When the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992, a huge gap in catechesis was closed. For the first time in over four-hundred years, the Church had a single, authoritative volume on the essentials of the faith. To be sure, there were already comprehensive and accessible presentations of Church teaching – for example, Fr. Kenneth Baker’s three-volume Fundamentals of Catholicism and Fr. John Hardon’s The Catholic Catechism, which of course continue to be valuable resources.
But the CCC, with its full incorporation of the Second Vatican Council’s momentous teachings, had and continues to have a magisterial universality that is integral to its authority. Countless catechists, RCIA participants, sincere inquirers of the Catholic way, and many, many others have found it an indispensable guide.
Nevertheless, when the CCC appeared, the edition issued by Liguori Publications was a big volume in an ugly, mustard-brown cover. Shortly thereafter, Doubleday brought out a conventional paperback that remains in wide use today. It is a very serviceable edition. What has followed is the publication of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a youth catechism, YOUCAT. Both of these volumes are truly splendid and provide thoroughly reliable guidance in Church doctrine.
Ascension Press has now published an elegant new edition of the CCC. As the editors write, the key to this edition is that it “has been carefully designed to make the text readable, organized, and inviting.” It is a large volume with a white leather-like cover and colored ribbons. Moreover, the four main sections of the CCC (which Ascension label as “What We Believe,” “How We Worship,” “How We Live,” and “How We Pray”) are helpfully color-coded to facilitate ease of study. (A brief explanatory guide for this arrangement, “The Catechism at a Glance,” is provided.) This edition is visually handsome and will appeal in format to any reader. It is ideal for discussion groups and personal study.
The CCC has always had a standard subject index. What Ascension has added are indexes for citations to Scripture, ecumenical councils, pontifical documents, and so on. There is an especially impressive chart of the Church’s twenty-one ecumenical councils, with the date, name, major decisions, and heresies addressed by each set out. The best new feature is the glossary that Ascension has included. It was prepared by Archbishop William Levada, who served as a member of the Editorial Committee of the Special Commission of the Holy See for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This glossary concisely defines all important terms and references the numbered paragraph(s) where they are located in the CCC.
These additions deftly supplement what the decades since its promulgation has consistently demonstrated, that is, that the CCC is a remarkably rich theological source that rewards multiple readings and consultations. It draws with nuance on the vast riches of Scripture and Tradition in its presentation of the faith. For example, one finds St. John Henry Newman’s description of conscience (paragraph no. 1778), which is arresting and concludes with a stunning apothegm:
Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise . . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.
For all its admirable clarity and reliability, the CCC remains, alas, a serious muddle on the death penalty. The confusion in this area started with Pope John Paul II’s tinkering with the teaching in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which made its way into the initial publication of the CCC. The Ascension edition includes (as it must) paragraph no. 2267 promulgated by Pope Francis, which has only exacerbated the confusion. This section of the death penalty provides: “[T]he Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” What the CCC presents is sloganeering that walks away without adequate justification from millennia of unambiguous teaching that sanctions the death penalty. (For a rigorous explication of this teaching, the best contemporary source is Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s 2017 book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.)
This is not a mere quibble with the CCC. Nevertheless, it is a small part of an otherwise exemplary work. Ascension has published a volume worth putting into any hands, but it is an edition especially worth giving to a young adult. Many young people today have so little experience of any books and certainly less of books as well-made objects. They will see here that there is something important to know that is found beyond the omnipresent screen.
Like Bishop Robert Barron’s The Word on Fire Bible, Ascension’s edition of the CCC is a superior achievement that represents continued progress in the realm of catechesis.
• Related at CWR: “An introduction to Catholic catechisms” (December 23, 2022) by Dawn Beutner
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ascension Edition
Ascension Press, 2022
Hardcover, 932 pages
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