The Roman Catechism

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

To which product do these praises tend? The Roman Catechism; also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Tridentine Catechism, and the Catechism of St. Pius V. The history behind the Roman Catechism is interesting.

The most zealous defender of Catholicism must concede that by the 16th century, certain clergy and laity were not sufficiently instructed in the Catholic Faith. This is one reason the novelties of Martin Luther (d. 1546) had spread so rapidly: some Catholics were not adequately trained to recognize, refute, and reject theological error. Granted, the problems leading to the rupture of Christendom were complex; touching social, political, and internal ecclesiastical matters. Doctrine and discipline, however, played the major roles in the events of the 1500s. As a remedy, the Ecumenical Council of Trent was held from 1545 to 1563.

During Trent’s 4th Session (1546), mention was made of the need for a catechism, published in Latin and the vernacular tongues, so as to equip children and adults in the rudiments of Catholic truth. At the 18th Session of Trent (1562), a commission was appointed for this very task. The composition of the catechism, delayed for many years because of other pressing issues, was now under way. The president of this massive undertaking was the eminent Augustinian Cardinal Seripando (d. 1563).

At the 24th Session of Trent (1563), the aim of the catechism was reexamined. It was then decided that this work would mainly target parish priests, to be written in an advanced and detailed manner. A decree reaffirmed this tool would be published in the common languages. At the close of the Tridentine Council, there was still work that remained to complete the catechism. Pope Pius IV (d. 1565), now finished with the work of the Ecumenical Council, devoted his attention to this project. The great St. Charles Borromeo (d. 1584) was now heading this task in place of the deceased Seripando.

Under the leadership of Borromeo, a concerted effort was undertaken to refine the Latin draft of the catechism. The first linguistic revision was done in 1564, and a second in the following year. By this time, St. Pius V (d. 1572) had ascended to the papal throne, and immediately called for a number of theological experts to scrutinize the draft to ensure doctrinal precision. After many years of labor, the Roman Catechism was officially promulgated in 1566.

The Roman Catechism followed a time-honored tradition in the order of its parts, called the “four pillars of catechesis”: The Creed; The Sacraments; The Decalogue; and The Lord’s Prayer. Appropriately, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) follows this same model, with title variations: The Profession of Faith; The Celebration of the Christian Mystery; Life in Christ; and Christian Prayer. These pillars are traceable back to the Church Fathers, particularly St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. A.D. 386) in his Catechetical Lectures.

A noteworthy characteristic of the Roman Catechism is its copious use of Sacred Scripture. God’s written word is utilized throughout the work, to validate Catholic beliefs and to edify the Church Militant. As well, the doctrinal explanations of Catholic theology are in depth, yet understandable for the average reader. The sections that teach the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Eucharist are superior to many contemporary tomes. The beneficial (and necessary) influence of Thomistic philosophy is evident throughout the catechism.

The Roman Catechism, still in print, may be one of the most important monuments of the Catholic Church. It is not unreasonable to say that in order to understand the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the faithful must have a grasp of its predecessor, the Roman Catechism. This theological gem would be an excellent addition to any library.

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