Interview with cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
The catechism in a post-Christian world
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains why he is working on a short, simple and clear synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To dialogue well it’s necessary to know what we have to discuss. It’s necessary to know the substance of our faith. A Catechism is more than ever necessary for that today"
by Gianni Cardinale
On 7 March the Press Office of the Holy See made known a letter in which John Paul II asks Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, to preside over a special Commission to prepare a Compendium of the catechism of the Catholic Church. In practice the Commission, aided by a fast-moving editorial Committee, is to draft an essential and complete synthesis of the bulky Catechism of the Catholic Church (around 1,000 pages in the Italian edition) published in 1992 and circulated in about 8,000,000 copies throughout the world.
To find out more about it 30Days asked Cardinal Ratzinger for an interview. The Cardinal received us, with his usual friendliness, in his office in the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio.
Your Eminence, why a Compendium of the Catechism? Was the text published in 1992 too bulky?
JOSEPH RATZINGER: The desire for a short Catechism was born immediately after the publication of the large one. The edition of 1992 is an important point of reference for knowing what the Church teaches, and that’s why it’s useful for non-Catholics as well. On the other hand, however, it’s too voluminous, especially for simple catechistic use. Hence the need for a synthesis – in a short, simple and clear form – of what is essential and fundamental to the faith and to Catholic morality. In the meantime various attempts of this sort have been published. None truly successful, I’d say. Finally at the international Congress celebrated in the Vatican last October for the tenth anniversary of the Catechism the desire was expressed to the Holy Father. And the Pope agreed.
And yet, as Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal of Vienna, stated, the very idea of Catechism is very frequently rejected «at least in German-speaking countries and above all in official circles of catechesis»…
RATZINGER: It’s true there’s a certain aversion towards every attempt at “crystallizing” a doctrine in words, for the sake of flexibility, and there’s a certain anti-dogmatism that is alive in many hearts, and above all the post-council catechistic movement has stressed the anthropological aspect of the question and believes that a Catechism, being too doctrinal, would hamper the dialogue necessary with people of today. We’re convinced of the opposite. To dialogue well it’s necessary to know what we have to discuss. It’s necessary to know the substance of our faith. A Catechism is ever more necessary for that today.
Even in the light of the «catastrophic outcome of modern catechesis» you denounced some years ago?
RATZINGER: It’s a fact. Without wishing to condemn anybody, it’s evident that there is tremendous religious ignorance today, it’s enough to talk with the younger generations… Evidently in the post-Council period we haven’t concretely managed to transmit the contents of the Christian faith.
In your speech to the Congress you yourself mentioned the “murmurings” of the critics of the Catechism. Have you heard them again now?
RATZINGER: Not so far, but when the project for the Compendium takes on shape, one may expect them to arrive…
What are the general criteria whereby the Compendium will be compiled? Will it take the form of questions and answers?
RATZINGER: We’re still thinking about it; it looks as though the choice will be for the question and answer system, which is used outside the Catholic Church also, but I can’t make predictions not least because the project will be passed to all the cardinals and presidents of episcopal conferences and we depend very much on their reactions as well. The Compendium won’t be a Compendium of the Catholic faith but the Compendium of the 1992 Catechism, to which it must be faithful. At the same time then the Compendium will have to have qualities of readability that make it truly accessible to many.
If it returns to the question-answer format it would be harking-back to the methodology of the Catechism of Saint Pius X…
RATZINGER: To tell the truth the catechisms of the Reformation period, both Catholic ones and those of Martin Luther, used that method. In effect people have their questions and the faith offers itself as answer to those questions. So precisely in a period like the present, in which dialogue is rightly held to be essential in education to the faith and in relations among the various human groups, it seems to me natural that the dialogical question-answer method should be applied in a book like the Compendium.
Speaking of the Catechism of Saint Pius X, which continues to have its admirers still today: will it be considered definitely surpassed with the publication of the Compendium?
RATZINGER: The faith as such is always the same. Hence the Catechism of Saint Pius X always preserves its value. Whereas ways of transmitting the contents of the faith can change instead. And hence one may wonder whether the Catechism of Saint Pius X can in that sense still be considered valid today. I believe the Compendium we’re preparing can respond better to the needs of today. But that doesn’t exclude that there may be people or groups of persons who feel more at ease with the Catechism of Saint Pius X. One shouldn’t forget that that Catechism derived from a text that had been prepared by the Pope himself while he was bishop of Mantua. The text was the fruit of the personal catechistic experience of Giuseppe Sarto and was characterized by simplicity of exposition and depth of content. That is also a reason why the Catechism of Saint Pius X may still find friends in the future. But that certainly doesn’t make our work superfluous …
Going back to the Compendium. When might it be ready?
