Sunday, May 09, 2010

Correspondence with Fr. Harrison on the New Catechism


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Posted with Fr. Brian Harrison's permission.  The correspondent's name was omitted for privacy.


Dear Father Harrison,

Does the Catechism of the Catholic Church represent an authentic work of the ordinary Magisterium that requires at least the religious assent of mind and will?  In other words, can a Catholic simply reject a teaching contained therein, without sinning?  Thank you.

In Jesus and Mary,
[signed]

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Dear [name],

     I would say that when the Catechism presents a teaching that is already backed up by previous papal and/or conciliar statements, we have the duty, obviously, to give our assent to what it says in the measure due to those prior teachings.
     On the rare occasions when the Catechism departs from existing doctrine - as it does when it says in #1261 that we are allowed to hope for the salvation of infants dying without baptism (and it clearly means all of them) - I would not say we are bound to give our assent. Even supposing the existing doctrine were a non-infallible one that might theoretically be capable of reversal by a future Pope or Council, a mere Catechism seems a doubtful instrument for officially changng a doctrine. We don't know how much specific attention and prayer for guidance (if any) Pope John Paul II gave to that specific item (#1261) of the Catechism. After all there are about 2,000 items in the Catechism and the Pope cannot have personally studied all of them in depth. Some of them he may not even have been aware of! So the Catechism has a very different status from an encyclical wherein the Pope carefully goes out of his way to pass judgement on some controversial doctrinal issue (e.g., Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae, both dealing with disputed human life issues, or Ordinatio Saceredotalis, ruling out women's ordination).

     Blessings,
     Fr. Harrison


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Thank you, Father.


It is unfortunate that the average Catholic must be knowledgeable of papal and/or conciliar documents, i.e., he cannot simply take everything within the CCC as true Church teaching in spite of Pope John Paul II's declaring the CCC to be a "sure norm".  I guess it's not so "sure" after all.


In Jesus and Mary,
[name]

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Dear [name], 


      Things aren't really as bad you suggest below, first of all because any doctrinally questionable statements in the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be very rare, and secondly there are thousands of references to Scripture and Magisterium in the CCC footnotes, so the reader can usually see that the statements in the main text are backed up by previous Church and biblical teachings, even if he's not familiar with those sources.
     However that English translation of the Pope's words that you cite is actually an exaggeration. In the Latin text of John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution, it doesn't say anything meaning "sure" - a word which in English gives the impression of something completely certain - totally guaranteed.
     The words translated "sure norm" are "firmam regulam". "Regula" means rule, norm, criterion, so translating it "norm" is OK. But the adjective"firmus" in Latin means "firm", trusty","solid", "stable" - pretty much like "firm" in English. No classical or ecclesiastical Latin dictionary I can find (not even the long entry in the authoritative 'Lewis & Short') gives "sure" or "certain" as one of the meanings of firmus. Calling the CCC a "sure norm" gives the  impression that the Pope is guaranteeing it will never make a mistake. 
     So a more accurate translation would call it a "safe", "reliable" "solid" or "trustworthy" norm (for learning and teaching Catholic doctrine). We all use these words to describe something or someone we can depend on at least nearly always - let's say 99% of the time, but not necessarily 100%.
     The Catechism contains 2,865 articles. So 28 of them would constitute 1% of the total.  I doubt very much that one could find even that many articles containing any doctrinal statement that might even appear to depart from existing Church teaching, or be difficult to reconcile with it. 
        The bottom line here seems to me that what the Pope really says in the key declaration of his Apostolic Constitution promulgating the CCC -namely, that it provides a "solid" or "trustworthy" norm of Catholic doctrine - is quite compatible with the possibility that there could be a few, but only avery few, statements in it that might turn out to be doctrinally questionable.

       God bless,
       Fr. Harrison

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