Some Thoughts on Catechizing on the Creed

It is official the new translation of the Roman Missal will be released at the beginning of Advent 2011. I wanted to offer some of my thoughts on how the Church should address catechesis of the new Missal, especially catechizing on the Creed.

In many ways the new translation of the Roman Missal is a vast improvement over the current translation, but its implementation will be one of the most challenging catechetical endeavors in recent decades. But in the midst of every challenge is a silver lining and I think the silver lining of this particular challenge will be the opportunity to reintroduce the faithful to the history of the Church, particularly the patristic period. Catechesis on the translation of the Nicene Creed should include a history of this Creed in order to better understand the meaning of the words we recite every Sunday. That being said let us focus on the new translation of the phrase, “consubstantialem Patri”. The current translation reads, “One in Being with the Father”, while the new translation returns to the more literal “consubstantial with the Father.” Naturally, this phrase refers to the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Some preliminary observations to begin with: First, I think one of the key lessons from the controversy surrounding Nicaea and indeed from the entire study of the doctrine of God, is that we must be precise in our terms referencing God. It is amazing that the Fathers of the Church sacrificed so much just for just one word, like homoousios. If so much went into the use of term we should be careful not to throw it out lightly. Secondly, the term “one in being” is an ambiguous phrase. I remember when the US bishops were debating the new translation (unfortunately, I cannot find the transcript) this issue was raised about “one in Being”. Several bishops argued that “one in being” was not specific enough in describing the relationship between Father and Son, since you and I can be one in being in a room, etc. One in being in a time or place is not what the Fathers of the Church had in mind when they used the term homoousios/consubstantialem.

The biggest catechetical challenge regarding this new translation of the Creed will be getting a diverse set of people, with varying levels of education and theological formation, to understand a complex and seemingly minute change of wording. To be truly effective one almost needs to give a whole class on metaphysics in order to understand being. So how do we overcome this challenge? How do we break down this important reality in a way that is understandable to the common man? How do we do so without watering down the teaching of the Fathers and the Church? Well I can’t answer all these questions here; I would venture to say that it is important to at least communicate a respect for the preciseness of terms regarding God. Secondly, I think it is important to reflect on the uniqueness of the relationship between the Father and Son and convey to the faithful that consubstantiality is the word that most effectively conveys this relationship. Consubstantiality cannot be used to describe any other relationship in creation. Thirdly, I have always liked the succinctness of the “Athanasian Rule”, “Whatever you can say of the Father you can say of the Son, except the term Father.” This is a rather simple way to phrase the meaning of the term homoousios/consubstantialem; it stresses the common substance of the Trinity, while distinguishing the relations. Finally, as I have already mentioned, I think it is important to present a history of the Nicene Creed, including the controversies and the people involved. These stories of the Church have sadly been lost to at least a whole generation. To provide a common history to the faithful would set up a common language from which much fruit could be harvested in the years and generations to come.

12 Responses to Some Thoughts on Catechizing on the Creed

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    I would be grateful for any links you might provide to such controversies.

    Good post 🙂

  2. Don the Kiwi says:

    Great post Justin.

    Since you are discussing greek, maybe you could have explained the difference that one iota makes:

    homoousius v homoiousius 🙂

  3. Don the Kiwi says:


    ….sios…..not siUs.

  4. Eric Brown says:

    I will be late, somewhat, to adapting to the new translations because I have been going to a church that celebrates daily Mass according to the 1962 Missal, eliminating all necessity to go to a Novus Ordo liturgy at all. I think I’ll be doing this all 3 years of law school if I can survive the traditionalists, which is already proving to be a hell of a task.

    Pray for me.

  5. Eric Brown says:

    The difference in theological terms boils down to distinctions.

    “Homooúsios” was adopted as a point of emphasis that Jesus Christ was of the “same essence” or “same being” as God the Father, meaning co-equal in terms of divinity, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. He is everything that God the Father is with the exception of being the Father.

    The term used prior, “homoioúsios,” raised difficulties because the prefix more closely means “similar” rather than “same.” This was the matter at the heart of the Arian controversy. If the Son of God was “similar” to God the Father, He not be equal. In fact, He could be a created being; perhaps, some sort of “super angel” — the highest of all creations, the first created, etc, but not God Himself.

    The later distinction was absolutely necessary to capture the truth of Catholic faith in unambiguous terms. Quite rightly, “one in Being with the Father” is a broad, poorly worded presentation of the Church’s doctrinal creed that states the fundamental truths of Catholicism.

  6. Great post, Justin.

    I do have one quibble though… while there are two generations which have received little catechesis, I don’t think *any* recent generation has any great familiarity with the Nicene controversies, and in this case, that’s not a cause for disappointment: as interesting as they in fact are, this moves a bit more towards inside baseball, i.e. theology more than catechetics, and most lay Catholics are rather unfamiliar with the intricacies of the former.

    One story that I love from this era concerns the original and real Santa: St. Nicholas, who is said to have literally hit the heresiarch, Arius, at the Council of Nicaea! You’d better watch out, indeed!

  7. c matt says:

    So is the Holy Spirit not consubstantial?

  8. Eric Brown says:

    The Holy Spirit is consubstantial. The issue being contested at Nicaea did not involve the Spirit. In fact, if you read the original creed (if I’m not mistaken), it simply says I “believe in the Holy Spirit.” There are no details because at the time, there were no Spirit-related heresies. When they do arise, the Creed extends.

  9. Justin Aquila says:

    @Joe I am not very familiar with the internet resources on Nicea. I would imagine the Catholic encyclopedia would have good stuff as well as New Advent’s patristic collection. There are two compilations of patristic writings that I highly recommend “The Trinitarian Controversy” and “The Christological Controversy”. Both good summations. Also, there is a book called something like, “A Brief History of the Trinity” by a guy named Dunzl (I forget his first name).

    @Chris I appreciate your point, a great deal and I think the line between what people need to know (or should know) and inside baseball is one that we have to walk very carefully. I think my goal would be to give people an appreciation for why the inside baseball stuff is important, otherwise the reasons for the change in the new translation seems arbitrary.

    One other point regarding the Creed that we should pay attention to in catechesis is the The DaVinci Code. One of the biggest problems with The DaVinci Code is that it completely misunderstands the Council of Nicea, reading it as a power struggle instead of search for the truth about Jesus and the Trinity. This is of course utter nonsense since the orthodox folks were actually in the minority at Nicea, yet through grace prevailed. I think catechesis should take into account the cultural framework that The DaVinci Code has errantly created.

    @ Eric, thanks for your clear answers to those questions, you have answered better than I.

  10. Awakaman says:

    The problem is not instructing the average Catholic on a complex hard to understand subject. My high school graduate parents understood difficult concepts such as consubstantiation and transubstantiation perfectly well. Their parents from Poland and Austria also understood these concepts and they were lucky if they got through 6th grade.

    The big issue today is not if Catholics will understand these concepts but if they even care. Religious indifferentism is rampant in the Church. In the past Catholics gave up their lives to defend such beliefs. Now if they understand such concepts they are merely liable to hold them up to ridicule,e.g., see Eco’s book Baudolino.

  11. Pinky says:

    A few good sermons should help the parishioners to understand the new words. Imagine it! Sermons about the Trinity on a Sunday other than the one after Pentecost! How great would it be to see priests grappling with issues that are deeper than “God likes it when we’re polite”? Guess what, parishioners: brilliant and holy people have thought about the Big Questions longer and better than you have, and the confident Catholic Church is going to tell you the answers.

  12. Elaine Krewer says:

    “A few good sermons should help the parishioners to understand the new words.”

    Well, actually those are OLD words, aren’t they?

    This doesn’t directly have to do with catechizing the Creed, but I’d like to share it anyway. The Gospel for yesterday was Christ’s parable about seating oneself in the last place at a banquet, rather than arrogantly claiming a higher place, and about the “last being first and the first being last.”

    Well, the priest at the Mass I attended used that as a springboard to discuss the rules for hospitality in Christ’s time, and how receiving the Eucharist is in effect receiving Christ as a guest, and how the old form of the prayer “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…” expresses that sentiment more precisely than the current wording “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” Although he didn’t really bring up the new (or “new old”) translation, obviously he was trying to prepare us for the change that will occur next year.

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