Among the memorable moments in my life is the day that Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, invited me to help preview the draft for the new Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. The French draft of the new catechism was ready for editing and those invited to participate in this final project were asked to offer precise and clear responses to a questionnaire designed to improve the English text.
As the work progressed, I worked closely with a group of other theologians, reviewing the sections of the catechism-draft pertaining to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Those were the days before the Internet was popular so the main source of information, even in matters dealing with theology, faith and religion came from magazines and newspapers. Each week we would read new criticisms leveled at the “catechism drafts.” One of the main critiques focused on how language was employed. For example, in the catechism, humans are referred to as “man” and masculine pronouns are used throughout the catechism text, especially when referring to God. This was dismissed by critics as proof that the new catechism was riddled with “sexist language.”
Most troubling was that some of the bishops, whose role it is to teach the faith of the Church with the help of reliable resources such as the newly-crafted catechism, even supported some of the catechism critics. One bishop denounced the catechism draft as “oppressively sexist.” Others were quoted as saying that the catechism was meant as a resource document “for bishops, priests, theologians and educators” and not meant for the ordinary lay Catholic. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, was responsible for coordinating the writing of the catechism document. He told students at the University of Rome that the draft, although still “imperfect,” was a “marvelous work.”
Cardinal Ratzinger was clever in seeking input from theologians worldwide to contribute their expertise toward the final catechism draft. His gesture toward Catholic theologians in this regard was similar to the role he played so many years before when he offered his expertise as a theologian at the Second Vatican Council. As well, his insistence in allowing the catechism to become a collaborative effort was consistent with the intent of Vatican II that advocated collaboration.
On a positive note, moral theologians praised the section of the catechism on the Ten Commandments, which treats questions of economic justice, international relations, human rights and the environment, along with more traditional issues of personal morality.
The genesis of formulating a new catechism for the 21st century began at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in Rome. Organized on the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul hoped that the Synod would better redirect the Church on a clearer course with regard to its theological and liturgical interpretations of the council.
According to author George Weigel, as highlighted in his 2005 book “God’s Choice,” the Synod bishops concluded that “a comprehensive catechism was indeed needed in order to redirect the Church along the intended path of the Second Vatican Council Fathers.” This conclusion, according to Weigel, was reached thanks to Cardinal Ratzinger’s similar conclusion in his 1985 book, “The Ratzinger Report.”
In the final report of the 1985 Synod, the bishops affirmed that the Second Vatican Council was “a grace of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit,” but, they noted, “partial and selective readings” of its 16 documents had led to a “superficial interpretation” of the council’s actual teachings.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul held a ceremony at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. In the official document or apostolic constitution called Fidei Depositum, in which the pope promulgated (officially published) the catechism, he stated the following:
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church … the publication of which I today order … 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 … [This catechism] is offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Jn 8:32) … lastly, it is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.”
Another memorable moment in my life was the day I was blessed to be in Rome on that beautiful fall day to witness this amazing moment in history, when the new Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated by the Holy Father, St. John Paul.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.