Rorate Caeli

“What Good is a Changing Catechism? Revisiting the Purpose and Limits of a Book” — Dr. Kwasniewski’s Chicago Lecture

Note: Below is the lecture I gave at the Union League Club in Chicago on Friday, June 14, 2019, as part of the lecture series of the Catholic Citizens of Illinois. My lecture could have been given the alternative title: “The Death Penalty for the Catechism? A How-To Guide for Excluding a Text from the Catholic Tradition.” Fortuitously, the lecture came at the end of an eventful week in Illinois and in Baltimore. On Wednesday, June 12, the state of Illinois disgraced itself by the passage of the most extreme pro-abortion legislation yet seen in the United States. Ironically, those who celebrate the indiscriminate murder of innocent children are usually opposed to capital punishment for guilty criminals, and the reasoning is consistent: the unborn, not having consciousness of their own personal dignity, cannot defend themselves, so the strong may do away with them at pleasure; but adults, no matter how wicked, are recognized as autonomous individuals with inviolable dignity who must be given free room and board by the state for the remainder of their lives. Then, on Thursday, June 13, the United States bishops voted, by a huge majority (194 in favor, 8 against, 3 abstentions), to alter the text of the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults to bring it in line with Pope Francis’s novel teaching on the death penalty. The revolution in moral teaching thus continues unabated.

What Good is a Changing Catechism? Revisiting the Purpose and Limits of a Book[1]

Peter Kwasniewski

What is a catechism? How would you answer that question?

A standard dictionary definition runs like this: “a summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians.” Wikipedia, which as we all know is hit or miss, does a decent job: “A catechism (from Ancient Greek κατηχέω, to teach orally) is a summary or exposition of doctrine and serves as an introduction to the Sacraments” and for the “Christian religious teaching of children and of adult converts. Catechisms are doctrinal manuals—often in the form of questions followed by answers to be memorized.”[2]

It seems to me that this is the answer of history, of Church practice, and of what we might call “supernatural common sense.” A catechism is a convenient guide to what the Church teaches; more than that, a guide to what she has always taught and will always teach. A good catechism is like a clean, smooth, untainted mirror that reflects the content of the Catholic Faith and nothing else.

A poor catechism—like the infamous 1966 Dutch Catechism that caused so much trouble after the Council—is, on the contrary, a cloudy, scratched, bent, or chipped mirror that does not lucidly reflect the Faith. Good catechisms preserve and pass on the teaching of Christ and His Church, while bad catechisms distort it, or one-sidedly exaggerate it, or muffle or silence it.

Francis’s change to the Catechism

On August 2, 2018, the world learned that Pope Francis approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church so that, whereas previously it admitted the legitimacy of capital punishment in principle while discouraging its use in practice, it would now exclude the legitimacy of any recourse to capital punishment, for any reason. The new text cites, as its only source, a speech given by the pope in October 2017 in which he stated that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel,” which means it must be an intrinsically evil action. In a meeting with 850 religious sisters of the International Union of Superiors General this past May 10, he doubled down: “I said clearly that the death penalty is not acceptable—it’s immoral. But, fifty years ago, no. Did the Church change? No. Moral conscience has developed.” This is only one of many statements in which the pope or his Vatican staff have breezily invoked “development,” as if this notion is automatically supposed to explain how we got from one position to its polar opposite.

Since the legitimacy of the death penalty will serve as my primary example today, I would like to start with an overview of the defense Christians have offered for it over the millennia, from the double vantage of reason and revelation.[3] Then, I will probe the question of what purpose a catechism serves, how the pope’s action undermines this purpose, and finally, what we should do as Catholics.

Natural law defense

A natural law defense proceeds on the basis of four truths.

First, God has authority over life and death. This is a crucial premise that liberalism has almost knocked out of people’s heads. Man has a right to life vis-à-vis his fellow men, but no such right to life vis-à-vis God, who is the author of all being and the source of all rights. God owes no man his life; it is a free gift. Moreover, human life is given with a purpose: to seek God and to be happy with Him. Therefore any man who turns against God by mortal sin has already forfeited his own life, and God with perfect justice could punish him with physical and spiritual death (i.e., damnation) at any moment. Scripture is clear that it is only God’s “patience” and mercy that give us many second chances before we are finally summoned to our particular judgment.

Second, the State’s authority derives from God’s, as the Magisterium teaches consistently and unambiguously, especially in the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. Thus, when the State coerces or punishes, it does so by God’s authority, not by its own merely human authority. Modern political philosophy, in the social contract theory, derives all political authority from the consent of the governed, and this ought to make the death penalty absolutely unacceptable. The social contract theorists find various ways to justify it anyhow, but this is irrelevant, since Catholics do not and cannot hold the social contract theory, but rather derive all human authority of any kind—spousal, parental, or civic—from God Himself.

Third, the State’s first and only obligation is to preserve and promote the common good of its citizens, not the private good of its individual citizens. Some crimes are so opposed to the common good that society cannot flourish without these crimes being severely punished and, to the extent possible, eradicated from the body politic. Traditionally, murder was seen as so opposed to the basic good of society that it warranted death, without further discussion.

Lastly, punishment is primarily retributive, not corrective or instructive or dissuasive. That is, the point of punishing a criminal is not to ensure that he becomes better (although we may hope this result will follow, as it often has), or to educate him in morality (although he probably needs it), or to dissaude him or others from further crime (although again we expect and rely on this effect). No. The point is to punish the doing of moral evil with a physical evil that corresponds to the gravity of the damage done to the common good. As the ancient Greek philosophers put it, someone who abuses his freedom by taking away someone else’s good deserves to have his freedom curtailed and to have some good taken away from him, up to and including the greatest physical good he has, his life in the flesh. If a crime is contrary to the very foundations of civil life, as murder is, the criminal deserves to be removed from civil life altogether. This may take the form of temporary exile, as when someone is incarcerated or sent away to a distant land, or permanent exile, that is, death.

The testimony of revelation

Can we say that this, too, is the teaching of divine revelation? Yes, without a doubt.

The Old Testament portrays God many, many times asking for the death of particular individuals at the hands of men, or requiring by law the death of certain kinds of sinners.[4] If Pope Francis were correct in saying that the death penalty is per se contrary to the Gospel, or that it is contrary to the dignity of the criminal, that would instantly result in Marcionism, that is, the heresy that the God of the New Covenant contradicts the God of the Old Covenant; it would require seeing the Bible in general to be erroneous because it never recognizes, indeed it contradicts, any absolute dignity in the human person that would be off limits even to God’s just sentence. Or if the pope would not say this about God, he would say it about the state, thus denying unanimous Catholic teaching about the state receiving its authority from God and acting as His representative.

But not even the New Testament teaches what the pope of mercy seems to think it does. In the Gospel of John 19:11, we read that Jesus answered Pilate: “Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” Here Jesus confirms, in words that have never given interpreters any trouble, that the power Pilate wields to have Him crucified has been given from above—in other words, the power of the civil authority to administer capital punishment comes from God, even when exercised by an imperial power in a usurped colony. Of course, Pilate’s sentence is manifestly unjust, but Christ does not question that he has received from God—indeed, from Christ Himself standing before him!—the authority that belongs to any public office. It is nothing other than this divine origin of power that requires of civil officials a total conformity to the law of God as knowable by reason and bestowed by revelation.

This truth is confirmed in the dialogue between Our Lord and the criminals on Golgotha, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, 23:39–43:

And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.

Here we see that Christ did not deny the words of the “good thief,” St. Dismas, who said about the death penalty: “we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” Then, this thief explained why it was a sin of Pilate and a greater sin for those who had delivered Jesus to Pilate: “this man hath done no evil,” as if to say: “had he done evil, his punishment would be just, like ours.” Then one beholds the manifestation of true mercy and justice by Christ, when he says: “Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” This came after Dismas had said to his fellow criminal: “Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation?,” and then to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.” Justice for the criminal; mercy for the one who converts. Isn’t this passage in Luke a fundamentally clear example of both justice and mercy in action?

