New Roman Catholic Catechism a historic church milestone

Catechism of the Catholic Church
An Image Book
Doubleday, New York et al, 1995; 826 pages, $7.99

The first new catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in 400 years ought to be a monumental piece of work, and this is. Some 826 pages with an exhaustive 65-page index that references everything from Abortion to YHWH, from drug abuse to masturbation, this is a virtual one-volume compendium of Christian beliefs. And as a longtime evangelical recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, I do mean to say that this eight-dollar paperback deserves a place on anyone's religious bookshelf, not only as the last word on what Catholics believe but as a major contribution toward defining and categorizing the body of doctrines shared by all who call themselves Christians.

It is, of course, first and foremost a Roman Catholic book, but as such it reflects the winds of cross-confessional reconciliation that have been blowing through the Catholic Church since before Vatican II (1962-65). Commissioned by that Council, those of us on the conservative side of the spectrum can be grateful it was brought to fruition during the term of a conservative pope. The book doesn't seem to be leaning toward the theological left, toward raising the fortunes of liberation theology ("Catholic Marxism," if that is not an oxymoron, but it is), or the universalist ideas of salvation advanced by numerous recent Catholic theologians and several popes prior to John Paul II.

It does build bridges to Protestants ("Those 'who believe in Christ and have been baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church'") and Orthodox (who lack "little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist"), and offers at least one strong link of hope to non-Christians:

By comparison, most serious Protestants would probably say that if any who are outside the church as Protestants understand it really want to serve the God revealed in Jesus Christ, He will find a way to reveal himself and the church to them. Orthodox would say there probably are some outside the church who will be saved through ways known only to God, but the only concrete hope we can offer is through the church.

Doctrines which differ markedly from the other two major bodies are:

the primacy of Peter, whom the catechism teaches was "the only one to whom (Christ) specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom," thus establishing the Roman church's unique doctrine of the pope of Rome as "pastor of the whole church"; as an extension of this "Petrine doctrine," the doctrine that the pope can make infallible pronouncements on matters of faith ex cathedra;

the immaculate conception of Mary, by which Catholics believe that God prevented the sin of Adam and Eve which had passed to all other human beings from passing to Jesus. Conservative Protestants and Orthodox believe that as Jesus was God divinely conceived in Mary's womb, Mary's genetics, though important in terms of covenants made in the Old Testament, had nothing to do with Jesus' sinlessness;

purgatory as a place of purging sins after death, and the concomitant teaching that the church can grant indulgences to souls in purgatory, enabling them to gain escape from temporal punishment. The sale of such indulgences through what the Roman Church now says was a misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine of purgatory was probably the main catalyst that caused the Protestant break from Rome. The Orthodox Church has never believed in purgatory or that church indulgences can help anyone get to heaven after death, and Protestants have generally rejected both doctrines;

the requirement that pastors in the Latin rite be unmarried;

the addition to the Nicene Creed of the phrase "and the Son" to the description of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father is considered a serious breech by Orthodoxy. Most Protestant churches that use the Nicene Creed retain the Roman Catholic change made to it.

Protestants, by and large, disagree with Roman Catholics on confession of sins to a priest, praying to or through Mary and other saints, and the use or veneration of images in worship.

On the chance that there are other differences that aren't coming to mind for this writing, we could double this list and still would have only a dozen paragraphs out of 2,865. Double that again on the assumption that these doctrines affect other content in additional paragraphs and you still have a very small area of doctrinal disagreement in a very large volume of Christian teaching.

Furthermore, it seems the editors of this volume have taken pains to explain potential differences in such a way as to minimize their significance. The book is profusely footnoted, with biblical references everywhere (a major improvement in the eyes of non-Catholics, wrought by Vatican II), and also many references to the patristic fathers and preschism saints like John Climacus and John Damascene.

One thing that bothers non-Catholics about the Roman church is its seeming reluctance to ever admit wrongdoing. Protestants and Orthodox might excuse themselves from like sins by saying they have no one spokesperson to make such confessions; but when it would be so easy for the Catholic church to publicly recant things like the sale of indulgences, through the pope, why doesn't it. So it is that this one-paragraph half-admission to former use of torture in the church, under the topic of the fifth commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, drew this writer's attention to, rather than diverting it from, things like the Inquisition and the medieval witch burnings in Europe:

And there are places, as even suggested by the paragraph above, where the Jesuit love of rationalistic thought and expression gets so thick you feel you could cut it with a knife. You would expect that in any major Roman Catholic document.

But these criticisms are all minor. On the whole, this book uses the Nicene and Apostles' creeds, the meaning of worship and sacraments, the meaning of life in Christ, the Ten Commandments, and the meaning of Christian prayer, to set out the whole spectrum of Christian doctrine as the Roman Catholic Church understands it.

My favorite section may be the development of Christian worldview under the Seventh and Eighth commandments (as the Catholic Church, uniquely, numbers them), Thou Shalt Not Steal and Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness, respectively. Herein are contained, as the Catechism sees it, the doctrines of just government and principles for mass media/communications, both of which are basic to any journalistic enterprise. The wisdom that comes through seems like a distillation from ages past.

The value of persons is such that they do have, it says here, a right to conduct free enterprise. But the duties of government are such that they also have a duty to look after the rights of all citizens to life's necessities. These 26 pages alone are worth the price of this book.

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© 1996 Jon Kennedy