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A few 'thou shalt' and 'shalt nots' for our day.

PARIS - Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was taking no chances with his Catechism for the Catholic Church issued last week. Two months before the translations were due, he issued an information pack explaining how it came about and what it is for.

Although the catechism makes claims to universality, the word universal does not appear in its official title. Ratzinger describe's it as "an instrument for the transmission of the essential and fundamental contents of the Catholic faith and morals in a complete and systematic manner."

You use an "instrument" if it helps toward the aim, which is the in-depth evangelization of Catholics. While remaining "a point of reference for national and diocesan catechisms," it still needs adaptation to local cultures. Ratzinger insists on the need for this "mediation" by local bishops. It seeks to assist, not replace, the work of catechists on the ground.

At the same time it is an authoritative work and a "magisterial" text, in the sense that "it was suggested by a world synod of bishops, desired by the Holy Father, written by bishops and the fruit of consultation with the episcopate, and approved by the pope in his ordinary magisterium."

Although Ratzinger does not admit it, the desire of the Holy Father both inspired the project and drove it along. Cardinal Bernard Law, who first proposed a universal catechism at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, was a nonelected papal nominee. Had he been brought along specifically to make this proposal, which had surfaced in an Opus Dei magazine?

However that may be, once under way the draft was subjected to sharp and sometimes withering criticism from 938 bishops -- about a quarter of the world's total. They proposed more than 24,000 "amendments or corrections."

The catechism, rewritten in the light of these episcopal comments, seeks to be positive rather than polemical, says Ratzinger. Its aim is to "announce Christian truth with that security which is proper to the church, while respecting the different levels of certainty the church has on particular topics, avoiding mere theological opinions."

This answers the objection that the early drafts had lacked a sense of the "hierarchy of truths." Ratzinger anticipates further objections when he contends that the catechism "draws abundantly on sacred scripture, the tradition of the Western and Eastern churches (the fathers), the liturgy, the magisterium, canon law and the lives and teachings of the saints."

Although it is not called The Catechism of Vatican II, because the council did not ask for one, and indeed threw out the idea, it remains true "that it reflects essentially, though not exclusively, Vatican II." This is Ratzinger's tilt at those who regard Vatican II as a wholly fresh start in church life.

In a world marked by subjectivism, relativism and fragmentation, concludes Ratzinger, "it is more than ever necessary to proclaim the Christian message of saving truth, a message that is simple and synthetic, serene and joyful, positive and demanding." It would be churlish to object to these aims. How far they are realized will only be discovered by use. This is a pudding whose proof will be in the eating.

So far, I have seen only the French version. But that is no drawback, because French was the working language of the drafting commission, and the French text is therefore normative.

Presenting it in Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, pointed out that there were many instances of "universality" in the modern world from pop music to blue jeans and foreign exchange markets that can "ruin a country in 48 hours."

The press, of course, scrutinized the catechism for new sins and were rather disappointed. The traditional bans on divorce, sex before or outside marriage, artificial contraception and abortion are reaffirmed.

But there are some new emphases on drunken or dangerous driving, drug-trafficking, the inadequacy of deterrence. Employers (including the church?) are exhorted to pay fair salaries. Under the Seventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") are denounced tax evasion, forging checks and unjust rental leases.

The catechism notes that homosexuals "do not choose their homosexual condition," adding in a remark that is bound to cause controversy: "for most of them, it is a trial." They must be treated with "respect, compassion and kindness." They should eschew genital activity.

In my view, it is a mistake to concentrate first and exclusively on the moral section of the catechism. For the commandments are set in the context of the creed, the sacraments and a commentary on the Our Father. This context illumines their meaning.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, in his recent draft pastoral letter for the 150th anniversary of the Milwaukee diocese, recalls that "the Catholic church is a creedal church.... Good practice follows correct belief, and so there must be a concern on the part of all that Catholic belief be correctly stated and transmitted."

The Catechism for the Catholic Church will not be in vain if it meets that requirement and helps answer the questions: What do we tell the children? How do we instruct a potential convert?

English version of catechism not ready

WASHINGTON -- The English-language version of the Universal Catechism, once approved by the Vatican, could be out in hardcover and paperback in 10 to 12 weeks "if we rush," Bishop Edward T. Hughes of Metuchen, N.J., said recently.

In a Nov. 16 report at the U.S. bishops' meeting, Hughes added: "We hope that it will be within two to three weeks" that Vatican approval will come, "but we cannot promise it."

The English translation awaits action by the Vatican Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, Hughes said. Once approved there, it will be sent to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for further approval.

The French translation was released in Paris Nov. 16. Hughes said a Spanish translation would be approved before an English translation.

"All of us are disappointed" there is no simultaneous translation, Hughes said. He said the Vatican rejected U.S. requests that publication in any language be delayed until all translations were ready.
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Title Annotation:new 'Catechism for the Catholic Church'; includes related article
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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