Synods, doctrine, and changing the Catechism: an interview with Stephan Kampowski

The hand of the statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square, pictured Feb. 28, 2013. / Mazur/

CNA Staff, Mar 16, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).- “The Catechism must not be turned into an instrument to shorten theological discussion and forestall magisterial decision.” That is the conviction of Stephan Kampowski, professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome. The German scholar has also been an invited professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome since 2012. In an interview first published by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, he reflects on recent calls for changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Professor Kampowski, in 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was approved by Pope John Paul II, who wrote that this Catechism “will make a very important contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council.” According to you, where has this been successful, and where less so?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a milestone for the proclamation of the faith. With its approval, St. John Paul II did an incredible service to the Church. Anyone who wants to know what the Church believes can now easily find out. The members of the drafting committee have not attempted to present their own opinions and then make them normative for the whole Church.

Rather, they have done an outstanding work of compiling sources, drawing from the riches of Scripture, the Eastern and Western Fathers, the Councils, and the Doctors of the Church. The Catechism is also an expression of the Church’s preferential option for the poor and the weak, in that it gives the simple faithful access to the foundations of the Christian faith and enables them to distinguish between theological speculation and the fundamentals of the faith in the preaching they receive from their ministers.

In many countries, the Catechism has renewed catechesis. Previously, catechetical teaching often emphasized form over content. One specialized on how to teach without giving much importance to what was to be taught. Sometimes it was as if, in First Communion classes, for example, it was more important that children color a picture than what kind of picture they were coloring. But teaching without content is not appealing. Children and young people at times had to perceive the lessons they received as little more than occupational therapy and not as a fitting preparation for a special encounter with Christ in the sacrament. The Catechism has helped catechists in many places to rediscover the content of catechesis.

The Catechism has thus improved the position of the faithful in relation to their ministers, and it has renewed catechetical ministry. In addition, it has also given a new impetus to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, as well as to dialogue with non-believers. Protestants or Orthodox, as well as those of other faiths or non-believers, now find it much easier to distinguish between a theologian’s opinion or a very particular kind of piety on the one hand, and the core of the Catholic faith on the other.

The Catechism is a service to the proclamation of the Gospel. Theology and proclamation are not the same. Theology is faith seeking understanding. It is the effort systematically to penetrate the faith. Therefore, by its very nature and within given limits, it leaves room for legitimate speculations and hypotheses. But it needs a starting point, and this is precisely the faith. The depositum fidei, the deposit of faith set forth in proclamation, is the sure foundation of theological activity. Especially for dialogue, it is immensely helpful to give one’s dialogue partner access to these foundations and to distinguish them clearly from speculations and hypotheses, however legitimate they may be.

In some countries, such as Germany, the Catechism was received rather unfavorably. It was criticized for not being at the height of exegetical scholarship in its use of Scripture, for not being sufficiently ecumenical, and for not paying enough tribute to different cultural realities. Thus, not all places have known to draw from its riches. In some countries one has preferred to give pride of place to a religious studies approach rather than to proclamation. Such approach refrains from making a decision and tries to look at different religions, Christianity included, from a scientifically neutral point of view. It compares religions with each other and always speaks of the faith of others without ever confessing its own; it deals with arguments for and against certain issues without ever committing itself. Its starting point is the human person and his or her images of God. A few hours of religious studies, however, are not an adequate preparation for baptism, First Communion, or Confirmation in the genuine sense of the terms. Christ, whom one encounters in these sacraments, is not a hypothesis, but a person. As a hypothesis, he is rather uninteresting, so that it is no wonder that in some places the desire to receive the sacraments is decreasing and the churches are empty. But it seems as if one deliberately accepts these results in order to have an “enlightened” Christianity, which does not begin with God, and therefore not with the faith and its proclamation, but with human beings. But in doing so, one robs Christianity of its specific content.

The approach adopted by the Catechism is in fact very different. It starts from the faith and proclaims it, for example, in an assertion such as this: “The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were historically verified, as the New Testament bears witness” (CCC 639). This is, of course, not speaking in terms of religious studies and is therefore considered unscientific and naïve in some places. However, it is about the very center of the Christian faith: the faith is about God, about the Christ event — the Incarnation, the deeds, the suffering, the death and the resurrection of Jesus — and it is then also about how God sees human beings and not about how human beings see God, the latter being rather the perspective of religious studies.

Now we know: The Catechism “is a statement of the Church’s faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium,” as Pope John Paul II wrote in Fidei depositum. What role does this exposition play in the life of a Catholic Christian today, or more precisely, what role should it play?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has four pillars: the Creed, the Liturgy with its sacraments, the moral life, and prayer. Incidentally, the Catechism has adopted this division from the “Roman Catechism” (Catechismus Romanus) written after the Tridentine Council. The division seems to be coherent in itself and justified by the subject matter. The Creed is about what God has revealed to us about himself. The fullness of revelation is given in the Christ event. This event is communicated to us today through the sacraments and the liturgy. It has concrete implications for our lives. The actions of Christians are now responses to the abundant gift of grace they have received from the Lord, and the Ten Commandments are a light on the way. Prayer, praising the Father and humbly asking for our daily bread, is a confession of our constant dependence on God and an expression of our filial trust. The remembrance and confession of the deposit of faith, which is essentially about the historical salvific acts of God, the liturgy in general and with its sacraments in particular, the Ten Commandments and the life in grace, as well as prayer: all these structure the Christian life as a whole. A systematic exposition of these four pillars is a true gift to be accepted with gratitude.

Does the role and task of the Catechism change, for example, in the face of decisions of a synod or a “more synodal Church”?

A growing awareness of the collegiality of bishops throughout the world and of the fact that they are all “on the way together” (synod = “common path”) speaks entirely in favor of the enduring and growing value of the Catechism. It is itself the result of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in 1985 on the occasion of the 20 years that had then passed since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The assembled bishops desired a catechism to continue the work of the Council. In the course of its drafting, which took some six years, the bishops from all over the world were then involved. As Joseph Ratzinger explains in his booklet “Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” written together with Christoph Schönborn, the first draft was sent to the bishops in 1989 with a request for comment. More than a thousand of them responded, and their suggestions for improvement, totaling more than 24,000, were then incorporated. The Catechism is thus an extraordinary expression of episcopal collegiality. It was also intended from the beginning as a basis for local catechisms and compendia, which could then better respond to given cultural conditions.

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 vitae n. 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.

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  1. The debate on the death penalty has not ended.

    Let’s hear Francis use the term ‘intrinsically evil’ instead of a purely legal term of ‘inadmissible.’

    Either the Church knew the truth of capital punishment or it has erred for centuries and the Holy Spirit was absent in this regarding the Deposit of Faith.

    The decision on life and death deserves better than the non-developing and cowardly ‘inadmissible.’

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