To mark the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II convoked an extraordinary Synod of Bishops to study the teachings of the Council and make appropriate recommendations to ensure that its purposes would be fulfilled to the maximum degree.
During that convocation the Synod Fathers declared: "Very many have expressed the desire that a Catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions. The presentation of doctrine must be biblical and liturgical. It must be sound doctrine suited to the present life of Christians."
Pope John Paul II was enthusiastic in his support of this proposal, considering it as "fully responding to a real need of the universal Church and of the particular Churches."
According to the Pope in his Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum to mark the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catechism took six years to bring to completion, the main work being entrusted to a commission of twelve cardinals and bishops, assisted by an editorial committee of seven diocesan bishps who are experts in theology and catechesis. It was formally issued in its original French form by John Paul 11 on December 8,1992. The English Edition appeared in June 1994.
Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly has its basic root in the Second Vatican Council, as can be seen from the fact that about eighty percent of the citations from conciliar sources are from the documents of Vatican II.
The Catechism encompasses more than eight hundred pages, and after the introductory Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a Prologue that discusses the purpose of man, the value of catechesis, the people for whom the Catechism is intended, the structure of the work, and practical directions for its use, the Catechism itself is divided into four major Parts--Part One: The Profession of Faith; Part Two: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery; Part Three: Life in Christ; Part Four: Christian Prayer.
Each of these four Parts is divided into Sections, with the Sections further subdivided into Chapters and articles.
It could well serve as a textbook for various college course in religion and the Catholic CHurch. It is must reading for the clergy and others in religious life and education as they seek to fulfill their responsibility to expound upon and defend Catholic belief, whether in the pulpit, in the classroom, or in authorship.
All this being said, this Cathechism is a monumental accomplishment crafted with care and intelligence and scholarship and love, another step in the on-going process of the last thirty years to modernize the Church while continuing to maintain the ancient truths whose essence can never be changed.
Part One is the longest of the four Parts. The opening sections deal with the longing of man for God and how God responds to that desire through his revelation that serves as a beacon of light that clearly reveals the path of salvation to man.
Jesus Christ as the Son of God is then shown to be the major source of the truths of divine revelation, which were transmitted by him to his apostles, and then by them and their successors throught the teaching authority of the Church. Such revelation is contained in the Tradition of the Church, which the apostles received from the teaching of Jesus and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and also in Sacred Scripture, comprising both the Old and the New Testaments, of which God himself is considered to be the actual author inasmuch as he inspired its human authors. All forty-six books of the Old Testament and all twenty-seven books of the New Testament are accepted by the Church as inspired teaching.
By far the greatest portion of Part One is devoted to a discussion of faith, going back in history to Abraham who was the father of all believers and whose faith and trust in God was so strong that he stood ready to obey God's command to sacrifice his only son, the beloved Isaac. The Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted as the one who most perfectly embodies the obedience of faith. And after stressing the necessity to believe not just in God the Father, but in jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and describing faith as a grace and a totally human and free act in which we must persevere if we are to achieve eternal life, there follows a lengthy and detailed exposition of the Apostles' Creed, with an in-depth discussion of each of its twelve articles of Catholic faith.
The first article alone, "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth," consumes more than fifty pages of the Catechism, with special emphasis upon belief in one God, who has existed from eternity, merciful and gracious, and whom Sacred Scripture describes by the terms truth and love.
The coverage of that first article then moves on to the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the development of the dogma of the Trinity, the essence of what is meant by the term "almighty" in reference to God, the creation of the world, the existence and the purpose of angels, the creation of man and the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with its consequences for humanity, the fall of the angels, and the doctrine of original sin.
The material just described in part from the first article of the Apostles' Creed has been the subject of intensive study and prayerful contemplation by saints, fathers and doctors of the Church, clergy and laity, even atheists and those of limited education. Faithful observance of the truths explicitated in that first article alone would seem sufficient to ensure the leading of a way of life that would almost guarantee one's entrance into the companionship of God for eternity.
Articles 2 through 7 of the Apostles' Creed deal with Jesus Christ, with painstaking detail over nearly seventy pages, from his incarnation and birth until his death, resurrection, and ascension. Obviously here the Blessed Virgin Mary is covered from every aspect, including those that have been a source of contention and bitter disagreement with some other Christian and non-Christian religions, in particular the Immaculate Conception by which Mary was born without the stain of origional sin in virtue of her preeminent role as the mother of the Savior, the manner in which she conceived while remaining a virgin, her complete submission to the will of God, and her perpetual virginity.
The treatise on the life of Christ begins with a discussion of why the Son of God became man, his incarnation, his simultaneous status as true God and true man, his human will, and the extent of his human knowledge. After a short section on the birth, infancy, and formative years of Jesus, the Catechism moves on to his baptism, the temptations to which he was subjected, the transfiguration, and his establishment of the Church by entrusting the keys of the kingdom to Simon Peter.
This treatise concludes with Jesus' messianic entrance into Jerusalem, his agony in the garden of Gethsemani, his trial, death, and burial, and his post-resurrection appearances before his ascension into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again at the end of the world to judge the lving and the dead.
