Monday, December 29, 2014

The Catholic Catechism by John A. Hardon, S.J.

I am a Roman Catholic and my conversion story is a lengthy one, but it all leads to my current place in faith, which is in the hands and heart of Christ. That I came back into the Church in my late thirties and am a teacher by trade gives me the burden of being adult about matters of faith, seeking answers to questions that many of the faithful give to God in childlike dependence. Although I regularly pray for the grace to accept all magisterial teachings as the voice of Christ on earth, I cannot cease my skepticism of indoctrination, the ideological bias of ecclesiastical authority, and the fallibility of man.  As a result, I heartily continue to pray through and study the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Through many different authors, I have found both consoling confirmation and thought-provoking questions on matters of faith. Fr. Hardon’s work, however, faithfully amalgamates both confirmation and question to lead the reader closer to Christ.  The Catholic Catechism written by John A. Hardon, S.J. is an in-depth source book and orthodox study on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with an emphasis on the many documents that emerged post-Vatican II.  Fr. Hardon’s historically-rooted teaching is not only very clear and exact in its presentation, but it has caused me to fill almost all 571 pages with copious notes and underlined passages both celebrating and respectfully questioning his express orthodox point-of-view. Logical organization, deftly-handled controversy, and topics that deepen one’s faith all point toward the overriding theme of Fr. Hardon’s work, the love of God and neighbor above all things lived out through enlightened love.
     The Catholic Catechism is divided into three sections: doctrines of faith, morality and the spiritual life, and ritual and worship. Each of these sections, according to Fr. Hardon’s introduction, overlap because faith, morality, and ritual affect and interact with one another.  But each division deals with in-depth, scholarly orthodox teaching according to not only magisterial norms but historical and post-Vatican II documents and papal encyclicals. As expected, Fr. Hardon even ties in the Church Fathers on many points. All of this equals a tightly wound, unabashedly classically-minded position for objective truth contained in all Roman Catholic Church dogma.
      Fr. Hardon pulls out all the figurative stops in arguing the Church’s point of view on many magisterial teachings that have garnered faithful opposition, and it is Fr. Hardon’s argument and counterargument that I find both captivating and scholarly.  On pp. 367-381, for instance, Fr. Hardon presents the Church’s teaching against contraception. This teaching is one of the most disputed since Vatican II, and not only does Fr. Hardon present the magisterial point of view, but he begins his argument with an anthropological and societal history and moves through philosophical and Christian tradition rooted in the Church Fathers and the teaching of the Didache.  Rooted in this section is Fr. Hardon’s presentation on the validity of Church authority, which I find clever since some of us who conscientiously oppose the orthodox position on contraception also question papal and magisterial infallibility.  Fr. Hardon knows this and brilliantly interweaves the argument for not only papal but magisterial infallibility in teaching faith and morals.  Next, he deals with the post-Vatican II document Humanae Vitae and its controversial conclusion, ignoring Pope John XXIII’s 1963 commission on Population and Family Life’s majority decision to accept contraception. Fr. Hardon creatively argues that the commission functions in a non-definitive, advisory-only capacity, thus leading to the inerrant magisterial decision and teaching on this matter of morals. Admittedly, this is one of the most sagacious, accurately argued examples of exposition in the text.  But all writing and ideas are subject to the contextual bias of an author’s position and historicity. This 14-page section, moreover, took me over an hour on which to read and make notes.  Conclusively, this section exemplifies several strengths in Fr. Hardon’s book:  First, the arguments herein are solidly orthodox and true to Church teaching.  Second, Fr. Hardon is an incredible thinker and deft argumentative and expository writer.
Of all the elements about the Church and Fr. Hardon’s presentation, there are many teachings and dogmas on which I pray for clarity and the humility of mind. Conversely, there are many teachings that both highlight and deepen my firmly-held beliefs. One favorite section in this book, therefore, is on the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist presented on pp. 457-481. Fr. Hardon is vividly clear and historically accurate in this exposition and argument; he expertly covers the Ratramnus controversy of the 9th century that influenced all later arguments (especially the 16th century Reformation) of a symbolic rather than corporeal presence of Christ. And fittingly, Fr. Hardon moves into the renaissance of faith in the Real Presence that stemmed from the refutation of Ratramnus’ treaty and later the teachings of the Council of Trent.
Fr. Hardon’s book ends with a discussion on a controversial topic in Christianity, indulgences.  Indulgences not only confirm the Catholic concept of earning merit, but they teach that although our sins are forgiven, remission of temporal punishment vis-a-vis works approved by the Church is required.  Fr. Hardon historically establishes that certain evidence of general indulgences appeared after the eleventh century. He further explains the concept of indulgences and the Church’s later abuse.  Although the historical explanations are factual, there is a detectable Catholic bias in treating the subject.  I do not hold this against Fr. Hardon, for he is an expert scholar throughout and clearly influenced by an exclusively Catholic upbringing, education, formation, and commissioning to research and write the text by Pope Paul VI.  In the midst of my questions about the truth behind indulgences, he ends the section with a poignant reference to Pope Paul VI’s Handbook of Indulgences that puts the subject in a livable perspective. Fr. Hardon quotes Pope Paul VI as follows:  “A partial indulgence is granted to any of Christ's faithful who, in the performance of his duties and bearing the trials of life, raises his mind to God in humble confidence and adds, even mentally, some pious invocation.” Prayer amid the trials of life is an attainable, humble approach to living charitably and a beautiful way to close the discussion on a controversial topic.
In the book’s epilogue, Fr. Hardon coalesces his point and purpose: “We are to practice what we profess and live our faith by loving the God we believe in.  For his sake we are to love our neighbor, as he, the God-man, has been loving us. . .” All doctrine, morality, and ritual point us to the universal love of God and neighbor for and with the love of Jesus Christ. We cannot forget or lose this core focus, but, as Fr. Hardon writes,”This is not to minimize the value of knowing what God has revealed and what the Church he founded understands this revelation to mean.” Enlightenment, prayer, and spiritual discernment form us into effective members of the Body of Christ, allowing us to evangelize others. And although I still have spiritual mountains to climb, Fr. Hardon’s teaching has been the Sherpa steadying me along the path to the beatific summit. Wholeheartedly, I recommend this book to anyone seeking knowledge about the Catholic faith and its rich history.  With a prayerful heart, you, too, will find enlightenment and a closer relationship with Christ..