Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church by Monsignor Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996) 418 pp.

At age 50 I have been able to observe two generations of Catholics. The first is my own—those of us who received our catechetical formation in the 50's and early 60's. Then there was the generation that as a priest I was responsible myself for instructing. The differences are stark.

Even in a rural parish like St. Cecilia's (Stanwood, WA) we were taught by memory the basic doctrines of the Church. Question: "What is a sacrament?" Answer: "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." That approach was mocked in the late 60's. During the 70's and 80's rote memorization was rejected. In its place religion teachers were told to begin with "personal experience."

There was something beautiful, even holy, about that new approach. It assumed God was at work in each person and that a skillful teacher could bring out that inner truth. Of course, it was maintained that the teachings of the Bible and the Church were not to be lost in this process. But unfortunately they were.

You do not need to be a sociologist to realize an entire generation of young adults has left the Catholic Church. Some have gone to Bible Churches which do offer clear doctrinal teaching and moral guidance. Most have simply drifted away. A few, God bless them, are hanging in there. Some just by a thread, others have discovered a more robust Catholic faith than the one was presented to them as children.

Now that group, together with a great influx of Catholic immigrants and some new converts, are presenting their children for religious instruction. We have a chance to learn from our past mistakes and do it right this time. Yet things are not that simple. This is precisely the point at which a book like Flawed Expectations can help understand what is happening in the U.S. Catholic Church.

As the authors bring out, the publication of the Catechism was a major event in the post-Vatican II Church. They describe the incredible breadth of consultation which went into writing it. They also tell about the fierce attacks on the very idea of having a universal catechism, the first since the Council of Trent.

When I picked up the Spanish translation (which was issued well before the English one) I was largely unaware of the controversies. I read it from beginning to end and was amazed at its clear, concise, yet in-depth presentation of Church's teaching. (For example in just three pages it sums up the Catholic teaching on birth control, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Cf. 2366-2379) While sophisticated enough to satisfy a scholar, it was also a marvel of simplicity. It has four parts or "pillars": The Apostle's Creed, the seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Our Father. Aymara Indians of Peru with whom I was working at the time could say them by memory. They were also aware of an inexhaustible richness behind those four pillars and were grateful for opportunities to learn more.

In the summer of '94 I read the English version. Its publication had been delayed because of a earlier defective "inclusive language" translation which, as Wrenn and Whitehead demonstrate, was inaccurate and misleading. However, the debate over "inclusive language" vs. "standard English" meant little to me at the time. What I saw in the Catechism was a beautiful gift, one which could clear up a lot of confusion and set us back on the right path. Evidently a lot of others felt the same because it was smashing best-seller.

However, as Msgr. Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead (former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education) show, not everyone viewed the Catechism as a hopeful event. Flawed Expectations documents the powerful forces which tried to prevent its publication. When that failed, they began trying to subvert it. In fact, because of their positions of influence they are able to weaken, water down, even distort the teachings contained in the Catechism.

Does this sound like some loony conspiracy theory? "Priests, nuns and lay religious education professionals seek to dismantle Catholic teaching." It does sound strange. But as Wrenn and Whitehead painstakingly document, it is happening. It is not a "conspiracy" as such, but rather a broad group of well-placed people who have lost their bearings. They are being moved along by the "drift" of our culture. They have given up their personal integrity. They claim to be Catholics, but reject major parts of Catholic teaching. Further they are deceptive. What they package as "Catholic teaching" is really something else: a willful distortion in the name of "contemporary theology."

"Lack of integrity" and "deception" are strong charges, especially since it involves misleading children. I would hope anyone reading this would say, "You better be prepared to prove it." Well, Flawed Expectations does exactly that. They are not afraid to name names.

About 50 pages of the book focus on Dr. Brennan Hill and Dr. William Madges, theology professors at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. They wrote the The Catechism: Highlights and Commentary. (hereafter H & C). A six part teaching video based on the book was produced by the same authors. The book and the video have enjoyed the enthusiastic endorsement of what Wrenn and Whitehead call "the catechetical establishment." H & C was favorably reviewed by The Catechist, Church and appeared in an abridged version in Religion Teacher's Journal.

One would expect that a book like H & C, along with its widely used video, would faithfully present the teachings of the Catechism. Such expectations are naďve or as the authors say "flawed." Because the charges are so serious, it is important to be specific.

Flawed Expectations documents at length how professors Hill and Madges set out to "place the teachings of the Catechism into dialogue with other trends in contemporary theology." (That quote and those following are directly from H & C.) What this means is that the Catechism cannot be taken for itself, but must be "interpreted" by "experts." The big problem of course is in how those experts do their interpreting. H & C speaks quite openly about "going beyond" the Catechism, giving it a "broader perspective."

Here are some examples of the "broader perspective" proposed by H & C. The Catechism talks about revelation and grace being given through the Church. But in H & C all creation and all human beings "have been 'graced' with God's presence and power." Revelation is "given to all." It is a "personal and communal experience." Revelation and grace are thus emptied of their meaning. In the process the Church is put on the sidelines; the real action is somewhere else. Does all of this sound familiar? Could it perhaps explain why the present generation of young adults does not see much need for the Church in their lives?

It gets worse. Catholic teaching is not just leveled. It is twisted out of its context and made to say the exact opposite. For example H & C states that the Catechism "deems both masculine and feminine images as acceptable ways to describe God's love." The Catechism does have a carefully expressed paragraph on the biblical image of God as Father. The image of God as Father "indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children." (CCC 239) Then it states that the second part (goodness and loving care) "can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature."

