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VATICAN LETTER Oct-29-2004 (720 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Oct. 25 and 26. xxxi

Compendium of social doctrine: It's a compass, not a catechism

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As the Vatican was preparing the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," people repeatedly referred to it as the "social catechism."

While it was designed to be a companion volume to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," it is not a catechism, insisted Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which drafted the compendium.

The catechism, while sometimes using new language or examples, presented the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith.

The compendium, on the other hand, was designed to show precisely that, while the church's faith does not change, the issues it feels compelled to address do change because the world changes.

"The very fact that it is called a compendium and not a catechism is indicative, because the social doctrine accompanies the evolving of the world, the problems that arise. While the catechism gives an idea of something more defined and fixed, the social doctrine can confront problems that did not even exist yesterday," the cardinal said.

The fact that Catholic social doctrine is meant to change as new social challenges emerge should not lead Catholics to think they can ignore it and still be faithful Catholics, council officials said.

The church's social doctrine is part of the moral teaching of the church, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed the compendium prior to its publication.

"There is nothing in it that has not been said by the popes. We are not advancing hypotheses or doctrinal teachings that are not official and public," Cardinal Martino said.

That the Catholic Church has tried to deal with the complications of living a moral life in the modern world is demonstrated in the 331 pages of the English text's treatment of topics, including the environment, war, politics, the family, business, workers' rights and private property.

While the text repeated the Catholic Church's absolute "no" to legalized abortion and to gay marriages, it basically gave a "not a good idea" to capital punishment and to "preventative war," a war unleashed to prevent a possible attack when attack is not imminent and there is no clear support from the United Nations.

Those looking in the text for an outright condemnation of the death penalty and of the U.S.-led coalition's attack on Iraq were probably disappointed.

"All of us know and none of us have forgotten how strongly Pope John Paul II opposed the war" in Iraq, Cardinal Martino told an Oct. 25 Vatican press conference.

But as far as the compendium goes, he said, his office was charged with explaining the direction in which Catholic Church teaching is moving on those issues, not jumping to conclusions or judging historically specific events.

The book is likely to be revised and updated as time goes on.

"Perhaps," Cardinal Martino said, "the next edition will have that famous position on genetically modified organisms," a question the council is in the midst of studying, particularly in relation to food and agriculture.

Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the justice and peace council and main editor of the compendium, said it is important to realize that, as the compendium said, Catholic social teaching does not speak only to the segment of the church that wants to specialize in issues of peace, justice, economics or politics.

Catholic social teaching "is the expression of the way that the church understands society and of her position regarding social structures and changes," it said.

Bishop Crepaldi said local bishops' conferences have a specific responsibility to take the teachings and apply them to the concrete situations they find in their countries.

The volume was published Oct. 25 to coincide with the opening of the justice and peace council's plenary meeting and its first convocation of Catholic justice and peace groups from around the world.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, a member of the council, said, "The mission of evangelizing the culture through the social doctrine of the church is a great challenge for our times."

"One cannot navigate -- 'set out into the deep' as the Holy Father said -- without some basic principles that will guide us in discovering a more human life," the cardinal told Vatican Radio.

The compendium, in that sense, is meant to be the compass.


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