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An introduction to Catholic catechisms

Hundreds of thousands of people have joined Fr. Mike Schmitz’s “The Bible in a Year” podcast over the past two years to try to grow in their knowledge of God and the Bible. Ascension Press is clearly hoping that similar numbers of Catholics (and even maybe non-Catholics) will grow in their knowledge of God and Catholic teaching through their upcoming “The Catechism in a Year” program.

Since their podcast of daily readings begins on January 1 and since there will obviously more public discussions of catechisms in 2023, it makes sense to learn a bit about the history of catechisms. After all, catechisms did not begin with Martin Luther, no matter what some of our Protestant brothers and sisters might say.

Our Lord did not write a book about His life; only two of His disciples did that. As is clear from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul, early converts were most often brought to the faith by oral preaching and personal witness. Unfortunately, one can easily imagine that Catholics in smaller cities had to wait for months for traveling preachers to arrive and explain Catholic teaching in greater detail than their local priests could do. Perhaps that’s why the Christians of Troas stayed up until midnight to listen to Saint Paul when he came to their town (see Acts 20:6-12).

Even trying to learn more about the Catholic faith was a dangerous business from the year 64 to around the year 313; being a Catholic was considered an act of treason against the Roman Empire during that time. Although periods of persecution were sporadic—some emperors executed Catholics in much greater numbers than did others—it was always illegal. But when the Edict of Milan was issued by the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 313, everything changed. Suddenly it was possible for Catholics to not only publicly practice their faith throughout the empire, but they could openly preach about it too.

One of the best examples of catechesis from that time period is found in the writings of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386). Cyril, who is now known as a Father of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, gave a series of talks to the catechumens who were being prepared for baptism in his diocese, and, thankfully, his talks were written down. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures give us an insight into what a fourth century bishop of Jerusalem thought new converts to the faith needed to know, and in what order. Using passages of Scripture to make his points, Cyril begins with the role of repentance and the meaning of Baptism, explains more complicated subjects such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and then concludes by describing the meaning of the sacred liturgy, a liturgy in which his listeners were about to participate after they were baptized.

How did the Church explain the teachings of the faith to new converts during the Middle Ages, when so many pagan tribes and peoples became Catholic? Missionary priests, such as Saint Patrick in Ireland, Saint Augustine in England, and Saint Remigius in France, evangelized many pagans into the faith. Many of those priests were later named bishops of the dioceses they had helped to establish. Bishops and priests continued to try to evangelize the pagans in their cities, but they also recognized the need to periodically catechize those who were already Catholic. For example, bishops in the Middle Ages instructed their priests to explain basic teachings of the faith—such as the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven virtues—to their flocks periodically. Since literacy was not widespread and since books themselves were expensive, bishops explained these topics in catechetical books, which were primarily written for priests. For example, Cardinal John Thoresby of York wrote his Lay Folks’ Catechism in 1357. This catechism explained Christian beliefs, in both Latin and English, and was used by priests for centuries.

Although the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century made many valid claims about the need for reforms in the Catholic Church, they often made one invalid claim about catechisms: they claimed to have created them. As has already been shown, the Church had been catechizing the faithful for centuries. However, after the invention of the printing press, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism (written in 1529) and the catechisms of other Protestant reformers became very popular tools for catechizing people into their beliefs.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are some sixteenth century popes who are, at best, cooling their heels in Purgatory for their failure to respond promptly to the challenges made by Protestant leaders. Pope Saint Pius V, however, is not one of them. During his all-too-brief reign, Pius V made many important decisions, including his promulgation of the Catechism of the Council of Trent (also called the Roman Catechism) in 1566.

This catechism explains the truths of the Catholic faith in four main parts: the Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. (The introduction included in this revision of the Catechism of the Council of Trent provides a much more detailed explanation of the history of catechisms than is found in this article.) Although the Roman Catechism could be read by any (literate) Catholic in the sixteenth century, it was primarily designed to respond to a different Protestant critique: the problem of Catholic priests who had not been well educated about the faith and could therefore not explain it well to the laity. The Roman Catechism therefore includes a schedule of dogmatic and moral subjects arranged according to the liturgical year. The goal was for each priest to cover the teachings provided in the catechism in his homilies throughout the different liturgical seasons.

