Twenty years after the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the New Evangelization

by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza


This address was delivered by Cardinal Maura Piacenza, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, on May 19, 2012, to a conference promoted by Alleanza Cattolica, Cristianità and IDIS (Istituto per la Dottrina e l’Informazione Sociale) held in Rome.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 19, 2012

Most Reverend Excellencies,
Honourable Gentlemen,
Dear Friends,

It is a pleasure for me to attend this Conference which, with admirable zeal, almost anticipates the Year of the Faith, introducing us to one of the two anniversaries that have determined its celebration: the twentieth anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which actually cannot be separated from the fiftieth anniversary of the calling of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.

In my talk I will focus on three aspects that I consider essential to the topic I have been asked to address: the relationship between the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, the reception of the Catechism and, lastly, the close link between the Catechism and the New Evangelization.

As a premise, I wish to underscore the Church’s awareness that no document alone, no matter how momentous, can bring about radical changes and evangelical reforms.

Documents are essential and support every true path of conversion and, therefore, of reform, by sustaining its motivations and providing indications, but the driver of personal and ecclesial renewal is always, surely and primarily holiness! Both the objective holiness of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, and the personal holiness of every one of its members.

If it were not so, even the New Evangelization, which has been the topic of discussion for over a decade now, officially since Novo Millennio ineunte, would risk becoming a slogan, demagogically repeated, having no genuine relationship with reality, with the concrete cultural, doctrinal and pastoral circumstances of Christian communities and local Churches.

1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council

One of the fundamental aspects of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that should always be borne in mind is its relationship with the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council. The Catechism is rooted in the Council, it arises and develops from the Council and is the mature fruit of the Council.

Any other reading would not account for the Church’s fundamental and universal effort to draw up such a “Summa of the Faith” as is the Catechism!

The Blessed John Paul II wrote in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum of 11 October 1992, “After its conclusion the Council did not cease to inspire the Church's life. […]. In this spirit, on 25 January 1985 I convoked an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the 20th anniversary of the close of the Council. The purpose of this assembly was to celebrate the graces and spiritual fruits of Vatican II, to study its teaching in greater depth in order the better to adhere to it and to promote knowledge and application of it. On that occasion the Synod Fathers […] expressed the desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine be composed […]. This catechism will make a very important contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council.”

The promulgation of the text, in the first edition in French in 1992 and in the Editio Tipica latina in 1997, is always accompanied by explicit references to the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, as if to recall the profound renewal it brought about within the entire Church.

From a theological standpoint, we are called to recognize that the resurrection introduced a new dimension of life and reality from which there emerges a new world that penetrates constantly into our world, transforming and drawing it to it. This happens concretely through the life and witness of the Church; actually, the Church represents the firstling of this transformation, which is the work of God, not ours, and that is where true renewal lies. The firstling of renewal, of the new humanity transformed by the resurrection of the Lord, is the Church. For us renewing society means promoting the spreading of the Church and renewing the Church means faithfully accepting the “novelty” it represents, by the will of God and His gratuitous and permanent gift of the Spirit.

So it is not surprising that the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council is mentioned whenever the Catechism of the Catholic Church is presented, for indeed the latter is to be regarded as its deep echo, mediated by the Church, and it could not be otherwise for only the Council has given the Church the strength to express, in a spirit of communion, its faith in a new – in the sense of renewed – Catechism.

All this holds true and can be readily accepted on one condition: that one really wants to discover, love and follow the Council and not one’s personal “idea of the Council”; that one wants to obey Vatican II and not that which has never been celebrated and lives only in the wishful thinking of a few.

The question regarding the correct hermeneutics of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, as it was raised in the famous address by the Holy Father Benedict XVI of 22 December 2005, when he clearly spoke in favour of the hermeneutics of reform in the continuity of the sole subject-the Church and criticized the serious damage produced by the so-called “hermeneutics of discontinuity”, also involves the correct interpretation of the relationship between the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Council.

This is not the place to get into a discussion that is so complex and calls forth such different and often clashing voices.

However, it is worth noting that what can be referred to as the Holy Father’s “government of thought” is slowly but surely bearing fruit. There are more and more circumstances, people, studies and even Chairs that deal with the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council and wish to do so in as scientific a way as possible, and especially free from ideological influences stemming from cultural and social circumstances, ever truer to reality, history, the texts and their subsequent reception, which is essential for a correct hermeneutics.

In actual fact, the Blessed John Paul II had already said about the Catechism, “It is a statement of the Church's faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. I declare it to be a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith. Therefore, I ask the Church's Ministers and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life.” (Ap. Const. Fidei depositum).

2. The reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This brings me to the second point I would like to dwell on, that is the reception of the Catechism, in relation to which I wish to offer some possible interpretations.

As I said, the reception of the Catechism cannot be separated entirely from the correct reception of the texts of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council; today there is still an “odd discontinuity” among those who are enthusiastic about the Council and refuse to accept the Catechism, which they regard as a betrayal of the conciliar doctrine.

