A German Bishops’ website has promoted the idea of a revision of an “out of date” Catechism and recalled the primacy of conscience in moral decision-making.

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“How seriously does a Catholic have to take the Catechism?” was the title of an article that appeared January 27 on katholisch.de, a news service of the German Bishops’ Conference.

The article’s author, Matthias Altmann, observed that “there is disagreement among believers about the importance of the Catechism”, which in its current version dates from 1992.

“For some, it is the central guideline for the life of faith, while others look derisively at [it] and regard it as a collection of regulations that has passed it use-by date and no longer does justice to the complexity of human life.

“So how seriously does a Catholic have to take what is in the Catechism? Or to put it another way: What changes are required to take it more seriously again?”

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Moral theologian Josef Spindelböck told katholisch.de that Catechisms – always historically-bound to the time and place of their writing – are meant “to translate and convey the Gospel in different contexts”.

That doesn’t mean however, “that the catechism can be changed, as it were, upon request”, Spindelböck explained.

The theologian said that it is vital that any “changes or adjustments” to one of the Church’s central teaching documents “not abandon or falsify the depositum fidei“.

That’s the “deposit of faith” that includes such non-negotiables as belief in the Trinity, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the protection of life from conception to natural death.

Why it matters

Still, Linz moral theologian Michael Rosenberger told the German Bishops’ website that there is room to move, not least of all in the light of Pope Francis’ positive view of human sexuality in Amoris laetitia, the 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family.

“Ultimately, the teaching [on sexuality in the Catechism] also has to be corrected with regard to homosexuality”, Rosenberger explained.

Not only because of the “scientific knowledge of the past decades” but also because the Catechism contains an inherent contradiction: that it prohibits “unjust discrimination” of homosexual people (2358) while at the same time affirming “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (2357).

But it’s not just the Catechism’s views on sexuality and marriage that need to be updated to get with the times, according to the katholisch.de article.

Gambling – “unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant” (CCC, 2413) – and above all environmental and animal rights, socio-political issues and questions to do with modern technology all need an overhaul in the Catechism.

As does the document’s organisation along the lines of the Ten Commandments – which in the opinion of theologians hardly take in all the complexities of life – and the text’s claim to validity for the entire world Church in all times and places, as well as its foreclosing on space for personal reflection.

“Even if the Catechism claims to be an authentic and binding expression of the Church’s doctrine and ethics, this cannot mean that theological research and the struggle to find solutions to moral problems are suppressed”, explained Rosenberger’s fellow theologian Martin M. Lintner.

The experts agreed: the catechism can support the individual’s decision of conscience, but it does not replace it.

“Anyone who insists too much on adhering to the catechism on moral questions trusts human conscience too little”, explained Rosenberger.

For the record

On that subject of personal conscience, another article appeared on katholisch.de the next day, January 28, asking “Is Conscience Above Church Doctrine?”

Yes and no was the answer the author, Christoph Paul Hartmann, gave.

Yes, because “man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (CCC 1782), and no, because for “conscience” to be conscience it “must be informed and moral judgment enlightened… upright and truthful” (CCC 1783).

As Pope Francis explained in 2017, “the contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations”.

That’s why the Pope admits in Amoris laetitia 37 that pastors “find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations”.

Pastors in the Church “have been called to form consciences, not to replace them”, Francis insisted.

To tie it all together, then: is the current Catechism really forming consciences in the most optimum way, with its present defects?

“Conscience can be above Church doctrine, but this powerful instrument also means a great task for every believer”, katholisch.de author Hartmann concluded.

But we could add – the formation of consciences is a “great task” for the Church as well, and for that task it needs an up-to-date Catechism.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.