RATZINGER: Difficult to forecast. Not least because we shall have to prepare a text that we must then submit to the assessment of all the cardinals of the Sacred College and all the presidents of episcopal Conferences; an operation, the latter, that will take at least six months. However, if all goes well, the Compendium should be ready in two years.
Once published will it be normative for all the Catechisms of the episcopal Conferences?
RATZINGER: The text will be normative as regards doctrinal content, which is that of the 1992 Catechism. While on method it will offer suggestions, given that great freedom must be left in that field since social and cultural contexts in the Catholic world are very different between them. When the essential content of the faith is ensured, a certain methodological flexibility is always necessary in catechesis.
Must it also be used in seminaries and in faculties of theology?
RATZINGER: The Compendium will be useful for parish catechesis, to prayer groups, to ecclesial movement. It’s important for seminaries and faculties of theology to refer to the “large” catechism of 1992. What will be published in the Compendium should already have been assimilated in these surroundings…
The 1992 Catechism has sold millions of copies. But has it been effectively used then in the composition of national catechisms?
RATZINGER: In the United States no catechism and no catechistic book may be published unless its concordance with the 1992 Catechism has been proved. In some Asian countries, in India for example, it’s used in colleges as the reference book for a knowledge of Catholic doctrine. In other countries that has not occurred. Perhaps the 1992 Catechism, as happens with many books, has been more sold than read… Perhaps it could have been more used. However I believe that it has had its own effect in concretizing the doctrinal and pastoral direction of the last decade.
Will the Compendium be addressed to those who have already encountered the Christian fact?
RATZINGER: The Compendium, like the 1992 Catechism, is addressed above all to bishops, to priests, to catechists, to teachers and to the proclaimers of the faith. We must always keep in mind, however, what Saint Paul tells us, i.e. that the faith does not come from reading but from listening. The 1992 Catechism itself explains that Christianity is not a religion of the book. The faith is transmitted personally, not through the reading of the Catechism. Though a reading can be useful also to non-Christian who want to learn what the Catholic Church believes and teaches.
Will the Compendium also deal with such debatable questions as the death penalty, or sadly relevant today, the doctrine of a “just war”?
It’s a fact. Without wishing to condemn anybody, it’s evident that there is tremendous religious ignorance today, it’s enough to talk with the younger generations… Evidently in the post-Council period we haven’t concretely managed to transmit the contents of the Christian faithRATZINGER: All the essential contents of catechesis must find place in the Compendium. Including the themes you mention, which were the most debated by the Commission that prepared the 1992 Catechism. They are highly important themes in Christian morality. And there must be room in the Compendium not only for the themes of individual morality, but also these themes of public morality.
On the subject of these two themes, the death penalty and just war, is it possible that there are developments in terms of the way they were treated in 1992?
RATZINGER: Indeed on the question of the death penalty there has been notable evolution from the first edition of the 1992 catechism to its editio typica in Latin published in 1997. The substance has remained identical, but the structuring of the argument developed in a restrictive way. I don’t exclude that there may be variations in the type of argumentation on those themes and that in the proportions of the diverse aspects of the problem there may be variations. I would exclude radical changes.
Your Eminence, a question about current events, in some way connected to the Catechism. Does the coalition war on the Iraq come within the canons of the “just war”?
RATZINGER: The Pope has very clearly expressed his thoughts, not only as the thoughts of an individual, but as the thoughts of a man of conscience occupying the highest functions in the Catholic Church. Of course, he has not imposed this position as a doctrine of the Church, but as the appeal of a conscience enlightened by the faith. This judgment of the Holy Father is convincing from a rational point of view also: reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist. First of all it was clear from the very beginning that proportion between the possible positive consequences and the sure negative effect of the conflict was not guaranteed. On the contrary, it seems clear that the negative consequences will be greater than anything positive that might be obtained. Without considering then that we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a “just war” might exist.
In an editorial in La Stampa Barbara Spinelli praised the stance taken by John Paul II against the war in Iraq, inspired by «Christian realism»…
RATZINGER: When I said that the Pope’s stance is not a question of the doctrine of the faith but is the outcome of a judgment made by an enlightened conscience, and that has its own rational perspicuousness, I meant to say just that. It is a position of Christian realism that, without doctrinal quibbles, assesses the factors in the real situation by keeping in mind the dignity of the human person as the highest value to be respected.
There’s been no lack on either side of the conflict of repeated invocations to Allah and to God…
RATZINGER: That language seems very sad to me. It’s an abuse of the name of God. Neither side can rightly claim to be doing what they’re doing in God’s name. The Holy Father has many times stressed that violence cannot be employed in the name of God. Seeing that we’ve been speaking of the Catechism, it’s as well to remember what the Second Commandment tells us: «Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain».