On The Catechism – Part I

Guarding the Deposit of Faith is the Mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church.
— St. John Paul II

 "In 1986, I entrusted a commission of twelve Cardinals and Bishops, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with the task of preparing a draft of the catechism..." Thus begins a short exposition by Pope St. John Paul II on the development of the The Catechism of the Catholic Church in his opening letter (Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 1.) This commission oversaw a cast of hundreds, probably thousands if you include the innumerable committees and collaborations which went on across the globe. In the end, it took 6 years, nine drafts, and two editions to get to the current Catechism, published in 1992. Before going any further, however, let us have a few words about catechisms in general.

The Catechism defines catechism this way: "A popular summary or compendium of Catholic doctrine about faith and morals and designed for use in catechesis (educating people of the faith)."  Prior to the Catechism, probably the best known catechisms were the Catechism of the Council of Trent  (also known as the Roman Catechism) and the Baltimore Catechism. The English translation of the Roman Catechism by John A. McHugh, O.P. and Charles J. Callan, O.P. (originally published in 1923) has as an Introduction a detailed history of catechisms in the Church.

"From the days of the Apostles and during the the first centuries very careful attention was given to Christian doctrine...". So goes Frs. Mchugh and Callans' Introduction to their translation, supporting their assertion with examples from a who's who of early Church luminaries: Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, Origen, Pope Leo the great, Pope St. Gregory the Great; the list goes on and on. "...but in the Middle Ages, we are told, the zealous practices of early times were relaxed, instruction was given up, and ignorance of the things of faith prevailed generally among the common people." This was, at least, the picture the Protestants painted of the Church in the Middle Ages (seventh to sixteenth centuries). The good Fathers, however, refute this with an extensive survey of catechesis, catechisms, and schools throughout the period, as well as a brief section on some of the causes of the "Protestant rebellion" including the breakdown in general instruction in the faith.

The multiyear, multisession Council of Trent (1545-1564) was, in effect, the "counter-Reformation" and it produced, among other things, the Roman Catechism. Like the current Catechism, the Roman Catechism was the product of numerous committees, revisions, editions, and rewrites, predominantly (but not exclusively) under the purview of St. Charles Borromeo. Promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1566, it was, and is, an "extensive and thorough work to be used by parish priests in their instruction of the faithful." The Roman Catechism was unlike those which had come before insofar as, besides being used by priests as a source for preaching and teaching, (1) it was produced at the express command of an Ecumenical Council – Trent, (2) it was translated at the command of that same Council into the vernacular languages of many nations, (3) it was directed to be used as the standard source for the many "local catechisms" used in the nations (id est, it was a universal catechism), and (4) it continued to receive the unqualified praise and support of subsequent Pontiffs.

Subsequent to the close of the Second Vatican Council, use of the Roman Catechism as well the robust “local catechisms” spawned by the Roman Catechism (such as the Baltimore Catechism) fell out of favor. In their places rose other catechisms, the most widely published one being the 1966 Dutch Catechism (officially known as the “New Catechism”). The Dutch Catechism was so problematic that Pope Paul VI convened a commission of Cardinals to evaluate it. While the overall assessment of the commission was rather vague, they did point out a number of serious problems. Meanwhile, in the 70’s and 80’s, general catechesis fell into a state of confusion and ennui, although there were some bright spots.  This is The Faith by Canon Francis Ripley was originally published in 1951, but made a comeback in the 1980’s and ‘90s, because it is complete, very readable, and orthodox. In 1971, the General Catechetical Directory was published by Paul VI, but it offered guidelines only; it was not a universal catechism. That task was given by Paul VI to Fr. John Hardon, S.J., of the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, and he produced in 1975 The Catholic Catechism, which was (and is) an excellent, extensive, very readable and still very useful compendium. It was a sort of precursor to the current Catechism. Today, 25 years after the publication of the 2nd edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church there are probably more catechetical materials, more easily obtainable, than ever before. Peruse here and here just two of the many sites and sources out there.

Why am I going into all this? Because I believe that the recovery of the Church will involve two necessary initial steps: return to reverent worship, and return to basic, orthodox catechesis. I have been accused of proposing that if we only had the Latin Mass everything would magically be swell (or words to that effect). I do not think that, not by a long shot. But I do believe that both of these two “first steps” are necessary.

There is much confusion out there about definitions, it comes from every direction, and is growing daily. Occasionally I will post a review of small sections from the Catechism, just to sort of jog my brain cells into thinking about things defined.  Good enough reason to return to basics from time to time.