The Catechism, 15 Years Later

After 15 years, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is still a best-seller — and still having a huge impact on the life of the Church.

FARGO, N.D. — Stella Jeffrey, director of evangelization for the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., remembers when she first heard about the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It was the year 1992.

“Everyone was saying that the Catechism was the Church going back to the ‘Dark Ages’ and that it represented the backwardness of the Church,” said Jeffrey, who was a newly hired diocesan employee elsewhere in the Midwest at the time. “That just made me more and more curious. It played into my desire to have a copy.”

Fifteen years after the Catechism was published in French, the fruits show that it’s anything but backwards. Ever since its publication, it seems it has moved the Church forward in a variety of ways. The document has led countless people to the Church. It has shown to have been the impetus for local catechisms and educational programs. And it’s been used to improve catechetical materials in the United States.

“The last time the Church did a Catechism was 400 years ago. That Catechism served the Church for centuries,” said Bill Keimig, director of religious education at St. Mary’s Church in Clinton, Md., and director of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry. “The new Catechism has clearly proved to be, in the short time it’s been out, something that has formed the Church with a certain return to normalcy in catechesis.

“The time has come, and you could even say that the time of the Catechism has yet to come in how much it’s going to do,” said Keimig. “It’s started a profound catechetical renewal.”

The roots of the Catechism go back to its proposal at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which was convened 20 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. On Nov. 15, 1986, an ad hoc commission appointed by Pope John Paul II met to prepare a Catechism.

Between 1986 and 1990, the commission worked on the text, submitting it to all bishops for their comments.

The commission concluded its work on Feb. 14, 1992. On June 25, 1992, the Pope officially approved the text submitted to him. The English edition was published in June, 1994. Following the 1997 Latin version, a number of modifications were made to the first English edition, resulting in a second edition in March of 2000.

Msgr. Daniel Kutys, deputy secretary for catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, estimates that since its publication, between 3 million and 4 million copies of the English-language Catechism have been sold throughout the United States.

“There have been very large and sustained sales to laypeople of both the Catechism and the Compendium [published in 2005],” said Petroc Willey, deputy director of the Birmingham, England-based Maryvale Institute, which specializes in part-time and distance learning courses in theology, religious education and catechesis.

In fact, the Catechism is at No. 6 on Roth Advertising’s October list of Catholic bestsellers, based on publisher reports of all orders.


Conversions

The availability of the Catechism to the laity has led to many conversions. Many converts, including David Bennett, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Greg Krehbiel have written about the Catechism’s role in their conversion.

Yet, conversion wasn’t the key reason for the document’s publication.

“It was released primarily to serve as a resource for the development of catechetical material,” said Msgr. Kutys. “That is what Pope John Paul II said when it was released.”

According to Keimig the U.S. bishops’ document, “Sharing the Light of Faith,” written in the 1970s, stated that all of the existing published catechetical texts were deficient in basic things such as the Trinity and personal sin vs. social sin.

“There were deficiencies in all primary and secondary grade texts,” said Keimig. “But there was no tool to solve that problem.”

The new Catechism became the tool.

Once it was published in English, the bishops were able to establish a conformity review for textbooks used in religious education.

“That started to win the textbook war,” said Keimig. “Many series had to go through major revisions.”

Under the review process, publishers voluntarily submit their texts to the committee before publication and agree to make changes required for a declaration of conformity with the Catechism.

In addition, some bishops, such as Cardinal James Hickey, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., established a conformity review of their own.

“Some publishers, whose market was lessened in Washington, D.C., took the archdiocese to court and lost,” said Keimig. “The review immediately shut out some of the worst texts.”

Many publishers revised their materials to bring them into conformity with the Catechism, but not all. Saint Mary’s Press, for example, stated that it would no longer develop new high school materials or revise current materials until they could reach a “rapprochement” with the bishops on the Catechism Committee regarding several of the requirements necessary for conformity.

To date, more than 100 texts and series with the declaration of conformity are available to elementary and high school students. The complete list is available at usccb.org.

“The Catechism has served as a springboard for the bishops to recognize and reclaim their authority as catechetical leaders,” said Msgr. Kutys. “The Catechism has achieved one of the primary purposes it was created for — to shape catechetical instruction.”

Still, catechists see room for improvement.

“I would like to see a more thorough review process for adult education materials,” said Keimig. “The bishops focused on the children’s side. They need to return to an emphasis on the adult materials.”

Willey said that while much work has been done in the United States, less has been done internationally.

“There’s nothing institutionalized, like the U.S. committee, on the episcopal level here in England,” said Willey.

Another result of the Catechism has been the publication of regional catechisms and additional publications based on the Catechism. For example, the U.S. bishops have released a Catechism for Adults.

“One of the reasons for publishing the Catechism was to promote the development of local catechisms adapted to the needs of the local Church,” said Ron Bolster, professor of theology and catechetics and director of catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

The U.S. Catechism, for example, introduces each section with information on prominent American Catholics or saints. The Philippines has also produced a local catechism.

The Catechism has also led to the publication of a universal Compendium — a condensed question-and-answer format of the Catechism.

Willey describes the Compendium as, “the child that introduces the father to people who come to the child. It doesn’t substitute for the Catechism.”

Many educational institutions are utilizing the Catechism in their coursework. At places such as the Maryvale Institute and Franciscan University, the Catechism is being used as a primary source, along with Scripture, in most theology and catechetical courses. Upwards of one-third of Franciscan University’s total student body of 2,200 students is studying either catechesis or theology.

At Maryvale, Willey said that more than 2,500 students worldwide have taken a two-year distance Certificate in Studies of the Catechism course.

“It’s primarily laypeople,” said Willey. “It’s also being used by a number of congregations for novitiate studies and some seminaries.”

The Catechism has also led to the creation of new educational institutions. Both the Archdioceses of Denver and St. Paul and Minneapolis are developing catechetical institutes that offer a non-degree program for educators and the laity. The institutes’ core curriculum will be based on the Catechism’s four pillars: the baptismal profession of faith (creed), the sacraments of faith, the life of faith (commandments), and the prayer of the believer (Lord’s Prayer).

“For the average person, their choices are to join a local parish discussion group or get a degree,” said Jeff Cavins, interim director for the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “There don’t seem to be institutes that are accessible to the average person.”

“The biggest contribution of the Catechism is that it presents the faith as an organic whole,” said Cavins. “Even in its presentation of the faith it teaches us something about the deposit of faith.”

Cavins sees the Catechism as forward-, not backward-, looking.

“Pope John Paul II’s entire pontificate was centered on the Second Vatican Council,” said Cavins. “He considered the Catechism a summation of our faith and a roadmap to our future. All apostolates that will be successful in the future will use the Catechism as their roadmap.”


Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.