On the Authority of Catechisms

Recently, in a comment, Cardinal Pole suggested that Catechisms are not binding magisterial documents. [Actually, as in the comment below, this was an error of recollection on my part. It was Kiran in dialogue with the Cardinal and not the Cardinal in dialogue with Kiran who made this point. I should have checked my sources. Somewhere I got the commentators jumbled.] I asked another commentator, Kiran Newman [in fact, I was asking the person who originally asserted it – see below], what he thought of this, and this was his response:

For instance, the stance of the CCC on Capital Punishment us debated frequently in traddie circles, and I don’t think that constitutes rebellion, even if I think those who disagree with the disagreers. But then again, I am loath to multiply the number of binding instruments. The Catechism is, I think, authoritative, without being binding. Too nice a distinction? Or maybe, the Catechism can be seen as a kind of indication of what the Church in her concrete historical circumstances, is thinking. She can change her mind and has done so on what is in the Catechisms, while she cannot contradict herself on doctrine. I think one can however be required not to teach against the Catechism, if the Church so chooses. But she doesn’t seem to do so in reality now. On the other hand, JPII says in publishing the current Catechism that it “is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the 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.” He carefully avoids binding, but says everything else. In sum then, I do not know. A worthy question for your blog?

Sure is, so we are asking it.



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13 responses to “On the Authority of Catechisms

  1. Peregrinus

    I confess I’m a little impatient with debates about exactly what degree of “bindingness” we should attribute to this or that magisterial document. Too often this is an attempt either to avoid critical reflection (“binding” is equated with “demands immediate and unthinking affirmation, and always means exactly what I assume it means”) or to pay no attention at all to it (“not binding” means “might as well not exist at all”). And surely the valuable thing in any magisterial teaching is not the precise degree of assent that it demands, but the truth that it reveals?

    For what it’s worth, though, I see the Catechism not as a vehicle for delivering new authoritative teaching, or for attaching greater authority to teachings already given. It rather makes existing teaching more accessible, by ordering them, summarising them and presenting them. Almost every statement it makes is footnoted to reference it back to some other magisterial teaching document. If we are interested in authority, I’d assume that each statement has whatever authority it had in the document from which it is take; its inclusion in the catechism neither adds to not detracts from its authority. Thus the Catechism contains statements of varying levels of authority.

  2. “Recently, in a comment, Cardinal Pole suggested that Catechisms are not binding magisterial documents.”

    FALSE–please retract what you have written; I “suggested” nothing of the sort. In fact it was Mr. Newman, NOT me, who said that

    “As far as [he] understand[s] it, the catechism [of St. Pius X] is neither binding, nor infallible”
    [June 23, 2009 at 4:46 pm]

    and that

    “As for Catechisms, [his] original point remains that they are not binding.”
    [June 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm ]

    both at


    With respect to the question of the Magisterial status of catechisms, Rev. Canon Rene Berthod listed them, together with the preaching and teaching of the Hierarchy and the writings of the approved Doctors, as texts of the Ordinary Magisterium, and they are therefore binding, except where there is a manifest contradiction with Tradition. He explains this in his essay The Infallibility of the Church’s Ordinary Magisterium. And I have yet to see a Magisterial text which contradicts the truth–which the Catechism of St. Pius X taught clearly and which St. Thomas Aquinas took for granted–that man in the state of original justice would have been transferred to Heaven, without dying, after the course of his earthly life.

    • My sincere apologies to you, your Eminence. You are quite correct, and I hope the changes I have made to the original post are sufficient – I could not delete the entire original post without losing these valuable comments, so I hope my retraction of my “accusation” is sufficient, while I allow the conversation to continue as such.

      Nevertheless, you have in part answered my question. Perry makes much the same point as yourself although in different categories.

      So I would ask: Beside Thomas Aquinas’ own personal opinion (which is just that unless it is affirmed elsewhere by the magisterium – which you may take the Catechism to be, but that would be reversing the relationship between the Catechisms and Tradition that both you and Peregrinus point out) in what way can we say that the idea that “man in the state of original justice would have been transferred to Heaven, without dying, after the course of his earthly life” can be said to be supported by Tradition? In other words, what other sources of magisterial teaching in this regard other than the Catechism of St Pius X and Thomas Aquinas can you muster?

      • “My sincere apologies to you, your Eminence.”

        Apologies accepted, and the changes to the original post are quite sufficient.

        “In other words, what other sources of magisterial teaching in this regard other than the Catechism of St Pius X and Thomas Aquinas can you muster?”

        None as yet, but I trust the Catechism of St. Pius X and expect that its teaching on this point has a firm foundation in Tradition, and given how concise the Catechism is, I expect also that this point of doctrine is a significant one; one could hardly accuse the Catechism of St. Pius X of being cluttered with speculation.

