A treasury of words that grace makes re-emerge
Interview with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
by Gianni Valente
Time has passed since Father Christoph spent the days in front of his old Macintosh, retyping and then retouching, adjusting, amalgamating, paragraph after paragraph, the chapters of what would become in 1992 the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. He was the “coordinator” of the preparatory committee that for years, with the supervision of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, worked on the drafting of the most substantial and authoritative exposition of the contents of all of Catholic doctrine after Vatican Council II. Because of this, in the role of “a person acquainted with the facts”, this Dominican of gentle manners, become meanwhile Archbishop of Vienna and Cardinal, had an active part also in the work of the new committee that from 2003 worked on the editing of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI on 28 June last, the vigil of the solemnities of Saints Peter and Paul, in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn
For you who worked for years on the draft of the Catechism, the publication of your Compendium will appear as the point of arrival of a long, tiring journey…
CHRISTOPH SCHÖNBORN: It’s the end of a long work, which had its beginning at the special Synod of ’85, when the Synod fathers asked the Pope for the drafting of a Catechism that would collect the contents of the Catholic faith. From ’87 I was called to be part of the preparatory committee under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger (who is today our Holy Father), who gave me the occasion of being able to work at his side for a long time. Then, the participants in the International Catechetics Congress asked that beginning from that means a more manageable formulation of the same contents of faith should be produced. And so the Compendium was developed which, as Benedict XVI explained, is «a faithful and reliable synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church» and «contains, in concise fashion, all the essential and fundamental elements of the faith of the Church».
How do you judge this Compendium published at the end of June?
SCHÖNBORN: A clear exposition of the faith is always a good thing and we always have need of it. As with all things done by men it will not be of absolute perfection. But for certain it is a work of the Church, and can be of comfort and help to the life of the faithful. And the manner in which it was presented was in itself very suggestive.
What are you referring to?
SCHÖNBORN: That day, in the Sala Clementina, I was comforted by the fact that there was not only the presentation of a book, a secular celebration. The Compendium was consigned to the Church during a celebration of Sext, the prayer of the daily Office. Presided over by the Pope. An occasion that suggested in eloquent form that it is in the liturgy and in prayer that the mysteries of the faith become present, can be contemplated and transmitted. Catechesis and liturgy are inseparable. And then that day, by sheer coincidence, the liturgy of the Church celebrated Saint Irenaeus.
A saint dear to you.
SCHÖNBORN: He too, in order to synthesize his immense work against the heretics, wrote a sort of compendium, the Demonstratio of the apostolic preaching. Sending it to his friend Marcian, he presented it precisely as a compendium, «a series of annotations on fundamental points, such that in few pages much material can be found, having gathered together briefly the fundamental lines of the body of truth». And also, on his feastday, itself, an excerpt from Genesis is read, to which Irenaeus gave a brilliant interpretation…
SCHÖNBORN: It’s the story about Lot and his family who were granted escape from Sodom, before the city was destroyed, through the Lord’s predeliction, on the condition that they did not look back. But Lot’s wife regrettably looked behind her, and was transformed into a pillar of salt. Because of female curiosity, the malevolent commentators say…
SCHÖNBORN: The bishop martyr of Lyons on the other hand sees in the episode a figure of the Church, which like Lot’s wife is a mother who cannot find peace until she has seen that all her children are saved. And because of this she delays, looks behind, to the point of sacrificing her own life. Every gesture of the Church, also catechism, flows from mercy like this. Which is the reflection in the Church of the mercy of the Virgin Mary, for which one can say of both that they are causa nostrae salutis…
And yet you yourself have spoken frequently of a preconceived hostility toward the idea of catechism itself.
SCHÖNBORN: It is one of my great disappointments as a bishop to see how this testimony of apostolic faith contained in the Catechism is not received in our dioceses. I confess that I prayed to Saint Irenaeus himself because of this. It was he who bore witness first of all that the Church had blossomed also in Germany, and that there also the brothers were in agreement in the faith with the Church of Rome. This Church that never lost the apostolic faith precisely because of the privilege of being founded on the apostles.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Perhaps those who persist in presenting the Compendium also as an example of Catholic pride succeed in reinforcing such preconceived hostilities…
SCHÖNBORN: But catechism has more to do with the image of a child at the moment he learns to speak from his mother. He learns the words, and the words are the names of the things that he discovers, and it is all a surprise, a novelty. In this way children grasp the words that help them throughout their lives. Étienne Gilson said that he found all that he needed for his life of faith in his catechism. As a young priest something happened to me that marked me…
SCHÖNBORN: There was a married man who lived in a dissolute way, he went with other women. Then his wife died suddenly, and he was tormented by senses of guilt for having ignored her. He came to mass every day, at seven in the morning. It impressed me that he, who had for long years abandoned all practice of Christian life, recovered in his memory the formula of the catechism. Those catechism phrases that he had learned as a child came out like that, one after the other. In the shipwreck of his life, these formula sprang from his memory like rafts to cling to, as the only promises of salvation. And this showed me how much it can help also to have in the memory just a treasury of words that perhaps he himself, as a child, had learned without even understanding them, but which in that crucial moment were there, at his disposal.