The witness of tradition

Is my reading of the Bible idiosyncratic, or is it what we find in the Catholic tradition? To answer that question, we cannot do better than to turn to our greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, who writes in his Catechetical Instructions of circa 1260:

Some have held that the killing of man is prohibited altogether. They believe that judges in the civil courts, who condemn men to death according to the laws, are murderers. Against this, St. Augustine says that God by this commandment [“Thou shalt not kill”] does not take away from Himself the right to kill. Thus, we read: “I will kill and I will make to live” (Deut 32:39). It is, therefore, lawful for a judge to kill according to a mandate from God, since in this God operates, and every law is a command of God: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things” (Prov 8:15). And again: “For if thou dost that which is evil, fear; for he beareth not the sword in vain. Because he is God’s minister” (Rom 13:4). To Moses also it was said: “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” (Ex 22:18). And thus that which is lawful to God is lawful for His ministers when they act by His mandate. It is evident that God, who is the Author of laws, has every right to inflict death on account of sin. For “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Neither does His minister sin in inflicting that punishment. The sense, therefore, of “Thou shalt not kill” is that one shall not kill by one’s own authority.

Note that St. Thomas, in this typically compact, luminous, watertight argument, cites one of the heavyweight Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine, and half-a-dozen biblical texts.

Fair enough; but is St. Thomas to be taken as a reliable guide in this matter? After all, he was wrong about the Immaculate Conception, and a few others things, too. Well, the Church evidently thinks his arguments hold water, because in the other universal catechism published by a pope—the Roman Catechism of 1566, issued by Pope St. Pius V three years after the conclusion of the Council of Trent—we read the following rather bold appropriation of Thomistic reasoning:

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the commandment that prohibits murder. For the end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord” (Ps 100:8).

We are living in a world in which the word “catechism” immediately brings to mind a single book: The Catechism of the Catholic Church from 1992, revised in 1997.[5] As I just mentioned, however, this was the second universal catechism of the Catholic Church. And these two are not a solitary pair, like the Pillars of Hercules. There were a host of national or regional catechisms published in every language. Famous examples included the three catechisms published by the Jesuit St. Peter Canisius in Germany in 1555 in its long form, 1556 in its short form, and 1558 in its medium length form—the Papa Bear, Baby Bear, and Mama Bear of German catechisms for centuries to come. So popular were these books that the expression “knowing your Canisius” became synonymous for “knowing your faith.”[6] Other very popular works included the Baltimore Catechism of 1885, based on St. Robert Bellarmine’s Small Catechism of 1614; the The Douay Catechism of 1649; and the “Penny Catechism” of Great Britain from the start of the 20th century. Such books were translated into many non-European languages by the missionaries who planted the standard of the Cross on every continent.

How many catechisms were published prior to the Second Vatican Council, in all languages? Has anyone ever counted? Five hundred? One thousand? Now think of it: nearly every one of these catechisms would have stated that the death penalty is legitimate.[7] Let me offer just a few examples from a wide array available online: two from the 16th century, one from the 17th, one from the 19th, and two from the 20th.[8]

An influential catechism published in 1567 by Fr. Laurence Vaux nicely connects the rationales for civil and ecclesiastical punishments:

What is the fifth Commandment of God? Thou shalt not kill. That is to be understood: thou shalt not without just authority kill or hurt any man in body or in soul. And therefore both the Judge in the commonwealth does lawfully put offenders to death, or otherwise punish them bodily, and the Bishop does lawfully excommunicate wicked or disobedient persons, for the preservation of peace and tranquility in the commonwealth, and in the Church.

Fr. Henry Tuberville’s An Abridgement of Christian Doctrine from 1649 asks: “Is it not lawful to kill in any cause?” and responds:

Yes, in a just war, or when public justice requires it: “For the magistrate beareth not the sword without cause” (Rom 13:4). As also in the blameless defence of our own, or our innocent neighbour’s life, against an unjust invader.

