Can the Catechism Get It Wrong?

In the wake of the amusements surrounding the Vatican’s Amazon Synod, Pope Francis made an important statement at the conference of the International Association of Penal Law on November 15. Thereat the Holy Father declared: “We should be introducing—we were thinking—in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the sin against ecology, ecological sin against the common home, because a duty is at stake.” Those who were annoyed at the statement were so for one or both reasons: 1) making things the object of sin; and 2) that the Pope was threatening to alter the Catechism of the Catholic Church upon a whim—yet again.

The first time His Holiness essayed a move in this direction was in August of last year, when Francis decided to change point 2267 of the Catechism. At the time it read thusly: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

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“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’ ” The encyclical of St. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, was specifically cited as “backup.”

Francis decided unilaterally to alter that section of the Catechism to read: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

“Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” The quote was attributed to “FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.”

Just as with Francis’s “ecological sin” enthusiasm, criticism was twofold—against the novel teaching itself, and against the alteration to the Catechism. For many, the Pope’s apparently arbitrary alterations to what they considered an authoritative guide to the Church’s teaching undermined that authority itself—reducing Church dogma to a mere party line created at will according to one man’s whim. Indeed, were the Catechism that, its alteration would indeed be a fearful thing. But it is not.

Regardless of what one makes of Pope Francis’s new teachings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not really—of itself—an authoritative expression of essential Church dogma; no catechism is. What is written of itself in Paragraph 8 in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is worth restating here: “In studying this Compendium, it is good to keep in mind that the citations of Magisterial texts are taken from documents of differing authority. Alongside council documents and encyclicals there are also papal addresses and documents drafted by offices of the Holy See. As one knows, but it seems to bear repeating, the reader should be aware that different levels of teaching authority are involved.” So it is with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It contents are carefully footnoted, and equally as varied in levels of teaching authority as the documents cited in the Compendium. Certain sections of the Catechism are not even taken from such sources but were simply composed by the authors of the work. As ought to be well known among Catholics, any teaching conveyed by a lesser level of authority that appears to contradict one of greater authority is to be ignored. It falls to the critics of Pope Francis’s alterations to the text that such is the case here.

At this point, one might well ask whether there is such a thing as an authoritative catechism. There is indeed—the Catechism of the Council of Trent, also called the Roman Catechism. Innumerable popes have praised it: Leo XIII called it “that golden book, the Roman Catechism,” a “precious summary of all theology, both dogmatic and moral.” For St. John XXIII, it was “the Summa of pastoral theology.” St. John Paul II declared that “the Council of Trent . . . lies at the origin of the Roman Catechism, which . . . is a work of the first rank as a summary of Christian theology [and] gave rise to a remarkable organization of catechesis in the Church.” But its authority, as with the CCC, does not come from itself, but from the fact that for the most part it is made up of quotations from the infallible doctrinal declarations of the Council of Trent itself. Where it is not, there has been room for error, as shown in 1947 when Venerable Pius XII corrected its assertion that the Presentation of the Instruments is necessary for the validity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. When not repeating prior infallible teaching, any catechism—including the Roman—is on its own.

Does this mean that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is without value? By no means. It engages many questions not addressed by Trent, and in such areas also relies upon the faith and witness of the Eastern Catholic Churches. But it should be used in tandem with more authoritative works, such as the Roman—and discounted if it disagrees with them. Pope Francis may or may not be contradicting prior Church teaching in the changes he has made and apparently wishes to make in the CCC. If he is, it is not in a truly authoritative arena.

Photo credit: Vatican Media/CNA

  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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