For older Catholics today, this discussion of catechisms probably brought to mind one of the most famous Catholic catechisms in English: the Baltimore Catechism. A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore (its full name) was written in the nineteenth century to provide American Catholics with a textbook for use in schools, and it was based on a catechism written by an Italian saint, Robert Bellarmine, in 1614. For almost two hundred years, Catholic schoolchildren learned from the Baltimore Catechism, with its characteristic question-and-answer format. There are four volumes of the Baltimore Catechism: three volumes covering (roughly) grades 2-5, grades 6-9, and grades 10-12; and with a fourth volume as a teacher’s manual.

Following Vatican Council II, the Baltimore Catechism disappeared from Catholic schools in America. In 1966, the bishops of the Netherlands wrote their own Dutch Catechism, but the contents of this catechism were both controversial and problematic. The Dutch Catechism was widely criticized for “inadequate” doctrinal formulations about Christ, the Church, and moral theology; one American archbishop banned its sale from church-run bookstores in his archdiocese, and another American bishop withdrew his imprimatur. When the Dutch bishops refused to respond to these criticisms, Pope Saint Paul VI asked a friend and collaborator, the prolific American Jesuit priest John Hardon, to write his own catechism. Hardon’s The Catholic Catechism was first published in 1975 and had sold over a million copies by the time of his death in the year 2000.

Pope Saint John Paul II recognized the need for a universal catechism, not just a catechism written in one language by one person, when he became pope. In 1985, a bishops’ synod recommended that a universal catechism be created (something the pope clearly wanted them to recommend), and in 1986, the pope formed a commission to write one. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, chaired this commission. In 1992, John Paul promulgated a new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There have been subsequent minor revisions of this catechism. Some related materials have also been released, such as a more concise version, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a version aimed at young people called YouCat. But the structure of this modern catechism sounds a lot like the Roman Catechism of the sixteenth century. It too contains four parts: 1) the Profession of Faith (including the Apostles’ Creed); 2) the Celebration of the Christian Mystery (the sacred liturgy and the sacraments); 3) Life in Christ (the Ten Commandments); and 4) Christian Prayer (including the Lord’s Prayer).

What makes this catechism different from the Roman Catechism or the Baltimore Catechism? It was written for all the faithful, not primarily for priests; it was not written in a question-and-answer format; and it includes Catholic teaching regarding many current controversial issues, such as abortion, social justice, and the rights of workers.

On December 21, the Church celebrated the memorial of Saint Peter Canisius (1521-1597). Peter was born in the Netherlands and became a Jesuit priest. While many Germans were abandoning the Catholic Church during the tumultuous sixteenth century because of the teachings of Martin Luther, Peter spent his life trying to bring them back. How did he do that? Among other things, he wrote a catechism. His Small Catechism followed a question-and-answer format and provided simple, solid explanations of Catholic teachings for the faithful. His catechism became such a standard for religious instruction that his name was used as shorthand to refer to his catechism; teachers and parents would ask their children, “Have you studied your Canisius?”

As we enter into a new year, surrounded by a culture that is increasingly skeptical of even the existence of God, much less the teachings of the Catholic faith, it is all the more important that we ask ourselves, “Have I studied the catechism?”


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About Dawn Beutner 60 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of the upcoming book The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World, as well as Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press. She blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

3 Comments

  1. I’m interested in the Roman Catechism. I read here that it includes a schedule of dogmatic and moral subjects arranged according to the liturgical year. The goal was for each priest to cover the teachings provided in the catechism in his homilies throughout the different liturgical seasons. Mm. This seems to have fallen by the wayside.

  2. The Baltimore Catechism No. 3 is the best recent catechism. Also, I believe that it is an error to suppose that there is an official catechism of the Catholic Church.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. An introduction to Catholic catechisms | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. An introduction to Catholic catechisms | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya

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