The section on the Creed concludes with an exhaustive discussion on the Holy Spirit, about whom pre-Vatican II Catholics had only a hazy perception, the origin, foundation, and mission of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church in its role as the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit, the distinctive marks that identify the true Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--the relation of the Church to non-Christians, the possibility of salvation outside the Church, the jurisdiction of the Church in the forgiveness of sins, death and the resurrection of the body, the particular and final judgments, heaven, hell, and purgatory, and everlasting life.
Part Two is essentially concerned with the liturgy of the Church as effected by the roles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Section One treats the celebration of the liturgy, with a discussion of such topics as signs and symbols, words and actions, singing and music, holy images, the liturgical seasons, the liturgical year, the primacy of the Lord's day, and the Liturgy of the Hours.
It stipulates that the celebrating assembly is the community of the baptized who are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood that they may offer spiritual sacrifices. This "common priesthood" is that of Christ the sole priest, in which all his members participate. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people have a right and an obligation by reason of their Baptism.
In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, whould carry out all and only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the norms of the liturgy.
Section Two deals with the seven sacraments of the Church, which are familiar to all practicing Catholics and play an essential role in their spiritual lives. Chapter One of this Section covers the sacraments of Christian initiation--Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. Baptism is seen as being prefigured in the Old Covenant, and Jesus himself, having willed to submit himself to a rite of Baptism administered by John the Baptist, commanded his apostles: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Baptism itself removes the stain of original sin and forgives all personal sins as well that have been committed prior to the reception of the sacrament. It is necessary for salvation, but it still hold true that even without the formal ritual of Baptism those who give their lives for the faith and those who lack sufficient knowledge of the Church but strive to do God's will can be saved--the categories known as Baptism of blood and Baptism of desire.
While a priest is the ordinary minister of Baptism, in cases of necessity any person can baptize who uses the proper form with the proper intention. As for those children who die without having received Baptism, the Church has not provided a definitive answer but advises that we simply trust in the mercy of God and pray for their salvation.
The second sacrament of initiation is Confirmation, which can be received by any baptized Catholic, and in some areas is administered right after Baptism. Generally administered by a bishop, except in cases of necessity, its purpose is to effect the increase and deepening of baptismal grace throught the reception of the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as occurred in the case of the apostles on Pentecost, and as related in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter and John laid their hands on those in Samaria who had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and who then received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).
The third and final sacrament of initiation is the Holy Eucharist, instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper when he gave his apostles his Body and his Blood and instructed them to continue this practise: "And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood'" (Luke 22:19-20).
The liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, also kown as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, comprises the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The former basically is made up of readings from the Old and the New Testaments and a homily by the celebrant, while the latter includes what in former days were designated as the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion.
However, unlike former times, the Mass is now much more designed as a communal celebration at which those in attendance unite with the others who are present and symbolically with all other Catholics throughout the world in an act of unified worship.
Chapter Two deals with the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick.
Jesus Christ himself instituted the sacrament of Penanace when he appeared to his apostles after his resurrection: "He breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'" (John 19:22-23). Human beings of their very nature are weak, and they tend to fail in their religious life many times. However, if they turn to God with a firm resolution to amend their lives and confess their sins to a priest who has been authorized by the Church to administer this sacrament, they will receive forgiveness through God's infinite mercy.
Penitents must have contrition or true sorrow for their failings and fulfill any penance that the confessor deems appropriate. In thus being reconciled with the Church, they are also reconciled with God, although they may still have to undergo temporal punishment for their sins after their death. However, by means of indulgences the faithful can obtain either partial or total remission of the temporal punishment due to sin both for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.
The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was known as Extreme Unction in pre-Vatican II days. Although then it was basically reserved for those in serious danger of death, now it is offered to those who are approaching that condition, whether from sickness or old age. Its foundation can be traced to the New Testament Letter of James: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).
In addition to the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Church will also include reception of the Eucharist as viaticum to those whose life is drawing to a close. However, even if viaticum is not offered, only a priest or a bishop can administer the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Chapter Three deals with the final two sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The sacrament of Holy Orders was prefigured in the Old Testament in the priesthood of Aaron and the service of the Levites and the priesthood of Melchizedek. There are three degrees of this sacrament -- episcopal ordination, the ordination of priests, and the ordination of deacons. Ordination itself can be administered solely by a bishop, and only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination.
As for Matrimony, Jesus Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, and one that is indissoluble, when he said: "Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6). And the apostle Paul adds: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one" (Ephesians 5:25-26). While the bride and groom confer the sacrament on each other, the celebration of marriage generally takes place under Mass in the presence of a priest as the official witness.
For a marriage to be valid, the contracting parties must be free of coercion or serious fear, and not be impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law. Other areas dealt with are mixed marriages, unity and indissolubility of marriage, fidelity of conjugal love, and openness to bringing children into the world.
Sacramentals and popular piety are also treated, as are Christian funerals and the proper manner of celebrating such funerals.
Part Three consumes almost two hundred pages that deal with two major sections: Man's Vocation: Life in the Spirit, and The Ten Commandments.
