Editor’s Note: In light of recent catechesis-related developments in Church news, we are publishing the remainder of this three-part series. Find Part I here.
NB: For those seeking reliable Catholic catechisms, the Tradivox series is recommended.
Calling for a change to Church teaching on sodomy, Cardinal Reinhard Marx recently insisted that “the catechism is not set in stone.” That this brazen departure from Catholic orthodoxy has incurred little more than a Twitter condemnation from a brother bishop is perhaps sufficient evidence for the dismal state of the hierarchy at present.
However, many remain unaware that such catechetical deviations are part of a paper-and-ink playbook: the Vatican’s 2020 Directory for Catechesis (DC).
In Part 1 of this series, we introduced some of the authorship and reference material behind the DC, along with our claim that this book is a concise guide to the beliefs and methods of a postconciliar “parallel Church” — a kind of manifesto for the effective subversion of the Church’s catechetical mission in our time. One who grasps this about the DC will not be surprised by other catechetical developments from Rome of late; such as the change in Canon Law allowing for a more “decentralized” approach to publishing catechisms, the creation of a novel rite for installing lay people in the “ministry of catechist,” the reordering of the Roman Curia to place Evangelization over Doctrine, the new Vatican Instruction summoning Catholic schools to “dialogue with diversity,” or Francis’ latest catechism-contradicting claim that “there is no such thing as a just war.”
Each of these are called-for ingredients, and the DC is the recipe book.
Here, we expound on the DC’s paradigmatic novelty, contrasting it with the Church’s traditional notion and practice of catechesis in prior ages, and indicating a few of its more striking points of departure. As will be shown, the DC is far from an academic text concerning only experts: it signals a universal “reset” in catechetical form and content for Catholic institutions everywhere.
Although we save our analysis of its practical directives for the next installment, those who have already called the DC a “Trojan horse” and a “shell game” with devastating potential should gain plenty of material to support their position here.
However, to the claim that the DC serves merely to “move the goalposts” of Catholic orthodoxy a bit further, one may feel obliged to respond: what goalposts?
“Definitely Marked as Catholic Truth”—The Traditional Practice
The action of catechesis, from the Greek katechein or “echo,” is classically defined as instruction in Catholic doctrine, typically in an oral and systematic manner, most often for baptized Catholics or those seeking Sacramental initiation. Since the command of the Incarnate Word (Mt 28:19-20), this has been among the chief duties of bishops, and language has been of paramount importance in its execution. A mistake in nomenclature—even the mistake of one syllable—can spell the difference between divine truth and damnable error.
For this reason, lexical continuity has always been essential to handing on Catholic doctrine; a challenge the Church met successfully over twenty centuries and across tremendous cultural and linguistic divides. For the same reason, the Church has always guarded against using novel or multivalent terminology in catechesis—an approach well reflected in Pope Clement XIII’s In Dominico Agro (1761) and meriting a longer quotation here:
It often happens that certain unworthy ideas come forth in the Church of God which… plot together to undermine the purity of the Catholic faith in some way. …[T}he matter is such that diabolical error, when it has artfully colored its lies, easily clothes itself in the likeness of truth, as very brief additions or changes corrupt the meaning of expressions; and confession, which usually works salvation, sometimes, with a slight change, inches toward death.
The faithful, especially those who are simple or uncultivated, should be kept away from dangerous [ideas]… Nor should peculiar ideas, even those of Catholic scholars, be proposed to them. Rather, only those ideas should be communicated which are definitely marked as Catholic truth by their universality, antiquity, and harmony. …[T]he teachers of the people should establish boundaries around them so that no word strays beyond that which is necessary or useful for salvation.
…The popes clearly understood this. They devoted all their efforts not only to cut short with the sword of anathema the poisonous buds of growing error, but also to cut away certain developing ideas which either could prevent the Christian people unnecessarily from bearing a greater fruit of faith or could harm the minds of the faithful by their proximity to error. …[T]hey proposed that only what is necessary and very useful for salvation be clearly and plainly explained[.] (n. 2-4)
The same traditional attitude is found in Pope St. Pius X’s famous Pascendi (1907):
Let [priests] combat novelties of words… It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications of a style inspired by unsound novelty which seems to deride the piety of the faithful and dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions of the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilization. Language of this kind is not to be tolerated either in books or from chairs of learning (n. 55).
