Updated: Oct 20, 2022
The Catechism begins its Prologue with a three-part epigraph. Like all epigraphs, this one is meant to suggest the theme of the book – namely, of the Catechism as a whole. It is in fact a ‘catena’ – a chain – consisting of three very short biblical texts spliced together into a single paragraph. It would be easy to overlook it, but this would be a mistake. The epigraph sets out the Catechism’s basic thrust, allowing us to grasp the perspective in which its very varied contents are meant to be seen.
The first of the mini-texts that compose the epigraph is taken from St John’s Gospel: it is the Saviour’s own definition of ‘eternal life’, which he understands as the knowledge of the Father, whom he calls ‘the only true God’, and the Son – himself – whom the Father has sent (John 17:3). The second text selected comes from the Letters of St Paul, and, surprising though this might seem to critical exegetes – tending as these do, in recent years, to over-emphasize the individuality of the messages of the different biblical writers or their ‘communities’ – it shows every sign of echoing the first. The Pauline citation speaks of how the Saviour God has a desire to bring all human beings to ‘knowledge of the truth’ – the truth that of itself will save (I Timothy 2:3-4). Finally, the third textual thread the Catechism’s compilers have woven into the epigraph is drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, and more especially from one of St Peter’s Jerusalem sermons. Its gist runs: no other name than the name of Jesus grants access to salvation such as this (Acts 4:12). It can be regarded as the practical corollary of the two mini-texts that came before.
Plainly enough, then, the Catechism’s preoccupation is soteriological, from the Greek words for knowledge (logos) and salvation (soteria). More specifically, via the epigraph, it presents salvation in a Christ-centred way, since the cumulative effect of the trio of mini-texts, climaxing as it does in the last of the three, is to insinuate that ‘Christocentricity’ – Christ-centredness – is the only possible manner in which to open the way to a God-centred goal or end.
What exactly is meant by the term ‘salvation’ has not of course yet been stated. It will be the job of the Catechism’s authors to lay out its content, in dependence on the tradition of the Church to which they belong. This they now proceed to do. I note in passing a comment of an English bishop from a few years back. The only meaning the word ‘salvation’ can have now for young adults, he remarked, is in the context of ‘saving the earth’. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least he did not restrict himself to ‘saving the whale’. The authors of the Catechism, for their part, take a different view.
Paragraph 1 of the Catechism states its authors’ doctrine of salvation in a nutshell. Salvation is a gratuitous sharing in the life of God which the Fathers of the Church had the temerity to call ‘deification’. The Fathers were quite aware of the possible misunderstandings to which that word could give rise. But in their view no other word for what God offers us is strong enough to serve. As we read, ‘God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.’ Note the repetition of the language of blessedness – beatitude. Sometimes translated ‘happiness’ – with its associations of a comfy life in Cosy Nook Cottage, or a sunny day with the kids on the beach at Portobello, a plentiful supply of candy-floss to hand, the term ‘beatitudo’ is reserved by ancient moralists for what follows from perfect union with the Supreme Good. Only inherent transcendent Perfection can confer on rational creatures a grounded sense of well-being that not only fulfils but super-fulfils the totality of their legitimate desires. Admittedly, such super-fulfilment is, even for a life of knowing God through his Son Jesus Christ, too excessive to be containable within the limits of our present existence. But it begins here, and it grows now, thanks to what the Catechism calls God’s ‘draw[ing] close to man’. Such deification is the rationale for the sending of the Father’s eternal Son, humanized from the moment of the Annunciation in our Lady’s womb. It is also the rationale for the sending of the Spirit of both Father and Son who will actualize our new status as the co-beloved of the Father, ‘his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life’.
‘Co-beloved’: that means in the first place my adoptive status as a brother of Jesus Christ, whereupon the mantle of the Father’s generative love of his Word is extended to one who is dust and ashes. But in the second place ‘co-beloved’ tells me that I am not alone in this privilege. The Catechism’s opening paragraph acknowledges the corporate nature of the divine philanthropic undertaking. The same initiative which calls me to union with God also calls me ‘into the unity of his family, the Church’. In the words of St Cyprian, the third century bishop of Carthage (in North Africa) no one can have God for his Father who does not also have the Church for his Mother’. This thought is surely what leads our text to its next topic, the topic of the apostolic mission (Paragraph 2). That is the proper space in which to speak of what Catechisms (any Catechisms) are for.
The Good News of deification would not have reached us unless apostles had preached it, successors of the apostles had guarded it, and a vast company of faithful souls in every age had professed it, lived it, celebrated it, and in so doing had passed it on (Paragraph 3). The Catechism, not shy about declaring its own importance, now identifies itself with this multi-saecular (not ‘secular’!) process, a task that will last for ‘many ages’ or generations in the history of the world. ‘Catechesis’, we read, is the name that ‘was given to the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing, they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ’ (Paragraph 4).
In its summary of the elements of catechesis (Paragraphs 5-10) the Catechism draws heavily on the teaching of St John Paul II in Catechesi tradendae, the latter’s 1979 ‘Apostolic Exhortation’ of 1979, fruit of the first synod he held after becoming pope. Catechesis must teach doctrine in an ‘organic’ and ‘systematic’ way – necessary if the recipients are ever to be initiated into the ‘fulness’ of Christian living. This will include intellectual engagement, whether by an initial ‘proclamation’ of the message (some would call that ‘kerygmatics’) or by examinations of the reasons for believing (more would call that ‘apologetics’). But it is not restricted to preaching, study, argumentation. It extends to experiences of lived Christianity, moral, liturgical, social. And it will naturally – or supernaturally – wish to trigger in the pupil the passion of the teacher, to encourage the catechized to become catechists in their turn. Only such a total scheme has any chance of success – whether success be measured quantitively, in the number of converts, or qualitatively, in the quality of their adherence to the faith. The ‘Church’s inner growth and correspondence to God’s plan depend essentially on catechesis’ (Paragraph 7). In a broad historical sweep the Catechism finds that periods of real growth, quantity-wise as well as quality-wise, will, on investigation, reveal heavy investment in catechesis, so understood.
Turning to the question of its readership (Paragraphs 11-12), the Catechism earmarks firstly bishops, since they are meant to be the premier doctors of their local churches, but through them it speaks to those who might design further (presumably, shorter, and more regionally focussed) Catechisms, and – certainly, in practice the most crucial segment of its audience – anyone at all who is charged with instructing others in the Catholic faith.
As to the structure of the Catechism (Paragraphs 13-17) the authors reiterate what John Paul II has already told us in his ‘Introduction’(considered in an earlier issue of The Crombie Burn Reader): the order of exposition is via the well-tried foursome of Creed, Sacraments, Commandments, and the Pater Noster, interpreted generously as (respectively) an overview of doctrine, of the Liturgy, of the good life, and of the life of prayer.
The typographic conventions are explained to us (Paragraphs 18-22); the desirability of ‘adaptations’ to audience is conceded (Paragraphs 23-24), though it may be licit to express the hope that these do not amount to ‘Bowdlerisations’. And the Prologue concludes (Paragraph 25) by a highly Augustinian text from the (sixteenth century) ‘Roman Catechism’ (sometimes called, slightly misleadingly, the Catechism of the Council of Trent): all teaching must lead to charity, the reciprocation of the love of God and its expansion as love of neighbour, for this is the ‘love that never ends’.