The Baltimore Catechism of 1885 says, with admirable nuance:

Human life may be lawfully taken (1) in self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives; (2) in a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it; (3) by the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death, when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.

The beloved Catechism of St. Pius X, published in 1908, poses the question “Are there cases in which it is lawful to kill?” and replies:

It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.

Canon Henry Cafferata’s 1922 book The Catechism, Simply Explained, true to its title, simply explains the matter as follows:

The fifth Commandment forbids all wilful murder, fighting, quarrelling, and injurious words; and also scandal and bad example. Wilful murder is one of the sins crying to heaven for vengeance. Suicide, which is self-murder, is forbidden by this commandment. Also the direct deliberate killing of an unborn child. But it is not murder when the State executes a criminal; it has the right to do so. Nor is it murder when the State orders its armed forces to kill the enemy in a just war. And one may always kill in self-defence, when there is no alternative.

Believe me when I say that such examples could be multiplied all the day long. There is simply not the slightest bit of deviation from common orthodox teaching.

Adding Aquinas and the Roman Catechism, what we are seeing here, in seven exemplary texts from a span of 700 years, is nothing less than a glowing example of the universal ordinary Magisterium of the Church—namely, the verbalization of that which is taught and believed “by everyone, always, and everywhere,” displaying the three hallmarks of the Vincentian canon: antiquity, universality, and the consensus of authorities. As an online catechist reminds us:

Because Christ committed to His Church a single, “defined body of doctrine, applicable to all times and all men,” one should expect to peruse not only decades, but centuries of Catholic catechisms and theological manuals and discover harmonious agreement and unbroken continuity on all matters of faith and morals. And find it one can; for when Catholic bishops spread throughout the world and across time give unified voice to their teaching office in catechisms approved by them, this is an authentic expression of the universal ordinary magisterium, 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.

Evaluating Pope Francis’s change

Along comes Francis, and by a stroke of the papal pen—I had almost said magic wand—suddenly falsifies hundreds of other catechisms on a point of no small significance. Think of it: contrary to every catechism from ancient times to the Counter-Reformation down to the era of John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council, the “new and improved” Catechism speaks alone.

This, I would argue, is a sign of dangerous megalomania—the evidence of a pope disconnected from his office and from reality. And this case is far from unique: every week, it seems, gives us another example of deviation from the common heritage of Christians. A breathtaking example of episcopal and papal arrogance was given to us quite recently by the bishops’ conference of Italy, whose decision to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer was approved (as expected) by Francis—in spite of the fact that not a single theologian or scholar from ancient to modern times has disagreed even slightly about the meaning of the Greek text of the Lord’s Prayer recorded in the New Testament, which is precisely what the Church herself has prayed in Greek, Latin, Slavonic, and every other language, for 2,000 years without interruption. In other words, the Italian bishops and the pope have changed the Our Father to say something that it simply does not say, and in doing so, they have implied one of two heretical positions: either Our Lord made a mistake and was wrong in saying what He did, in which case He is not God, or the evangelists made a mistake in reporting His most solemn utterance on prayer and attributed something false to Him, in which case the Gospel text is not inspired by the Holy Spirit and is, as a consequence, not infallible and inerrant. A similar point can be made about the Italian bishops’ change to the opening words of the Gloria, which are taken from St. Luke’s Gospel. They have distorted them past recognition. A true Christian does not dictate to God what He should say, but humbly accepts His word, not only when it is easy to understand, but also, and even more so, when it is difficult, challenging, perplexing, mysterious, or strange.

