New Rules for an Old Faith

The last time the Vatican issued a catechism for use by the entire church, it was 1566 and Rome's aim was to restate the Roman Catholic faith against the doctrinal dissonance created by the Protestant Reformation. Last week the Vatican released a new "universal catechism" aimed, this time around, at clearing up confusions within the church itself Seven years in the making and, as yet, available only in a French version, the new "Catechism of the Catholic Church" is--like its predecessor--essentially a reference work for bishops, missionaries and others charged with teaching both adults and children the basics of the Catholic religion. Two years ago it was dispatched in draft form for criticism to the world's 3,000 bishops. They responded with some 24,000 suggested amendments. The result, inevitably, is a compromise document that will surprise some and satisfy no one. But, as a summary of what Roman Catholics believe (creed), what they celebrate (sacraments), how they live (morality) and how they pray (The Lord's Prayer), it does provide a rudder for a church still adrift on a sea of change.

Although it is "much more than a book of prohibitions," as the text's chief architect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put it last week, the catechism is notable chiefly for the way it teaches Catholics to recognize old sins in their modern guises. In its explication of the Ten Commandments, for example, the catechism says that employers sin when they pay unfair salaries and executives violate God's law when they appropriate the assets of a company for their private use. Besides reiterating the church's familiar condemnations of abortion, euthanasia and artificial birth control, the text also includes drunken driving and drug abuse among those acts that are morally as well as socially harmful. Those who cheat on income tax must answer to God as well as to civil authority. Addressing the obligations of nations, the catechism condemns genocide as "mortal sin!' and obliges better-off nations to "welcome, within their capacities, the foreigner in search of security and vital resources that he cannot find in his country of origin."

As a summary of Catholic faith and practice, the 676-page catechism is necessarily a conserving statement of what the church has long taught. But on at least two important ethical issues--war and the death penalty--the text reflects the church's own moral uncertainty. While holding to the church's ancient position that some wars may be just, it rules out virtually every sort of modern combat; even morally justifiable wars are sinful, the catechism states, if-as in most cases-civilian lives are endangered. Similarly, the death penalty is allowed "as a last resort" for "the preservation of public order," provided it is carried out "in a timely and compassionate manner." But Pope John Paul II, who amended the final text himself, is known to regard the American way of death penalties as sinful acts of social vengeance. And Bishop Allessandro Maggiolini, a member of the commission that drafted the catechism, acknowledged that "It's hard to find an example that is [morally] clear."

Gay and lesbian Catholics will discover the usual condemnation of homosexual acts as "unnatural." But they might be heartened by vigorous denunciation of "unjust discrimination" against them, as well as a recognition that they "do not choose their homosexual orientation." Like unmarried heterosexuals, however, gays are told to be chaste and 'axe encouraged to confess their sins if they falter. Feminist theologians will be displeased that in the long and sometimes poetic section on prayer, God-at least in the French edition-is never addressed as "she." "That's really an American question," says Bishop Louis-Marie Bille of Laval, an authority on catechisms. "In Paris we are less sensitive to all-inclusive gender terms."

The fate of the catechism will depend on how it is used-or abused. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued a simplified "Credo" that conservatives wielded against dissident liberal theologians. The new text could provide a similar ammunition. Conversely, liberal theologians are likely to criticize it-and its more than 4,000 footnotes-for ignoring the revisionist insights of the latest Biblical scholarship. But for the ordinary parish priest and lay catechist, it will suffice for the humble but difficult task of explaining the basics of Catholic commitment and identity. That is warrant enough.