        • Do you imply from this that you do not “trust” the Catechism of John Paul II, that its teaching does not, at points, have a “firm foundation in Tradition”, and that it is “cluttered with speculation”? Or am I reading too much into your comment? In other words, why do have a greater trust for the Catechism of St Pius X than for the Catechism of Pope John Paul II? And what, I might ask in addition, of the Compendium of the Catechism – what might be called the “Catechism of Benedict XVI”? The latter is certainly concise.

          • “Do you imply from this …”

            As a matter of logic one cannot infer those things from what I just said, but as a matter of fact, as I said to Kiran at the other post, I do indeed have problems with the C.C.C. I prefer the Catechism of St. Pius X (C.S.P.X.) to the C.C.C. because of the former’s superior, timeless clarity and simplicity. As for concision, I have a copy of the Compendium of the C.C.C. (a WYD08 copy which I purchased for $1 at last year’s Sydney Uni book fair) but I have not read it yet. Perhaps I will read it and compare it with the C.S.P.X. at some point in the future.

  3. Dear David, in a private conversation, I was thinking out loud. I would have phrased it differently for publication purposes. In particular, I notice there is a hanging sentence. “Even if I disagree with the disagreers” [i.e. as to the extent of the permissibility of the Death Penalty] was what I meant to say.

    As Cardinal Pole says, I did say that I don’t believe Catechisms, of themselves are binding, and I stand by it. What CP did do was to make a vague comment as to how the CCC sides with certain “scholastic positions.” Now this, I hold, is simply untenable. Catechisms, like anything else, are produced in concrete historical circumstances, and there might be a variety of influences on them, depending on who writes them. It is quite legitimate to disagree with a particular doctor of the Church (as indeed the Doctors disagree among themselves). What is forbidden, per Trent (and I note the primitive constitutions of the Order of Preachers) is to teach against the common consensus of the Doctors. I don’t even know, and CP doesn’t provide, the tradition on the question. All we have on the matter is one text from one part of the Summa Theologiae. For my part, and fully aware of my own limitations, rational and otherwise, I would say that that particular matter (whether human beings would have been transferred to heaven, had there not been a fall) is not one which admits of definition, de fide, like the other oft discussed question, “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” unless you define your terms in such a way as to make the answer almost tautological.

    I discussed the matter later with another friend, and his response to the question was similar. If anything, however, I lean towards the position that the CCC is authoritative, in the sense that Peregrinus points out: that it is extensively footnooted with references to magisterial documents, and the teachings have the authority they have in those documents. However, one could disagree with this or that position in the sense that one could disagree with the sources of those statements.

    I should also add a few caveats: I was thinking of a specific case – capital punishment. Also, faith is a pre-condition to reasoning, as St. Thomas argues over and over again (At the beginning of the De Veritate, for instance), and as is implicit in the statement “Credo Ut Intelligam”. One accepts the authority of the teacher as a prec0ndition to learning. In this sense, I submit myself to the teaching authority of the Church, unreservedly, as I did when I first received the Faith. (Please note, lest you accuse me of fideism that my use of Capitals is quite deliberate).

    The question then becomes whether this or that particular thing is actually a matter defined by the Church. It is a serious matter to say something is defined by the Church, as opposed to my opinion. I might even believe that the contrary to something is manifestly absurd without holding that it is defined by the Church. (The best discussion I know of this is Etienne Gilson’s discussion of revelable in Thomas Aquinas, at the beginning of The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas) Something could be revealable, as Gilson argues, without it being revealed.

    Above all, though, perhaps, the duty is to avoid giving scandal, to one group or the other, to cast our nets wide, so as to catch as many people as possible, with due reservations for tender consciences. On the one hand, it is necessary to know the Faith, such as it is, and insist on it, in season and out. On the other hand, one should be very careful, I think, in making sure not to make the Church say what she does not say. Above all, in the end, Lex Suprema Est Salus Animarum. If the Church does definitely teach something, you need to provide something like a continuous testimony, not just a catechism from the beginning of the twentieth century, and a quote from one doctor. If it does not, then I am at liberty, as is everyone else, to make up their own mind, submissive the demands of Faith and Reason.

    • My apologies for not requesting permission to publish the question as you put it, Kiran. What can I say? It is no more safe to assume that a conversation with a blogger is “private” than it is to assume such privacy in conversations with a journalist…

      As for the rest of it, I agree entirely, as I put it in my short reply to His Eminence above. I want more evidence.

      We can say (as all three of you have said in one way or another):

      Catechisms are binding because and to the degree that they collect and express the binding statements of the Faith in one single document.

      That means that the binding magisterium of Catechisms is derivative. They are not themselves “declarative”, ie. They cannot of themselves take what was previously a pious opinion and (by restating it) raise that opinion to the level of binding doctrine.

      In this case, the restatement of Thomas A’s pious opinion regarding Adam’s “heavenly destiny” by the Catechism of St Pius X cannot make such an opinion binding.

