Meet the bishop behind the updated Catholic Catechism

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, with Pope Francis at a gathering marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican, Oct. 11, 2017. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, baptized Salvatore, is an Italian prelate who has served as the first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization since 2010 and president of the International Council for Catechesis since 2013. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to the former post as part of the process leading into the Synod for the New Evangelization and the post-synodal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis. Previously, he taught fundamental theology for 20 years at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He also served as an Auxiliary Bishop of Rome, Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University and in various curial positions.

A specialist in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Archbishop Fisichella recently completed a revision of his 1993 Theological Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church that Our Sunday Visitor is publishing in the United States this summer as part of an updated version of the Catechism itself. As editor of this commentary, he oversaw the contributions of 42 experts chosen from among bishops, theologians, pastors, catechists and other scholars.

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On April 12, I interviewed Archbishop Fisichella by email about this project. The following text of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

Since Pope St. John Paul II first promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, the Vatican has given us the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Youth Catechism (YOUCAT) as follow-ups. As per the Catechism’s directive, we also have a United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and other catechisms now synched to it. What need does this new commentary edition fulfill that these previous supplemental texts have not met?

First of all, it is important to remember that YouCat is not an initiative of the Holy See, although it does have its approval. YouCat is rather an interesting initiative by a group of young people which received the support of the bishops of Austria in the first instance and has since been translated and adapted into many other languages. So while it is very worthwhile in itself as an attempt explain our Catholic faith to young people, it does not have the same status as either the Catechism of the Catholic Church or its Compendium which are Magisterial documents promulgated directly by the Holy Father.

Archbishop Fisichella has served as the first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization since 2010 and president of the International Council for Catechesis since 2013.

The Theological Commentary, which I have edited, is very different from the texts you mention. It has its origins in the fact that, from the beginning, the Catechism was intended for bishops and as a basis for national catechisms. Our intention in producing the commentary was to offer an instrument to bishops, pastors and catechists by which to better understand the Catechism. The Catechism itself was redacted using a system of numbered paragraphs and syntheses at the end of each article which make it highly accessible. But there are always going to be those who require to know more, be they bishops, pastors, catechists or the interested laity.

If the Catechism represents “a sure norm” on faith and morals, as John Paul II described it, why do we need to interpret it further?

I suppose that the short answer is because no text, however authoritative, is capable of expressing the faith in a way that is completely exhaustive and univocal. Attempts to state the faith of the church—which stands in relation to God, time and space as no other institution does—are always going to require mediations to some degree. This is not to say that the Catechism is not a sure guide to faith and morals—it certainly is—but a recognition of the fact that statements of the Magisterium are always open to theological reflection.

In the United States, the Canon Law Society of America has produced a similar commentary on the Code of Canon Law, and various Catholic scholars have produced study bibles with commentaries. As a product of the Vatican, does this new Catechismof the Catholic Church with Theological Commentary carry more official magisterial authority than these other texts, or should we treat it as equivalent?

Let me say at once that our commentary is not a document of the Magisterium. In fact, each contributor is named and takes personal responsibility for his or her own contribution. The works you mention are all aimed at mediating specific contents, be it of theCode of Canon Law or Sacred Scripture itself. Such mediations or guides are very precious, since few of us have the time or the opportunity to become experts in a given field, but at the same time we need to consult and to use these texts in order to know the mind of the church and give our pastoral work a better grounding. Also, it should not be forgotten that the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization called for instruments which would assist in giving the reasons of our faith in the world of today.

To deny this dynamic nature of tradition is tantamount to denying the contemporaneity of the Christian faith.

The U.S. publisher has confirmed that this new edition will carry the revision of Pope Francis to number 2267 on the death penalty, making it the first American print edition of the Catechism to do so. Addressing this change in the commentary, how do you explain doctrinal development in a way that makes sense to ordinary Catholics?

What is often lost sight of in discussions of this matter is the fact that Apostolic Tradition, or “Sacred Tradition” in the language of Vatican II, is first and foremost living. Sometimes we are guilty of giving the impression that tradition is an exercise akin to an athletics relay in which the aim is to pass the gold baton of the faith onto the next runner just exactly as it was received. But this conception risks reducing tradition to a fly in amber and ends up negating its very origin and purpose. Tradition has its origin in the Gospel which the living Christ ordered the Apostles to preach and to hand on to their successors, the bishops. It is precisely tradition which allows the church to confront new situations and evaluate them in the light of the Gospel. To deny this dynamic nature of tradition is tantamount to denying the contemporaneity of the Christian faith.

