Bishop Wuerl on the Use of the Catechism in U.S.

Address Given at International Conference at Vatican

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 27, 2002 ( Here is the text of an address given by Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh at the recent International Catechetical Congress Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The prelate is the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Education.

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The organizers of this gathering asked me to speak about the particular ways the Catechism of the Catholic Church has impacted the lives of Catholics in North America and to highlight unique applications that have been made. The continent of North America is quite large and varied. For this reason, my remarks will be limited to what has happened in the United States, with which I am familiar, rather than presume to speak about specifics of the impact of the Catechism in Canada or Mexico.

In beginning this presentation, I want to highlight two aspects of the context in the United States of catechetical renewal. The first is the increasingly secular quality of our culture. The second is some positive signs of openness to the faith.

Our American culture is aggressively secular, to such an extent that the environment can be actually hostile to Christian faith. In examining our societal context today, we can begin with the fact that the social mores, particularly in large urban centers and reflected in the means of social communications that reach the entire country, have so changed in the past years as to produce a climate that is not only secular but almost entirely focused on the material world. Today commentators often speak of a generation that has lost its moral compass.

Concomitant with this is the disintegration of the community and social structures that once supported religious faith and encouraged family life. In fact, the heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves. This impacts strongly on the Church’s ability to persuade people to accept revealed teaching that cannot be changed by democratic process and to embrace an absolute moral imperative that is not the result of prior popular approbation.

Often the case is made that every opinion is as good as any other, that what really counts is freedom of choice rather than what is chosen, and that religious faith is so personal as to admit of no ecclesial guidance. Thus there is little expectation that faith should impact our society. Faith, religion and religious conviction are marginalized by their reduction to personal preference much as one chooses a long-distance phone service or credit card — without any serious consequence and subject to change as desired.

There is today, as there has always been to some extent, a temptation by some of the faithful to treat the Church as if it were incidental to salvation. The acceptance of the teaching authority of Christ exercised by bishops and priests in union with them throughout the world is a “hard saying.”

On the brighter side, there is a sense among many of our young people that the secular, material world does not provide them sufficient answers for their lives. Over and over, the phenomena of youth gatherings from as large as World Youth Day to as modest as small parish programs speak of the searching for value and direction that characterizes a growing number of our faithful. There is a hunger for God and the things of the Spirit but it needs to be encouraged, informed and directed.

The search for meaning manifests itself in various ways, including interest in “Eastern religions” and various sects and cults. A notable feature of this spiritual searching is the amorphous New Age phenomenon. Its popularity is seen in the amount of literature and number of spirituality programs available. This quality of our culture — its search for meaning — provides a key for an approach to evangelization, at least to this particular group of people.

In reaching out to the young, I have experienced their openness, searching, and desire for a clear articulation of the faith. The basic truths of the faith often evoke in them a positive and affirmative response. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides sure direction and an authoritative reference point as today we face the circumstances of our day — with both hope and confidence.

While there are many ways that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has impacted the life of the Church in the United States, I will concentrate on four developments that have taken place. First is the establishment of a specific episcopal committee responsible for the use of the Catechism in the United States. Another two points concern specific tasks with which this particular committee has been charged; the oversight of catechetical texts, and the production of a national adult catechism. Finally, I note the decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to establish a standing or permanent committee on catechesis.

In March of 1994, three months before the English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established an Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism. I have been privileged to serve on this Committee for more than eight years. Initially, the Ad Hoc Committee focused on working with the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Interdicasterial Commission to develop guidelines and policies for the use of the text within the United States. However, the primary task of the Committee now is the review of catechetical materials in use in the United States.

To understand how profoundly the Catechism of the Catholic Church has influenced catechetics through catechetical materials, such as textbooks, it is important to note that until very recently U.S. bishops were not involved directly in the production of catechetical texts.

Responsibility for the development of catechetical materials in the United States has, for many decades, been primarily the work of independent commercial publishing companies, with their own authors and editors which compete with each other in selling their catechetical materials for use in Catholic schools and religious education programs. Episcopal involvement in the development of these materials was generally limited to a review for the purpose of granting an imprimatur.

In 1884, the bishops of the United States, gathered in the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, authorized the production of what came to be known as The Baltimore Catechism. This book served the religious education needs of parish programs and, most particularly, Catholic elementary schools for more than 70 years. With the need, however, to produce texts that would aid the student in a more profound appropriation of the faith, a variety of catechetical and religious instruction texts became available.

A number of individual bishops addressed the need for catechetical texts both on the secondary school and adult level but these were always done as individual endeavors and not the work of or authorized by the Conference of Bishops.

It was only with the publication of Catechism of the Catholic Church and the establishment of a Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism that once again the Bishops’ Conference became actively involved in the oversight of the context of catechisms on a national level.

The Committee began conformity reviews on catechetical materials prepared by independent publishing houses. To date, every significant publishing house has submitted catechetical materials to the Committee for a conformity review. Over the years, thirty-four bishops and sixty-six catechetical experts have participated in the conformity review process. A positive effect of this process was to establish a working relationship between the religious text publishers and the bishops’ committee. Regular meetings take place between the
publishers and the members of the bishops’ committee. This type of collaboration has led to the situation where now most of the catechetical text used in parishes and in Catholic schools throughout the dioceses in the United States enjoy not only an imprimatur from the local bishop but a “Declaration of Conformity” with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Given the history and tradition of the production of catechetical texts in the United States and given the current positive level of episcopal engagement in the oversight of the content of catechetical texts, a recent feasibility study commissioned by the bishops concluded that it may not be necessary for the Conference to attempt to do a single, elementary-level, catechetical series for use throughout the entire United States. There is still some discussion as to whether or not such a series would be helpful on the secondary level.

