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Forward to the past.

With Pope John Paul II scheduled to visit Denver in mid-August, it occurred to me (in mid,July) that it might be appropriate to write an article about the new catechism of the Catholic church, formally approved by the pope on October 11, 1992. As the first complete statement of official Catholic church doctrines and teachings since the Reformation, the new catechism should be of interest to many who are concerned about the policies and actions of the leadership of the largest religious body in both the United States and the world. Notice that I refer to the leadership of the Catholic church-the unelected power structure which actually speaks for only a fraction of the people who identify their religious preference as Catholic.

But--mirabile dictu!--when I tried to get a copy of the document, I found that it had not, and still has not, been published in English. The delay is ostensibly due to disagreements over how to deal with gender in the English translation. Maybe, and maybe not. Maybe the delay was or is due to the desire of the "pontiff" (why do the media insist on using that ridiculous term that the popes borrowed from the ancient Roman emperors-pontifex maximus, the "bridge between heaven and earth"?) to avoid controversy or perhaps even embarrassment in a religious body already ridden by controversies over birth control, abortion, divorce, ordination of women, the right of priests to marry, the population problem, church finances, clerical child, abuse cover-ups, and the present pope's hard, driving conservatism.

While English-speaking Catholics and other interested persons were being denied the opportunity to examine the very latest word in papal dogma, I found it rather simple to get my hands on the 702-page Spanish edition, published in Madrid, before the bookstore responded to a Vatican order to recall the book (rather like a defective car).

I wrote a standard,length op,ed piece about the new catechism-a real journalistic scoop-but, to my surprise, not a single newspaper or weekly would touch it.

Here then is the guts of the "scoop" which the other media chose not to use.

There is a great deal in the new catechism with which the vast majority of both Catholics and non-Catholics would agree, especially regarding social-justice issues. But many (perhaps most) Catholics and certainly most non-Catholics would disagree with or be offended by other portions of the document. The following are some of the points of disagreement, particularly as they touch on matters that go beyond personal religious belief. Of course, no short article can adequately deal in,depth with a subject as vast as the summary teachings of the Catholic church. (The numbers after each citation refer to the 2,865 numbered sections in the catechism.)

* "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, spoken or written, has been given only to the living Magisterium [teaching authority] of the [Catholic] church, which it exercises in the name of Jesus Christ, that is to say, to the bishops in communion with the successors of Peter, the bishop of Rome" (85).

* In an apparent retreat from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the catechism states that "the Roman Pontiff, in effect, has in the Church, by virtue of his functions as Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the whole Church, full, supreme and universal power, which he can exercise with complete liberty" (882). Furthermore, the bishops "have no authority separate from the Roman Pontiff" (893).

* Priests are required to be celibate (915). The document is silent on the ordination of women.

* For the marriage of a Catholic and a non-Catholic to be valid in the eyes of the Catholic church, church permission is required and the Catholic party is required to promise to do all possible to have the children baptized and raised as Catholics (1635). Divorce is not permitted (1644), being considered "a grave offense against the natural law" (2384).

* With regard to family planning, "every matrimonial act must remain open to the transmission of life" (2366), which proscribes all forms of contraception; only "periodic continence" may be used for birth control (2370). Artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood are prohibited (2376, 2377). Human personhood is considered as beginning "at the moment of conception" (2270), abortion is termed a grave wrong subject to excommunication (2272), and the state should not permit abortion (2273).

* Religious liberty may be subjected to "just limits" by state authorities "in conformity with the objective moral order" (2109), which somehow is not very reassuring to people of other persuasions.

* Sections 2211 and 2229 say that the state must assure families of "the means and necessary institutions" for religious education, which means tax subsidies for denominational schools.

While every religious organization has the right, under the U.S. constitutional arrangement of separation of church and state, to have, to express, and to teach its doctrines and set its own internal rules, public interest is understandably aroused when the largest religious body in the country takes controversial positions which affect the lives of many millions of Americans outside its membership. Concern is heightened further by the fact that this religious body alone has been granted official U.S. government diplomatic recognition since 1984, an arrangement Oust reapproved by the U.S. Senate in June with no public discussion) which allows the leader of that church to go over the heads of his church's American adherents to deal directly with our national political leadership.

Finally, it should be saddening to Catholics and non,Catholics alike that this new compilation of the largest church's doctrines seems in both form and substance to retreat from the liberating, progressive spirit of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The foregoing, of course, deals only with Vatican policies which affect the actual lives of millions-Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When we turn to theology, cruising through the pages of the new catechism is like returning to the Middle Ages.

Faith takes precedence over reason (159). "Faith is certain, more certain than all human knowledge, because it is founded on the very Word of God" (156). The trinity is one of the "mysteries hidden in God that cannot be known if not revealed from on high" (237). And the catechism's treatment of the problem of evil is perfectly ludicrous. God, it says, could have created a perfect world but, "in his infinite wisdom and goodness," chose instead to create a world "on the way to ultimate perfection" (309, 310). (Well, gee-thanks a lot.) A few paragraphs later, it states: "Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the creator" (338), including the HIV virus, mosquitos, and Saddam Hussein.

We could go on, but you get the point. This pope wants to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages, to ignore the scholarship of recent generations of Catholic and non-Catholic biblical experts, to retreat from the modest start toward liberalism at the Second Vatican Council, to thumb his nose at modernity, and to impose his vision on the world.

When American Catholics finally get a chance to read this book-if they bother to do so--the already sparsely populated pews should get even emptier.

Addenelum: Our little shop at Americans for Religious Liberty has produced four new books in the past two months which should be of interest to readers of this column.

The December Wars: Religious Symbols and Ceremonies in the Public Square (Prometheus Books, $18.95 cloth) is my colleague A1 Menendez's study of the conflicts over religious holiday observances from the fourth century up to the present. It's chock-full of historical, religious, and legal information never before pulled together in one volume.

Abortion Rights at the Polls: An Analysis of the 1992 Maryland Referendum (Americans for Religious Liberty, $10 paper) is Menendez's up-to-date political tour of the state often called "America in miniature." His detailed examination of the 1992 Maryland abortion,rights referendum shows how voters' education, income, religion, and place of residence are the main determinants of their views on abortion rights.

In Religious Liberty and the State Constitution (Prometheus Books, $19.95 cloth), Menendez and I present in one volume all of the religious liberty and church-state separation provisions of the constitutions of the 50 states and Puerto Rico, together with a historical introduction. It's a useful reference book-- one that demolishes the religious right's claim that church,state separation is a recent invention by civil libertarians.

Finally, my book Catholic Schools: The Facts (Americans for Religious Liberty, $10 paper) is an eye,opening analysis of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, based exclusively upon contemporary Catholic church sources of information. It should be especially useful in relation to the current campaigns by sectarian special interests and ultraconservatives for tax support of church schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits. The book complements Menendez's Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books, $14.95 paper) and our joint work Church Schools and Public Money: The Politics of Parochiaid (Prometheus Books, $14.95 paper).

All of these books are available from Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.

Edd Doerr, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, is a former vice,president of the American Humanist Association.
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Title Annotation:new catechism of the Catholic church
Author:Doerr, Edd
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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