Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Catechism of the Catholic Church: What's Not Perfect?

Over the last few weeks I have been reading a book which I should have read long ago, which I borrowed from my brother, John, who received it from a friend (along with several boxes of other, very good, works). It is the extended interview with German journalist, Peter Seewald, published by Ignatius Press in English under the title Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997).

I have found the book very informative on a number of points, but today I wish to comment on just one.

In the section titled "The Prefect and his Pope", Seewald asks Ratzinger a number of questions about the Catechism, its contributors, the process of its writing, etc. Somewhere in there he asks: "Are there statements of formulations in the Catechism that you personally think are not entirely apt?"

To which the Cardinal responds: "Yes. Not everything turned out equally well. That's clear." (p.91)

That admission struck me forcefully. I myself have noticed small things which caused me to scratch my head (for example, the supposed "quote" from St. Augustine about "he who sings, prays twice", where tracing through Augustine's works referenced by the footnotes results in no such quote at all!), but none of them was so egregious as to cause alarm. So, I wondered if Ratzinger would be sharing with us, the parts he found less successful than others. But, he was not going to do a book review within an interview, so there is no list of "unsuccessful efforts". But then, reading between the lines, one does appear.

Seewald: Could you name a passage?

Ratzinger: "No. I can't say off the top of my head." And adds that the Catechism, "on the whole is a very thorough and good work, also a very readable one." (Ibid.)

A little later, Seewald asks him: And what do you find particularly successful about the book?

Ratzinger's full response to this question is: "First of all, I believe that the introduction, which deals with faith, turned out very well. Large parts of the section on the Church and the sacraments turned out very well, and the whole theology of the liturgy -- really good liturgists collaborated on that -- is very beautiful and vibrant. And the part on paryer has a style very much its own. I think it turned out well." (p. 92)

A quick overview of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will show that of its main sections, the only one which he fails to mention in his response is the section "Part III: Life in Christ", which covers the principles of morality, and the moral law.

I cannot read Joseph Ratzinger's mind as to why he did not want to give high praise to the section  of the Catechism on the Moral Life (surely parts of it are rather well done). As a professor, his main areas of "expertise" were Fundamental Theology and Systematic Theology. As a bishop, and Prefect of the CDF, however, he was very attentive to questions arising under Moral Theology, especially in the area of bioethics, which have been very pressing since he took on that task for the Pope.

However, as a guess, I would think that the Catechism does not quite succeed in doing what St. Thomas Aquinas succeeded in doing in the Summa Theologiae, which was to base the moral norms on a firm and extensive analysis of the dynamics of human acts. Clearly some effort was made in this direction, but at the end of the day, it seems that to be comprehensive, some shortcuts needed to be taken lest the work take up too much space.

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