      • That is alright. It is more the case that I sometimes think by speaking, or writing, even when I publicly put forward positions. Actually, it gave me occasion to look up a text of Cardinal Newman’s which I otherwise would have missed, which I am using in my talk this weekend. So, all is to the good!

    • “What CP did do was to make a vague comment as to how the CCC sides with certain “scholastic positions.””

      What the ……. I did not say that! Go back and read that combox!

      “[You] would say that that particular matter (whether human beings would have been transferred to heaven, had there not been a fall) is not one which admits of definition …”

      Surely not; the Church has condemned many errors on different aspects of original justice, and it would certainly be within her power to pronounce definitively on the particular aspect which we are presently discussing.

      • Kiran

        Here is your original quote, in response to my statement to the effect that I imagine you would quarrel with the current Catechism:

        “Yes. Keep in mind also that the Catechisms of St. Pius X and of Trent tried diligently to avoid ‘the opinions of the schools’, whereas the New Catechism is dense with all sorts of phenomenological/symbolist/&c. curiosities.”

        The problem is not with the Church defining things about original justice, but on whether and the extent to which counterfactuals of that sort admit of ontologization to the point of de fide definitions, where God’s will in the matter hasn’t been defined, or that a conclusion doesn’t follow logically from a revealed premise. “Scholastic” I admit was my faulty memory, but I don’t think I substantially misrepresented what you said.

        For instance, that Adam and Eve wouldn’t have died, had they not sinned, is a counterfactual. But it is a logical consequence of the revealed position that death is a consequence of the Fall. What would have happened to Adam and Eve had they not sinned does not seem to partake of the same nature. At best, it is a scholastic opinion. And while, I myself tend to take my own views from Thomas read in the light of Augustine, I wouldn’t say that this is De Fide.

  4. I may here append Newman’s “On the Inspiration of Scripture”. I note especially Paragraph 5:

    Many truths may be predicated about Scripture and its contents which are not obligatory on our faith, viz., such as are private conclusions from premises, or are the dicta of theologians. Such as about the author of the Book of Job, or the dates of St. Paul’s Epistles. These are not obligatory upon us, because they are not the subjects of ex cathedrâ utterances of the Church. Opinions of this sort may be true or not true, and lie open for acceptance or rejection, since no divine utterance has ever been granted to us about them, or {187} is likely to be granted. We are not bound to believe what St. Jerome said or inferred about Scripture; nor what St. Augustine, or St. Thomas, or Cardinal Caietan or Fr. Perrone has said; but what the Church has enunciated, what the Councils, what the Pope, has determined. We are not bound to accept with an absolute faith what is not a dogma, or the equivalent of dogma (vide infra, section 17), what is not de fide; such judgments, however high their authority, we may without loss of communion doubt, we may refuse to accept. This is what we must especially bear in mind, when we handle such objections as M. Renan’s. We must not confuse what is indisputable as well as true, with what may indeed be true, yet is disputable.

    In what I said about bindingness and how the Church can impose on her children, I was thinking of the following passage:

    In certain cases there may be a duty of silence, when there is no obligation of belief. Here no question of faith comes in. We will suppose that a novel opinion about Scripture or its contents is well grounded, and a received opinion open to doubt, in a case in which the Church has hitherto decided nothing, so that a new question needs a new answer: here to profess the new opinion may be abstractedly permissible, but is not always permissible in practice. The novelty may be so startling as to require a full certainty that it is true; it may be so strange as to raise the question whether it will not unsettle ill-educated minds, that is, though the statement is not an offence against faith, still it may be an offence against charity. It need not be heretical, yet at a particular time or place it may be so contrary to the prevalent opinion in the Catholic body, as in Galileo’s case, that zeal for the supremacy of the Divine Word, deference to existing authorities, charity towards the weak and ignorant, and distrust of self, should keep a man from being impetuous or careless in circulating what nevertheless he holds to be true, and what, if indeed asked about, he cannot deny. The household of God has claims upon our tenderness in such matters, which criticism and history have not.

    And I think in the end, that, to some extent, a Christian ought to try his best to be able to affirm the following of oneself:

    For myself, I have no call or wish at all to write in behalf of such persons as think it a love of truth to have no ‘love of the brethren.’ I am indeed desirous of investigating for its own sake the limit of free thought consistently with the claims upon us of Holy Scripture; still my especial interest in the inquiry is from my desire to assist those religious sons of the Church who are engaged in biblical criticism and its attendant studies, and have a conscientious fear of transgressing the rule of faith; men who wish to ascertain how far certain religion puts them under obligations and restrictions in their reasonings and inferences on such subjects, what conclusions may and what may not be held without interfering with that internal assent which they are bound to give, if they would be Catholics, to the written Word of God. I do but contemplate the inward peace of religious Catholics in their own persons.