Catholic Disagreements and the Catechism's 25th Anniversary

This year marks the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s 25th anniversary, and I believe its silver year is one worth celebrating. I realize that my estimation is not shared by all in pastoral ministry nor in the academy. The word “catechism” elicits disdain for some, evoking preconciliar memories of rote memorization of endless questions and answers, an overly cognitive approach to religious education, and days marked by clericalism and passivity in the laity. Underlying these are problems more theological in nature: a universal catechism seems incongruent with a world marked by cultural relativism, and it manifests, or so the claim goes, an ill-conceived and outdated understanding of revelation as static and propositional. Isn’t the “universal” a Platonic leftover from earlier days, now understood only to be manifest in the particular? Or, more extremely, does universal truth even exist at all? Furthermore, isn’t truth subject to praxis, the only way of semi-empirically verifying the claims of any person or authority? These concerns are legitimate in the sense that those who voice them often do so from a love of the faith and concern for those to whom we hope to hand it on. Thus, to defend my assertion that the Catechism’s anniversary is one worth celebrating, I engage these challenges below

The Universal and the Particular

The relation of the universal to the particular is a knotty philosophical issue that is both tied to and transcended by theological discourse. To use a fairly recent example: around the turn of the millennium, the two eminent churchmen, Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper, debated the relation of the universal Church to the local churches.[1] The debate was not one confined to the ivory tower but was bound up with concerns over Roman centralization and the freedom of local churches to exercise varying pastoral practices. For Ratzinger, the universal Church has priority over the local churches, both ontologically and temporally, the first because God had the Church in mind “before the foundation of the world,” as Ephesians 1:4 puts it, and the second because the narrative of the gospels and Acts places the universal into the realm of the concrete—the Church that first enters into history is universal and not merely local. The apostles bursting forth from the cenacle at Pentecost could, by the power of the Spirit, proclaim the Gospel to all people. For his part, Kasper believed that this dual priority lent itself to an overreach by Rome. Local churches should be free to exercise their pastoral ministry without Roman approval. There is no concretization of the universal Church with which all particular churches must commune, Kasper argued, for the universal is only present within the local churches. The impetus for his position was not theoretical but practical. In 2001, Kasper wrote:

I reached my position not from abstract reasoning but from pastoral experience. As the bishop of a large diocese, I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church. A large portion of our people, including priests, could not understand the reason behind the regulations coming from the center; they tended, therefore, to ignore them. This happened concerning ethical issues, sacramental discipline, and ecumenical practices. The adamant refusal of communion to all divorced and remarried persons and the highly restrictive rules for Eucharistic hospitality are good examples.[2]

It is important to note that Kasper’s words prove that what is seemingly a new debate in our own day—the varying interpretations of Amoris Laetitia’s eighth chapter—is actually one that began closer to the turn of the millennium. At stake is the issue of how the doctrines of the Church can be “applied” to varying pastoral situations. It is not a coincidence that Kasper’s ecclesiological argument then was squarely tied to the same concern he voiced at the more recent synods on the family, and at the heart of both is the fundamental relationship of the universal to the particular.

This ecclesiological debate can act as an entrée to a discussion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, since the same fundamental concern was prominent in the discussions for and against a universal catechism that took place during the lead up to Vatican II. Prior to the start of the Council, the central commission had asked that plans be made for the creation of a new catechism, something that had been spoken of at Vatican I but that had not been seen since Trent’s Roman Catechism. So, too, did the commission representing the Eastern Churches—who presumably would have just concerns with maintaining ecclesial diversity—put forward a request for a universal catechism in hopes of ensuring unity among all the Churches. The preparatory commission assigned to handle the requests responded, however, with plans to draft a catechetical directory instead, a document that would serve as a collection of guidelines for catechetical content and method, which could be adapted to the various needs of the local churches.[3] Ultimately, this decision was accepted by the Council Fathers as is evidenced in Christus Dominus no. 44, which mandated the creation of what would eventually be the General Catechetical Directory of 1971. A trajectory seemingly began in which the needs of the particular made the priority and historical concretization of the universal untenable.

