In this twentieth anniversary year of the English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Janet Benestad responds to concerns that the Catechism is not sufficiently related to human experience. Drawing on the insights of the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, she explains why this most important of catechetical texts is essential to parish evangelization.
The Archdiocese of Boston has undertaken a major pastoral planning effort. Called Disciples in Mission, it involves the realignment of parishes for administrative and financial success, and the training of diocesan and parish leaders. The goal is to create parishes that are vibrant centers of evangelization. The training of parish leaders includes best practices in the new evangelization.
At one meeting regarding adult formation, a long-serving parish pastoral associate questioned using the Catechism to evangelize adults. “Why use the Catechism,” she asked. “It’s 30 years old,” as if a re-writing were expected any day. At another meeting, a parish director of liturgy reacted to instruction on using parish websites and bulletins as tools for catechizing adults: “I prefer to let people rely on their own experiences,” he said.
Such comments by Church leaders beg the question: After 20 years of the Catechism, why the continued resistance to it among many professional Catholic Church leaders? Why the preference for experience, rather than doctrine, as a surer norm for spreading the faith? These questions sent me back to an article written by Avery Cardinal Dulles in 1994 entitled, “The Challenge of the Catechism.” In it, Dulles describes the confusion that results when experience becomes the preferred norm for faith formation.
“All statements about revelation,” says Dulles, “. . . are said to be so culturally conditioned that they cannot be transferred from one age or one cultural region to another. Every theological affirmation that comes to us from the past must be examined with suspicion because it was formulated in a situation differing markedly from our own. Each constituency must experience the revelation of God anew and find language and other symbolic forms appropriate to itself.”[i]
Dulles is describing the heresy of modern practical relativism—the position that each age or culture only knows what is true on the basis of its own experiences. This position denies the existence of any ultimate source of truth. When relativism informs the thinking of theologians and, as a result, catechetical leaders, it undermines faith in God, who is the source of all Truth. Unfortunately, relativism informs the thinking of a good many catechetical leaders, to wit, the examples above. For that reason, it is worth taking a look at what Dulles has to say about the ways in which the Catechism provides an “antidote” to tension between faith and experience.