Catechism: A Gift for Everyone


If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


To suggest that the Catechism is meant only as a reference book is myopic. Also to suggest, as stated in the question, that it is not meant for “regular people” makes this author and this column “irregular.”

Catechisms have always played a prominent role in catechesis since the earliest days of the Church. About the year 100, the Didache was compiled, which was a compendium of the teachings of the Apostles on doctrine, morals, and liturgy. St. Cyril of Jerusalem developed his twenty-four Catechetical Lectures as an early standardized RCIA program. Other forms of catechisms were also developed.

The most famous universal catechism — The Roman Catechism — was published under the authority of the Council of Trent in 1566. This catechism used a four-pillar format of the Creed, Sacraments, Morals and Spirituality. The goal of this catechism was to present clearly the Catholic Faith at a time when the Protestant movement was attacking it and when many people were ignorant of the Faith. This catechism would also be the standard for the development of other catechisms and religious education materials. For example, in the United States, one easily remembers the Baltimore Catechism produced in 1885 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore.

All of these catechisms had the same objective: to authentically teach the Catholic Faith. All of these catechisms were published in times of great controversy, when forces of disbelief, confusion and heresy attacked the Church. For this same reason, Pope John Paul II encouraged the issuance of the new Catechism for the entire Church.

On Jan. 25, 1985, Pope John Paul II summoned an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops to mark the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The purpose of this synod was not only to celebrate the graces and fruits of the council, but also to clarify and deepen an understanding of its teachings. As with any previous council, the aftermath of Vatican II saw disbelief, confusion, defection and even heresy. Many religious education programs and materials failed to convey the beauty and depth of the Catholic faith. Consequently, the synod proposed “that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed as a source text for the catechisms or compendia composed in the various countries. The presentation of doctrine should be biblical and liturgical, presenting sure teaching adapted to the actual life of Christians.” Beginning in 1985, the Holy Father and the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith guided by Cardinal Ratzinger assiduously dedicated themselves to composing the new Catechism, and as mentioned, it was published in 1992.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, like its predecessor, The Roman Catechism, has a “four pillar format”: what the Church believes (an introduction about faith and then an explication of the Creed), what the Church celebrates (an introduction about liturgy and then an explication of the seven sacraments), what the Church lives (an introduction about man’s vocation and general moral theology, and then an explication of the Ten Commandments and the moral teachings of the Church), and what the Church prays (an introduction to the spiritual life and then an explication of the Our Father). In one sense the Catechism is old, reiterating beliefs long held and defined by the Church, such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

In another sense, the Catechism is new, addressing moral issues like nuclear war and bioethics questions. Rather than using a “question and answer format” like the Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism reads in narrative form. Moreover, the Catechism is well indexed with many citations from sacred Scripture, Church documents, and the writings of the Popes, the Church Fathers and the Saints. In all, this one book is a beautiful testament to the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1997, additions were made to the Catechism, to bring it up-to-date with recent teachings, like the Holy Father’s clarification on capital punishment.

Pope John Paul II, at the time of the Catechism's publication, stated, “A gift for everyone: this is what the new Catechism is meant to be. In regard to this text, no one should feel a stranger, excluded or distant. In fact, it is addressed to everyone because it concerns the Lord of all, Jesus Christ, the one who proclaims and is proclaimed, the Awaited, the Teacher and the Model of every proclamation. It seeks to respond to and satisfy the needs of all those who, in their conscious or unconscious search for truth and certitude, seek God ‘even perhaps grope for Him, though indeed He is not far from any one of us’ (Acts 17:27).”

Therefore, this remarkable teaching tool is meant to be studied and used by the person in the pew. (Of course, parts of the Catechism are not easy reading, and age-appropriate materials are needed for children.) Parents, as the primary educators of their children, can utilize the Catechism in handing the faith on to their children. Here is a reference for any question that a young person may have. Whenever posed a question by a child or when conversation arises which takes one by surprise, the parent, like any good teacher, ought to go to the Catechism, study and then return to the child with a clear and accurate answer. Moreover, the parents can use the Catechism not only as a resource to supplement the religious education materials of a school or CCD program, but also as a standard to hold those programs accountable. What is presented in the Catechism ought to be preached from the pulpit, taught in Catholic schools and CCD programs, and lived and reinforced in the family.

In sum, the Catechism is a unifying force in the Church. Archbishop Bertone, secretary for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated on the occasion of the tenth anniversary, “It was approved by the Holy Father to be an instrument of unity of the faith and the common doctrine of the Church on the most major problems referring to God, the mission of the Church as universal sacrament, the moral and Christian plan, so that it would be an instrument to proclaim to men the truths that are the way to Heaven. From this perspective, the Catechism is an essential and rigorous point of reference to verify the compatibility, correspondence of theological opinions, of catechesis, of the presentation of the Christian doctrine in the different local Churches with the authentic patrimony that has been transmitted to us by the Apostles, by the Tradition of the Church, which is valid for all times and for all Christian communities.” (Address, June 27, 2002)

Therefore, every Catholic home ought to have and use a good English translation of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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