I turn again to the death penalty. Pope Francis went so far as to dismiss his papal predecessors, some of whom actively promoted capital punishment in the Papal States, as “having ignored the primacy of mercy over justice.” Commenting on this astonishing statement, Fr. John Hunwicke said: “Dear dear dear. Pretty nasty, that. What silly fellows they must all have been to make such an elementary error. But Don’t Worry. All, apparently, can be explained by ‘development.’”[9] Never mind that in dismissing all of them at once, he is undermining his own authority. If all the earlier popes can be wrong, a fortiori Francis can be wrong—and, indeed, is far more likely to be wrong, with a witness of 265 against 1.[10]

The change introduced by Francis fundamentally misconstrues the nature and purpose of a catechism; indeed, it misconstrues the nature and purpose of papal authority. A catechism is not, and has never been seen as, an instrument for introducing novel doctrine or for pushing forward the so-called “development of doctrine.” It is not an opportunity for dare-devil avant garde speculative theology, or a trial balloon to see how the media or the masses will react, or a wedge to open up a “safe space” for further changes to doctrine or morality. Neither should it marginalize or silence unpopular truths by giving them short shrift or no shrift at all. A catechism’s function is far humbler: to pass on, simply, accurately, and integrally, the pre-existing teaching of the Church.[11]

As Edward Feser recently wrote:

What Catholics who are concerned about the revision to the Catechism want to know, specifically, is whether the revision is meant to teach that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil, and not just ill-advised under current circumstances. If that is indeed what is being taught, then that would be a direct contradiction of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, and thus would not be a true development of doctrine but a reversal or corruption of doctrine. Calling something a “development” doesn't make it a development, otherwise the Church could reverse any teaching at all—concerning the Trinity, the Resurrection, you name it—and simply label it a “development” reflecting a “dynamic tradition,” etc. The great Catholic theorists of the development of doctrine, such as St. Vincent of Lerins and Blessed John Henry Newman, are always very clear that a genuine development can never contradict past teaching.[12]

The false understanding of “development of doctrine,” in the name of which today’s churchmen contradict the plain meaning of Scripture as received by the unbroken tradition of the Church, was in fact condemned in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors under the following thesis: “Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to a continual and indefinite progress, corresponding to the advancement of human reason.”[13] This notion of endless “progress” always hides a form of relativism: we can never actually attain certainty of anything at any time, since we must await the latest deliverances of theologians or politicians who, in some mysterious shamanistic way, have access to the elusive “truth” called for by the “signs of the times.”

I think we can dig deeper into what is going on here. The death penalty vexes progressives and liberals because it reminds them of the existence of objective truths and absolute norms on which both justice and mercy are necessarily based; it reminds them of the final judgment each of us must undergo before the God of the Decalogue and the Beatitudes, the God who has revealed Himself in and through the “scandal of the particular”: in the Incarnation, in the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments, in the organic development of the liturgy. To face this most personal God, and to be judged according to His absolute and particular truth, is the unspoken nightmare from which liberals are running away in every direction, even at the cost of contradicting reason, sanity, history, reality itself. In this way, they have already chosen hell, although they do not yet realize it, since hell is the place of irrationality, insanity, meaningless repetition, and banishment from the God who is the most real and contains all reality in Himself.

As Joseph Ratzinger pointed out some decades ago, hell is already breaking into this world and annexing portions of it, as people increasingly abandon the protection of the Holy Cross, the name of Jesus, the sacraments and sacramentals, the sacred liturgy. We might say that Satan has established colonial governors in, just to name three of his colonies, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Democratic Party.

What is the value of the “new” Catechism?

Francis’s change to the postconciliar Catechism prompts another train of thought. What, after all, is the value of this very catechism?

Years ago, it was pointed out to me that the Catechism omits mention of the New Testament teaching on the headship of the husband in marriage—despite the fact that this teaching is given multiple times in the New Testament, with a clarity greater than that of many other doctrines we typically consider crystal-clear, and despite the fact that the doctrine was often repeated by the Magisterium, at least up through Pius XI’s classic encyclical Casti Connubii, where it was given a winsome interpretation: the wife is the heart of the family, as the husband is its head (with all of the responsibilities each of these roles entails!), and the wife owes him lawful and rational obedience, even as he owes her the highest respect, devotion, and love. Why was this aspect of Christian teaching on marriage omitted in what was purported to be a trustworthy guide to the Catholic Faith? Oh, feminism and things like that. How do we know? Because the Catechism dances around the question, cites NT texts adjacent to the “offensive” ones, and does all that it can to avoid bringing up the subject.[14] In short, it is embarrassed about a truth revealed by God, because that truth fails to harmonize with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

