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Defending the Catechism against the Calendar

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 10, 2014

It is noteworthy that Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller defended the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a recent address at St. Patrick’s College Seminary in Maynooth, Ireland. And it is telling that he spent a significant amount of his speech refuting two false ideas: (1) That the Catechism was “an imposition of the Roman Curia”; and (2) That the Catechism is “now obsolete”.

Cardinal Müller is the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and was named a cardinal by Pope Francis this past February. He has been an active and even vigorous prefect. In hindsight it is almost humorous to look back on the charges from the semi-Catholic right, immediately following his appointment, that he was a hopeless liberal and a threat to the Church. His defense of the Catechism once again proves him to be a man of the Church.

The Catechism is not perfect, of course. Despite the size of the project, it does not purport to cover every question. Nor does it consider those it covers from every conceivable perspective, for it cannot provide a full theological treatise on each point. It is, after all, a catechism, even if it is a remarkably rich one. Its organization and emphases are naturally influenced by concerns prominent at the time it was promulgated. Moreover, it does not always express everything in the most precise possible way. The famous section on lying, for example, leaves a number of questions unanswered; in another case, the section on capital punishment fails to make clear distinctions between doctrinal points and prudential judgments.

Sometimes a lack of desired precision stems from the fact that the Church simply does not know everything, or at least not yet. For example, as the history of the text on lying makes clear, the Church has not yet found a perfect vocabulary to explain why it is sometimes possible to speak falsely without sin. Various theological efforts have been made (for example, theories of mental reservation or considerations of the right of the person to know the truth—the latter having been included in the original French text), but none were endorsed in the definitive Latin edition. We do have similar vocabularies in some other areas. For example, it has been certain for a long time that “stealing” is taking something “to which one has no right” (hence a starving person can “steal” food—that is, eat what belongs to someone else—without sin). Similarly, we distinguish easily between killing (which may be moral) and “murder”, which never is.

The treatment of the salvation of unbaptized infants provides another instance in which we should love to know more. It used to be an extraordinarily common theological opinion that this problem could be solved by the concept of limbo (a place of natural happiness reserved for those who were not guilty of sin yet were not preconditioned by Baptismal grace to enjoy the vision of God). But the Church never actually defined limbo, and most theologians now prefer to leave the question to God’s mercy, acknowledging His ability to accomplish in other ways what He ordinarily accomplishes in one specific way. The Catechism admits the Church’s ignorance. It does not mention limbo; it mentions hope.

Modernism

But it is one thing to read the Catechism with an awareness that it is neither perfect nor beyond time and quite another to read it (or rather ignore it) as a Modernist. Modernists (along with all those who think like them even without knowing what the term means) depend not on Revelation but on the leading ideas of their own culture for the content of “faith”. The theory is that God’s self-revelation must be mediated to us through human culture, and so each culture embodies the truth about God in its own way, all equally valid. The result of this oversimplification is a religion composed of all the latest ideas.

Of course, the initial Modernist perception, that Revelation must to some extent be mediated through culture, is certainly true. If it were not, it is difficult to see why God would have bothered to become man. But the conclusion that every human culture’s predominant values must therefore be equally valid representations of the Divinity is certainly false. It confuses cultural differences with the actual inability to know the truth. It also denies the role of the Church in correcting and purifying the various misconceptions and errors in all cultures which obscure the transcendent realities which Our Lord suffered so much to clarify.

In other words, the Modernist tends to think Revelation does not really work. Religion for the Modernist is built from the ground up, in the conviction that our own cultural perceptions of God and the good are necessarily most suitable for us. It is a pleasant little exercise, but one observes in the history of Modernism a distressing preferential option for the fashionable, which rather gives the game away.

In any case, Modernists are put off by the Church’s claim to an objective spiritual authority. They do not understand that God makes Himself immanent so that we can become transcendent. And so they dismiss the Catechism, like every form of precise Catholic teaching, as simply the product of the outworn culture of the Roman Curia, which the truly up-to-date person cannot understand. We need hardly add that the Modernist’s own rule is to always embrace the very latest rationalizations. And the Modernist’s worst criticism is that something is out of date. The Catechism was apparently out of date even before the project was conceived.

I think it noteworthy that the head of the CDF still thinks he must spend time refuting the Modernists. A close reading reveals that he frames his arguments in a much broader context, addressing no particular party, but rather speaking to a series of concerns which really are deeply ingrained in the way we moderns think. There is no question that this is valuable; it is also well done.

At the same time, it is somewhat comical that so many critics of the Catechism seem to take the calendar for their Ouija Board. They believe whatever they want, but always justify it based on the mantra that “it is 2014, after all”—or whatever the latest and greatest year happens to be. To take a page from the same book, this is so seventies. Our culture desperately needs to grasp the non-chronological essence of the truth.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: lawrence_mosher4475 - Jun. 17, 2014 10:35 AM ET USA

    Thank you Jeff for presenting this topic of Defending the Catechism today. I am crushed that the thought of 'the Catechism' being outdated is even a talking point today. When was the second edition of the Roman Catholic Catechism published? What in it would be identified as something that would make this an outdated publication of our faith?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jun. 11, 2014 8:04 AM ET USA

    Excellent article. The last paragraph reminds me of Chesterton's description of Modernists: "...people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday."

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jun. 10, 2014 5:53 PM ET USA

    Very reassuring.

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