It is true that the Council’s decision in no way halted the creation of catechisms, though the ones that were to appear in its wake were decidedly national rather than universal. Most notable in this regard was the 1966 “New Catechism,” which the Dutch bishops intended to be modeled after the conciliar approach to the world. Its publication, however, caused no little debate. The document was, in Ratzinger’s words, “anthropocentric” and “post-metaphysical.”[4] Instead of proceeding systematically from first principles, it taught through description and narrative, attempting to adapt the faith to the modern world. In this sense, the catechism was an icon of the postconciliar era, and the ensuing discussions surrounding its adequacy once more raised the question of a need for a universal compendium of doctrine. This situation was one of many in which catechesis proved to be one of the most significant settings for the advances, renewals, and regressions that occurred in the aftermath of the Council.

The postconciliar popes themselves made catechesis and pastoral ministry as a whole a priority in their shepherding of the Church. For Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the conclusion of the Council and became its first papal interpreter, Vatican II’s aim could be summarized by one word—evangelization—and catechesis was, he explained, one aspect of this overarching ecclesial mission. He furthered this vision through the synods of bishops he called in 1967 and 1974, focusing on “preserving and strengthening the Catholic faith” and “evangelization in the modern world,” respectively. At both, the issue of a universal catechism was once again raised, but the bishops maintained the same trajectory as before. At the former, most agreed that the uproar caused by the Dutch catechism and similar developments could be settled by the directory called for by Christus Dominus. At the latter, the majority of bishops took the position that the differences manifested by varying cultures made the project of a universal catechism impossible. A young bishop from Cracow, Karol Wojtyła, was in the minority who thought otherwise.[5]

In 1977, the bishops took up catechesis directly as the topic for their general assembly. Predictably, talk of a catechism surfaced again, though the various discussion groups differed on the content and audience intended for such a project. When John Paul II ascended to the Chair of Peter in 1978, he inherited the duty of writing the post-synodal exhortation. In fact, the resulting document, Catechesi Tradendae, does not advocate the creation of a catechism, though in paragraph 13, it recalls Trent’s Roman Catechism and the fruitfulness of those like Robert Bellarmine and Peter Canisius who used catechisms to bring renewal to the Church at the time. In the same paragraph John Paul writes: “May the Second Vatican Council stir up in our time a like enthusiasm and similar activity.”[6]

A turning point came in 1985 when, twenty years after the close of Vatican II, John Paul II called a synod to assess the progress of the Council’s implementation. In the same way that Kasper’s book on mercy was a springboard for debate at our more recent synods, Ratzinger’s interview with Vittorio Messori (published in English as The Ratzinger Report) provided fuel for synodal discussion at the time. Twenty years had tempered his outlook on the Council: “What the popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity,” he reflected, “and instead one has encountered a dissension which—to use the words of Paul VI—seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction.”[7] The synod thus attempted to correct errant interpretations of conciliar teaching in hopes of reestablishing a fruitful path forward.

Theologically, the most prominent result from the synod was the use of “communion” as the optic by which to view the Council’s ecclesiology.[8] But pastorally, there emerged a reinvigorated call for a universal catechism, an issue seemingly raised again and again since the Council but never able to garner enough support. Twenty years removed and with the Council’s effects squarely in focus, the bishops finally recommended the creation of a catechism. John Paul II took up this recommendation, and the process began which would bring about the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

What had changed? Had Ratzinger’s position unfairly swayed the synod, as the editors of the international theological journal Concilium charged in 1989?[9] Had a new conciliar pessimism stunted the true “spirit” of the Council, attempting to cage it with rigid uniformity? The truth is that Ratzinger’s voice had always been measured in regard to a catechism. Detractors might be surprised to find these words written in an introduction to the universal Catechism, which he published in German in 1993:

I expressed the opinion that the time was not yet ripe for such a project, and I continue to believe that this evaluation of the situation was correct. Jean Guitton, it is true, is reported to have said that the present catechism comes twenty five years too late, and in a certain respect one may agree with him in this assertion. On the other hand, it must also be said that in 1966 the full extent of the problem had simply not become visible; that a process of fermentation had just begun which could lead only gradually to the clarifications necessary for a new common word.[10]

Thus, it took two decades of such fermentation to come to the conclusion that the time was right. But even more importantly, at the 1985 synod, it was not from the Roman “center” that the push for a catechism emerged. Rather, as Kasper, who was selected to be the secretary for the synod, reported: “This proposal in no way emanated from the Curia. It was not a product of the centralistic mind. The initial impulse came from the periphery, from the Third-World churches.”[11]

“Periphery” is a word that has gained renewed traction today with the papacy of Francis. At the 1985 Synod, the voices from the peripheries themselves made a powerful claim: to effectively reach the peripheries demands communion with a unifying force. This unifying center is not simply equated with the pope and the curia—a claim which Ratzinger stringently denied in his earlier debate with Kasper.  Instead, it is the eschatological gathering of all the saints with God and each other in Christ, a gathering which was present in the mind of God before creation and that exists now in seed as the Church and continues to grow unto the eschaton. This great universal communion has, however, concrete and temporally existing signs. The Creed and the Our Father, handed on and returned from the earliest days of the Church’s catechumenate, are surely numbered among them. So, too, is the pope who, as Vatican I taught, has “full and supreme jurisdiction over the whole Church.”[12] In 1992, when the work begun by the 1985 Synod was complete and John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he once again added to this list of “concrete universals.” The Catechism’s existence does not negate the need for the creation of local catechisms adapted to the contexts of different peoples, something acknowledged in Fidei Depositum, the document promulgated to commemorate its publication. But it stands as a testament to the universality of the faith handed on from Christ to the apostles and from their successors to the world. In the words of the aforementioned document, it takes “into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has intimated to his Church” and illumines “with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past.”[13] It is, thus, a “sure norm”—indeed a universal one—by which all particular experience can be measured. 

Truth and Praxis

Few would deny that doctrine “develops,” to use Newman’s term, or that the truth of divine revelation, precisely because it is so inexhaustible, pushes the Church to contemplate it anew and grow in understanding of it. To deny this would be to claim that not only does the Church hold a deposit of faith but that this deposit is static, holding a fixed amount of propositions from which we can only make deductions (in both senses of the word).

And yet, while proponents of such a position are few, those on the other end of the spectrum are many. Today, it is not uncommon to hear that the Church’s teaching not only develops but changes, and that the individual and social experience of modern men and women, in fact, demands it.  A brief perusal of many theological journals easily confirms this as a predominant view, but it comprises a longstanding tradition in catechetics as well. In 1964, a year before the close of the Council, the theologian and catechetical scholar Gabriel Moran wrote:

When the word “revelation” is used as a noun in the objective sense and when one asks where this exists, the only answer would seem to be: in the consciousness of man. Man does not believe in statements of truths, nor does he believe in events; he believes in God revealed in human experience and consciousness.[14]

Moran was reacting against both the neo-scholastic understanding of revelation as propositional and even the newer preconciliar biblical renewal that saw God speaking and acting in historical events. He preferred a more Rahnerian approach that placed revelation within or even equated it to the horizon of human subjectivity.