For this reason, novel theological terms were generally added to catechesis only when deemed necessary to combat error and suited to the common understanding, and often only after an extraordinary magisterial intervention required it. When the genre of Catholic catechisms began flourishing in the 16th century, each text was likewise at pains to show conformity with the received and approved terminology.
In sum: Catholic catechesis has always regarded novel or ambiguous language as a danger (even when legitimately employed by Catholic scholars!) to the mission of handing on what was received from Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:3).
Unfortunately, the new Directory adopts exactly the opposite approach. Completely novel terms and phrases are used to a high degree, often without definition or consistent usage. Presenting itself as universally normative for the Church’s catechetical practice, such a marked difference in the DC’s tack suggests something more calculated than prolixity, and more extreme than even “weaponized ambiguity.” Rather, this is a new language. Note the manner of terms used in the DC:
“Creation of a New Language”—The DC’s Semantic Shift
The DC not only calls for “the creation of a new language” in various places (Preface, 5, 41, 44, 326, 400), it also fills the order directly: one can scarcely turn a page without finding a phrase that is either entirely new to the field—“gender identity” (371), “environmental spirituality” (383), “conjugal crises” (233), .—or is tendentiously modified to make its meaning far from clear: “fluctuating concrete situations” (320), “ecclesial sensibilities” (7), “polyhedral character” (321), etc.
This makes for difficult reading, as entire sections of the text are rendered unintelligible. Chapter 9, for example, exhorts parishes:
[O]ffer, especially for young people and adults, comprehensive pathways of formation that make it possible to accept and to explore the kerygma existentially, tasting its beauty. A catechetical offering that is not able to harmonize itself with the other pastoral activities runs the risk of presenting itself as a theory that is certainly correct but hardly relevant for life, struggling really to manifest the goodness of the Gospel for the people of our time (303).
Readers will seek in vain to learn what exactly constitutes an “existential exploration,” or a “comprehensive pathway of formation,” to say nothing of precisely how one ought to “taste the beauty of the kerygma” or render it “relevant for life.”
And while there are many such verbose indefinitudes throughout the text, far more problematic is the multivalent use of theological terms. For instance, whereas the term “Mass” is never used in the DC’s body text (neither, for that matter, is “sacrifice”), the word “liturgy” occurs eighty-six times, along with celebration (x19), ceremony (x13), and rite (x20)—but all with a positive signification. This is something of a problem, inasmuch as they are used to nominate both the acceptable worship of Catholics and of potentially schismatic “Eastern Churches” (291), religiously nondescript “migrants” (274), and pagan “indigenous peoples” (332).
By far the most significant terminological shift, however, is the DC’s use of the word “faith” when describing both the supernatural virtue and the merely natural act of belief, the deposit of Revelation and erroneous religious systems, obedience to Christ and adherence to false deities. Consider some usages:
[T]he encounter with different religions has changed the way Christians live the experience of faith, opening believers to the question concerning the truth of the contents of the faith and freedom of choice (349).
The co-existence of different faiths in schools, universities, and other areas of life, or the rise in the number of mixed marriages, urge the Church to reconsider her pastoral care and her catechetical initiatives[.] (343)
[T]he Catholic Church [seeks] perfect unity with the other Churches or Christian confessions according to the will of the Lord, on the basis of Baptism, Sacred Scripture, the common heritage of faith, and in particular today the powerful shared experience of martyrdom (344).
