The Catechism Turns 25

A quarter century ago, Pope St. John Paul II issued the first universal catechism since Trent.

(photo: Register Files)

More than twelve years since the end of the pontificate of St. John Paul II, the Church continues to assess and meditate on one of the most significant pontificates in history. And no assessment of his extraordinary papal era can overlook one of the greatest of his achievements: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued exactly 25 years ago.

The first great Catechism since the Council of Trent in the 16th century – with a loving nod to the Baltimore Catechism that was a mainstay of American catechetics in much of the 20th century – the Catechism has proven an enduring and powerful teaching instrument that remains absolutely invaluable.

The Faith as an Organic Whole

The origins of the Catechism date back to 1985 and the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convoked by John Paul II to mark the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. The synod studied both the reception and implementation of the Council in the life of the Church, with a special focus on how to interpret its documents and teachings. This was a major step for the Church toward clarity about the Council after an era of some confusion and misinterpretation under the banner of a so-called “Conciliar Spirit.”

During the sessions of the Synod, a memorable intervention was made by Cardinal Bernard Law, then Archbishop of Boston, on the need for a universal catechism to serve as a reliable compendium of the Faith. “Some of the national catechisms are of great value,” he said, “but of their own, they are insufficient…Young people in Boston and Leningrad wear the same blue jeans; they sing and dance to the same music. There is a need for a single form of catechesis.”

Cardinal Law was giving voice to the same thoughts and concerns of many leaders in the Church at the time, including then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He enthusiastically supported the idea of a universal catechism, and the year after the Synod, a commission was established to work on what everyone knew was a monumental project for the Church.


The Symphony of the Catechism

Pope John Paul II described the function of a Catechism succinctly in his letter promulgating the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fidei Depositum, in 1992:

A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living Tradition of the Church and the authentic Magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers and the Church's saints, to allow for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God. It should take into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has intimated to his Church. It should also help illumine with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past.

The task for the commission that was created by that saintly pontiff was obviously an enormous one. In reading the often overlooked book The Introduction to the Catechism by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and then-Bishop later Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, one can appreciate the immense challenges that emerged.

One of the most obvious ones was how would it be structured and where would the weight of the text be placed?

From early on, the commission decided that the classic model would have to be followed, and the greatest example was that of Trent, the Roman Catechism that was initially published in the 1560s and was one of the great instruments for priests in the parishes in preserving the faith during the Catholic Reform and for the next centuries.

The Roman Catechism had a fourfold division – Creed, sacraments, Commandments, prayer – the very structure that was embraced by the committee for the CCC. And one that was faithful to baptismal catechesis from the earliest times, with the first part patterned on the creed.

The commission looked carefully at the Catechismus Romanus (the Catechism of the Council of Trent), and in reviewing the edition edited in the 1980s by Professor Pedro Rodriguez and his collaborators, they found that the Roman catechism was broken down into four parts: 22% for the creed, 37% (nearly twice as much) for the sacraments, 21% and 20% for the Commandments and the Lord’s prayer respectively – a manifest disequilibrium in favor of the sacraments because of the sacramental controversy of the Protestant Reformation.

In the end, the new Catechism shifted the weight slightly: 39% for the creed, 23% for the sacraments, 27% for the Commandments and 11% for prayer.

Nevertheless, both the RC and CCC place the weight of the text on the first and second pillars. Christoph Schönborn reflected on this emphasis and the primacy of grace and the emergence of a kind of diptych:

In both documents the first two parts form by themselves nearly 2/3 of the volume. Taking this fact into account, we can apply to the catechism of the Catholic Church what the editor said about the Roman catechism: in fact the doctrinal order of the CR does not have four Parts but presents itself as a magnificent diptych taken from the tradition: on the one hand the mysteries of faith in God, the one and three fold as professed (creed) and celebrated (sacraments): On the other hand the Christian life according to faith – faith working through charity – expressed in a Christian manner of life (decalogue) and in Filial prayer (pater).

The message of this diptych is clear. Whatever method is used in catechesis – the CR and the CCC do not impose any specific method – the primacy in catechesis is to be given to God and to his works. Whatever man has to do will always be a response to God and to his works. And both catechisms the Magnalia Dei are "the heart of the matter." It simply corresponds to the reality: God is first; grace is first. This is the true hierarchy of truth. Catechesis therefore must lead primarily to the worship of God, to the proclamation of his great works, to the praise of his grace. (Introduction, 48-49.)

There was a central goal of having the entire document possessed of an internal unity, what can and has been termed the symphonic quality of the Catechism.

As Petroc Willey, Pierre de Cointet and Barbara Morgan wrote in their study, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis, “An image employed by the authors of the Catechism is that of a symphony, and this can be particularly helpful for our appreciation of the Catechism in a number of respects, including its basic structure….Like most symphonies, the Catechism has four movements. Within these movements a symphony is made up of different notes and musical phrases, and this can be compared to the different beliefs the Church has about God and Jesus Christ, about the sacraments ad prayer, and about how we can act in order to respect our own and others’ dignity. Together, these beliefs form one beautiful, harmonious whole. (Craft of Catechesis, 17-18.)

The Place of the Creed

What is, of course, so striking about the organization is the great importance placed upon the Creed and the way that the Profession of Faith must be taught in such a way that the dogmas catechumens seek to memorize become not merely part of the intellect but also their lives.

The Creed is obviously an integral part of that, especially in an era of confusion, cynicism, and doubt.  The Creed is also an antidote to the modern world, as it was in pagan Rome. But it is also the gateway for catechesis and the formation of the Christian life and worldview.

John Paul II, in his first address to the catechism commission, emphasized the importance of the Catechism as a tool for a complete catechesis:

Certainly the catechism is not catechesis, but only a means or an instrument of it (Catechesi Tradendae, 28). In fact, while the catechism is a compendium of the doctrine of the church, catechesis, 'being that ecclesial action which leads the community and individual Christians to maturity in the faith' (General Catechetical Directory, 21), transmits this doctrine -- with methods adapted to the age -- so that the Christian truth may become, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the life of the believers.

Pope John Paul II also noted in 1986, “The catechism which you are called to plan is situated within the church's great tradition, not as a substitute for diocesan or national catechisms, but as a 'point of reference' for them. It is not meant to be, therefore, an instrument of flat 'uniformity,' but an important aid to guarantee the 'unity in the faith' that is an essential dimension of that unity of the church which 'springs from the unity of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (St. Cyprian, On the Lord's Prayer).”

The Catechism itself expressed this when it declared, “there is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminated and make it secure. Conversely if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.” (CCC, 89.)

The Catechism becomes the foundation, that first door of learning through which the new Christian can walk to deepen their encounter with Christ and come to the basic understanding of who he or she is and what Christ’s teachings mean for us.  

On this 25th anniversary, and at a time of immense anxiety and confusion in society and even in many corners of the Church, the Catechism remains a sure guide to clarity, knowledge, truth, love, holiness and life.

We would do well to remember the words of St. Augustine that are given a place of honor at the very end of the first pillar of the Catechism: "may your creed be for you as a mirror. Look at yourself in it, to see if you believe everything you say you believe. And rejoice in your faith each day.” (CCC, 1064.)