In regard to man's vocation, a wide variety of topics are covered: the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God, our life as affected by the beatitudes, human freedom, the morality and immorality of human actions, the formation of conscience, the problems raised by an erroneous conscience, the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), the gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding , counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord), and the fruits of the Holy Spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity).
In opposition to these are sins, whether mortal or venial. The catechism carefully distinguishes between the two and restates the ancient formula in regard to mortal sin that requires grave matter, and is committed with deliverate consent and full knowledge that the act is seriously wrong.
The final chapter ideals with moral law and grace, comparing and contrasting the law of the Old Testament with the law of the Gospel, centered in the command of Jesus Christ to love one another as he has loved us, and also discusses the role of the Church as the teacher and arbiter of moral life.
Section Two covers exhaustively every aspect of the Ten Commandments revealed by God to his people through Moses. Those commandments were the essential law for the Israelites. They continued to be such for the early Church and remain so for Catholics today -- and will so remain valid for all future generations.
The first commandment states: "I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me." As such, to him is due adoration, prayer, sacrifice, and submissionto his will while defending the right to freedom of religion and avoiding superstition, idolatry, divination, magic, simony, sacrilege, and other practices encouraged by an atheistic and agnostic world.
The second commandment, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain," prescribes respect for the name of the Lord and forbids its abuse and careless use, while condemning blasphemy, false oaths, and perjury.
The third commandment, "Remember to keep holy the Lord's day," requires Catholics to fulfill the obligation to mark the day of the resurrection by their attendance at the Sunday Eucharist. Those who deliberately fail to observe this obligation are guilty of a grave sin.
The fourth commandment, "Honor your father and your mother," goes essentially and significantly further than those words imply, for our obligations in this regard must be toward not only our parents but all other relatives and those who are deserving or our respect--church authority, government officials, law enforcement personnel, clergy, teachers, and all other individuals of this kind.
And while children have duties and responsibilities toward their parents, it must not be forgotten that parents have solemn duties and responsibilities toward their children, involving their physical well-being and their education, particularly in a moral sense.
The fifth commandment, "You shall not kill," clearly has become an increasingly major issue in the last two decades of this century. Obviously the killing of another human being is innately wrong, but the Catechism makes it clear that such killing may be done in a legitimate act of defense, whether of oneself, or one's family and friends, or one's country.
Also affirmed is the right and duty of legitimate public authority "to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty." The Catechism also condemns abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
The sixth commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," and the ninth commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," are treated separately in the Catechism, but both are concerned with immorality, which in secular society seems to have become the rule rather than the exception. All human beings of their very nature are required to be chaste in their own thoughts and actions and to respect the bodily integrity of others. Explicitly condemned are acts of lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape. Those who are homosexual in nature are forbidden to engage in any kind of homosexual activity, although it is stressed that compassion must be shown to those so afflicted. Adultery, polygamy, divorce, and incest are also condemned.
The seventh commandment, "You shall not steal," and the tenth commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods," are also treated separately but again deal with similar themes. Involved is more than simply the outright theft of the money or the property of another. Other acts that contravene the intent of these laws would include deliberate retention of goods that have been lent or objects that have been lost, paying unjust wages to employees, and business fraud.
The Catechism also upholds the right of workers to have recourse to a strike, the necessity to practice social justice, the support of organizations devoted to charitable causes and the alleviation of poverty and disease, and the imitation of Christ in his love for the poor.
The eighth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," condemns perjury, rash judgment, detraction, and calumny, not only by individuals but also by nations and organizations. The social communications media, with their tremendous power to affet public opinion, must particularly strive to be scrupulously fair and truthful in their dissemination and assessment of the news.
Part Four is the final major division of the Catechism. The custom of raising one's mind and heart to God in prayer can be traced throught Sacred Scripture back to the earliest chapters of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament Jesus and Mary have been our primary teachers in this regard.
Among the various kinds of prayer, those which are most frequently used are the prayer of blessing and adoration, the prayer of petition, the prayer of intercession, the prayer of thanksgiving, and the prayer of praise. In its mode of expression, it can be vocal prayer, contemplative prayer, and meditation.
In the final section, the Catechism gives an exhaustive detailed treatment of each of the themes of the Lord's Prayer, more familiarly termed the Our Father, with its various petitions that discuss such topics as the fatherhood of God, the necessity of our praise directed toward him, the coming of the kingdom, obedience to the will of God, the deepr meaning of our daily bread, the forgiving of the sins of our neighbors against us and the hope that our trespasses against avoiding evil and overcoming temptation.
There was a great deal of anticipaton prior to the publication of the Catechism, and the interest shown bo both Catholics and htose of other religious denominations was to be expected. What was not anticipated was the tremendous worldwide interest that has made this Catechism a best-seller. It clearly belongs on the bookshelf of every Catholic home.
* This was taken from my 1997 New...St.Joseph Sunday Missal Prayerbook and Hymnal (which is a guide for people when participating in Mass) from pages 571 to 585.