What is the status of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was clear at the time of its promulgation. Things are not true because they are in the Catechism; they are in the Catechism because they are true.

The very text bears this out. As the invaluable Ignatius Press Commentary amply demonstrates, the Catechism is rich in references, not only to Holy Scripture, but also to wide-ranging authorities in the unfolding tradition.

Interestingly, Article 2266 on capital punishment, is sparsely attested in this way. Nor does the new rescript do much better: Pope Francis, it appears has no one to cite but himself!

So what are we to make of the recent revision, which the CDF assures us is a ‘development’ – not a novelty – and accords closely with the teaching of St John Paul II?

The argumentation in favour of the change is, I think, very instructive. Here we encounter, once again, our old enemy the Whig View of History, with its repetitive but false syllogism: ‘that was then…but this is now’.

‘Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.’

‘Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’

‘Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide’.

Note the catena of unwarranted assumptions.

  1. That in past ages and in cultures other than the post-Enlightenment West, capital punishment can never have been an assertion of the ‘dignity of the person’. Or indeed that those ages and cultures were denied the awareness of that dignity altogether.
  2. That systems of detention are now universally not only protective of innocent citizens, but also safe and secure for those lengthily detained.
  3. That capital punishment, contrary to the Church’s perennial belief in judgement and possible redemption beyond death, deprives those who are so punished of that possibility.
  4. That ‘the Gospel’ (and if so where?) abrogates the provisions of the Mosaic Law in this matter.

And note also the unclarity of the last clause. If the death penalty is ‘inadmissible’, what of those, in states which retain it, who are involved in its administration. Are they, like lawyers, medical practitioners and legislators who administer and assist abortion, guilty of mortal sin?

This list of unsupported assumptions, concluding with a statement which, on closer examination, proves less than pellucid, strikes one as typical of the pronouncements of this pontificate.

The CCC was hailed by Pope Benedict as a tool in ecumenical discussions and made the foundation stone of the Ordinariates.  It was, in the Spirit of Vatican II, a collegial work of many hands. If it is now to be revised by one hand and with Papal authority alone its status (and perhaps that of the Papacy) has surely been fundamentally changed.

It does not take much imagination, on the precedent of 2266, to see radical changes to other entries – 2357-9, 1649-51, and 1577-8 for a start.


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