Since one of the goals of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was to establish an easily accessible compendium of the faith that would be the reference point for catechetical tools produced on the level of the local Church, the actual ongoing practice in the United States of review of a multiplicity of texts ensuring their doctrinal integrity is indeed recognizable as an accomplishment of the Catechism itself.

During the first year of conducting the reviews, the members of the Committee began to notice a pattern of recurrent doctrinal problems in the texts and series submitted to them. In June of 1997, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, as chair of the Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, reported to the bishops of the United States that they had uncovered a number of recurrent doctrinal deficiencies in the course of the conformity reviews.

Many people throughout the Church and the catechetical community quickly recognized the truth in these observations. Within a short time, because of the work of the Committee and its collaboration with the publishers to ensure the quality of religious education texts and their conformity with the content of the Catechism, these deficiencies in catechetical materials were addressed and corrected by most of the independent catechetical publishers.

Most, if not all, of the bishops in the United States require that catechetical materials used within their dioceses carry a declaration of conformity to the Catechism.

The review process has also helped the catechetical publishing companies in the United States learn how to use the Catechism as a reference point for the development of materials. It has also helped these same publishers recognize the shift in catechetics occasioned by the publication of the Catechism, a shift toward more complete and authentic presentation of doctrine in a way that helps people appropriate more fully the faith. In 1998, at a convocation to study the application of the Catechism of the Catholic Church sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, His Eminence, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and honored guest of the convocation, suggested that it was time for the Conference of Bishops to entertain the idea of producing a national adult catechism that could be used throughout the entire country.

Since the goal of such a text would be to take the essential teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and apply it to the circumstances of our day taking into consideration the cultural conditions throughout the United States, the idea was warmly welcomed and became the object of intense study. In the end, the Conference instructed the Committee to prepare a national adult Catholic catechism for use in the United States.

An editorial oversight board made up of bishops was established and the work begun. I am pleased to report that at this stage the first draft of the proposed national adult catechism has been distributed to every bishop in the United States for consultation in anticipation of the preparation of a second draft.

It is anticipated that by no later than November, 2003, the adult Catholic catechism written for and directed particularly to the young adults who form so much of the focus of the new evangelization today will be ready for final approval by the Conference of Bishops. Following this, it will be sent to the Holy See for “recognitio.”

From the beginning of undertaking the development of a national adult catechism for the United States, it has been clearly understood that the purpose of the text is to present the teaching of the Church in a manner which contextualizes it for a Catholic living in the United States. This responds to the call in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis for local catechisms which address and reflect the particular culture and manner of life of the area or country within which it will be used. Thus, the national adult catechism for the United States will be a work that will address both the ways in which the Catholic faith reflects and respects the various cultural traditions and their manifestations in the United States and the ways in which the faith challenges our modern, highly secular culture.

At the same time, following the publication of the General Directory for Catechesis, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began preparing a national directory for catechesis. This work is being guided by an editorial oversight board made up of bishops who report to the Bishops’ Committee on Education. At this moment, the second draft of the directory is being prepared.

It is anticipated that no later than June, 2003, the directory will be ready for final approval by the Conference of Bishops prior to its forwarding to the Holy See for “recognitio.”

There has also been another important and interesting side effect of the conformity review work of the Ad Hoc Committee. As a result of this experience, the bishops on the Ad Hoc Committee suggested the establishment of a standing Bishops’ Committee on Catechesis whose responsibility it would be to oversee all catechetical matters. This proposal was approved by the General Assembly of Bishops of the United States in November of 2000. The new Bishops’ Committee on Catechesis will begin its work next month, November of 2002.

Thus, in little more than a decade, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has brought about a re-directioning of the entire catechetical effort in the Church in the United States and has become the inspiration and normative guide for:

a. the publication of catechetical texts at the elementary and secondary level used in parishes and schools throughout the United States;

b. the development and eventual publication of the Conference of Bishops’ own national adult catechism, and c. the doctrinal component and content norm for the direction of the catechetical enterprise and the preparation and formation of catechists.

This is no small accomplishment and is truly the fruit of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The impetus to catechetical renewal initiated by the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has received additional encouragement from the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America following the Synod for America. Here, the catechetical mission is underlined and the episcopates of Canada, Latin America and the United States are encouraged to work more closely together. I am pleased to note that from February 26 through March 1, 2003, the first international inter-conference catechetical gathering involving the Canadian Catholic Conference, CELAM, and the United States Catholic Conference will be held in Miami, Florida. This will bring together representatives of South, Central and North America to share pastoral experiences and initiatives. We eagerly anticipate the presence of Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos for his words of encouragement and direction. On the diocesan level, throughout the United States the Catechism of the Catholic Church is being used in a variety o
f ways to provide a reference point for instruction in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, adult faith formation programs, sacramental preparation programs and a number of evangelizing outreach efforts. Time and circumstances do not permit a delineation of all of these efforts. They are manifest in a great variety of formats, yet, the one unifying thread throughout is the referral to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the correct understanding of the teaching of the faith.

In 1985, when the Synod Fathers called for the development of a new universal catechism for the Catholic Church, they recognized not only the need for such a text, but also how effective a universal catechism could be in the Church today. Now, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we see how much good has been accomplished through and because of the Catechism. From this experience, we can rightfully express our gratitude to those who suggested the Catechism, as well as to all those who worked to bring it into existence. Most particularly, we thank our Holy Father, Paul John Paul II, for this great gift to the Church.

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