Ratzinger on the Catechism

by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

I want to thank the reader who asked about the weight of the doctrinal statements found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as he reminded me to post on something I’ve been meaning to post on for a while.

In his book Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ratzinger considers the question of the authority of the Catechism and writes:

This brings us to the question already mentioned before, regarding the authority of the Catechism. In order to find the answer, let us first consider a bit more closely its juridical character. We could express it in this way: analogously to the new Code of Canon Law, the Catechism is de facto a collegial work; canonically, it falls under the special jurisdiction of the Pope, inasmuch as it was authorized for the whole Christian world by the Holy Father in virtue of the supreme teaching authority invested in him. . . .

This does not mean that the catechism is a sort of super-dogma, as its opponents would like to insinuate in order to cast suspicion on its as a danger to the liberty of theology. What significance the Catechism really holds for the common exercise of teaching in the Church may be learned by reading the Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum, with which the Pope promulgated it on October 11, 1992–exactly thirty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council: "I acknowledge it [the Catechism] as a valid and legitimate tool in the service of ecclesiastical communion, as a sure norm for instruction in the faith."

The individual doctrine which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church [pp. 25-27. NOTE: The paragraph breaks above are mine. While the catechism may not be a super-dogma, Ratzinger said all this (and more) in a single super-paragraph].

Thus the Catechism presents the teaching of the Church without elevating the doctrinal status of those teachings beyond what they otherwise have. Consequently, one must look to other documents and to the tradition of the Church to establish the doctrinal weight of any particular point in the Catechism. Since the Catechism treats many things that not only have not been taught infallibly but which also have been proposed in the most tentative of fashions (esp. in the area of social teaching), there remains due liberty for theologians (and others) when they encounter something that has been proposed only tentatively.

This was what allowed Cardinal Ratzinger to say, in his 2004 memorandum, that "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."


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Cornelius February 15, 2005 at 11:27 am

A very useful clarification. But shouldn’t even the tentative statements in the Catechism, as exercises of the Ordinary Magisterium, receive the religious obsequium of the faithful, where obsequium is variously translated as obedience, submission, docility, assent, or respect?

The View from Bologna April 20, 2005 at 6:23 am

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