Sometimes we are guilty of giving the impression that tradition is an exercise akin to an athletics relay in which the aim is to pass the gold baton of the faith onto the next runner just exactly as it was received.

Does this mean that each new generation of Christians is authorized to change the faith at its whim? Emphatically not, for such a vision not only would not be Catholic but would have no basis in the historical development of our faith. But what it does mean is that the teaching of the church can develop over time in a way that is organic and faithful to the deposit of faith. To put it bluntly, either tradition is living or it is not the tradition of the Catholic Church. As I explained in a recent article, the question of the death penalty and Pope Francis’s intervention must be understood within this dynamic conception of tradition.

What role did Pope Francis play in this project?

Pope Francis was very supportive of this initiative and generously wrote the preface which will also appear in the forthcoming English edition. He was very keen that the 25th anniversary of the Catechism be commemorated solemnly in the Vatican, and it was on this occasion, in October of 2017, that he announced his decision to ask for a reformulation of number 2267 in the direction of the inadmissibility of the death penalty. I find it very significant that in his preface the Holy Father notes that St. John Paul II signed the Apostolic Constitution ordering the publication of the catechism on the 30th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, thus underlining the continuity between the council and the catechism.

How was your experience collaborating with Cardinal Schönborn, the original editor of the Catechism, and other experts on the commentary?

I have known Cardinal Schönborn for many years, long before he became a member of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization of which I have the honor to be president. He is a remarkable man in many ways. He has made a significant contribution to the church’s understanding of the New Evangelization, and the Catechism will remain very much a part of his personal legacy. He was one of the speakers at the event we organized in October 2017 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Catechism, and it was very moving as well as interesting to hear him speak of theological and doctrinal principles underlying its redaction under St. John Paul II. In particular, I was very pleased to hear him, speaking of the primacy of grace, underline how the catechism presents God under the aspect of his action in salvation history, from which it derives that faith is above all our human response to God in his self-revelation. This, to me, was confirmation of the model of revelation and faith which is such an important part of the vision of Vatican II with its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, but also confirmation of the Catechism’s being very much part of the patrimony of Vatican II.

In the process of assembling the commentary, what areas proved most challenging and why?

As one who is not only a theologian whose specific interest is fundamental theology but also a bishop, I never cease to be aware of the challenge which derives from the fact that one is attempting to explain faith in Christ in a cultural context which is characterized by an extreme fragmentariness. But if this context makes the task seem daunting, history intervenes immediately to remind us that the context was also daunting when writers such as Justin Martyr were trying to explain the faith against the background of the Roman Empire. I always think that history is a great antidote to the temptation to despair, pastoral as well as doctrinal.

The primary aim of a catechism is not to convert but to explain the faith to those who have already chosen the way of Christ.

As the first president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, how might you see this text evangelizing readers?

Let me say at once that the primary aim of a catechism, let alone a commentary on a catechism, is not to convert but to explain the faith to those who have already chosen the way of Christ, although it is well placed to set the ball rolling in any man or woman of good will who is interested in Christ or the church. So the aim is not to evangelize in the primary sense so much as to bring Christians to a deeper understanding of the faith they profess. Mindful of 1 Peter 3:15, this is a perennial necessity and one we ignore today at our peril.

Although catechesis remains a necessary part of evangelization, one may question whether we Catholics tend to jump too quickly to it, lecturing people about doctrine before doing the necessary relationship-building that makes them care in the first place. As president of the International Council for Catechesis, how do you respond to this concern that our evangelization must go beyond giving another book to read?

You highlight a danger which is very real. When they engage in analyzing the act of faith, theologians traditionally distinguish between what they call the fides qua, the act of believing, and the fides quae, the specific content believed. For too long in Christian formation—at all levels, not just in catechesis—too much emphasis has been placed the on the fides quae, on the many contents of our faith, to the detriment of the fides qua as a personal choice made freely and deliberately under grace. This imbalance is tragic because it has undermined our faith in Jesus Christ as a living, interpersonal relationship, giving the impression that belief is little more than an intellectual exercise limited to just the head rather than involving the human being in his or her totality.

