In addition to the question of the role of the Catechism in the life of the Church today, there is also the question of how much it is or has to be in keeping with the times -- and how it might possibly be changed. How is this done? Pope Francis, after all, has set a precedent.
According to the testimony of Joseph Ratzinger, who as the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was intensively involved in the editing of the Catechism at the time, the members of the drafting committee had made two fundamental decisions from the beginning in order to avoid the danger of the Catechism becoming outdated shortly after its publication. First, they had deliberately avoided incorporating the latest theological and exegetical hypotheses, including their own. These would have been old and outdated within a very short time. Rather, they quoted from and relied upon permanent sources: Sacred Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the Councils. Secondly, they had asked themselves whether they should begin “inductively” with an analysis of the present, to which the faith should then be related, or whether, conversely, they should start “deductively” from the faith, present it, and then leave it to the people in various times and places to draw the appropriate conclusions for themselves. They had chosen the latter approach. What is presented in the Catechism is therefore the depositum fidei, which, across all times and places, is considered the sure deposit of faith. The Catechism’s content does not include short-lived theological hypotheses or sociological analyses that are in constant need of being adapted to the latest social and historical developments.
However, it may still happen that ecclesiastical authority deems it appropriate to reformulate passages in the Catechism. In order properly to address this issue, it may be helpful briefly to review the history of the Catechism’s drafting process. In fact, the present version, as we have it now, is already a revised edition. The Catechism was originally drafted in French and then translated from that language into others. In 1997, the so-called editio typica appeared in Latin, which from then on became the authoritative version for all translations of the work into other languages. From the beginning, the plan was to use the elaboration of the editio typica as an occasion to make refinements, to check and, if necessary, correct source references, and to improve on any possibly imprecise formulations.
Most of the changes made with the publication of the editio typica were of a formal or stylistic nature. One modification, however, deserves special attention. It is paragraph 2267 on the death penalty. In the original 1992 edition, this was quite a brief passage, exhorting state authority to resort to bloodless means whenever they are sufficient to ensure public order and safety. Then, in 1995, the encyclical Evangelium vitae was published, in which Pope John Paul II took a much more critical position on the death penalty than had previously been expressed in the Catechism, raising the question of whether the Catechism should not be revised on this point. Since at that time the editio typica had not yet been published, a revision was possible without any formal commotion. The publication of the editio typica was thus taken as an opportunity not only to polish up formulations, but even to insert a change that was quite relevant in terms of content. The section originally had 54 words in English and then grew to 149 words in this language. It not only clarified the original statement, but ultimately made a strong qualification: “As a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm -- without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself -- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’” The citation is from Evangelium vitaen. 56. How has this change entered into the Catechism? First, a theological discussion on the matter had been going on for a long time. Second, there was a magisterial decision given by the encyclical. Only then, finally, the result was inserted into the Catechism.
In his address on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on October 11, 2017, Pope Francis took a further step into the direction already taken by John Paul II. Referring to “the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes,” and to “the change in the awareness of the Christian people,” he spoke about the need to address the issue of the death penalty even more adequately. It was necessary “to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Nr. 2267 of the Catechism was then rewritten to this effect in 2018, receiving its second major overhaul. According to Pope Francis, the new wording is not a contradiction of previous doctrinal statements, but a harmonious development of Church teaching due to a growing awareness of the dignity of the human person. One can see in the new formulation of n. 2267, prompted by Pope Francis, the logical consequence of the concern already expressed by John Paul II.
On principle, when considering possible changes to the Catechism, one must remember that the authority of its statements is as great as the authority of the sources from which it draws. The Catechism is not a magisterial document concerned with making decisions on questions concerning faith or morals. Rather, it sets forth those things on which, in the opinion of its editors, a decision has already been made. What the Catechism sets forth is not given authority by the fact of being set forth therein. Rather, it is the other way around. A doctrine enters the Catechism because it is taught with authority. Development, however, is not excluded. Rather, it is to be expected. As Pope Francis writes in the aforementioned address, “Those who love, long to know better the beloved, and therein to discover the hidden richness that appears each day as something completely new.” As the mystery of the person of Jesus is inexhaustible, there is a constant development, understood as an unfolding and deepening, of the understanding of who he is and what he says to us.
Bishop Bätzing recently suggested to change the Catechism on the topic of homosexuality. Now, it took six years of intensive work by a competent commission before the current Catechism was presented and adopted in the early 1990s. Can a new commission conceive of such a fundamental question in different terms, or do we need a new council to do so?
We must remember that the task of the Catechism is to propose the faith. Its purpose is to proclaim the faith and not to make doctrinal decisions or advance theological hypotheses. It is true that even a truth that is regarded as fundamental enough to enter the Church’s proclamation can at times benefit from a more precise formulation. Where it is a question of historically contingent truths, it may in fact be necessary to reformulate a matter in the light of new circumstances, as happened with the question of the death penalty. Doctrinal development means coming to a deeper understanding, thinking things further, and, where appropriate, reformulating them more precisely in view of new historical circumstances, such as a shift in the commonly accepted meaning of a given word, the general acquisition of a new or deeper awareness or the widespread loss of an old awareness, which can then no longer be taken for granted. This is one thing. It is a completely different thing suddenly to say the opposite of what the Church has always taught since Apostolic times. After all, the question to which you refer here is not simply one of replacing an expression that, perhaps because of recent linguistic developments, might be perceived as insensitive and for which one wants to find a more polite equivalent without touching the content of the statement. No, what is being put into question here is the core of the issue. Now to my mind, the heart of the matter has already been sufficiently clarified by the authority of the Church’s magisterium in the light of Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, so that not even a new ecumenical council could have the authority to assert the opposite of what the Church has always taught.
But even if someone thought that the question had not yet been decided after all, it is still clear that the Catechism cannot be the place from which to start revisiting it. The Catechism serves to proclaim the foundations that are considered theologically and doctrinally secure. Now, if one wanted to question the certainty of a truth that the Catechism proclaims as sure, one would have to begin with theological debate, within the safe haven of the academic seminary. Supposing a scientific-theological discussion has indeed established noteworthy results, one should then appeal to the Magisterium, calling its attention to the fact that what has widely been regarded as fundamental is in fact probably not such after all, or that it should, in any case, be expressed better. It may have depended to a greater degree on contingent, historical circumstances than was first assumed, or words have undergone a shift in meaning over time, so that new formulations should be sought. Then there would have to be a decision of the ecclesiastical teaching authority. After a clear and firm expression issued by this authority, its ruling must then be introduced into the Catechism, as was done in the case of the teaching on the death penalty.
Given the inherent meaning of “theology,” “magisterium” and “proclamation,” the way to a possible modification of the Catechism -- always understood in terms of an organic development of doctrine --- must be this one: theological discussion, magisterial decision, catechetical expression. Wanting to change the Catechism first is to put the cart before the horse. The Catechism must not be turned into an instrument to shorten theological discussion and forestall magisterial decision. This is speaking in general terms. On the given subject, I think that there is a clear magisterial decision, so that having a theological discussion on it is out of place. And of course, even more out of place is using the Catechism to address the issue. The Catechism serves to proclaim the faith; it speaks of those things pertaining to faith and Christian life that are considered certain, certain enough, for example, to risk being baptized, which could possibly mean breaking with one’s family of origin, exposing oneself to persecution by one’s former fellow believers, to the point of perhaps even risking one’s life. The proclamation of the faith confronts us with a radical choice that requires us to put our whole lives on the line. Theological disputes must be settled elsewhere.