Should this bother us? Absolutely. If we discover only one important teaching that is missing from a catechism by design and not by editorial oversight, then in principle the reliability of this catechism is called into question. It is seen to be under the curse of political correctness to some extent—how much would be difficult to say without exhaustive study, but the seed of doubt is already planted. We start to feel that this guide may not, after all, be entirely trustworthy.

If I might digress for a moment: the same thing can be said of the omission of 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 from the reformed missal and revised multi-year lectionary. These verses of St. Paul state the following:

Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink of the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eatheth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord.

This passage—the clearest text in the Bible warning against unworthy or sacrilegious Eucharistic communion, a problem that has exponentially increased in the decades since the Council—was deliberately removed from the new liturgy, even though it had always been prominently present in the traditional Latin Mass, for as far back as we have records of the Church’s worship. Similarly, the omission of many psalm verses from the Liturgy of the Hours means that whoever follows these liturgical books no longer prays the Psalter as given by God. Such omissions, against the backdrop of a hitherto uninterrupted practice, call into question the value and legitimacy of the entire projects to which they pertain. At this point in my life, knowing what I do, I cannot trust the new lectionary or the new Liturgy of the Hours to give me an accurate formation in the Catholic Faith as received and professed by the Church from the time of her founding to the time of the Second Vatican Council. The lex orandi or law of praying was deeply modified, which means the lex credendi or law of believing has also been modified. The problems we are dealing with in catechesis are exactly paralleled by the problems we are dealing with in liturgy. It is all a single package deal, and the sooner Catholics realize this, the sooner they will stop pretending that they can have their cake and eat it, too—that they can entrust their minds to the Novus Ordo liturgy, while remaining, in the words of the Roman Canon, “orthodox believers and professors of the Catholic and apostolic Faith.”

To return to the Catechism of 1992, and the problem of tinkeritis: we remember how there were already changes to the new Catechism almost before its ink was dry. The second edition, published in Latin in 1997, featured a few substantive changes, including one already on the death penalty to reflect the liberal European manner in which John Paul II was thinking about it. Another change, on homosexual inclinations, was admittedly a significant improvement—and yet one wonders why the original editorial team, headed by Christoph Schönborn, later Archbishop of Vienna, would have expressed the point so badly to begin with. This doesn’t inspire confidence in the competence of the drafters. Indeed, in the case of Cardinal Schönborn, whom I admired and spent time with in the period between 1999 and 2006, we have seen a gradual decline into progressivism and outright heresy, especially on the subject of sexual ethics.

The “Church of tomorrow”

Since at least Dignitatis Humanae, there’s been a tendency to think doctrine is malleable, according to the whims of the reigning pontiff or the consensus of academic theologians. Back in the day, conservative Catholics tried to do this with social doctrine when they refused to accept John Paul II’s critique of certain aspects of modern-day capitalism in Centesimus Annus and other documents. Now, under Francis, it’s the liberals’ turn in the limelight, railing against the death penalty, but there’s been a general tendency for just about every modern school of Catholic thought to play this game. The ultimate source of this tendency is poor theology and even poorer philosophy; a refusal to acknowledge, on the one hand, that truth is a correspondence between thought and reality and, on the other, that the content of our faith is divinely revealed to us and is not subject to a process of mutation and evolution, no matter how many centuries we spend pondering its inexhaustible truth.

A friend recounted to me how a devotee of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a dazzling synthesizer of orthodoxy and modernism who could deceive even the elect, once told him that Balthasar’s concept of what our Lord did during His time in the grave on Holy Saturday couldn’t get into the Catechism right now, because it hadn’t been “received” yet, but in time it might. According to this notion of revelation, a theologian gets a brilliant idea; it catches on with other theologians; and after a time, lo and behold!, we have a new doctrine. Or perhaps just a “deeper grasp” of a doctrine, albeit one that actually contradicts just about everything held on the subject until now. One is reminded of the eulogy pronounced upon Teilhard de Chardin by one of his disciples, Henri Rambaud: “He was already thinking then what the Church did not yet know she would be thinking shortly. … Instead of being in agreement with the Church of today, he is in agreement with the Church of tomorrow.”[15]

If any of this were true, then nothing in the Faith would ever be certain; our house would be built on shifting sand, not solid rock. We know this to be false, because all twenty ecumenical councils prior to the sui generis experiment of Vatican II solemnly declared, in the name of God, binding dogmas of truth and condemnations of error. One who walks down the path of novelty is not deepening our collective grasp of truth, but simply departing from the Catholic Faith. As the ancient “Athanasian” Creed thunders: Quicumque vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem: quam nisi quisque integram inviolatamque servaverit, absque dubio in aeternum peribit. “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the Catholic faith; for unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever.”

As good as much of it is, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is not the “be-all and end-all” that many make it out to be. One would have felt ashamed to admit such misgivings back in the misty-eyed days of its promulgation when, after decades of doctrinal chaos and almost no guidance from Rome at the catechetical level, the Catechism came forth like Lazarus from the tomb. And perhaps it was something of a miracle in the early nineties. Even so, the well-respected Jesuit Fr. John Hardon—himself an author of copious catechetical materials, and by no means a “traditionalist” in the sense in which that term is used today—wrote at the time a detailed critique of certain formulations in the working draft of the new Catechism that he considered ambiguous, incomplete, misleading, or erroneous. While most of the problems were fixed, others remained.[16]

Other “catechism shenanigans” include Benedict XVI’s strategic deployment of the shorter Compendium of the Catechism to make up for defects in the larger one, and the multi-lingual release of a hipster youth catechism or “YouCat” that continues the process of dumbing-down the Faith that began with the first translations of the liturgy into the vernacular.

Seeking guidance from better sources

What Pope Francis has done will backfire, like the hubris of the protagonist in an ancient Greek tragedy. For he has given us a new and, I would say, pressing invitation to close the new Catechism and place it on the upper shelf, and to reach instead for the Roman Catechism, the Baltimore Catechism, or dozens of other books that, sidestepping political correctness, are more accurate guides to what the Church has believed and taught in her 2,000-year pilgrimage.[17] In his Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum of October 11, 1992, Pope John Paul II declared his new Catechism “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.” Recent abuses of papal authority are pushing us (helpfully, I would say) to recognize that the “sure norm” in catechesis is not one single book, especially not a book that has trouble walking in a straight line, but rather the collective unanimous witness of centuries of catechisms. The uniform testimony of a host of traditional Catholic catechisms is an undimmed light amid the doctrinal darkness now besetting the Church in an age dominated by secularism, liberalism, and relativism.

What the confusion of our day requires, and what the much-touted dignity of man deserves, is not the new and improved Catholicism of the ever-newer Catechism, but the illuminating Faith of our fathers, “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). May the Most Holy Trinity have mercy on us and deliver us from the tyranny of novelty.

Thank you for your kind attention.


[1] An earlier version of a portion of this lecture was published at OnePeterFive on December 21, 2018, as “The Pope Forces the Question: What Good Is the New Catechism?” The argument is here considerably expanded.

[2] The reason we memorize things as children is that we expect them to come in handy for the rest of our lives. We don’t anticipate the alphabet, the rules of grammar, or the circle of fifths changing on us by surprise.

