The Catechism – A Study in the Word

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul the Great, is an in-depth outline of living a life in Christ in the Word. It is a world-class treatise on every aspect of the Faith, brimming with Scripture, thoughts and words of the Fathers of the Church, and teachings from the many church councils spread across two millennia.

Some of the first detractors of the Catechism (or CCC) complained that it overuses Scripture. I don’t believe that is possible. When I study the Catechism, I have the Bible open next to it. I look up each Scripture reference to confirm the veracity and accuracy of the statement being made, as well as to shed light and understanding on the Scripture where possible. The Word of God is a sure foundation, a rock on which to stand and build one’s house (cf. Matthew 7:24–27).

Changing the Meaning of Scripture

If people are able to change the meaning of scripture passages, they will be able to act the way they wish. I have had direct experience of this type of distortion. During formation for the Diaconate, I was exposed to teaching that did not coincide either with the Word of God or with the teaching of the Church.

Referring to the virginal conception of Jesus in Matthew 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) the CCC states in 497:

The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancée. The Church sees here the fulfilment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

The Catechism quotes and refers to the passage in Matthew and also cites the parallel passage in Luke (1:26-38) and the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14, translated from the Greek.

The instructor who was assigned to teach Scripture to the men in Deacon formation in my diocese explained that St. Matthew was wrong when using the passage in Isaiah. According to the teacher, the Prophet was referring to a young woman known to King Ahaz, who would have a child when she married. He claimed that there was no way the Prophet Isaiah was prophesying future events, i.e. the virginal conception of the Christ.

Fidelity to Christ, the Word

I suppose in Eternity this false teaching is harmless in that it does not detract from the salvation afforded to those who enter the Narrow Gate, following Christ. It does, however, sow doubt in the minds and hearts of men who would one day preach the Gospel to hungry people. “If there is a mistake in Matthew,” one may think, “maybe there are mistakes in other parts of Scripture.”

If we take a moment and look at the Church in the world today, we may note many people putting new meanings on Scripture. When these alternative interpretations are propagated and believed, it makes it possible to doubt the veracity of Sacred Scripture itself, which the Church claims emphatically is the very Word of God and an essential part of Christian life, especially of the Holy Mass (the Liturgy of the Word).

It then becomes easy to discount the words of homilists. People remain unmoved and impassive by homilies that may not hold true. Parishes become lukewarm and parishioners disinterested. Student sports on Saturdays and Sundays become more important than formation programs for Confirmation, Reconciliation, and First Holy Communion. Religious Education teachers and sacramental formation leaders are forced to set their schedules around the local school’s athletic and music calendars.

A Grave Misinterpretation

Another example of contention by some toward the Catechism relates to the Church’s teaching about “homosexual acts.”

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” teaches our Catechism (CCC 2357, citing from Genesis 19; Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 1). Notice that the Catechism uses the term “homosexual acts”, not “homosexuals”. It is never against the human person, but against “acts” or actions.

Some clergy want to allow people who engage in these actions to have full access to the sacraments. They argue that judgment should be based on “mutual love,” for both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. In a forty-three-year-old article in the New York Times, the late Rev. John McNeill, a moral theologian and adviser to Catholic homosexual groups, stated that the conventional view of homosexuality “has been founded on a misunderstanding of the Bible’s references to the subject and on attitudes that do not take into account modern social science’s concepts of human nature” (NYT – Kenneth A. Briggs, Aug. 31, 1976).

Dialogue Based on Truth

But reducing Scripture to concepts that may be misunderstood, and asserting that the Church lacks relevance to modernity’s socially acceptable norms is never helpful in leading people to salvation. Dialogue between homosexuals and the Church should be initiated with the hope that it would yield positive results for members of the gay community. There are other clergy, more recently, who likewise believe that the Scriptures have been misunderstood and that the Catechism has not taken into account modernity’s point of view related to homosexual acts, or clerical roles of women, or any other topic one wishes to bring to the fore.

Insisting that people misunderstand the Word of God suggests that there are other ways to interpret the Word that may open doors that have been closed for two thousand years. There are many possibilities with this kind of thinking.

The Unchangeable Word

The Word of God, unlike, for example, the Constitution of the United States, is not a fluid document that changes in scope over time and across cultures. St. James assures us that with God, “the Father of lights… there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17). God does not change. This Scripture is quoted, in part, in the Catechism (#212) – “In God there is no variation or shadow due to change. God is ‘He who Is’, from everlasting to everlasting and as such remains ever faithful to himself and to his promises.”

The word “exegesis” is a theological word related to Scripture that basically means letting the text speak for itself. The scholar’s job is to allow the full meaning and truth of Scripture to be brought forth, without judgment on the scholar’s part. The opposite of exegesis is “eisegesis”, which is used when someone attempts to make Scripture say what that person wants it to say. When I hear someone explain that a particular Scripture verse does not mean what I had been taught it meant, I get a funny feeling on the back of my neck.

The Word is a Two-Edged Sword

The same Biblical instructor who pointed out St. Matthew’s “error” about the prophecy of Isaiah and the virginal conception of Christ also confronted the Deacon formation group by suggesting our understanding of biblical stories was puerile. “Moses didn’t lift his staff and divide the Red Sea like in the movie!” He explained that the Scripture was mistranslated. It was actually the “Reed Sea” where the Israelites crossed. “There were only a few inches of water where the Israelites walked out.”

“That was an even greater miracle,” one of the candidates pointed out. “The chariots and horses and charioteers and the army of Pharaoh drowned in a few inches of water. That must have been something to see.”

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3 thoughts on “The Catechism – A Study in the Word”

  1. Well . . . there was the “Baltimore Catechism”, taught to us in the early 60’s and by the early 70’s nuns were telling us it was “laughed at”.

    The official “Cathecism” was issued in 1991 and is currently in its second revision. Not exactly the “eternal word”.

    1. I think the adage is: if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. The Baltimore Catechism, which I learned in the 50’s gave the basics of what the Catholic Faith is founded. By “laughing at” it, as you state, causes doubt. I think doubt drives out faith in one’s spiritual life. Faith is the bulwark of the Journey. Without it we have nothing, we lose the rudder. By the 70’s, instructors seemed to enjoy pulling faith out from under peoples feet. Subtly the focus changed and the Church began to wobble. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states things that some do not like to hear. You are correct, it is not the “Eternal Word,” but is filled with it, based on it, stabilized by it. As such, it gives us a starting point to refocus

  2. It is surprising how lacking in self-criticism are those who prefer mundane interpretations of some scripture, as your fellow candidate noted, the horses and army would have to have drowned in a few inches of water. The same lack of common sense applies to the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 as referring to a young woman, who would bear a child after she married. That would hardly be “a sign … deep as Sheol or as high as heaven”(Isiah 7:11), but a virgin’s giving birth, as the Greek translation renders it, would indeed be such a sign.

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