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Review process strangles catechetical efforts

Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt to well-intentioned bishops wishing to reassert their rightful positions as chief teachers of the flock, the review process that has been established in their name to assure conformity of catechetical materials to the Catechism of the Catholic Church strains all patience and goodwill.

What is to be accomplished by making long-trusted authors and publishers jump through bureaucratic hoops that have proliferated following the appearance of the Catechism (NCR, March 21)? The process smells more of power plays and imposing a narrow agenda than of assuring consistent teaching.

Few would argue with the desirability of a common source, such as the Catechism, as the basis for teaching texts, flawed though the Catechism is, including the rigid insistence on exclusively male language. But it seems that reason has given way to a punitive absolutism in the multilayered review process.

How else to explain how a popular and already widely used 64-page text, generated by the worship office of the Cincinnati archdiocese, could merit a 12-page response rejecting the text more for what is left out than what is stated in the text?

It doesn't take long for Fr. Thomas De Vries of the Office for the Catechism, author of the 12-page letter, to show his hand. What is missing in the booklet We Gather in Christ: Our Identity as Assembly, said De Vries, is sufficient emphasis on the priest. In this increasingly priestless church, you see, the booklet's passages on the church as visible community and the church as sacrament just do not emphasize enough the centrality to the whole endeavor of the ordained priesthood, wrote De Vries.

No doubt there are some valid points in the 12-page critique. Undoubtedly one could find reason to critique just about anything presented.

But the absurd suggestion implicit in De Vries' critique is that Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Doctrine and a consultant to the bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, is not competent to police his own worship office.

We are to believe that Pilarczyk, whose orthodoxy would be questioned by only the fringiest right-wingers, was allowing the use of materials that were so grossly out of accord with the Catechism that it was denied copyright approval.

Even more disturbing is the secrecy employed in the process. Authors and publishers have no access to those doing the reviews -- they don't even know who they are -- and the process provides no chance for discussion of areas in question.

Instead of a presumption that authors and publishers are fundamentally disposed to correctly reflect church teaching and the basic intent of the Catechism, reviewers seem to start with a presumption of the worst in those seeking copyright approval. Such a process can turn distressingly subjective, as was clear in accounts of publisher and author distress reported in NCR by Robert McClory.

The approach may be self-defeating. Publishers have coined a phrase -- the 499-word rule -- stating they would not allow textbooks or other materials to use more than 499 words of the Catechism, stopping short of the 500-word threshold at which a publication must be submitted to the bishops for approval.

Rigid legalisms always spawn inventive ways around the rules. For some, the Catechism provides a corrective to teaching that had become loose and imprecise. In the current review process, it has become an irritant to be avoided.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997