Updated: Oct 20, 2022
An Introduction to the Catechism
Written By Fr Aidan Nichols. Click here for his Biography.
In this series, I seek to take readers through The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a book promulgated in 1992 by Pope St John Paul II after an exhaustive process of consultation with bishops, theologians, and catechists around the world. That process began in 1985, when a Synod of Bishops in Rome – pushing at an open door so far as Papa Wojtyła was concerned – asked for a common text that would guide Catholics to a better understanding of their faith, globally speaking. By ‘globally speaking’ I mean both ‘in the totality of that faith’ and also ‘around the world’. The Synod in question was called so as to debate the results of the Second Vatican Council, and many of the bishops who attended were aware that, after the Council, a lot of Catholics seemed less clear about what the Church actually taught than they were previously. This was clearly not a good thing.
The pope wrote an introduction for the Catechism in which he set out its aims. I think it is worth looking at this ‘Apostolic Constitution’ as a preamble to considering the book in and for itself. The Council, he said, had sought to present the content of divine revelation in such a way as to show the ‘strength and beauty’ of Christian doctrine. The Catechism would reflect this. Its manner would be in one way more poetic and rhetorical than people were used to (‘beauty’). But it would also want to be coherent and robust (‘strength’). It would be doctrinally solid – faithfully reflecting what was found in the sources of revelation – Scripture and Tradition – as interpreted by the previous magisterium of the Church. But it would also be an education in spirituality, drawing on the texts of the ancient Fathers and the ‘doctors’ of different periods, as well as the prayers and sayings of the saints. And while it aimed to present the perennial truths of the faith, it would take into account the contemporary scene – that means, of course, the late twentieth century – in the way it did so.
As the pope explained, the book would fall into four parts. In this it would be no different from the previous ‘universal’ Catechism, often called the ‘Roman’ or ‘Tridentine’ Catechism though he gives it its most historically correct name, the ‘Catechism of St Pius V’. That earlier Catechism looked at the Creed, then the seven Sacraments, then the Ten Commandments, and finally the Our Father, or ‘Lord’s Prayer’. But the new Catechism – to judge from the pope’s comments – would be more comprehensive in the way it understood those ‘parts’. First of all, the credal content of Part One of the Catechism would approach the articles of the Creed as an expression of the ‘Christian mystery’ as a whole – the world’s Creator breaking his silence to share with us his inviting plan to include rational creatures in his own ever-blessed life. Secondly, the Sacraments would be seen in the wider context that is the Sacred Liturgy. The seven especially privileged worshipful acts we call ‘the Sacraments’ belong within the whole stream of liturgical prayer that began to flow in the moment when the ‘Christian mystery’ was communicated. Thirdly, while it is true that the Commandments are the basic pillars of the moral life, so constructed that virtually everything we want to say about ethics can be arranged under those ten headings, nevertheless, that only gives us the skeleton of what John Paul II calls ‘the Christian way of life’. In that way of life it is the ‘Christian mystery’ itself – God in his self-communication to us – that is to ‘enlighten and sustain’ us in our actions. The life of grace gives the practice of the Commandments a quality which makes them not just a programme for decent living but a call to holiness. That leaves, then, the fourth and last ‘part’ of the Catechism where, again, there is something more generous and unexpected up the pope’s sleeve. Learners – and who is not a learner at the feet of Christ the Teacher? – will find not only a little commentary on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer but, by way of preliminary, a mini-theology of prayer to situate that unique prayer within what we can call the ‘prayer-tradition’ of Bible and Church, from the Old Testament patriarchs to the most recent saints.
This, then, is how John Paul II explained the structure of the Catechism, after which he turned to the question of its doctrinal standing. He described it as a ‘sure norm for teaching the faith’, using powerful language in so doing. ‘Sure’ and ‘norm’ are already strong terms, but that is not what I have principally in mind. More especially, the pope called the phrase I have just quoted a ‘declaration’ – and that is indeed a doctrinally pregnant term. The most celebrated handbook of Catholic doctrine, put together by a German priest, Heinrich Denzinger, in the middle of the nineteenth century and, in different editions, in constant use ever since, divides up its material into ‘Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations’. I think that in John Paul’s Introduction the verb ‘declare’ was chosen with just this background in mind. The pope was saying, in other words, this book is not just another catechetical resource, something that may or may not prove useful as one among many materials available in a school library or a presbytery parlour. It is more than that. It is a litmus test for judging those other materials, materials anyone seeking to study the faith may have already to hand.
But what about one book, or set of books, that is certain to be already to hand: namely, the Bible? Surely the Catechism doesn’t claim to judge the Bible? It would indeed be absurd to suppose that the Catechism – any Catechism – enjoys a higher authority than Scripture. Among the written expressions of Apostolic Tradition Scripture is incomparably supreme. But what the Catechism can do – like the Creed, only more fully – is to lay out the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures, as that understanding is honed by all the other sources the text uses – texts from the Fathers, the Liturgies, the great doctors, the saints, the Creeds themselves and, permeating all of these, the ‘sense of faith’ which belongs to the Church as the Bride of Christ.
That said, not everything included in the Catechism is offered to us with the same note of insistence. When Denzinger composed his handbook, after all, he put the term ‘Declarations’ in the third place, after ‘Creeds’ and ‘Definitions’. So the language of ‘declaring’ is not in the same category as ‘defining’, the verb we use for determining disputed questions in doctrine. And it is even further removed from the category of producing a ‘Symbol of the Faith’, an overall credal confession to be used when new Christians are initiated by Baptism, or old Christians at the divine Liturgy Sunday by Sunday profess their faith at Mass.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained, in his capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the contents of the Catechism are unequal. They range from citations or at least paraphrases of the Scriptures, through passages which express the consensus of the Fathers of the Church, or quote the teachings of Ecumenical Councils or ex cathedra definitions by popes, to purely prudential pieces of advice (about how to organize civil society, for instance) which follow, yes, from well-tested principles of corporate wisdom in the Church but do not do so with the force of an inescapable logic.
In the handling of human affairs in the civic forum that kind of logic is simply unavailable. And divine revelation has provided no substitute oracles of its own.
It would be a pity, however, to leave the pope’s Introduction on a negative note. Certainly, John Paul II himself did not do so. In his encyclicals he liked to end on a Marian note, and the same is (more or less) true here. He invites the Mother of the Church to support by her intercession the work of evangelization which the Catechism seeks to promote. But he doesn’t quite finish there. He ends by a deeper, Trinitarian, prayer, asking that the ‘light of the true faith’ may dispel human ignorance, end slavery to sin, and inaugurate the ‘only freedom worthy of the name’. And he defines that ‘freedom’ as a Spirit-guided life in Christ ushering people into the vision of the Father, beginning now but consummated in the Age to Come.