We are currently witnessing the greatest catechetical crisis in the history of the Church.
In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to change its teaching on the death penalty—a controversy that continues to be challenged by cardinals, bishops, priests, and theologians around the world.
But that was just the beginning. In addition to warping the very theology of the ordained ministry in his latest motu proprio, Francis is also on record as intending even more “updates” to the CCC that will include changes to its teaching on just warfare, and the inclusion of novel language about “ecological sins.”
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Who knows? The Catechism could soon teach that it is sinful to own an air conditioner.
Far more troubling, however, is the Pope’s recent endorsement of homosexual civil unions, which may soon find its way into the CCC as well. For, as the Vatican’s 2020 Directory for Catechesis recently announced: “The [CCC] is therefore not a static expression of doctrine, but a dynamic instrument,” (n. 192) thus making it subject to perpetual revision at the whim of whoever wears the white.
It seems that the content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is now entirely up for grabs.
The clearest acknowledgment of this newfound “evolutionary” approach is the fact that the Vatican Directory for Catechesis itself includes a highly revealing footnote within the section on capital punishment. After citing Pope Francis’ unprecedented new teaching on this subject, the footnote reads (emphasis mine): “Cf. also CCC 2267 (new edition August 1, 2018).”
Imagine that! In a bizarre impersonation of Protestantism, Catholics everywhere will now need to own the most current edition of the CCC, in order to ensure that the changeless teaching of Jesus Christ hasn’t suddenly changed under their very feet: “Oh, you have the 1997 edition of the Catechism? Sorry, we don’t believe that anymore. Check the new edition.”
CATECHISMS SHOULD CLARIFY, NEVER CONFUSE
To use any catechism as a vehicle for constant “development” in this way, tinkering with it whenever it serves popular opinion or the passing fancy of liberal elites, undermines the usefulness of that particular document. It also causes grave scandal and confusion about the abiding constancy of Catholic doctrine as a whole. As Raymond Cardinal Burke, Prefect Emeritus for the Apostolic Signatura, stated so simply: “If the Catechism can be changed by [Francis] in this way, where does that leave the infallible teaching of the Church before? That’s the whole point.” (Marian Catechist Weekend, July 21, 2019).
Indeed, as Saint Paul reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8) The doctrine that Our Lord entrusted to his Apostles does not change from age to age or place to place. This is why, in the latter part of the 19th century, the First Vatican Council thundered against any who would seek to alter Catholic teaching to suit modern sensibilities:
The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed, is put forward not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly promulgated. (Dei Filius, Ch. 4)
Even so, because catechisms are not infallible documents in themselves, the Vatican’s new approach of constantly revising the CCC will be highly effective in misleading those who still innocently believe that the CCC is the authoritative lodestar of Catholic orthodoxy—an inerrant compendium of Catholic faith and moral teaching.
To make matters worse, there are innumerable local and regional catechisms, textbooks, and teaching aids that are modeled on the CCC, using it as their chief point of reference: all of these must be updated as well. For example, the US Bishops’ Catholic Catechism for Adults, having been recently revised to match the CCC’s latest evolution on capital punishment, was rather embarrassingly admitted by Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles as employing “eloquent ambiguity” in its teaching—as if the purpose of a catechism was to confuse, rather than to clarify the teaching of Christ and his Church! A true catechism crisis, if ever there was one.
The doctrinal instability, inherent in the CCC and so many other texts that rely on it, has left men and women both inside and outside the Church wondering: “If these more recent catechisms are unreliable, are there any older catechisms that we should turn to instead?”
The simplest answer is: “Yes, all of them.”
RESTORING THE PERENNIAL CATECHISM
Even many Catholics are surprised to learn that thousands of different catechisms have been issued by the Church’s teaching office throughout the centuries, and that these display a remarkable continuity of teaching from one to another.
But such continuity ought not surprise us. Christ committed to His Church a single, “defined body of doctrine, applicable to all times and all men,” (Pius X, Lamentabili Sane, n. 59) and we should expect this doctrine to peruse not only decades, but entire centuries of Catholic catechisms. In it, we discover harmonious agreement and unbroken continuity on all matters of faith and morals.
When Catholic bishops spread across the nations and throughout the centuries offer a unified voice to their teaching office in the catechisms officially approved by them, this is an authentic expression of the Universal Ordinary Magisterium. It is an organ of infallibility, and an effective antidote in our own time against the erroneous notion (long since condemned by the Church) that dogma can “evolve.”
A recollection and renewal of these traditional catechisms—the “perennial catechism,” as it were—can offer a reliable reference point to Catholics today, who are too often confused and scandalized by the ambiguities and errors of many prelates. Written for every level of age and understanding, the catechisms of yesteryear offer a clarifying and stabilizing force in our age of confusion and upheaval; a sure reference point for any Catholic wishing to learn the Faith and hand it on to others.
If I may be so bold, this is precisely the vision behind a project I’m involved in, the nonprofit Tradivox. Tradivox is currently working to research, restore, and republish scores of these priceless catechisms from the last millennium as one cohesive series: the Tradivox Catholic Catechism Index—a project that, in the words of Bishop Joseph Strickland, “promises to be a treasury of truth and tradition that is desperately needed in the world today.”
In a time when even prelates of the highest rank may falter in handing on the immutable truths of Catholic faith and morals, Catholics should seek to follow the “perennial catechism” of bishops and councils from across space and time, and allow them to speak for themselves. He that has ears, let him hear!
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