to be not only the language of love but also the language of serious theology.

The process was complex. A committee was put in charge, and they established a separate editorial committee of bishops, who then consulted with various experts. Cardinal Ratzinger admits that

the thought that a team of authors who were so widely scattered across the globe, and who as bishops already had their hands quite full, could work together to produce a single book seemed fantastic to me. … [I]t is still a sort of wonder to me that a readable, for the most part intrinsically unified and, in my opinion, beautiful book arose out of such a complex editorial process.

The idea of a universal catechism had been floated as early as 1966, but at that point Ratzinger thought the time was not yet ripe. People had not yet fully grasped the post-Vatican II situation. In hindsight, I would argue that the late 80s and early 90s, when the Catechism was actually written, was a unique window that opened and then shut. If the Catechism had not been written then, it could not have been written later. Certainly, today’s Church could not produce such a coherent and beautiful expression of the Church’s universal faith. Ever since it was published it has served as a kind of life preserver for the inundated and overwhelmed laity.

Ratzinger’s comment on the authority of the Catechism is helpful:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This threads the needle nicely. On the one hand, there is no mistaking that the publication of a catechism introduces something new into the field of Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, a catechism by nature is not trying to settle disputed points. So it makes sense that the “something new” is the Catechism itself, as a whole, while particular points that may touch on some controversy or other leave those controversies where they were.

Since I am going to walk through the Catechism with the sisters anyway, I hope to blog my way along as well. We’ll see how that works: I was recently named Academic Dean here at Wyoming Catholic College, so my schedule will be full every week! But at the same time, I am committed to teaching this course and writing will help me gather my thoughts.

Want to join me? You’ll have to read about six pages per day to keep up. Here is the assignment schedule, with dates and Catechism paragraph numbers:

Sept. 11, CCC 1-141
Sept. 18, CCC 142-267
Sept. 25, CCC 268-421
Oct. 2, CCC 422-570
Oct. 9, CCC 571-682
Oct. 16, CCC 683-810
Oct. 23, CCC 811-945
Oct. 30, CCC 945-1065
Nov. 6, CCC 1066-1178
Nov. 13, CCC 1179-1321
Nov. 20, CCC 1322-1419
Nov. 27, CCC 1420-1532
Dec. 4, CCC 1533-1600
Dec. 11, CCC 1601-1690

NOTE: All the quotations in this blog post were taken from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Christoph Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994).

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