Moreover, I am firmly of the view that this approach lies at the root of many of the problems facing the church in her relations with contemporary cultures. In particular, when the moral teaching of the church is presented as a series of precepts apart from an interpersonal relationship with Christ, we are really putting the cart before the horse and with disastrous consequences for evangelization. Of course, given the profound unity which exists between the fides qua and the fides quae, just stressing the fides qua at the expense of the fides quae would be to compound the error by jumping from the frying pan into the fire. What is needed, in my opinion, is a new approach capable of maintaining the fides qua and the fides quae in equilibrium. Thus Pope Francis’s repeated invitation to focus on faith as an encounter with the person of the living Christ in his church.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

I hope that it will lead people to delve into the Catechism if they have not already done so, or to go back and look at it again with fresh eyes if they already have. It really is a monumental work, an enduring testimony certainly to the clarity of thought and determination of St. Pope John Paul II and his collaborators—Benedict XVI the first among them—but an infinitely greater one to the sublime beauty and coherence of our Catholic faith as professed in the church over two millennia.

Any final thoughts?

I am deeply saddened by those Catholics who propagate the view that the greatness of the church is a thing of the past. Very often they give the impression—I am sure most of them unintentionally—that Christ has somehow reneged on his promise to be with his church until the end of time. We must never lose sight of the fact that, while the greatness of the church may know many and varied expressions, from scholarship and art to law and human rights, it is always also a function of the Christian community’s fidelity to Christ at a given point in salvation history. It seems to me that here there is a lesson for us all in that we are all called to a deep personal fidelity to Christ through the church and to glorify him and his church through our use of the talents he has bestowed on each one of us. The Catechism itself demonstrates page after page that the Catholic faith is inspired neither by nostalgia nor utopia but by a profound sense of realism which obliges us to live it out at this particular point in salvation history to which we have been called.

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J Cosgrove
2 weeks 1 day ago

Are there any other changes than for capital punishment?

Belief is key but belief in what is also key. Just what are people expected to believe?

James M.
2 weeks 1 day ago

Anything that Rome comes up with, whether it is true or not. And if people can’t square the new stuff with the old stuff, they can go stuff themselves, because Rome is not going to lift a finger to help them. This is the reverse of what the Apostles said in Acts 15.10: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?“

https://biblehub.com/acts/15-10.htm

Or as Jesus said of the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (St Matthew 23.4). That is Rome to a T.

J. Calpezzo
2 weeks 1 day ago

The Archbishop sounds reasonable. I would trust him to re-write the entire Catechism.
Who cares what JPII thinks?

Will Nier
2 weeks 1 day ago

We seriously need to ordain women as priests. We also need to allow for the ordination of our gay brothers and sisters in the Lord who are also discerning a vocation to priesthood and religious life. It is an injustice not to be accepting of all of God's children.

karen oconnell
2 weeks 1 day ago

absolutely----- i love Francis, but he is in the 'wrong place' regarding his position on ordaining women for priesthood/ dicastery. this is just an example of taking the wrong 'narrow way' and there is no excuse for it. Jesus was surrounded with women...married men etc. recruiters should be looking primarily at a candidate's heart, not at her or his sexual parts. pretty outrageous.......not very encouraging in terms of the institutional desire to be a force in the modern world.

Gino Dalpiaz
1 week 2 days ago

A WANNABEE POPE?

Pope Francis is neither Jesus Christ nor the Holy Spirit. The pope simply hands on what Jesus himself taught his apostles. He cannot — on his own — make up things that he himself would like to teach. This is Jesus Christ’s Church, not Pope Francis’. Karen, you sound like a wannabee pope.

Gino Dalpiaz
1 week 2 days ago

A WANNABEE POPE?

Pope Francis is neither Jesus Christ nor the Holy Spirit. The pope simply hands on what Jesus himself taught his apostles. He cannot — on his own — make up things that he himself would like to teach. This is Jesus Christ’s Church, not Pope Francis’. Karen, you sound like a wannabee pope.

James M.
2 weeks 1 day ago

[Salai]: “If the Catechism represents “a sure norm” on faith and morals, as John Paul II described it, why do we need to interpret it further?

[Fisichella]: I suppose that the short answer is because no text, however authoritative, is capable of expressing the faith in a way that is completely exhaustive and univocal. Attempts to state the faith of the church—which stands in relation to God, time and space as no other institution does—are always going to require mediations to some degree. This is not to say that the Catechism is not a sure guide to faith and morals—it certainly is—but a recognition of the fact that statements of the Magisterium are always open to theological reflection.”

