American Catholics of a certain age can remember The Baltimore Catechism—a concise, systematic presentation of the faith in questions and answers, which was published in carefully grade-specific editions for parochial schoolchildren. In the postconciliar years, when “experiential” methods of religious education were in vogue, religious textbooks came to resemble magazines, with more color photography than doctrinal content. The resulting catechetical anarchy ended in 1992 with the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which provided an authoritative point of reference for all future catechisms.
Christoph Schönborn, as a Dominican priest and then an auxiliary bishop, served as the secretary of the editorial team that compiled the CCC after consultation with Catholic bishops throughout the world. Eighteen years later, as Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Schönborn became editor-in-chief of the Youth Catechism, an adaptation of the text of the CCC in question-and-answer format.
In an interview with the Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano that appeared on February 3, 2011, Cardinal Schönborn described the development of the “YOUCAT,” as the Jugendkatechismus is known in German as well as in English. “It was the young people who proposed a catechism designed for their age and their world,” the cardinal explained. “The first draft was done by a group of theologians and teachers from German-speaking regions. Then the text was subjected to a rigorous examination on the part of those for whom it is intended, during two summer camps for youth. Thanks to this process of ‘breaking in’ the text, it became truly adapted to today’s mentality, especially since the pictures are by the young people, too. Thus the book in its entirety is an expression of the youth culture, but profoundly imbued with the fruitful seed of the Gospel.”
Getting YOUCAT published was originally an initiative of the Austrian Bishops Conference; together with its German and Swiss counterparts it obtained Vatican approval for the original German edition from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A dozen other editions of the Youth Catechism followed, in all the languages of Western and Central Europe, as well as Arabic and Chinese. Most of them were scheduled for release on April 4, 2011. Production and distribution of the Italian edition of YOUCAT was stalled after it became clear that one of the questions dealing with contraception was incorrectly translated from the German original, and seemed to suggest that Church teaching allows for the use of contraception.
Pope Benedict XVI decided that YOUCAT should be used at World Youth Day in August of this year in Madrid, where at least a million copies will be distributed. “The Pope was interested in the project from the beginning,” Cardinal Schönborn noted with gratitude. “It was his own initiative to honor us with a preface that he himself wrote…. I am always amazed by the high level of the Pope’s understanding of the new generations’ way of thinking and by his capacity to discuss in depth and to lead young people to a deeper sense of the faith and of friendship with Jesus.”
The 300-page Youth Catechism, designed to fit in a backpack, is a scale model of the CCC, replicating its traditional four-part structure and proportions. Part Three on the Commandments (33 percent of the text) has been expanded slightly at the expense of the first two parts on the Creed (35 percent) and the sacraments (21 percent). Part Four on Prayer clocks in, as with the CCC, at 11 percent of the overall work. Like its prototype, the Youth Catechism is thoroughly cross-referenced and cites Scripture, the prayers of the liturgy, the Church Fathers, and the saints extensively. It includes two dozen references to four of the Vatican II documents. In a novel feature that makes this forum more like the Areopagus in Acts 17, YOUCAT also cites secular writers from many centuries, such as Pascal, Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis.
Generally speaking, catechesis in recent decades has neglected the doctrine of creation, perhaps out of a reluctance to confront scientific theories. The CCC begins its discussion of the Creed with a clear teaching of the metaphysics of creation; YOUCAT affirms the same truths in less technical terms.
Church teaching on abortion, contraception, and euthanasia is stated briefly and clearly in YOUCAT. The presentation of the “peace and justice” themes in Catholic social doctrine is less focused and a tad trendy, with two Q&As and four sidebars on globalization but only one each on subsidiarity. The overall perspective is cosmopolitan in its sensitivity to Protestant Christianity and other world religions, especially Judaism and Islam.
The formulations of doctrine in YOUCAT are meant to be easily understood, not definitive. Despite the somewhat anemic treatment of the priesthood and hierarchy, there are repeated references to the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The more tendentious statements in the original German-language draft and a few flashes of sophisticated Viennese wit did not survive the vetting process.
Like the CCC, YOUCAT attempts to identify and clarify the important elements of the faith and to present them as part of an integral whole. YOUCAT was not intended as a reference work, however; no Editio Typica in Latin is planned. Rather, as its editor-in-chief remarked, “It will serve as a gateway to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the youth.”
In another interview with Guido Horst for the German magazine Vatican, Cardinal Schönborn made a related observation: “[YOUCAT] is designed for the young people themselves to read, refer to, and discuss. The book is constructed in such a way that any young person can find his or her way in it…. The first task of the YOUCAT is to inspire young people with enthusiasm and stimulate them to reflect on the faith.”
“It was very important that the pictures not be selected by adults for the youth,” the cardinal continued. “They themselves went around with digital cameras in order to make the pictures. Consequently they say: What the YOUCAT shows here is not the doctrinal world of specialists, but it is our world, which we know and understand.”
During the four years following the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bishop (and then Archbishop) Schönborn published a weekly column in the archdiocesan newspaper of Vienna explaining the four parts of the Catechism. In 1993 he wrote, “For the early Christians, Christian life was simply ‘the Way’—not just one way among many, but that Way which God himself indicates to us, which leads unerringly through this life, and which allows us to arrive with certainty at our goal…. Here, the CCC will serve as a kind of map.”
In the third Christian millennium, a Catholic under 30 reading about the Church is probably on the Internet. If he has a question about the faith he is more likely to speed-dial a friend than to consult the CCC. In that world, YOUCAT—who has the time to text “Jugendkatechismus”?—will function as a GPS and a conversation starter.