A woman displays the e-book version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on an iPad. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Catechism must stir faith into action

  • May 5, 2022

Near the beginning of what is arguably the Second Vatican Council’s most important document, the Council fathers wrote, “It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal Himself and to make known the mystery of His will... .” Knowing that mystery enables us to share in the life of God.

This quote from the Constitution on Divine Revelation stood in contrast with a similar statement from Vatican I, 90 years earlier, which referred to revelation as “the eternal decree of His will.” The Vatican II statement spoke of God’s will as mysterious and yet able to draw us into a relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. The earlier Council spoke of God’s will as distant and implacable. At the least, the emphasis shifted.

In catechesis, the shift was massive. Within a few years, instruction in the faith moved with the force of a hurricane from rote memorization of Church dogma to a strong emphasis on religious experience — the development of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Then, 30 years ago, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released with Pope John Paul II declaring it “a sure norm for teaching the faith.” The Catechism is, the Pope said, a fulfillment of the chief goal Pope John XXIII had set for Vatican II — “to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will.”

The Catechism’s release created a stir. Many received it as Pope John Paul II had wished, embracing it with enthusiasm. However, many theologians were critical of specifics of its presentation. Some felt the whole idea misconceived as though in today’s advanced world a catechism would impede, rather than assist, knowing and living the Christian faith.

My own approach as the then-editor of the Western Catholic Reporter in Edmonton was to write a lengthy series of articles on the content. One of my goals was to present the Catechism’s teachings in the light of personal experience. That idea was misconceived as the Catechism, for the most part, did not lend itself to such treatment.

Nevertheless, those articles were well received by our readers and received extensive online interest from throughout the English-speaking world.

Now, one does not hear so much about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. My own articles were removed from the Internet after the newspaper was shut down five years ago. The Catechism is used as one resource among many and has not been forgotten. My sense though is that it no longer has the exalted place in Catholic life which Pope John Paul II envisioned for it.

Indeed, Pope Francis has encouraged us to move from an intellectual understanding of the faith to putting faith into action. The Church is a field hospital which heals a broken world. She is governed by an “unruly freedom of the Word” which grows even as the farmer sleeps. Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel is a much different sort of “catechism” than Pope John Paul’s sure norm for teaching the faith.

Still, these two approaches to catechesis should not be at odds. Propositions, by themselves, do not give life. But a knowledge of the fullness of the faith should make us both more devout and more engaged in the world. Indeed, we need sure norms to prevent us from falling into one form of fanaticism or another.

The Vatican II document on divine revelation also put aside the notion that there are two sources of revelation — Scripture and tradition. Both flow from one wellspring, the person of Jesus Christ. To be real, our faith must be relational; it must also be informed. We nurture our relationship with Jesus through prayer, especially meditation, study and action.

Lay people have a vocation to be priests, prophets and kings. A priest offers spiritual sacrifices to the Lord through prayer, family life, work, relaxation and participation in the liturgy. Prophets lead others to the faith through both words and actions. Kings — we need a better word — transform institutions so they promote both social justice and personal virtue.

God has made known the mystery of His will through Jesus Christ. Jesus who proclaimed Himself the way, the truth and the life. Early Christians were known as followers of the Way. To be a follower means to be in relationship with Jesus, and any relationship requires knowledge of the one you are with.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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