Many of the observances of the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church noted that it was the most important magisterial act of the Church since the Second Vatican Council. That’s true, and it remains the towering achievement of the historic 35-year pontificate in two acts of Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet the Catechism was important not only for what it taught, but how it taught. It was the needed complement, or completion, of the magisterial gambit of Vatican II.

When Pope John XXIII summoned the Council, he proposed an innovation – a “pastoral council” that would not resolve any specific doctrinal points, but rather propose afresh the same deposit of the faith. He insisted that the doctrine of the faith would not change, but that it should presented in methods more adapted to new circumstances. Anathema sit was out; the “medicine of mercy” was in.

Looking back at distance of more than a half-century, the afflatus that moved St John XXIII is easy to see. A radically individualistic age, prizing a freedom of autonomy above all else, was not likely to be effectively evangelised by declarations given by authority. So John XXIII indicated a different path, a Council that would propose, not condemn, invite not exclude.

That approach met the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The Council decision not to provide a clear, definitive interpretation of its own teaching rendered the magisterium a source of ambiguity and confusion, despite the theological richness of the Council’s teaching itself. The problem was immediately seen by the “great helmsman” of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI. He saw that the approach of the Council, as attractive as it was, could not be persuasive if it was not also complemented by the clarity of definitive teaching about what was – and was not – compatible with Christian discipleship. And he tried to do something about it.

In June 1968, at the conclusion of a “year of faith” called to commemorate the 19th centenary of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, Paul VI proclaimed his “Credo of the People of God”, an astonishing document in which the Holy Father begs the Church to retain the orthodox faith. Ten years later, in his last major address just weeks before his death, Paul VI would insist that he had “kept the faith”. It was “above all” the Credo of 1968 that he had in mind.

As he explained in June 1968:

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