The Catechism’s ‘Beautiful Adventure’

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn oversaw its creation 20 years ago.


During the current Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI has given Catholics a specific task: to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first authoritative summary of the Church’s teachings in more than 400 years.

On Oct. 11, 2012, the Church celebrated the Catechism’s 20th anniversary. It is "a precious and indispensable tool" that is needed "in order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith," the Holy Father wrote in Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith), his apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope played a key role in the Catechism’s six-year development. But so, too, did Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the current archbishop of Vienna, who was responsible for overseeing the Catechism’s creation as its editorial secretary.

Cardinal Schönborn shares his reflections on the Catechism’s impact, 20 years after its publication.


Your Eminence, has the Catechism lived up to your expectations?

It has not only lived up to my expectations, but it has surpassed them — because it has really become the textbook, the guideline for Catholic doctrine around the world. That was its original purpose, and it has been reached — I would say marvelously reached — in so many languages, in many countries around the globe. The important thing is that it gives a secure guideline for all those who want to know exactly what the Church teaches.


Is there anything you would change or improve?

It certainly wouldn’t be up to me to change anything because it is the expression of Church doctrine. It’s not about what I would like to have there or what others would like to have there, but the question is: What is the Church’s teaching? I don’t think that the Church’s teaching has changed, but I think that one or other aspects of the Church’s teaching has deepened throughout the ages, throughout the generations. There has been a development.

But the Catechism is only 20 years old, and there have been no major developments in the vital questions that the Church is asked. I think that the bioethical questions certainly develop at great speed, but the moral principle for bioethical questions remains the same. So the Catechism is perhaps not absolutely updated with the latest developments in stem-cell research, but it’s not necessary, because the importance of the Catechism is to outline, to present, the keys of doctrine — and not every single point that may arise, let’s say, concerning moral questions.


It’s said that people have been poorly catechized in the last 40 years. Why is this? Is it partly because the Catechism hasn’t been used properly?

Certainly the Catechism hasn’t been used enough, I would say. It would help in many circumstances to have secure guidelines. What Blessed Pope John Paul II demanded, at an early stage of the publication of the Catechism, was that it could be used in the training of seminarians as a basic presentation of overall Catholic teaching of the Catholic faith. Wherever this has been followed, it’s been very successful. Where it’s not been followed, I would say, that’s a pity and a missed chance.


Why is the Catechism so important to Catholics today, and how can it be best used during this Year of Faith?

St. Peter, in his first letter, asked the Christians to be always ready to give reasons for the hope that is within them. So to give the reasons for our hope requires knowledge of these reasons. It’s not pure sentiment. There are reasons to believe and good reasons to be hopeful, and Christians should be able and ready to give an account of the hope that they have and the faith that we believe. Therefore, the Catechism should be an effective instrument for a great many Christians in the world who are in a situation to be able to discuss their faith.

Of course, we all know that the personal witness of faith, the witness of life, is more important and more efficient than any discourse, than any reasoning about the faith. But, also, we have to be able to explain: Why do we believe in Jesus Christ? Why do we believe that he is the Redeemer? Why do we believe that God is one in three Persons? All these questions require a certain knowledge. In Europe, the presence of so many Muslims makes it very clear that we must be better trained and better formed to present our faith.


Some aspects are considered by critics to depart from Tradition; they point, for example, to its passages on the death penalty. What is your response to these and other supposed weaknesses/criticisms?

First of all, I would say it is a little bit surprising that people pretend to know that a document that has been solemnly presented by Blessed Pope John Paul II as a secure guide for the Catholic faith, and has been drafted under the guidance of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should not be a secure guideline for Catholic teaching. That is a little bit surprising, I would say, but perhaps some people are more Catholic than the Pope and more so than the then-Cardinal Ratzinger was. I wonder.

I would say the question is whether some points in the Catechism could find a better expression, a better formulation. Certainly, substantially, the teaching of the Catechism is a secure Catholic teaching. On the question of the death penalty, which has raised much debate, the actual text is fully in accordance with, for example, Evangelium Vitae, the encyclical of Pope John Paul II on life questions and life issues.


What other reflections would you like to share about the Catechism on its 20th anniversary?

I would add that the Catechism of the Catholic Church invites others to produce "local" catechisms for different age groups. One of the fruits of the Catechism has been YouCat; that has been published with a beautiful preface of Pope Benedict. It was published under the auspices of the Austrian, German and Swiss bishops’ conferences, and it has had tremendous success throughout the world.

It has now had 27 translations, including Arabic and Chinese. That is certainly a fruit, because it follows closely the Catechism but addresses young people with their questions and their expectations.


Would you like to see a Catechism for children?

I think the great thing about the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that it’s an encouragement to produce other catechisms, and perhaps we will see not only youth catechisms, but a children’s Catechism. Why not? That would be another fruit of the beautiful adventure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.