We have to admit that, in numerical terms, although the media suggest otherwise, these people actually represent a small minority – “repetitive” more than “creative” – that is often unable to see in the development of the Church as a single body the contributions offered by the Spirit at different times and in different ways.

In most cases, all local Churches worldwide have welcomed the Catechism as a gift to Ministers and to the faithful, as a sure reference for local (national or diocesan) catechisms and as a barycentric factor of the Church’s faith.

We should not forget that twenty years ago the atmosphere was very different than it is today. Sociocultural changes have come about at very fast pace due to the speed of communication so that the cultural climate today is radically different than it was twenty years ago. The Church showed great strength and the Blessed John Paul II much courage when in 1992 the decision was made to publish the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

Over the past twenty years the pontifical Magisterium has also been widely received, which has constantly referred to the Catechism as well as to the texts of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council interpreted in the light of this reliable tool. It has exercised the same influence on the magisterial documents of the Curia and on the ordinary Magisterium of Ministers.

Instead, much remains to be done in terms of establishing the right relationship between Theology and Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although it is clear that the task of Theology is to deepen the knowledge of the Truth revealed and not simply to stress it, it appears that it has failed to offer its precious contribution towards deepening the reasons that underpin the doctrinal statements, and this can be regarded as a missed opportunity. Theology would probably be much more fruitful if it invested its energies in a less centrifugal and almost painfully marginal way with respect to the essential truths of our faith.

The instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the ecclesial vocation of the Theologian (24/05/1990), written by the then Prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an enlightening reminder of the unique and ecclesial role of Theology, and it would certainly be advisable to begin to establish, especially in Departments of Theology, actual Chairs on the Catechism of the Catholic Faith, its genesis, reception, development and especially its fruitful pastoral use.

As the Holy Father stated in the Homily for Chrism Mass last Easter, “All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: “My teaching is not mine” (Jn 7:16). We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are. Naturally this should not be taken to mean that I am not completely supportive of this teaching, or solidly anchored in it.” This last passage especially, which the Pope felt the need to underscore clearly, indicates what should be the position of every Christian and, a fortiori, of every priest, theologian and Bishop, towards the doctrine contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Being at the service of the Doctrine of the Church and identifying completely with it is an integral part of the Christian and priestly identity, which was also the theme at the core of the Year for Priests in 2009-2010.

The official process of reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is perhaps broader than the actual process of reception, especially on the level of communities, religious families, associations, movements, etc.. The Year of the Faith, called on the occasion of the anniversaries of the Council and the Catechism, also serves this purpose: to favour an even more extensive reception of the Catechism as a tool of sure doctrine and at the same time of correct hermeneutics of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.

Perhaps the time has come to say outright that those who state that “the Catechism has betrayed the Council” or that “the Catechism has regressed with respect to the Council” are grossly mistaken. Slogans such as these reveal a lack of understanding not only of what the Council is but also of what the Church, the Body of Christ, is. Similar statements come from circles that identify with the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture, which, as I said, the Holy Father pointed out as being responsible for generating serious confusion among the People of God.

I also believe that these attitudes do the worst possible service to the Council: both because unfortunately they favour contrary reactions that are likewise exposed to the risk of discontinuity, and especially because they do not allow one to calmly access the texts of the Council, address the ever-lasting Tradition and Doctrine of the Church, and accept the concrete way in which the conciliar texts have been received by the subsequent Magisterium, by the Servant of God Paul VI first and especially by the Blessed John Paul II.

A great deal has been accomplished but much still remains to be done in order for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be received correctly; the more we become engaged in this endeavour, the more it will coincide with the new evangelization.

3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the new evangelization

In the previously mentioned Homily for Chrism Mass Benedict XVI stated, “The Year of Faith, commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, should provide us with an occasion to proclaim the message of faith with new enthusiasm and new joy. We find it of course first and foremost in Sacred Scripture, which we can never read and ponder enough. Yet at the same time we all experience the need for help in accurately expounding it in the present day, if it is truly to touch our hearts. This help we find first of all in the words of the teaching Church: the texts of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are essential tools which serve as an authentic guide to what the Church believes on the basis of God’s word. And of course this also includes the whole wealth of documents given to us by Pope John Paul II, still far from being fully explored.”

So the Pope himself recognized the continuity of Magisterium among the texts of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and invited the Church to open the chest of the as yet insufficiently tapped treasure of the Blessed John Paul II, which is over twenty years old.

There are two aspects that characterize the relationship between the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the new evangelization which the Pope refers to in his Homily.

The first is reflected in the very words of Benedict XVI who stated that “we all experience the need for help in accurately expounding it in the present day, if it is truly to touch our hearts.”

