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Theologians say proposed new catechism would sow confusion

A worldwide catechism proposed by the Vatican, the first of its kindsince the 16th century, would stir confusion and conflict in the church, a group of Catholic theologians warned here.

The scholars gave the first public assessment of the "universal

catechism," a draft of which is under confidential review by the world's 2,500 bishops.

The 434-page draft fails to distinguish between essential church teachings and beliefs less central to the faith, the theologians said at a news conference.

"They (the teachings) are all presented with the same degree of

authority," said the Rev. Francis Buckley, a professor at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.

"There is a need for a good, clear statement of what we all have to believe - unchangeable truths," said Father Buckley, author of several catechism books. But the proposed catechism, he said, "confuses unchangeable truths with changeable truths. And that confuses the faithful."

The moderate-to-liberal group of theologians also said the catechism, in its current form, could easily be used by conservatives to challenge the orthodoxy of church teachers.

"There is a danger that this is going to be used as a yardstick," said Lawrence Cunningham, a University of Notre Dame theologian. He said a religious educator who does not convey everything in the catechism would be "vulnerable to the criticism that this person is watering down the faith."

Asked whether they fear the catechism would be used by church authorities to discipline theologians, the Rev. David Hollenbach, professor of moral theology at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., replied, "Indubitably."

The catechism, which the participants predicted will spark intensive debate for years to come, is the first universal catechism to be issued by Rome since the Council of Trent in 1566, according to the theologians. The first draft was sent in December to the world's bishops, who will eventually use the catechism as a basis for the development of teaching materials in their countries and dioceses. The document has not been made public.

The eight theologians at the news conference were among a larger group of 15 who gave theircritiques during a closed-door symposium sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. The conference's findings will be conveyed to the U.S. Catholic Conference of bishops, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who organized the symposium.

The scholars said the proposed catechism has many good points, including its attention to issues of social and economic justice, as well as a sensitive treatment of the pastoral needs of homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics.

But they said the time allowed by the Vatican for review of the document is too short for serious consideration. Bishops must send their assessments to Rome by May 31.

"We're just not given enough time," said Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn. "This catechism will have an enormous impact on the life of the church. To have a widespread consultation or even a small consultation in each diocese will be a rather formidable task," said the bishop, who participated in the symposium.

During the news conference, the theologians said the catechism makes the mistake of treating historic practices in the church and peripheral beliefs as essential matters of faith.

As examples, they referred to treatments on the existence of angels, ordination of women to the priesthood and individual confession, a form of penance begun during the sixth century.

William May, a leading conservative theologian who was not invited to participate in the symposium, disagreed with the argument that these are peripheral teachings.

Dr. May, a member of Rome's International Theological Commission, said in a telephone interview that the criticism reflects a tendency among liberal theologians to "limit what has been definitively taught" to a few doctrines declared as infallible.

The draft, titled "Catechism for the Universal Church," was produced by a commission of bishops headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, chief of the Vatican's office on doctrine. Development of a new catechism was proposed at a 1985 world synod of bishops by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.