In the United States, Moran’s thought held pride of place and influenced American catechesis in the late 60’s and 70’s. A successor to this approach emerged, however, from the rise of liberation theology and its emphasis on communal praxis. The locus of revelation was broadened from the subjectivity of human consciousness to the experience of a given community and, in particular, the community’s actions toward self-liberation. While, theologically, liberation theology struggled against Magisterial concerns over the influence of Marxism and the potential for a solely horizontal construal of the faith, catechetically it became influential in softened form. In the 80’s, the work of Thomas Groome, for instance, advocated a “shared praxis” approach in which the story of salvation as expressed in scripture and tradition was brought into dialectical relationship with the “story” (i.e., life experience) of a given community of people to be catechized.[15] For Groome, in this exchange, not only must the praxis of communities be challenged by the Christian faith, but “symbols” of the faith (e.g., doctrines, prayers, traditional practices) are to be critiqued by this same praxis. The difficulty of this approach, of course, is not unlike that of theological scholarship which utilizes such “dialectical hermeneutics”: when the faith of the Church and the actions of human beings conflict, which becomes normative for the other? To be fair, Groome acknowledges that when a person consciously rejects a dogmatic truth, the educator should privately tell the person so, and yet, at the same time, (manifesting a popular but incorrect understanding of the hierarchy of truths) he claims that the rejection of less central doctrinal tenets may be lauded as a manifestation of the “sense of the faithful” moving the Church to doctrinal change (a similarly popular but incorrect understanding of the sensus fidei).[16] Even more foundational dogmatic truths might be, according to this approach, rightfully rejected in formulation, though not in substance. One could, Groome writes, accept the teaching of Chalcedon while denying that hypostasis or prosopon be understood as “person.”[17] Less foundational doctrines, however, remain open to the critique of human experience—they can be “distortions” of the Christian message requiring the revision offered by communal experience.

Groome’s approach dominated much of catechesis in the United States in the 80’s, and there’s much to be commended in it, especially its emphasis on community as constituent to Christianity and its acknowledgment that conscious acts are formative of the person (an ancient idea only recently finding resurgence in pastoral theology and ministry). And yet its defects are, in my estimation, primarily two. First, the priority of praxis over truth ironically downplays the fact that the teachings of the Church are themselves manifestations of the praxis of the historical Christian community. As Chesterton so cleverly chided, if we are to subject the teachings of the Church to a democratic vote, the greatest share of the tally must fall to the “democracy of the dead.”[18] Yet, and this is the second point, this picture is itself incomplete, since it only moves the priority of praxis backwards in time, so to speak. The relationship of orthodoxy and orthopraxis is not ultimately a chicken and egg dilemma. One could follow the path all the way back to Christianity’s origin in the very person of Jesus Christ, and here alone are truth and praxis one in being—the Word itself became flesh, and every action of Christ was therefore a manifestation of the truth. But beyond Christ (and in a less complete way, the Blessed Virgin and the saints), human praxis fails to live up to the full potential of the truth. It, in fact, cannot do so apart from the helps of grace and divine revelation. Hence, attempts to hand on the faith that give priority to the praxis of a given community are in grave danger of being more Pelagian than Christian, and they risk conflating the revelation of God upon which the Christian faith rests with human experience itself. For Christians, divine revelation often challenges our experience where it is sinful, and even when it fulfills what is humanly good, it does so with a certain newness. Revelation comes upon someone like the dénouement of a great drama—it fulfills the experience of the narrative of my life, though my experience could never have anticipated it. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it even entered the heart of man” (1 Cor 2:9).

Because orthodoxy precedes orthopraxis, the Catechism is not an affront to human experience but a gift to it. The content of Christianity fulfills the desires of the human heart but it does so with utter newness, always calling one onward to the semper maius of conversion in Christ.[19] Witness is certainly essential for the handing on of Christianity, but this echoing of the faith also requires words. Believing requires hearing, Paul tells us in Romans 10:14, and it also demands instruction, as the Ethiopian eunuch expressed to St. Philip in Acts 8:31.

Let me be clear that in no way do I intend to demean the role of experience in catechesis or theology. The logic of the Incarnation insists upon attention to the heart’s desires and that we read the signs of times. But it is the truths of the faith that correct and fulfill those desires and illumine those signs, allowing one to discern good from evil and truth from error. The Catechism is a gift because the truth will always be normative for praxis, and not the other way around. In the end, we must come to grips with the fact that we see in a mirror darkly and, thus, while we can come to see God with more clarity as tradition progresses, we are still prone to find in the mirror not God but a mere reflection of ourselves.