The work of evangelization is therefore not simply a human “endeavour” but inevitably requires supra-natural help, which is manifested through the means (including the Catechism) that enable to transmit the faith correctly. Such a transmission must occur “in the present”, that is in day to day living; in this sense evangelization is ever new because it renews the proclamation of the Gospel in the present and at the same time it renews - “makes new” - those who are open to it.

Furthermore, almost with prophetic insight the Holy Father states that all this is necessary “if it is truly to touch our hearts” underscoring, always according to the principle of correspondence between one’s own life and the truth one believes in, that precisely in the act of evangelizing the Christian’s heart is touched and therefore called to renew itself.

In the light of all this, we have reason to hope that the new evangelization is not an effort to be made in years to come by means of more or less successful human strategies but on the contrary it will come about in the extent to which the entire ecclesial body shall profess its faith and is re-evangelized by its own profession of faith. The new evangelization will not be the fruit of the work of Ministers and the faithful but will coincide with the very act of evangelizing which, at the very moment in which it is performed, renews those who engage in it and instils hope in those who contemplate and accept it.

By analogy – please allow me this digression that has to do with my service at the Congregation for the Clergy – we could say that the new evangelization is somewhat like the exercise of the Ministry on the part of priests: it is not separate from one’s own person, identity and mission, but rather it coincides with them and, precisely by exercising the Ministry, priests profess their faith which is renewed and becomes evangelizing power.

The second aspect – which clearly brings into play the Catechism of the Catholic Church with all its doctrinal weight – is represented by the relationship between the announcement of Christ, welcomed as the Saviour and Redeemer of one’s existence, and the acceptance of what He revealed about Himself, the Father, the Church and man.

In other words, it is not possible to accept Christ without accepting what he has taught us about God; there can be no new evangelization separated from the truths of faith and from the doctrine, which flows from and sheds light upon them.

In this sense, the knowledge, spreading and progressive penetration of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into the fibres of the ecclesial fabric will already be the work of new evangelization, for it necessarily spills over into civil society, which needs to be re-evangelized.

The division into four parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – faith believed, celebrated, lived and prayed – which is faithful to and reproduces the outline of the Roman Catechism ad parrocos, drawn up after the Council of Trent, contains, in summary, what could be identified as the four fundamental directions of the new evangelization.

I believe that the four expressions of faith mentioned above correspond to the crucial directions to be followed in the new evangelization. Renewing the faith believed surely means, as suggested by the instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the Year of the Faith, also finding opportunities for public profession, without forgetting the deepening – also cultural – that is always necessary and that progressively educates thought, which, breaking loose from the links of the world, gradually begins to “reason” with a mentality of faith, translating into concrete experience the provident instructions of the Encyclical Fides et ratio of the Blessed John Paul II.

Faith celebrated, as pointed out in the second part of the Catechism, is a clear indication to rediscover deeply the sense of the sacred in all our communities that celebrate the Sacraments. The superficiality and at times even the trivialization of some celebrations have resulted in a loss of interest in ritual which, having lost its mysteric dimension, has also lost its meaning-making value. Those who believe that by reducing the dimension of the sacred and worship rituals become more comprehensible are grossly mistaken. There is a mysterious dialogue, brought about by the Holy Spirit, surely not by our “animated” celebrations, between the force of the celebrated Sacraments, the grace they give and the soul of every faithful. In the extent to which the local Churches and individual communities rediscover the deep adoring conscience of the celebrated faith, the new evangelization will gain great momentum for the faith celebrated according to the liturgical norms of the Church and in continuity with its uninterrupted Tradition is as attractive as can be and is in itself evangelization.

We know that the truth proclaimed must also be witnessed. Since its origins, Christianity has consisted in this profound union between truth proclaimed and love lived. Part three of the Catechism, if it is well understood, lends great support to a proposed lived faith which has in itself a great evangelizing force for, even without speaking, it exercises an unbeatable magisterium. Let us not forget that, in many cases in history, in order to silence the truth it was necessary to suppress not only those who proclaimed it but also those who lived it. So many martyrs, even today, have witnessed and witness faith! The inseparable unity between faith believed, celebrated and lived is therefore the main dynamic factor of the new evangelization. By believing, celebrating and living in a more authentic and faithful way, the Church will be able to renew its evangelizing force.

Finally – and with this I conclude – the prayer dimension proposed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church represents the axis, the lifeblood of the new evangelization. Nothing could ever happen, no matter our efforts, if everything did not spring from and return to prayer: standing before the Lord, as individuals and as the Church, carefully listening to His Word and His Will, for the Church and for the World.

Only prayer is the genuine reforming energy and it is quite difficult for those who do not pray to receive or rather attribute to themselves charisms of reform. The genuine reform of the Church is measured by its spirit of prayer, just as the new evangelization will be measured by prayer, which each of us will rediscover in his existence, listening to the voice of the Lord, spiritually united to the Apostles with Peter, at the Cenacle around Mary, Mother of the Church!

© Congregation for the Clergy

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