You quoted Gilson. Charles Péguy also says that his faith was all there entire in the catechism of the diocese of Orléans, «the catechism of the birth parish, that of the small children».
SCHÖNBORN: The catechism can never become a pretext for presumption and pride, because rather it suggests that in Christian life we are always beginners, children. In respect of the catechism, the child and the professor always remain at the same level, because before the mysteries of faith we are always children. The child that Saint Augustine met on the beach of Civitavecchia, and who makes him understand that with all his theological application he could never exhaust the profundity of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, is for me the icon of the catechism.
The attention of the media concentrated rather on moral questions and those of public ethics. As if it had to do with a manual of instructions and moral prohibitions. In this regard Cardinal Honoré, a member of the preparatory committee, once wrote that it was necessary to correct a formulation that in the initial drafts could appear to have been Pelagian…
SCHÖNBORN: The Compendium, obviously, reproduces the Catechism in this also. In number 417, for example, it is clarified that «because of sin, natural law is not always and not by all perceived with equal clarity and immediacy». And in paragraph 419 it is added that the Old Law, even though holy, spiritual and good, «does not of itself bestow the strength and the grace of the Spirit to observe it». Original sin often finishes by also obscuring in individuals the right perception of when the precepts of the natural law are broken. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger said during the Jubilee year, when he presented the document on the faults of the Church: «It seems to me that pardon alone, the fact of pardon, permits the frankness of recognizing sin».
According to you, from where do the reservations still circulating among those who are also involved in these things by profession, toward the instrument of the catechism arise?
SCHÖNBORN: On the one hand, already from the ’Fifties the Biblical movement also began to influence the practice of catechesis, with the invitation – in itself shareable – to recover in catechesis too the references to the richness of the Biblical story, overcoming the sometimes dry and abstract character of some formula used up until then. But on the other hand, there was also the prejudice that the truth could not be put into phrases, into sentences that define it. And this is an error, because there is never the pretension that the doctrinal formula can contain and exhaust the reality that it indicates. Léon Bloy already emphasized the strength and at the same time the insufficiency of dogmatic formula. And Saint Thomas made it clear that «Fides non terminatur ad enuntiabile, sed ad rem». And then it is also necessary to recognize that sometimes the words of Jesus themselves have a so to speak didactic trait. Jesus, true master, has also the wisdom of the educator. Many of his expressions are sentences made to be memorized.
«There was a married man who lived in a dissolute way, he went with other women. Then his wife died suddenly, and he was tormented by senses of guilt for having ignored her. He came to mass every day, at seven in the morning. It impressed me that he, who had for long years abandoned all practice of Christian life, recovered in his memory the formula of the catechism. Those catechism phrases that he had learned as a child came out like that, one after the other. In the shipwreck of his life, these formula sprang from his memory like rafts to cling to, as the only promises of salvation. And this showed me how much it can also help to have in the memory just a treasury of words that perhaps he himself, as a child, had learned without even understanding them, but which in that crucial moment were there, at his disposal»With regard to didactics, some held that the question and answer method presented again in the new Compendium had been surpassed.
SCHÖNBORN: Once, in an airport bookshop, between a book on the Dalai Lama and another on the esoteric, I found a type of Hindu catechism, in questions and answers. It was entitled Daddy, am I a Hindu? It was presented as if the son asked the questions and the father replied…
And what do you mean to convey by this?
SCHÖNBORN: The question and answer method has nothing original in itself, it can also carry all the cultural and religious expressions of humanity. But this obviousness of method does not in fact surprise me. The newness of Christianity communicates itself through the ordinary processes of life, by the normal mechanism through which news is communicated, which is that of the questions that children ask of adults and the answers they receive. Daddy, is it true that God can do everything? Why is there evil? Who is Jesus? It is the normal way that the processes of human learning develop in respect of all reality. And the fact of adopting again the natural expressive dynamics to communicate the treasures of grace is truly Christian.
Does this mean that the truths of the Christian faith are communicated as those of any other doctrine?
SCHÖNBORN: The original factor is not in the formula used, but in Him who Saint Augustine calls the «interior master», who is Christ Himself, the Son of God. Every time in the life of faith, at the beginning and with every new step there is, that fascinating moment through which we gather the mysterious correspondence between a reality, between a truth of faith and our heart – and you see it also in the eyes, that light up -, well, this is the work of Christ.
It is precisely Augustine, in De praedestinatione sanctorum, who recognizes that for the initium fidei it is not enough that the truth be announced. Because - he says – if faith was a mere agreeing with an announced truth, it would properly be a work of our own…
SCHÖNBORN: This is the most important thing for the catechist, and also for the preacher, who always knows that he must explain the truth with the greatest clarity possible, but that it is not he who completes the work of its reception. In the Acts of the Apostles it is always the Holy Spirit who opens the door to the word. If He does not open, the preached truth cannot enter.