Living in Christ: The Catechism Reunites Morality and Spirituality

John Paul II asks that the new Catechism of the Catholic Church be received by “the pastors of the Church and the faithful in a spirit of communion and be assiduously used in accomplishing their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling all to the evangelical life.” How can we best study it in that “spirit of communion,” and of shared reflection?

As distinguished theologian Augustine De Noia, O.P., has remarked, Vatican II reflected two theological trends: aggiornamento (updating) and ressourcement (a return to the sources of Bible and Tradition). Unfortunately, the media, especially in our country, stressed only the Council’s updating and kept silent about its return to the sources. Now, De Noia suggests, over a quarter of a century after the Council ended, we are engaged in reaccentramento (recentering) to balance the two trends so that they complement each other.

The Catechism is such an attempt at recentering. It emphasizes the rich Catholic tradition, yet is not “traditionalist,” since it takes great pains to update this tradition in line with the Council. It recovers some of those elements of tradition which the Council did not have time to consider. For example, the Council said little about angels (though it recalled the reality of the devil [Gaudium et Spes, 13], and celebrated the good angels in the revised liturgy). So the Catechism explains the significance of the spirits in our spiritual lives (328-336, 391-395).

The emphasis of Vatican II was on two major points: (1) ecumenism, the reunion of all Christians and respect for other faiths; and (2) pastoral effectiveness, making the Gospel accessible to the people of our times. In these perspectives the Council saw it was not enough to rid the Church of some historic baggage; it was much more necessary to recover some of the essential but neglected resources of the tradition, which turn out to be highly relevant to such modern problems as the full meaning of baptism, communion under both kinds for the laity, the reading of the whole Bible in the liturgy, the permanent diaconate, etc. Providentially, before the Council, scholars had already rediscovered these rich resources for the Council’s ecumenical and pastoral work.

Among the most important examples of this “return to the sources” in the Catechism is the constant ecumenical reference to the Eastern Fathers of the Church and to themes especially favored in Eastern theology, such as episcopal collegiality and the centrality of liturgy. Common ground with the Reformed churches also is sought by stressing the foundation of faith in the Word of God, grace, and the primacy of Baptism and Eucharist.

Both the return to sources and pastoral efficacy are evident in the very structure of the Catechism. It is divided into four parts on the Apostle’s Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. From earliest times the Rites of Initiation instructed candidates for baptism in the Creed. The Creed is not presented in the Catechism as just a series of lifeless and abstract “propositions.” Rather, following Saint Ambrose (197, cf. 188), baptism and its creed is explained as the “spiritual seal” by which we recognize our fellow Christians in the communion of mind and heart. The Creed is in brief the story of how God has revealed Himself to us in His Son and empowered us by the Holy Spirit with the faith and love to recognize God in Jesus Christ.

The Creed as God’s Self-Revelation

The Catechism is intended to synthesize the content of catechesis for the universal Church, not to adapt it pedagogically to different audiences. That must be the task of local educators able to choose the language, order, and method fitted to particular audiences. Thus, the Catechism supplies the writers of catechisms with a wealth of insight to explain the Creed in a living way that relates us personally to the Divine Persons. Also, each section concludes with a few summary statements for memorization. Memorizing, often scorned in recent catechetics, need not be “by rote.” It can be a vital assimilation and interiorization of insights already experienced. The Bible and the liturgy were born of anamnesis—the recalling of God’s deeds and words.

Two aspects of this exposition of the Creed are of special ecumenical interest. First, the Catechism follows Lumen Gentium in treating the Blessed Virgin Mary in strictly Christological (484-511) and Ecclesiological (964975) contexts. Second, it gives extended attention to the role of the Holy Spirit (683-747) and shows (248) that the Eastern and Western traditions of Trinitarian doctrine are reconcilable.

The second major section of the Catechism deals with the Sacraments not merely in their diversity but in their unity as “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” that is, the “Paschal Mystery” of the Cross and Resurrection. This mystery is powerfully present in many ways in the life of the Church, but supremely in the Eucharist at the heart of the Christian community. No one who reads this section with an open mind can fail to be impressed by the radiant beauty of the Church in its sacramental life.

These first two major sections of the Catechism thus correspond to the two catechetical steps for baptism in ancient tradition: instruction in the faith prior to baptism, and the mystagogy of the newly baptized, i.e., their instruction in the meaning of the sacraments they have just received.

Living in Christ

The draft of the third section of the Catechism on the Christian life was severely criticized. Moral theologians today generally agree that between the High and Late Middle Ages there was a “paradigm shift” from the moral theology based on the primacy of love, taught by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure, to one based on the authority of law, taught by the nominalists. After the Council of Trent, this later, legalistic morality became fixed in the manuals for confessors. A return to the sources in moral teaching takes us back to Aquinas, to the primacy of love, and to a morality of virtue and character rather than of law and casuistic minimalism. Yet as the Catechism points out (2064-2082), we need to go even further back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus confirmed the Old Testament morality summed up in the Ten Commandments, but gave it a unique interpretation. He freed the Mosaic Law from its elements of concession and particularism and returned it to the universality of the order of creation. He reaffirmed the Commandments by explaining their inner spirit and unity in the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor. Thus, the Commandments retain their normative force but are freed of legalism. They become an instruction on how to love as God loves.

This part of the Catechism begins by presenting morality as a spirituality under the title “Life in Christ.” Its first section is “The human vocation: life in the Spirit.” Then it treats of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God, our vocation to eternal happiness, our freedom, the morality of our free decisions and our emotions, the formation of a healthy conscience, and the virtues and gifts of the Spirit which empower us for our life’s journey. Only after this positive presentation of the Christian life is sin treated, clearly and strongly, but in a single, relatively brief section, so that the emphasis remains on the good we are to do and to pursue, rather than the evil we are to avoid. The second chapter of this part on the human vocation places morality in the context of the community, and deals with the social nature of the person, participation in social life, and the supreme importance of social justice, leaving no room for a self-centered individualism.

The third chapter deals with the relation between the biblical categories of Law and Grace and Justification and strives to find common ground with the concerns of the Reformation, as when it says, “The preparation of the human being to receive grace is already a work of grace” (2001). Natural law is presented in the context of the biblical Old Law and the Gospel. While admitting that our knowledge of the natural law develops, the Catechism teaches that all human beings, past, present, and future, share the community of one human nature. Hence, some concrete negative moral norms, such as killing the innocent, are always, in all circumstances, wrong (1753). In making difficult moral judgments we need the light not only of our own consciences but of the guidance of the Christian community under its pastors. Nor can the Church’s work of evangelization succeed without the moral witness of its members.

The Catechism is careful to expound the specific responsibilities of the Christian—summed up in the norms of the Ten Commandments and reaffirmed and perfected in the Sermon on the Mount—only in the context of life in Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The first three Commandments look especially to our relation to God, the other seven to our relation to ourselves and our neighbors. The love of God is centered in the Celebration of the Paschal Mystery already explained. The treatment of the Third Commandment on the Sabbath and Sunday is an especially good example of the Catechism’s theological perspective. The obligation to attend Sunday Mass is presented in clear pastoral terms, but only after an ecumenical explanation of the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath and its relation to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

The Fourth Commandment comes first among the seven relating to love of neighbor, because “charity begins at home” and family life is a “domestic church” as well as the foundation of a just society. Thus, along with the teaching on the family is an instruction on citizenship. Under the Fifth Commandment, the Catechism deals with respect for human life, the right of self-defense, capital punishment, and the sins of murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide; then with respect for the reputation, health, and bodily integrity of others, the limits of medical experimentation, and care of the dead are discussed; and finally, war and peace. Wars of aggression, total war, the arms race, and genocide are strongly condemned (2313-2317).

The Sixth Commandment explains God’s purposes in the gift of sexuality, and the vocation of all to chastity in the various states of life. Homosexuals should be treated “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” but are not exempt from the norms of chastity that apply to us all (2357-9). The Catechism then deals with the love of married people and the regulation of birth through periodic abstinence, and explains how adultery, divorce, incest, and pre-marital sex undermine the family. The Seventh Commandment deals with the right of private property, ecology, and the social doctrine of the Church, the necessity of a productive economy, and international economic cooperation. This section takes into account the concerns raised by liberation theology, with its accent on the “preferential love of the poor” (2443-2449).

The exposition of the Eighth Commandment on truth-telling explains that liars cannot give credible witness to God nor live in covenantal trust with others. It first deals with “Living in truth,” then with “Witnessing to the truth” and the many ways of offending against truth, then with the rights to information and to confidentiality, and, finally, with the responsibilities of the public media. It ends with a section on the role of the arts, especially liturgical art, in presenting the beauty of truth. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments deal with the need for purity of heart: the Ninth with the purification of the heart from selfish lusts; the Tenth from envy and greed. Only with purified hearts are we free to love God with our whole being.

Praying in the Spirit

One of the justified complaints against the “traditional” moral theology was its separation from spiritual theology. As we have seen, the Catechism overcomes this by its emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in all phases of Christian life, but also by adding to the Commandments a lengthy fourth section on Prayer. This part is now not only a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer but an expanded treatise on the nature of prayer, the call of all creation to pray, prayer in the Old Testament, the prayer of Jesus, the varieties of prayer, the liturgical tradition of prayer, prayer and the Trinity, and the teachers of prayer. Another section deals with vocal, meditative, and contemplative prayer, the difficulties of praying, the efficacy of prayer, and the great final prayer of Jesus in the Paschal Mystery.

The very beautiful commentary on the Our Father is presented as (quoting Tertullian) “the summary of the whole Gospel.” It shows the eschatological orientation of the Lord’s Prayer, and also the way the first three petitions speak to love of God, the last four to love of self and neighbor for God’s sake. Thus throughout the moral and spiritual parts the Catechism maintains the Council’s pastoral stress by dealing in detail with contemporary problems and treating these not legalistically but in the light of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Hierarchy of Truths

Theologians will find many points in the Catechism they think they could have written better. For example, although it rejects a fundamentalist reading of the Genesis creation narratives, I would have liked a discussion of the theological implications of the theory of evolution on which the Catechism is silent. Nevertheless, the Catechism’s very title restricts it to presenting the doctrine of the Catholic Church in its present state of development, i.e., the consensus of Vatican II. The footnotes disclose that what is presented in the Catechism is the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium of the twentieth century, i.e., the documents of Vatican II, the papal encyclicals, and similar Vatican pronouncements. Theological theories that go beyond this ordinary teaching, or raise difficulties about it, may be and often are valuable, and after due criticism and consideration may finally win the confirmation of the Magisterium, but at present they are not “the teaching of the Church,” and rightly are not included here. No doubt this is why the Holy See has now set up a special commission headed by Cardinal Ratzinger to answer inquiries and perhaps make future revisions of the Catechism.

The earlier draft was criticized also for failing to recognize the “hierarchy of truths” mentioned in Vatican II. But are not the Apostle’s Creed, the primacy of Baptism and Eucharist among the Sacraments, the Great Commandment of Love and the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer primary documents of the Catholic tradition that would be basic to any sound theological determination of this hierarchy of truths? Other teachings receive their various degrees of certitude by the analogy of faith in relation to these fundamental articles of faith.

This seems to me a much more satisfactory way of indicating what is primary and what secondary in the Catholic Tradition than it would have been to attach “theological notes” of relative certitude to the various doctrines. In a sound Catholic faith the light shines clearly on the central doctrines and shades off gradually from what is certainly the Word of God to what is confirmed by the Magisterium as to be accepted not precisely on faith but on a faithful obedience to pastoral guidance, then to what is only theologically speculative, and finally to “popular piety.” It is the task of theologians to assist the Magisterium in separating the wheat from the chaff, but it would be expecting the impossible to demand that the Magisterium do this for every item of the tradition. The proclamation of the Word of God cannot be reduced to a new edition of Denzinger’s Enchiridion.

Of course the Catechism contains statements that will be hard for this or that person or group to accept, either because they do not seem to correspond with what they have come to believe through their education or their personal experience. For them, as for the apostles, a particular teaching seems “a hard saying.” Saint Paul found that his teaching was “to Jews a stumbling block, and to Greeks absurdity.” Thus, gays and lesbians will deem the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality “insensitive,” feminists will deem what it says about ordination to be “oppressive,” generals will object to what it says about modern warfare, businessmen about social justice, theologians about its “proof texting.” But we all need to be taught and guided in the path of spiritual growth, and to learn we first must listen.

To receive this Catechism of the Catholic Church “in the spirit of communion,” therefore, does not mean to receive it as if every statement is the revealed Word of God or incapable of revision. Yet while it would be wrong to brand every criticism of the Catechism as heresy, it also would be a sad mistake to pounce on its inevitable shortcomings while ignoring the splendid wealth of Gospel truth that it offers the reader.

My overall impression is that the Catechism has faithfully transmitted the great beauty of the Christian faith. As its introduction says, “Faith is our response to God who has revealed and given Himself to us and at the same time superabundantly illumined us in our search for the ultimate meaning of life” (26).


  • Benedict M. Ashley

    Benedict M. Ashley, O.P. (1915 - 2013), was a theologian and philosopher who had a major influence on 20th century Catholic theology and ethics in America through his writing, teaching, and consulting with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Author of 19 books, Ashley was a major exponent of the "River Forest School" of Thomism. Health Care Ethics, which he co-authored in 1975 and now in its fifth edition, continues to be a fundamental text in the field of Catholic Medical Ethics.

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