Two decades after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, how effective has it been in terms of catechesis? In this article for the National Catholic Register I interview a number of senior Church figures and lay catechists to obtain a clearer picture.
VATICAN CITY: One landmark celebration in the Church, somewhat passed over during a month of anniversary celebrations in October, was the 20th anniversary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Oct. 11.
Described by John Paul II as “a sure norm for teaching the faith,” the Catechism is widely seen as a great treasure for all Catholics and an invaluable resource for catechists, whether they are laypeople, bishops, priests or religious.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church is shaping and molding youth, young adult and adult catechesis texts and resources,” said Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a truly great gift to the universal Catholic Church. … The obvious fruit of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is that more of the faithful are beginning to have a deeper understanding of their faith and have a desire to pass it on.”
The decision to publish the 700-page volume came out of a Synod of Bishops, convened by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 25, 1985, to mark the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.
The following year, the Pope appointed 12 bishops and cardinals to a commission, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to oversee the project. Dominican Father Christoph Schönborn, now the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, would become its editorial secretary, assisted by a seven-member committee, including diocesan bishops and experts in theology and catechesis.
John Paul II approved the texts on June 25, 1992, and promulgated the Catechism on Oct. 11, 1992, the 30th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, with his apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum. The English translation didn’t appear until 1994.
A Statement of Faith
The Catechism — the first universal catechism published by the Church in nearly 450 years — is “a most powerful instrument because it’s the best articulation of our Catholic faith in our times,” Cardinal Francis Arinze told the Register.
“I say to seminarians and priests that, after the Bible, the next book you should have is the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal Arinze, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and subsequently as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments prior to his retirement in 2008. “When you are going to preach on any topic on the faith or give a lecture, go to the index, and you will see it there. It isn’t about theories or hypotheses of professors, but a basic statement of our faith.”
With the Catechism’s basis in holy Scripture, sacred Tradition and the magisterium, the Nigerian cardinal said, any reader can be sure he is on “solid ground.” But it isn’t just an educational resource; it’s also an invitation to prayer. Cardinal Arinze finds it invaluable for his own personal prayer life. “If I take a page a day, I find it nourishes me,” he said.
For the papal theologian Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, the Catechism’s strength is that, although it is a large volume, its texts are structured in such a way that they can be reduced down to its four major parts — the “Four Pillars” of the Catholic faith (the Creed, seven sacraments, Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer).
“This is something that a 7-year-old can learn off by heart and what a 7-year-old should learn off by heart,” he told the Register. “A developed explanation of what is contained in these four basic texts can be reduced almost to the bare minimum and can be expanded.”
Applying the Catechism in the education of a child, Father Giertych explained that although the child might not initially understand the meaning of phrases like “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” he learns the phrase and recalls it later, understanding the teaching, Father Giertych explained.
Among lay catechists, the Catechism and its shorter version, the Compendium of the Catholic Church, is often heavily relied upon to effectively transmit the faith. “In this secular, materialist society filled with moral relativism, the CCC gives us a sure foundation upon which to build our parishes with the teachings of truth,” said Anna Maria Constant, director of religious education at Most Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans.
“It has been a vital instrument for evangelization, with its teachings on formation of conscience, respect for human life and the dignity of persons,” she added. “At the parish level as well as diocesan level, we need sure norms for handing on the faith.”
And yet, few dispute that the faithful have been poorly catechized over the past 40 or 50 years.
“There has been such a grave loss of integrity in catechesis over the past 40 years — we have lost generations,” Constant said. “Many of the catechetical textbooks are full of ‘warm fuzzies’ — ‘What do you think?’ and ‘How do you feel about it?’ — instead of stating clearly the beauties of what the Catholic Church actually teaches.”
“Catechesis prior to the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church seemed to focus on the discovering of self and feeling good about oneself as a Christian (some would refer to this as ‘burlap and butterfly catechesis’) rather than emphasizing learning divine Revelation and centering the heart of our catechesis on Christ and his Church,” said Bishop Nickless. “After the Catechism’s publication, I have seen catechesis stress placing the person being catechized in communion with Jesus Christ and his Church, and through this relationship, that particular person comes to an understanding of himself or herself as a human person created by God and how God wants us to live.” Others agree.
“There were a good couple of decades of do-it-yourself or experiential catechesis, void of consistent content,” said Drake McCalister, coordinator of catechetical practicum and special projects at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. “One of the main blessings of the Catechism: providing an authoritative, unified doctrinal foundation through which catechetical materials can be updated. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ conformity process — by which everything must be in conformity with the Catechism — doesn’t state whether a textbook is effective, engaging or exciting, but it does set a baseline that states that it will at least be orthodox in the contents of the faith. It lets the teacher know that the content of the book will not be problematic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has been the single greatest tool for transforming our teaching of catechesis and giving it the best chance to be faithful to the Church.”
Using It More
Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, said he had “always hoped” that the impact of the Catechism “would have gone better,” in terms of the large number of adults who have continued to be poorly catechized over the past 20 years.
Still, he added, “I think it’s made a very profound contribution in stabilizing the teaching, giving us content we can put in our religious-education programs.” The cardinal also praised the YouCat version of the Catechism, published in 2011 and aimed at youth, saying it has been “very useful.”
But, as with everything, there are fresh ways the Catechism might be utilized. Cardinal Arinze would like to see a special edition for children in which the teaching is explained in the form of a Q&A. He said he was aware of the Catechism for families, written in this format (FamilyCatechism.com), and so believes “it is possible.”
The only change Constant recommends would be to publicize the Catechism “from an apologetics point of view” — for example, listing “paragraphs one can turn to when attempting to defend particular topics of Catholic teaching,” maybe even “color-coding” them.
During this Year of Faith, Cardinal Arinze echoed Pope Benedict by calling on the faithful to spend time deeply reflecting on the teachings of the Catechism.
“What we should do is digest it,” he said, “and make it part of ourselves.”