The Catholic left is in trouble.
On March 31, the Catholic Church published the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In format, the Compendium harkens back to the question-and-answer style popular in Catholic schools before Vatican II. Of course, the new compendium has also incorporated the documents of Vatican II into its teaching.
The Compendium will come as bad news for liberal Catholics, who for forty years have managed to dismantle Catholic catechism in the schools through obfuscation, politics, and flat-out heresy. In the feverish political milieu of the 1960s and 1970s, liberal Catholic educators excused this away as the church being “relevant” to the great issues of the day — poverty, war, social justice. More recently, a religion teacher at Georgetown Prep — my alma mater and the oldest Catholic high school in America — told me that they had to keep using the leftist text The Word Made Flesh because the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a doorstopper published in 1994, was “over the heads of freshman and sophomores.”
The Compendium most certainly is not over the heads of the kids. But, of course, the real reason for keeping old textbooks is political. In the 1960s the Catholic left took over the writing and publishing of textbooks, a fact evident if you spend an afternoon in the library, as I did, going through old issues of the Catholic School Journal. The Journal was published from 1901 to 1970. It went from a small, text-heavy sheet in the early part of the century to a thick catalogue in the fat years of mid-century Catholicism, then delved into radicalism before folding in the summer of 1970. An ad from 1904 touts books about ancient history and a Catechism of Scripture History, and feels comfortable enough with its audience’s Catholicism to not only sell a book written in Latin but describe it in the same language. Articles praise Thomas Aquinas and the pope’s stance on Communism. A 1952 ad announces the publication of Teaching the Christian Virtues, now an out of print neglected classic.
Ads and articles from 1966 herald the immediate postconciliar period. There was much talk of “new horizons,” but most articles and books are examinations of the Vatican II documents — documents that few Catholics have read today. By 1967, the Vatican II documents were losing out to books about teenagers, “feminine fulfillment” and “sex and the people we are.” In late 1968 an ad for the Christian Inheritance Series notes that the 1968 Liturgical Week Theme is REVOLUTION: CHRISTIAN RESPONSES.
When Catholic parents revolted, the education elites were having nothing of it. In January 1970 the Catholic Journal published an article by Sr. Marie Aimee Carey, “Are Religion Textbooks Teaching Heresy?” The answer, of course was no. In fact, it was the John Birch Society whipping Catholics into a frenzy. Sister Carey notes Vatican II’s paragraph on “norms for catechetical instruction.” They explain that catechetical training is “to make men’s faith become more living, conscious, and active….” This should be based on “Sacred Scripture, tradition, the liturgy, the teaching authority, and the life of the Church.” The teaching method should be adapted to “the natural disposition, ability, age, and life circumstances of the listener.”
From this list of guidelines, which could have been published in 1920 — or 1820 — Sister Carey found the meaning that “the old catechism is wanting in every [way].” The memorization of yesteryear — even if buttressed by a life of Mass, prayer, and spiritual community (my notation, not Carey’s) — “is no longer adequate for today’s children; the society in which we now live presents challenges and threats to their faith that did not exist in our day.” Yes, certainly previous generations of Catholics knew nothing about war, poverty, and materialism.
And for years the misinformation has continued. When the new Catechism was being prepared in the early 1990s the Catholic left marshaled efforts to squash it, going so far as to heckle at a press conference announcing its publication. They also tried to shoehorn “inclusive language” in the text, causing a delay until the text could be corrected. Then they started to claim that the Catechism, at 500 pages, is too unwieldy for students — the argument I got from Georgetown Prep. Instead, Prep currently uses a book called The Word Made Flesh for freshman and sophomores. In it, author Anthony Martinelli never once gives the Church’s definition for “mortal sin.” He does not explain the discipline of celibacy. To show what church doctrine is, he uses the examples of women’s ordination, writing that the Church has never ordained women but conceivably that could change. But in 1994 Pope John Paul II firmly stated that the church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women, and that this teaching is to be held definitively by the faithful. Cardinal Ratzinger– now Pope Benedict — later clarified this, announcing the pope was reiterating what is to be held as a Dogma by the faithful.
And that’s just the beginning. The Word Made Flesh has so many errors and questionable assumptions that it needs its own compendium to list them all. I’ll confine myself to two of the book’s most obvious flaws: its teaching on abortion and its claim that Christianity is not the only true faith. Author Martinelli uses the “seamless garment” approach, a favorite argument of liberal Christians. According to the seamless garment argument, abortion is wrong, but it morally equivalent to poverty or pay inequities between genders. As The Word Made Flesh states,
The Catholic Church not only opposes abortion but strongly opposes the conditions that lead to the need for abortion: discrimination against women in the workplace, poverty, lack of adequate health care and child care. The church cannot take a stand against abortion unless it is also willing to take a stand against the conditions that lead to it.
Moreover, the book says, “The arguments used by the church [against abortion] are not religious ones at all. There is no appeal to faith or the commandments or to Jesus.” So the commandment not to kill has nothing to do with abortion. The Compendium of the Catholic Church, in question 470 — “What is Forbidden by the fifth commandment?” — says differently. Forbidden is murder or cooperation in it, euthanasia, suicide — and “direct abortion, willed as an end or as means, as well as cooperation in it. Attached to this sin is the penalty of excommunication because, from the moment of his or her conception, the human being must be absolutely respected and protected in his integrity.”
So at long last, the fog of forty years of obfuscation may be lifting — that is, if the liberals agree to teach what the church teaches. I won’t hold my breath. If the orthodoxy of the new Compendium doesn’t drive them away, the prayer pages will — the prayers are not only in English, but Latin.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad, 2005) and Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship (Encounter, 2003).