[3] Those who wish to see a detailed argument should read the book by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, published by Ignatius Press in 2017. This work is not without its flaws, but by the end of it, one cannot escape the conclusion that the legitimacy of capital punishment is as deeply lodged in the bones and marrow of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the content of the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, or the Beatitudes handed down by Our Lord to His disciples on the mountainside. Several fine articles have been published by First Things: J. Budziszewski’s “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice”; Michael Pakaluk’s “Capital Punishment and the Sex Abuse Crisis”; Ed Feser’s “Pope Francis and Capital Punishment”; and of course, “An Appeal to the Cardinals of the Catholic Church,” signed by 75 clergy and scholars, which contains this ringing paragraph: “Since it is a truth contained in the Word of God, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church, that criminals may lawfully be put to death by the civil power when this is necessary to preserve just order in civil society, and since the present Roman pontiff has now more than once publicly manifested his refusal to teach this doctrine, and has rather brought great confusion upon the Church by seeming to contradict it, and by inserting into the Catechism of the Catholic Church a paragraph which will cause and is already causing many people, both believers and non-believers, to suppose that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, we call upon Your Eminences to advise His Holiness that it is his duty to put an end to this scandal, to withdraw this paragraph from the Catechism, and to teach the word of God unadulterated; and we state our conviction that this is a duty seriously binding upon yourselves, before God and before the Church.”

[4] When Jesus deflected the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, it was not because He knew she did not deserve it, but because He wished to reprieve her in His mercy and give her a second chance. Civil governors may also choose to reprieve criminals, but it cannot be a simple rule that every criminal guilty of capital crime must be reprieved. There is no basis for this in either divine law or natural law.

[5] See for a complete list of revisions.

[7] If the topic went unmentioned, it was owing to the brevity and simplicity of a given catechism, not to any disagreement on the part of its authors with what was received as common doctrine. Indeed, in an age as sensitive to ecumenical concerns as our own, it merits mentioning that the vast majority of Protestant catechisms transmitted exactly the same doctrine about capital punishment as Catholic ones did, and for obvious reasons: it is not especially difficult to mount a defense of it.

[11] In other words, a catechism is a witness to the universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church taught by all the bishops throughout the world over time (not just at the present moment) as well as to the extraordinary Magisterium consisting of de fide definitions of dogma by councils or popes.

[13] Recall Francis speaking to the International Union of Superiors General of Woman Religious about how much can change in 50 years. What also happened 50 years ago? Humanae Vitae. One can see where all this is going. It isn’t even necessary for Francis to connect the dots himself; he knows that others will do so. He gives the inch so that others will take the mile.

[14] The Catechism of the Catholic Church avoids teaching the subordination of wives to husbands, replacing it with a novel doctrine of mutual subordination (see n. 1642, but also nn. 369–72, 1616, and 1659, eloquent in their omissions). In contrast, the Roman Catechism unambiguously transmits the teaching of Scripture on this point: see the Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1982), 339, 346, 352.

[15] From Gerard Verschuuren, The Myth of an Anti-Science Church: Galileo, Darwin, Teilhard, Hawking, Dawkins (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2018), 120.

[16] See “On Doctrinal and Moral Disorders Abiding in the Church: Father John A. Hardon’s 1990 Commentaries on the ‘Revised Draft’ of the Catholic Catechism,” prepared and elaborated by Robert Hickson: Part I,; Part II: For example, the Catechism does not unambiguously teach that, because the old covenant with Israel has been fulfilled in Christ as the new covenant in His blood, the Jews are no longer God’s “chosen people,” but should be regarded as called to faith in Christ and baptism, even as all other unbelievers are; or that Christ enjoyed the beatific vision throughout His earthly life, including in His most bitter Passion. The first draft of the Catechism, ca. 1991, was much more explicit about Christ’s direct vision of God during His earthly life than the final version. See CCC 151, 473, and 478, from all of which, and from their footnoted sources, one may deduce the doctrine. Fr. Georges de Nantes’ Book of Accusation, which claims to find twelve heresies in the Catechism, is far from sound on all points, but it does raise a few potent criticisms: The SSPX has also presented cogent objections: and

[17] As we read at Whispers of Restoration: “For the average Catholic seeking to learn this Faith and hand it on to others in an error-plagued age, few things will bear this out like the reading of traditional catechisms. The continuity found in such study is both clear and compelling, and little wonder; for it illustrates the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium” (

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