Does the DC teach that those outside the Church hold the true faith, or that those who knowingly enact religious errors enjoy the supernatural virtue of faith? Such could certainly be claimed. The latter excerpt above goes so far as to cite an “ecumenism of blood” per Francis’ 2016 Vespers service, whereat he gave worldwide scandal by joining in public worship with heretics and schismatics—
Unfortunately, the full scope of the DC’s staggering lexical innovation would require a book-length treatment in itself. As such, a compilation of some of its more outstanding oddities must suffice, along with a few more visualizations of the document’s wider semantic range
Neologistic Sample: Directory for Catechesis (2020)
|anthropological revolution||horizon of meaning of human experience|
|authentic demands of human experience||human and spiritual richness|
|authentic laboratory of dialogue||human liberation and advancement|
|climate change||in tune with the inner world of the other|
|co-existence of different faiths||inner physiognomy|
|common journey||journeys of faith|
|concrete physiognomy||judicious synthesis|
|conjugal situations||keeper of the memory of God|
|conjugal spirituality||marginal persons|
|cultural prejudices||maturing of believers|
|culture of fraternity||meaningful relationship to the Church|
|culture of inclusion||multi-screen society|
|deepest storyline of the Church’s story||mystery of life and love|
|demands of contemporary culture||mystical fraternity|
|dialogical reality||new themes and paradigms|
|different and legitimate ecclesial sensibilities||new vision of reality|
|digital natives||openness to all of existence|
|dynamic continuity||pathways of discovery|
|dynamics of religious maturation||pathways of faith|
|environmental crisis||personal horizon of every human being|
|environmental spirituality||personalized accompaniment|
|epochal watershed||pluriform face of reality|
|essence of humanity||polyhedral character|
|essential and existentially understandable||process of individual personalization|
|evolving character||process of self-realization|
|existential context of the hearer||profound environmental conversion|
|existential doorways into the mystery||real fraternal closeness|
|existential fabric of life||respect for the journey of each individual believer|
|existential situation and phase of growth||respect for the journey of each individual believer|
|existential transformation||revelation of a new vision of life|
|formative dynamism||sacred freedom of the other|
|frontier laboratory for pastoral action||structures of solidarity|
|gender identity||synodal perspective|
|genuine anthropological transformation||synodal practice|
|global warming||thrust of innovation|
|global-scale migration||universal destination of salvation|
|globalization of models of life||varied and fluctuating concrete situations|
|heterogenous family realities||various journeys of faith|
Our folio tracked a total of 452 separate terms in the DC, focusing on nouns and adjectives modifying major concepts, to register 13,112 unique occurrences in total. We are particularly indebted to the DC’s own Thematic Index, if this may be taken as any reliable indicator of what its authors deem most important.
At the bare terminological level, just over 16% of the DC’s indexed terms appear entirely new, and as described above, the multivalent use of several other terms could raise the percentage of novelty considerably.
Furthermore, of the entirety of terms tracked, about one in four may be regarded as entirely foreign to the Catholic catechetical lexicon prior to the 20th century:
These and similar lexicological analyses are important because, far more critical than individual conceptual errors in the DC, its paradigmatic novelty is itself the main issue.
When we deal more closely with the DC’s practical directives and implications in the next installment, it will be shown that it is not by accident that the DC contains an Index, but lacks a Glossary.
“New Themes and Paradigms”—The DC’s Strange Priorities
Maintaining that “new themes and paradigms are generated” in handing on the faith, and that “it is urgent to rethink the work of evangelization with new categories” (43-44), one wonders why the DC never coherently defines catechesis in itself. Nothing quite like a definition appears even in the “Nature of Catechesis” section, although it is laboriously alluded to, given all manner of modifiers (casual catechesis, kerygmatic catechesis, etc.), and entire sections are devoted to its Goals, Tasks, Sources, and Leaders. This too will be a point of exploration for the next installment.
Still stranger, however, is the DC’s failure to address certain doctrines currently in worldwide eclipse. For being so concerned with the “relevance” of catechesis (Preface, 170, 303, 380), there are some striking omissions: for instance, the doctrines of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence, so essential to Catholic faith and life, receive no mention in the text at all—a most peculiar absence, when fully two-thirds of self-identified American Catholics no longer hold them. Another curious defect is the weak treatment of that topic most often cited by apostates for their abandonment of the faith: human origins and evolution. The widely neglected doctrines of penance, reparation, and sacramental confession likewise receive no mention. Neither do purgatory, hell, the devil, or demons. Although heaven is mentioned a few times (x3), along with a single mention of one angel (Gabriel), the importance of many invisible realities are simply passed over in silence.
