This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s publication. The catechism, which consists of 2,865 paragraphs that are numbered to help reference particular topics, serves as the church’s most comprehensive document for teaching church beliefs and doctrine.
While it’s not intended for leisure reading (its first audience was the bishops, “who are teachers of the faith and pastors of the church,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Pope John Paul II said the catechism “is offered to all the faithful who want to understand better the inexhaustible riches of salvation.”
Usually referred to as a universal catechism, the document serves as a resource or reference for national and diocesan catechisms, such as the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, which was published in 2006.
The catechism came about at the request of bishops attending the Synod of Bishops in 1985, convened on the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II accepted the proposal and in 1986 he appointed a commission of 12 cardinals and bishops to develop “a compendium of Catholic doctrine.”
Heading that commission was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
The commission sent a draft of its text to bishops of the world in 1989 and received more than 24,000 amendments. Two years later, the commission sent the prepared text to Pope John Paul II for his official approval, which was given on June 25, 1992. On Oct. 11, 1992, the pope promulgated, or introduced, the catechism to the world with an apostolic constitution, Fidei Depositum.
“I ask the church’s pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life,” wrote Pope John Paul II.
Twenty-five years may sound like a long time for a publication’s shelf life, but not by the church’s standards. The previous universal text, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, was published in 1566 and lasted 425 years.
In its brief existence, the catechism has seen revisions to its teaching on the death penalty. In the first edition, the text recognized the “right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors … not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
In 1997, Pope John Paul II added that use of the death penalty is permissible when it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Twenty years later, Pope Francis believes the Gospels teach that the death penalty is never an option.
“It is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible, because it attacks the inviolability and dignity of the person,” he said Oct. 11, the 25th anniversary of the catechism’s promulgation.
His comments on the anniversary suggest that another revision of the catechism may be in the works.
If the church teaches that all life is sacred, it makes sense that the universal catechism reflects this belief that it does away with the support of capital punishment.