Hills and Madges either have not read paragraph 239 of the Catechism or they willfully distort it. As any student of the Bible knows, the Old Testament prophets fought for the transcendence of Yahweh against the fertility religions of their neighbors. They vigorously condemned those cults which featured sacred prostitution and infant sacrifice (cf. 2 K 17:16f., Jer 32:35). These religions can be fairly described as "immanent," even "matriarchal." (Their ritual orgies were their way of tapping into the primal energy, the "life force" of "mother earth." Sound familiar?) The religion of Israel is indeed "patriarchal" but not because of some cultural accident. It was a deliberate choice. Patriarchy cannot be excised without cutting out the heart of Old Testament revelation.

The meaning of Biblical faith, so clearly expressed in the Catechism, is lost on Drs. Hill and Madges. They not only place masculine and feminine images of God on a par, they prefer the latter because they support "interfaith dialogue, liberation theology, process thought and feminist theology." As Hill and Madges state, "Whereas in the past there was a stress on the transcendence of God, the emphasis today seems to have shifted to the immanence of God." The truth is that human beings have always tended toward an immanent, even pantheistic, view of God. Only a vigorous, revealed faith like Judaism has been able to rescue man from pantheism with its inevitable decadence. (A footnote: "matriarchal" religions, with their exaltation of sex and depreciation of children, are no great boon to women. They at first appear to "free" woman, but in fact degrade her because they destroy her natural place in the order of creation.)

H & C not only distorts the Church's teaching about God, but also about man. This is particularly evident in the way they approach Original Sin. The Catechism teaches that it involved a real deed "that took place at the beginning of the history of man." (CCC 390) However H & C blurs the doctrine into a "tendency to sin…to be influenced by sinful structures." According to the authors this is "more compatible than the view found in the Catechism." Please note well: For Hill & Madges the Catechism does not represent the teaching of the Church Jesus founded, but simply a "view" which can be readily replaced by one "more compatible."

The more compatible view of Original Sin turns out to be old-fashioned Pelagianism—the doctrine that man can save himself by his own efforts. That heresy was rejected by the Church in the fifth century, but it keeps coming back. It reduces Jesus role to being an example of virtue, a friend, but not a savior. The best Jesus can save you from is "lack of self-esteem," but certainly not something so negative as sin. Once Pelagianism is accepted, other teachings and practices begin to unravel: grace, confession of sins to a priest, the meaning of mortal sin, the need for sacraments in general. Wrenn & Whitehead carefully document H & C's subtle and not-so-subtle deviations from the Catechism it proposes to "explain."

There is more, but I refer you to Flawed Expectations for details. Let me just mention the major areas in which H & C criticizes the Catechism: Use of Scripture, the Divinity and Humanity of Christ, the Pope and Bishops, the Sacraments, Morality, and the Indissolubility of Marriage. Wrenn & Whitehead give direct quotes, whole paragraphs, from H & C then compare its teaching to the Catechism. In each case the view of the "experts" turns out to be "more compatible" than the teachings found in the Catechism.

Lest someone think that H & C is an isolated phenomenon, the work of a couple of disgruntled theology teachers, Flawed Expectation details how other supposed "commentaries" (for example, the one edited by Heythrop's Michael J. Walsh) do the same hatchet job on the Catechism. To know what to avoid I jotted down a list of authors and "guide books" which seriously deviate from the Magisterium. I was going to print that list of priests, nuns and lay experts in this review because I am convinced they are involved the most serious "betrayal of confidence" in the Church today. Ordinary Catholics not only entrust their children to them and those they have formed, they pay their salaries on the assumption they represent the Church. I have sometimes wondered whether in our litigious society, a lawsuit could be brought against them for abusing people's trust.

However, I would like to conclude with something more positive: reliable authors and works for the person looking for a trustworthy guide. First and foremost, Wrenn and Whitehead mention Fr. Alfred McBride, O. Praem. and his book Essentials of the Faith. Fr. James Tolhurst has written a similar highly praised guidebook: A Concise Companion for the New Catholic Catechism. A commentary which focuses on the first pillar (the Creed section) is The Splendour of Doctrine by Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. Msgr. Francis D Kelly has written The Mysteries We Proclaim and Fr. Robert Hater New Visions, New Direction: Implementing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A work commissioned by the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) is New Catholic Catechism: Workshop Resources, by Sister Mary Ann Johnston.

I would like to make a recommendation of my own: Ellen Rossini's 100 Activities Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A lot of religion teachers are like myself: Not so dumb that we need a supposed "expert" to explain the Catechism to us, but sometimes struggling when it comes to teaching it in an engaging way. Rossini's book, done in format so each activity can be reproduced on a single sheet, is a great help.

We should all do our best to present the teachings of Jesus in the most exciting way possible. Still, even if we sometimes bore our students, it is always better to tell them the truth. The Catechism sums up that truth. The encouraging message of Flawed Expectations is that the truth, like the seed planted in good soil, has power. That truth will win out in the end.


Footnote: Resources for Christian Living (Allen, TX) has recently published a Catechism Workbook called Our Catholic Identity. The Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Cathechism, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has found it to be in connformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, this finding of conformity does not mean "complete." For example, what this text says about the sixth commandment is vague and avoids any mention of Catholic teaching on pre-marital sex, birth control, homosexuality. Nor does the finding imply overall endorsement of RCL. Its website indicates connections with organizations known for dissent on these and other issues.

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