I confess I was initially annoyed by Cardinal Schönborn’s statement to Synod reporters that the Pope could change the Catechism on homosexuality. The Cardinal was referring specifically to the Catechism’s statement that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered”. His point seemed to be that since the Pope promulgated the Catechism, only the Pope can change it. That is true enough, and in context the remark seems far less provocative. But I still wish to add perspective.
For convenience, I will drop the formal italics for the short title of the Catechism. Cardinal Schönborn’s comment is, in some ways, distressingly true. The Catechism can be changed, both for better or worse, and this is because it is a “sure norm” in a general human sense, but not in the sense of being an exercise of infallibility. Why do I make such a point of this?
When John Paul II promulgated the original French edition of the Catechism in 1992 , he issued the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum (“on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church”), which generally appears at the beginning of the Catechism before the text of the Catechism itself. In that Apostolic Constitution, the Pope wrote:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved June 25th last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom! [section 4]
But how is this statement to be understood?
First of all, it is not to be understood in the sense that each sentence in the Catechism is infallible. The Pope did not intend to teach every sentence in the Catechism to the whole Church by virtue of his Petrine authority as a matter of faith and morals. This was obvious from its initial publication in French, in that a Latin typical edition was immediately to be developed over the next few years, in the course of which a large number of improvements were suggested, many of which the Pope accepted. John Paul II explained this in the Apostolic Letter Laetamur Magnopere which is also generally included in the various editions of the Catechism based on this official Latin edition. After discussing the improvement process, the Pope repeats that, in the Latin typical edition:
The Church now has at her disposal this new, authoritative exposition of the one and perennial apostolic faith, and it will serve as a “valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” and as a “sure norm for teaching the faith,” as well as a “sure and authentic reference text” for preparing local catechisms (cf. Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, no. 4). [August 15, 1997]
Obviously, therefore, the authority of the Catechism of the Catholic Church consists not in the perfection of every particular word and sentence, but in its overall surpassing usefulness as a guide to the teachings of the Catholic Church concerning the matters that it covers.
Pope Saint John Paul II incorporated what he regarded as improvements in the Latin typical edition, a clear indication of the proper understanding of the text as a “sure guide” only in this more general sense, especially compared with the rampant publication of various catechisms throughout the world which more or less deliberately distorted Catholic doctrine in the years between Vatican II and the publication of this official text. (One remembers, for example, the so-called “Dutch Catechism”.)
In other words, the Catechism’s presentation of all the doctrines it expounds was never intended to be “infallible”, nor would it ever be possible to apply such a status to any work which covered so much material. Even since the publication of the Latin typical edition, both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have made minor adjustments to the language used, most notably in the treatment of capital punishment.
So, yes, the Pope can change the Catechism, and it is also possible that a pope could change it for the worse. This is hardly to be expected in any major way, in the sense of a direct contradiction of what the text stated previously. In the changes in the treatment of telling lies, for example, the original drafters and subsequent popes have struggled to find the best wording to capture the essential nature of a lie which makes it always sinful. As I recall, the then-common concept of “mental reservation” was eventually considered an inadequate way to express the legitimate avoidance of the sinfulness of a lie, yet the difficulty remains. Similarly, the various editions have struggled somewhat with the question of whether capital punishment is intrinsically evil in all cases or merely to be avoided for strong prudential reasons.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not designed to be a definitive settlement of every question that has plagued sincere Catholic doctrinal and moral theologians. But taken as a whole, it is certainly a superb achievement, and by far the most reliable overall guide we have in one place to date—which is exactly what Pope St. John Paul II initially intended it to be.
Hoping for change?
But why should Cardinal Schönborn, who of course himself played a huge role in the development of the Catechism, wish to emphasize that the Pope can change it, specifically with respect to the much-contested question of homosexuality? After all, this is a topic which so dominates our rather obviously decadent Western culture today that all generalized hints at the feasibility of change would seem to be at best imprudent, and at worse tendentious.
I leave that question hanging for what it is worth. We can adjust language in various legitimate ways, especially when it is misundestood, but the Church cannot change reality. She cannot change the affective human reality that homosexual inclinations are disordered, as so many of our human inclinations can so often be. They are disordered precisely because they are not ordered to their proper end; in this case they do not serve the Divinely-intended purpose of our sexuality to draw men and women into marriage through a lifelong love open to the procreation of children.
But this does not mean that homosexuality cannot be more thoroughly understood, or that same-sex attraction cannot be recognized as a form of suffering in the affections which requires heroic restraint. Nor does it mean that those who suffer same-sex attraction are more evil than those who experience different sorts of disordered desires—for we all experience them—or that we should not sympathize with the struggle against disordered desires and affections of whatever kind and wherever they are found. Indeed, a sound pastoral strategy might, at long last, begin precisely with a broader discussion of disordered desire, both in its essence and in all of its forms, perhaps particularly in all those forms which frustrate the proper ends of marriage even between male and female.
However, to say the Pope can change the Catechism may mean a number of things. It may mean that only the Pope can change it (as Cardinal Shönborn also made clear), which is essentially an academic question. Or it may be a way of emphasizing the possibility of a change of wording in the hope that the statement will receive favorable notice and that nobody will recognize the sleight-of-hand that may be used to “improve the text”. Moreover, the specific moral issue raised in connection with a possible change may be merely coincidental or it may have been chosen specifically to encourage hope for change, a hope which many surely connect with the current pontificate.
But my point here is a far simpler one: All Churchmen are obliged by their office to be extraordinarily cautious about statements which are likely to raise hopes for change in Catholic faith and morals. As part of the Synodal process, we have had far too many examples of caution being thrown to the wind.
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