The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI greets the faithful in Castel Gandolfo The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI greets the faithful in Castel Gandolfo 

Benedict XVI: ‘Father of Catechism of the Catholic Church’

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, shares his thoughts on the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s role in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a compendium of Catholic doctrine for our own times.

By Cardinal Christoph Schönborn

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is undoubtedly among the great legacies of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. With regards to this, I am grateful to be able to recall many memories, even very personal ones, of him.

It is well known that, unlike the Council of Trent, Vatican Council II did not decide to publish its own catechism of the Council. In a certain sense, the Council documents were themselves considered the great catechism of the Church. Twenty years after the Council, many saw things in a different way. Among the propositiones presented by the 1985 Synod of Bishops was one that insistently called on the Pope to provide for the development of a Catechism of Vatican Council II. There was talk of a compendium. The word catechism was avoided. It was not well-formulated. It was the widely felt disorientation of the post-Council period that determined the requests of the Synodal Fathers. A conference on “The Crisis of Catechesis” held by Cardinal Ratzinger in Lyon and Paris in 1983 played an important role in this regard. That conference resounded on a global level.

Cardinal Ratzinger had not only tackled the crisis of the proclamation of the faith, but had also presented a program on how the catechesis of the Church could be renewed. To that end, he had referred to the Catechismus Romanus of 1566 and to his preoccupation of explaining the faith of the Church in its beauty without controversy. In fact, it is surprising that at a time filled with theological controversy, the Church had proposed an explanation of her faith that totally renounced controversy, entrusting herself entirely to the radiating power of the positive representation of the faith.

Ratzinger’s conference in Lyon and Paris was undoubtedly a strong boost that encouraged the synodal fathers to ask John Paul II to contemplate something similar for our times.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II began to give concrete shape to the requests of the synod. It is not surprising that he entrusted Cardinal Ratzinger with the task of leading the project. It is not necessary for me to retrace the stages of that journey which lasted six years. A commission of 12 cardinals and bishops led by Ratzinger was set up. An editorial board of seven diocesan bishops was established in which I — at the time a professor in Freiburg — was the secretary.

I think it is important to underscore above all Cardinal Ratzinger’s contribution to that work. His guidance, his spirit and his inspiration were decisive. The first thing and also the most important one, is that he truly believed in this project. From the first day, there was bitter debate on the meaning that it could have and on the possibility of preparing a compendium of the faith that could be applied to the whole world. The pluralization of cultures, of the ways of faith seemed to be in clear contrast with that idea. He believed with courage and trust in that possibility. The unity of the faith makes even a shared expression of that unity possible. With this premise as a guide, he began the work.

There was a second contribution with which he accompanied the work: the conviction that the four classic pillars of catechesis continue to be the backbone today. He also pointed out the order: the Creed has been the foundation ever since the beginning of the Church; the Sacraments are the doors through which grace enters our lives; the Ten Commandments are the sure signposts of a successful life; the Our Father is the measure and the original form of all our prayers. This, then, is the structure of the book on faith.

The third indication was decisive for the style of the work. It was not to repeat and continue theological debates. It had to illustrate in a simple and clear way only the doctrine of the faith. The Catechism was not to take a position among theological schools, but rather offer all that precedes theology and that is the base of all theology: the depositum fidei.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, it was particularly important to see the doctrine of the faith as an organic whole, taking into account the nexus mysteriorum, the intimate connection among all the teachings of the faith and their symphony. The Catechism was not to be an arid and abstract doctrinal structure, but rather make people perceive the beauty of the faith.

Under his guidance, his constant encouragement and his spiritual fatherhood, the work grew to be what it finally became after the promulgation by Pope John Paul II: a sure measure and orientation for faith in our time. The Catechism remains a great witness of the determining force of the theologian Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

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31 December 2022, 13:08