Poppycock and balderdash. A “sure norm” cannot be “sure” if its content needs to be altered. A text that was a “sure norm” would be just right as it was when first called a “sure norm”: as the first edition was described. Because the Faith does not change, the second edition of this “sure norm contained 101 alterations of text, These further changes merely prove what is already certain: that this “norm” is anything but “sure”. Fisichella’s answer is equivalent to saying that 2 x 2 = 5, as well as 4. A multiplication table that was described as a “sure norm” for multiplication, and was revised to say that 2 x 2 = 5, would be laughed at as being utterly dishonest. How is the CCC, with its ever-changing Faith, any different ? What happened to intellectual honesty ? Or is God a God of lies, deception, falsehood, and dishonesty ?

Oz Jewel
1 week ago

A short Q & A is supposed to encompass the virtues and shortcomings of human language?

Please share the infallible mathematics of the Trinity. 3=1 1+1+1=1 ?? Your table please.

Two scriptural items are of importance. "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" and "if all that He said and did were written down, the world is not big enough to contain the books needed".

Very early reflection on the nature and properties of God led to one conclusion - human minds, human language, human art is incompetent at encompassing the full reality absolutely.
So, very early it was agreed that the only knowable absolute qualities might be described by negation.
God is such that has NO beginning and NO end.
There is NO limit to the power of God
There is NO limit to the size of God
God is IN-visible, IM-mortal - you get the drift.

The core of Christianity is the invitation to live as a disciple of Christ, not giving some sort of intellectual assent to a sterile series of word propositions.
This is impossible without the Holy Spirit giving individual guidance on the spot at the crucial time for that particular eventuality in your unique life.

The article reveals that catechisms are for bishops and those who teach the young or converts after baptism.
The Bible and the liturgy are for us all and are dead to us without the Holy Spirit.

Maxwell Anderson
2 weeks 1 day ago

The Catechism of the Catholic Church "really is a monumental work..testimony..to the..thought..of..John Paul II and..Benedict XVI.." as Archbishop Fisichella says.

However, some bishops (and others) disagree that the Catechism is in all respects a sure guide to faith and morals, rather than a collection of basics and mainstream theories, particularly in ecclesiology, natural law, sexuality and gender roles.

Many theologians dismiss the very idea of having "one true catechism" beyond the Creed. The creation of a universal catechism was proposed and promoted by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Cardinal Bernard Law, both subsequently found to be an utter disgrace to the church.

The Dutch Catechism (1966) ("A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults" 1967, 510 pp), was commissioned and authorized by the Catholic hierarchy of the Netherlands, with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. It was later repudiated by the Vatican and Imprimatur revoked, but then a "New Authorized Version" (574 pages with the original text plus a 50 page Supplement added) was issued. It contains some modern, alternative theological viewpoints that millions found attractive half a century ago. However, it's out of print. People just don't care anymore.

The purpose of a catechism was traditionally often to instruct the faithful (or their teachers) so that they could be confirmed as mature members of the church. It's sad to see the usual confirmation classes at age 13, when the students are too young to make a lifetime commitment and soon drop out of church. At one confirmation this year, it was shocking to me to see the confirmands were about seven years old! That is a sign of desperation. Theological dieting or pruning followed by renewal is needed in the church.

Sean Salai, S.J.
1 week 6 days ago

Thank you all for reading. Let’s continue to pray for a springtime of new evangelization in our Catholic Church!

Oz Jewel
1 week ago

I appreciate this article in this publication more than any other I have read.
As a cradle Catholic born and alienated by most of the Catholics in my life issuing binding dictats to me out of the Vatican 1 mindset and rescued by Chesterton and CS Lewis and Thomas Merton and Carlo Carretto alongside the actual Bible and the documents of Vatican II, I have steered well away from zealots' and fundamentalist's vicious assaults using catechisms to try and bind me by law.

I will take from this article one which I will long remember - it is for bishops and catechists.

Now, in my eighth decade, I am shielded from assault by catechism and will rest content.

The politically correct anti-death penalty is a case in point.
Yes, rulers and regimes all over the world are killing far too many people in the name of law and the disciples of Christ rightly must lead and encourage as commissioned and prompted to fight against their cruel state terrorism.

One datum negates any universalism of an anti-death penalty embargo.
The current and historic experience of prisoners is now public property through widespread literacy and mass media.
Testimony from within prisons like the Gulag Archipelago, Papillion, survivors of the Shoah must not be ignored.
There are serial murderers incarcerated amongst many other prisoners who have been convicted of crimes through due process which under most circumstances ought never to lead to their death, but they get murdered by fellow inmate multiple murderers who get off without punishment. There people surely deserve a more severe punishment even just to make it impossible for them to practice their callous disregard for human life.
If we do not execute them, what else? Put out their eyes? Chop off their hands? Cage them in solitude until natural death, extreme age or disability renders them impotent?

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