The most reasonable explanation for these and other doctrinal omissions is that the DC simply has a vastly different priority set from its immediate predecessors of 1997 and 1971. For, it absolutely cannot be demonstrated that the DC is vague and tangential on every point. On the contrary, the new Directory addresses several topics with relative clarity and strong insistence; it’s simply that most of these have little or nothing to do with Catholic faith, or its inculcation.
For example, in addition to scores of references to dialogue, ecumenism, synodality, global economics and immigration, the DC emphatically summons Catholic catechesis to address everything from “pollution and climate change, use of raw materials and loss of biodiversity” (381), to “supporting an environmental spirituality in believers” (383). It “reverences those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings” of false religions in one place (349), and in another invites catechists to “participate in the ceremonies and celebrations” of pagan tribes (335); further directing them to promote “understanding and encounter with Muslims” (351) and make a point to co-instruct with formal heretics, so as to “progress decidedly toward common expressions of proclamation, service and witness” (346). Clearly, the DC has a bit more in view than “only what is necessary and very useful for salvation.”
It is also strangely silent on the existence of divinely revealed commands governing moral conduct. Such terms themselves are barely used (commandment x8, precept x1), and never in the above sense: an omission likely related to the lack of references to temptation (x1), divine judgment (x2) punishment (x0), or hell (x0).
In fairness, there are many uses of the term “conversion” (as in “environmental conversion”), and amid the extant references to sin (x16), there is one paragraph that does strongly suggest a transcendent and binding moral doctrine. It reads, in part: “There are also aspects of the evangelical message that are generally difficult to accept, especially where the Gospel calls to conversion and the recognition of sin.” But the following sentence is quick to alleviate any potential discomfort: “Catechesis, however, is not primarily a presentation of morality, but the proclamation of the beauty of God, which can be experienced, and which touches the heart and the mind, transforming life” (175).
In fact, the DC seems keen on advising against any presentations of binding moral conduct. Catechesis must “take pains” to offer “a vision of God… as a friend who helps one to be at one’s best in relationships, does not judge, is faithful…” (247) as “the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love.” (336) Catechesis must practice “accepting without judgment” (248), so that recipients “feel welcomed rather than judged” (353); after all, the Church “does not judge persons,” (377) and her catechesis “should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical” (59) — a concern reflected in the latest reordering of the Roman Curia, placing the Dicastery for Evangelization over the Doctrine of the Faith.
What “few doctrines” the DC may be concerned about here is uncertain, although issues of life and sexuality might qualify. For, although the DC says a great deal about respecting man’s dignity (x24) in a general way, and does not hesitate to reject the death penalty as “an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity [and] is per se contrary to the Gospel” (380), it does not explicitly treat any major contemporary currents of deviance. Contraception, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, divorce, sodomy, and the legal redefinition of marriage receive no treatment, although allusion is made to “conjugal and family crises” that “give rise to new relationships, new couples, new civil unions, and new marriages, creating family situations which are complex and problematic for the Christian life” (233). Repeated citations of Amoris Laetitia do little to assuage fears that such “heterogenous family realities” might include situations of grave public sin—which catechists are now to “accompany” and “discern” (234), rather than correct and exhort.
Curiously, the DC’s section on bioethics addresses the specialized topics of transhumanism and eugenics, although limiting itself to calls for “close attention” (376). It also describes “gender identity” as contradicting “the biblical account of Creation,” but is just as quick to ameliorate: “The Church is well aware of the complexity of the personal situations that are lived out, at times, in a conflicted way” (377). The same paragraph states that “sexual identity and existential experience must be a response to the original call of God”—a formulation so painfully ambiguous that it could be taken as a divine endorsement of evils that should not be mentioned—and reminds catechists that the Church “does not judge persons, but asks that they be accompanied always and in whatever situation.”
