Anyway, I hope this little paper will increase your appreciation for the role of the catechism in the history of the Church's catechetical activity and that you will come to see how vitally important it is for a proper handing on of the faith.
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The Role of the Catechism in the History and Aims of Catechesis
The Role of the Catechism in the History and Aims of Catechesis
“The Catechism is the constant preoccupation of the Church” (qtd. in Kevane xiii). These words of Pope John XXIII to the pastors of the diocese of Rome illustrate the importance of the catechism, generally speaking, in the life of the Church. Peter Stravinskas’ Catholic Dictionary defines a “catechism” as, “A book containing the truths of the Faith, especially an explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, and a discussion of prayers, often in question-and-answer form for the education of the faithful” (167). It is easy to see then why the Church would be so preoccupied with such a work. After all, it is the task of the Church to “make disciples of all nations” and to teach these nations all that was handed on to the apostles by Jesus Christ himself (Revised Standard Version, Mt 28:19-20). A catechism, with its systematic presentation of the content of this Deposit, is very helpful in achieving those ends; and as we will see, the Church has consistently utilized catechisms throughout Her history of striving for the aims of catechesis.
There are a few works in the early Church that resemble what we would consider today as a “catechism.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration, and St. Augustine’s First Catechetical Instruction are chief among them. Of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catechetical Instructions is noteworthy; Scannell lists many others (75). But, it was not until the invention of the printing press in 1440 that the widespread use of a catechism was really possible and a universal catechism could be published for the sake of the whole Church.
When the Council of Trent was convened in 1545 there were by then many abuses in practice and teaching that needed to be reformed, and the Protestants had taken full advantage of the catechism format as a tool for disseminating their doctrines (75). This created in the Council Fathers a desire for a catechism “to be used in pastoral care ‘so that the faithful may be mindful of the Christian Profession which they made in their baptism, and be prepared for reading and study of the Holy Bible’” (Kevane xxix). It was also hoped that with such a catechism the faithful could have the adequate knowledge and preparation with which to approach the Sacraments (xxix). While the result of this desire, popularly called the Roman Catechism, was technically a manual for clergy and their catechists to instruct them in the teaching of the faith, it ultimately served the same purpose of a catechism.
The Magisterium saw in these printed tools a way to communicate the Deposit in an efficient manner and to protect it from being compromised or confused (xxx-xxxi). Since the making of disciples, the propagation of Christ’s teaching, and the conversion of men to Christ simply cannot take place without orthodox teaching (xl, li), the catechism and similar works of a catechetical nature became critical components of the Church’s mission. Thus, from the 16th century onward, the Church called men to be faithful to their catechism and to use it often as an invaluable resource and reference.
When the Catechism of the Council of Trent, or the Roman Catechism, was published in 1566, it was quickly translated into the vernaculars and widely disseminated (xxx). It gained and has long held high praise in the Church. John Henry Cardinal Newman said in his Apologia, “I rarely preach a sermon, but I go to this beautiful and complete Catechism to get both my matter and my doctrine” (qtd. in Scannell 75). Almost a century later, Pope John XXIII called it “The Summa of Pastoral Theology” (qtd. in Kevane xxxv). Many local catechisms were published as well, the catechisms of Sts. Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine being particularly noteworthy. These catechisms, together with the Roman Catechism, helped to sustain the living faith of the Church and became the basic instruments for Her renewal (Kevane xxx).
However, with the multiplicity of catechisms in use in the various churches, the problem quickly arose that some of them included information that the others did not contain, or they contradicted themselves on matters of doctrine (Scannell 75). By the 18th century it was clear that a uniform catechism was necessary so that the apostolic faith could be believed, in the words of St. Vincent of Lerins, “everywhere, always, and by all” (qtd. in Willis 95).
In his encyclical Etsi minime, Pope Benedict XIV addressed this problem by proposing the catechism of Robert Bellarmine as the standard for teaching Christian doctrine (Kevane xxxi). Benedict says of it, “There is nothing more effective or opportune for guarding in advance against the errors which can creep into the situation of such a variety of Catechisms for children” (qtd. in Kevane xxxii). He also stated that if a local catechism must be used, care should be taken that nothing be added to it that contradicts Catholic truth, and that these truths are presented in a clear and comprehensive yet concise manner (xxxii).
In 1869, with the convening of the First Vatican Council, the Church again took up the problem articulated by Pope Benedict XIV. Besides the publication of two Dogmatic Constitutions (Dei Filius and Pastor aeternus), which themselves did much to solidify the Church’s teaching on Divine Revelation and the Infallibility of the Pope, steps were taken to compose a uniform catechism for use throughout the entire Church (xxxiv-xxxv). That the Church, after so many years, would still be concerned with a uniform presentation of the faith is a testament to her constant zeal and concern for the Deposit entrusted to her. She is always desirous to pass it on with the utmost fidelity and to nurture within the hearts of men a true and lasting increase in understanding and conversion to Christ.