The Catechism was born amidst controversy and, twenty-five years later, the same challenges that confronted it then remain and, perhaps, are even more amplified by our technocratic culture. Receptivity to the truth should always precede praxis. The faith of the Church, handed on over the centuries, requires steady and persistent contemplation. But, for us moderns, doing is prized over understanding—and why not, when the world is simply dubbed material to be manipulated, people and things are equated as objects for consumption, and our educational institutions are breeding grounds for pragmatism? The cultural forces at play coerce us into a posture of action and not contemplation, and to resist is necessarily to feel the constraint. Such constriction takes its ecclesial form, too, when Mary is excised in favor of Martha. But as Cardinal Sarah reminds us in his recent book, The Power of Silence, “We should always make sure to be Mary before becoming Martha.”[20] Prayerfully studying the Catechism can help us sit at the feet of the Master.

As a final word, let me anticipate some objections. My acknowledgement of the good of the Catechism is in no way intended to be the pouring of the ever ancient, ever new truth of the Gospel into old wineskins. I have no intention of returning to some illusive golden age. Quite often Christians all too easily subject themselves to the law of the pendulum, in which to acknowledge the importance of something at one of end of the pendulum’s arc is to reject the position at the other end. Preconciliar catechesis had swung the pendulum wide to the memorization of propositions, and postconciliar catechesis pushed it in the opposite direction to the realm of human experience. We cannot celebrate the Catechism by returning it to the opposite end. It would be an error, John Paul II taught, “to play off orthopraxis against orthodoxy [for] Christianity is inseparably both.”[21] So, too, do I deny the view which would see the Catechism as a cure-all for all of our catechetical woes. It is true that evangelization must precede catechesis, and that, even prior to this, the ground must be tilled for evangelization to take place. Similarly, the good work of those like Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life reminds us that knowing the faith is not enough, for it must be embodied in the liturgical and spiritual practices of a community. Both of these points I acknowledge and laud, and I incorporate these insights into my own teaching and pastoral work. But I continue to believe that, for all of those involved in pastoral ministry, the Catechism is an important gift that can inform every step of the ministerial process. Contemplating the faith helps one give it to others, and such contemplation is a necessary prerequisite for action. On this 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I pray for all of those involved in bringing the faith to others, that they might be successful in helping men and women enter into and grow in that communion with God that is found in the Church, and that they are aided in their work by the grace apart from which none of our ministerial endeavors can be fruitful.

[1] The debate was prompted by Ratzinger’s letter, issued as prefect of the CDF in 1992, to the bishops of the world concerning “some aspects of the Church understood as communion.” The closing arguments, so to speak, are found in Walter Kasper, “On the Church,” America, April 23, 2001, 8-14; and Joseph Ratzinger, “The Local Church and the Universal Church,” America, November 19, 2001, 7-11.

[2] Kasper, “On the Church,” 8.

[3] See Berard L. Marthaler, “The Ecclesial Context of the Catechism” in Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ed. Berard L. Marthaler (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 5-6.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dutch Catechism: A Theological Appreciation,” Furrow 22 (1971): 743.

[5] Berard L. Marthaler, “The 1985 Synod of Bishops: Catechisms Universal and Local,” in The Catechism Yesterday and Today: The Evolution of a Genre (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 134-135.

[6] Catechesi Tradendae, §13.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1985), 29.

[8] See Final Report, II.C.1.

[9] Johann-Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx, “Editorial,” Concilium 204 (1989): 4.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger and Cristoph Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 12.

[11] As quoted by Metz and Schillebeeckx in “Editorial,” 3.

[12] Dei Filius, session IV.3.9.

[13] Fidei Depositum, § 3.

[14] Gabriel Moran, “What is Revelation?” Theological Studies 25 (1964): 225.

[15] See Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1980); and Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1991).

[16] Groome, Sharing Faith, 260.

[17] Ibid., 261.

[18] G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1909), 85.

[19] See Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987), 345.

[20] Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (San Franciscao, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017), 28.

[21] Catechesi Tradendae, § 22.

Featured Image: Council bishops on Saint Peter's Square (1961, Italy) taken by Peter Geymayer; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Brian Pedraza

Brian Pedraza is Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, in Baton Rouge, LA, and is the author of Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience.

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