Indeed, accompaniment and discernment are watchwords in the DC, as it directs catechists to avoid “giving in to forms of idealism and pessimism” (234) while navigating a range of “complex,” “partial,” or “irregular” situations, all in the light of “conscience,” “identities” that are “reformulated,” and various “values” that are rarely explained.
Religious instruction of adults should apparently be foregone entirely: they are instead called to be “participants together with the catechists themselves,” as the DC determines it “necessary to carry out a respectful welcome of the adult as a person who has already developed experiences and convictions on the level of faith” (262). Even children’s catechism classes may need to be cancelled, as catechists are “committed to overturning the traditional vision [!] that predominantly sees the child as the object of the pastoral care and attention,” adopting instead “the perspective that educates him gradually, according to his capacities, to be an active participant” (242).
“Substantial Changes”—The DC’s Non-Falsifiable Falsehoods
A difficulty arises when one attempts to glean any clear doctrinal propositions from the DC. Although obviously intended as a tool to guide strategy rather than content, any document concerned with instruction in a particular body of knowledge should articulate some of its major tenets (as does the Code of Canon Law, for instance)—particularly those tenets it aims to teach more effectively in a given setting, which is the stated reason for the DC’s existence. And yet, the DC studiously avoids clear and precise enunciations of doctrine, especially in areas of contemporary contestation or concern.
In fact, basing oneself solely on its pages, an instructor could impart an entire system of false doctrine from the DC—demonstrating its own claim that “[t]he teaching of the Catholic religion has undergone substantial changes[!] over time” (313).
To illustrate this, we attempted a distillation of some of the DC’s more troubling aspects into a kind of systematic chart, including articulations of the Catholic doctrine point-by-point in a facing column per Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum. Without making any claims to completeness or infallibility, the chart could serve well as an index for further study and critique. It is accessible below:
Of course, even after the Vatican allows public access to the 2020 Directory for Catechesis, we expect to face charges of misconstruing the text in the chart above. To this, we calmly reply that this is the entire point of our analysis: for, basing oneself solely on the pages of the DC, all of the erroneous propositions in our chart could be asserted, several could be irrefutably proven, and none could be irrefutably disproven.
We emphatically reject said errors as harmful to Catholic faith and morals, and invite the intervention of Church authorities to rightly construe the DC’s meaning on these several points. A public correction of these errors, made in light of the Church’s perennial Magisterium, would be a welcome one; and one that would be gladly publicized at OnePeterFive.
Whereas the perennial approach to Catholic catechesis is to reject novel terms and usages, the DC embraces them as an operative key. Whereas integrally Catholic catechesis is careful to demonstrate the classic markers of “universality, antiquity, and harmony” in its guiding documents and didactic approach, the DC not only allows for manifest errors in matters of faith, but it also actively promotes a whole range of them.
As with so many other official catechetical documents of the past half-century, the question again must be raised: if nothing proposed in the DC is erroneous or close to it, then why does one need a “hermeneutic of continuity” to read it in a true and Catholic sense? Furthermore, in a period when bishops openly dissent on various points of settled doctrine, should one reasonably expect that a “hermeneutic of continuity” will be employed in implementing the DC’s directives? We think not.
In fact, the DC itself prescribes something quite different. To that examination, and the connection to unperceived ideological transshipment, we will turn in the final installment.
Keep the faith until then, and Bravo the Restoration!
 Consider the decades of controversy over the Christological dogma, particularly focused in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and hinging upon the single letter difference between the Greek homoousios (“of the same substance”) and homoiousios (“of similar substance”).
 As with the adoption of homousios after Nicaea, or transubstantiation after Trent.
 Following the unanimous moral tradition on this point, Prümmer observes that a Catholic sins gravely in actively participating in non-Catholic worship, whereas merely passive attendance may be licit under certain grave conditions – see Handbook of Moral Theology, n. 205. Consult a reliable priest for direction in situations of doubt.
This article first appeared in its original form at Whispers of Restoration.
Whispers of Restoration is an independent team of Catholic readers, writers, and designers contributing to the Catholic resource website WhispersofRestoration.com.