The schema presented to the Council Fathers on January 14, 1870 expressed the intent of the Council:
All the members of the Church of Christ diffused throughout the whole world should be of one heart and one soul; hence they must likewise be unified in their lips and their language. It must be recognized, however, that a variety in approach and method of teaching the rudiments of the faith to the faithful is no slight obstacle to this unity. Hence, with the approval of this Council, We shall take care to produce a Small Catechism by Our authority, which all are to use. Thus, the variety of small Catechisms will be removed for the future. (qtd. in Kevane xxxv)Again, the catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine was held as the standard to be emulated, and after some weeks of discussion, the project for a Small Catechism was brought to a formal vote and overwhelmingly approved by the bishops. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War forced the Council to suspend its work before the disciplinary decree for the Small Catechism could be officially promulgated (xxxvi). “Thus the pastors and the faithful continued after Vatican I with the Roman Catechism together with the several national and regional Catechisms for children as the ongoing teaching aids for handing on the elements and rudiments of the deposit of faith” (xxxvii).
As time passed, the popes of the twentieth century consistently emphasized the role of the catechism in the evangelistic and catechetical activity of the Church. In his Circular Letter “On the Teaching of Christian Doctrine,” Pope St. Pius X wrote, “Each catechetical instruction is to take up a point from the diocesan catechism, explaining it by making use of the Roman Catechism, produced and published by mandate of the Council of Trent, which is always to be used by the pastors in teaching the doctrine of Jesus Christ to their faithful people” (qtd. in Kevane xl). He even published his own catechism, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine, made it binding for all of Italy and used it himself in his frequent conversations with children (xli).
Twenty years later, Pope Pius XI, the “Organizer of Catechetics in the Catholic Church” (xliii) continued the catechetical renewal started by Pius X. In his Letter of June 19, 1922, he wrote, “The content of the Catechism must be given in the form of a true teaching, as in a school, with methods suitable for reaching the noble purpose for which this teaching takes place” (qtd. in Kevane xliii). “How great is the ignorance of Christian Doctrine which the Church suffers in the present time. This is true of the faithful in whatever age group or social rank. Hence the Catechism must be given with renewed dedication, lest in a time of so much education in other fields, religious knowledge, the most important of all, alone suffer neglect” (quoted in Kevane xlvi).
Pope Pius XII, despite bearing the burden of leading the Church during the horrors of World War II, never ceased to continue the catechetical emphasis first began by his predecessors. Responding to the “serious evil” of religious ignorance, he declared, “Society itself has urgent need for energetic remedies for this, and the most urgent of all is the diffusion of the Catechism” (qtd. in Kevane xlvii). For a priest, “no time is more precious than that which he dedicates to the teaching of the Catechism” (xlvii).
It is perhaps in the next pope, Pope John XXIII, that we find the most profuse praise and recommendation of the catechism. At the canonization of St. Gregory Barbarigo, John XXIII praised the new saint for his reliance upon the catechism. “His Catechism was that of St. Robert Bellarmine, and he saved souls by breaking the bread of Christian Doctrine for them . . . The Catechism was for him an exquisite form of charity for the people” (qtd. in Kevane liv). He even referred to the catechism as “the golden book” and stated that reflection on the contents found therein “will certainly lead to the fruit of interior renewal” (lvi). As a result, he persistently urged the faithful to study it:
Beloved sons! The Catechism, that small book, I love to stress, is the summa of divine truth and divine love. For each one of you it is your guide in the present and the future . . . All my life I have encouraged the study of the Catechism . . . always urging both priests and laity to fulfill this sacred duty, the duty of teaching and instructing in the doctrine of Christ.” (qtd. in Kevane lvi)Leading us into the 21st century was perhaps the most catechetically-minded pope in the history of the Church: Pope John Paul II. Almost everything he did was driven by a catechetical spirit and approach. He likewise made several substantial contributions to the field of catechetics, including his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time), his “metanoia” documents of 1979 and 1980, and the revision of the General Catechetical Directory (the fruit of the revision is the General Directory for Catechesis). The papal documents Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, Dominum et Vivificantem, and Redemptoris Missio were also of particular catechetical value (GDC 5-6). But, what is most unique in this history of the use of the catechism in achieving the aims of catechesis is the publication during his papacy of a new universal catechism, the first one of its kind since the publication of the Roman Catechism over 400 years prior.
In 1985 an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops was convened to discuss the successes and failures of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. One of the many suggestions of the bishops was the composition of a universal catechism of all Catholic doctrine regarding faith and morals (GDC 10; CCC xiv; for more see the Final Report). A commission of 12 Cardinals and Bishops was appointed to oversee the work that was involved, and an editorial committee of seven diocesan Bishops was responsible for writing the text (Fidei Depositum 1). After six years of intense work, the first French edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published. The second edition, revised in accordance with the official Latin text, was released in 1997.
In the following explanation from the Catechism, we find that it has goals similar to that of catechisms used throughout the history of the Church:
This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of . . . the whole of the Church's Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church's Magisterium. It is intended to serve "as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries." (CCC 11)The Catechism is thus a “sure norm for teaching the faith,” (FD 3), and that is all the Church has ever desired for her catechisms. As faithful and systematic presentations of the teaching and spiritual heritage of the Church they allow “for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God” (FD 2). In this, the grand mission of the Church, first given to her by Christ over 2,000 years ago, is accomplished.