A Catechism to Reclaim Catechisms

An ever-expanding mushroom cloud of doctrinal madness presently afflicts the Church, but a new catechism promises a sure sign of hope for the future.

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In apparent answer to the recent papal prolepsis calling for “a courageous cultural revolution” in Catholic theology, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has formally adopted the categories of “transgender persons” and “homosexual persons.”

While vats of ink will be spilled on both counts, faithful Catholics continue to pray for an end to the ever-expanding mushroom cloud of doctrinal madness presently afflicting the Church. 

In the meantime, it seems opportune to look back for a sober appraisal of a painful reality, while also celebrating a sure sign of hope for the future.

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First, a galling certainty: Catholics have been living in a serious catechism crisis for the past half-century. Although curiously under-documented, it is a plain and printed fact that a grave rupture has occurred within the Church’s catechetical manuscript tradition: that body of textual artifacts often simply called “catechisms,” designed to both illustrate and effect the Church’s traditio or “handing-on” of the basic truths of the Catholic Faith. As this Faith remains essentially unchanged through time and space, one should expect to find discernable continuity among all Catholic catechisms (and there are thousands of these, as described elsewhere).

However, for nearly sixty years, scores of faulty catechisms have appeared under Catholic auspices, containing manifest errors in faith or morals, or both. From encouraging sexual deviancy to denying the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ, an alarming number of such works have been approved by bishops and employed in parishes, schools, and seminaries around the world since the close of the Second Vatican Council, furthering the catechetical deformation of three generations.

This disaster was lamented by the late Pope Benedict XVI on several occasions. He once observed: “In the post-conciliar period the concrete transmission of the contents of the Christian Faith was not achieved” (emphasis mine). That a contemporary pope could even form such a staggering claim is perhaps sufficient proof that something has gone catastrophically wrong in catechesis; and, although even the revised rite of episcopal consecration requires the bishop-elect to swear “to maintain the Deposit of Faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church everywhere and at all times,”1 it must be said that this vow has been publicly and repeatedly broken for decades when it comes to catechesis. 

Rather than prevent the deadly poison2 of bad catechisms, many hierarchs have instead tolerated, written, or endorsed texts that continue to perpetuate this observable break in the catechetical manuscript tradition of the Church.

Of course, mere episcopal approval has never been a sufficient guarantee of a catechism’s orthodoxy amid times of ecclesiastical crisis—a historical observation made elsewhere in Crisis Magazine and certainly true of our own time. In such periods, the measurement of any given book against what came before remains essential—a comparison made even more pressing when the Church’s living officeholders neglect to guard and communicate this same Deposit.

A further demonstration of the rupture itself may therefore prove instructive, in light of a promising return to continuity in our time (more on that below). As there are now too many examples to permit a full examination, just a few will need to suffice.3

The first and most infamous example is De Nieuwe Katechismus (1966) or “Dutch Catechism.” Issued by the bishops of the Netherlands just after Vatican II, it bore the imprimatur of Bernardus Cardinal Alfrink as a self-proclaimed “new type of catechism…suitable to the present day,” (p. v) and sold millions of copies in several languages, impacting religious education curricula worldwide—despite being decried as manifestly heretical regarding the dogmas of Creation, the Fall, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Sacraments, and more. 

Among this catechism’s more execrable passages, one finds a clear reason for the plummeting of Eucharistic faith in its blithe assertion: “Particles which may have been left behind on the altar cloth are not in any sense the presence of Christ” (p. 345)—contradicting the dogmatic affirmations of the Council of Trent.4 In a striking offense to the apostolic dignity, the dissident Dutch bishops received no discipline or canonical punishment, even after a Vatican censure of their book (which they summarily ignored) and later dissent from Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI reaffirming the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception. While it will be impossible to judge the extent of this catechism’s responsibility for the demographic extinction of Catholicism in the Netherlands,5 one thing is certain: it has not bolstered it.

The calamitous Christ Among Us (1967), by a celebrated priest under the imprimatur of John Cardinal Dearden, appeared shortly afterward in the United States. In many ways, it was worse than the prior Dutch deviation, especially due to its wide circulation into the early 2000s. Among other errors, this catechism maintains that the human soul “comes about by the evolutionary process” rather than through a direct and personal act of God (p. 24), that the earth is “especially sacred” in itself (p. 98), that St. Peter was not “endowed with supreme jurisdiction” (p. 138), and that the authors of Sacred Scripture were “subject to error” (p. 157). 

Most dramatic, however, are its claims about marriage, including an outlandish distinction between “premarital” vs. “pre-ceremonial” intercourse, with the latter permitted to couples who “mean to express the fact that their lives are united” (p. 323). In layman’s terms: “Fornication is fine, if you really feel married.” Catholics engaged in regular sodomy are likewise encouraged to “do what is possible for them, and to never…give up the Eucharist because of this [sodomitical practice]” (p. 330), while the Church’s prohibition of contraception is held as “not possible,” and even a “great damage” (p. 332) to marital love—anticipating similar claims made in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia some fifty years later (see especially no. 298).

Later came the Katholischer Erwachsenen Katechismus (1985) by the bishops of Germany, published with ecclesiastical approval from Joseph Cardinal Höffner. Although most of its faults may be assigned to painful ambiguities, incompleteness, and obfuscation, this catechism quite openly questions or departs from the Church’s constant teaching on the historicity of Genesis, man’s universal descent from an original human pair, the miraculous creation of Eve, and the nature of original sin6, all in favor of countenancing evolutionary theories. As it was the predecessors of these same bishops in Charles Darwin’s lifetime who authoritatively condemned these theories as “clearly opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the Faith,”7 the irony is about as thick as the proverbial primordial soup.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), while a helpful corrective on some points in 1992, only furthered the doctrinal confusion on several others: the most notable being the nature and governance of the Church, religious liberty, holy orders, and (per its most recent edition) capital punishment. The almost numberless derivative works based on the CCC have done little more than reaffirm the oddities of the original, subjecting them to the same lack of precision and congruence with the manuscript tradition. 

For instance, Bishop James Griffin’s A Summary of the New Catholic Catechism (1994), maintains: “All people have a natural right flowing from the essential dignity of the human person to express their religious beliefs in public and in private” (p. 102)—a proposition remarkably similar to errors that were formally condemned by the Church in 1864, namely: “[Men should uphold] the civil liberty of every worship and the full power to manifest openly and publicly any kind of opinions and ideas” and “be allowed to have public exercises of any form of worship of their own.”8

Such examples could fill many volumes. Suffice it to say that, for fifty years, stacks of catechisms, summaries, handbooks, and curricula have been published with “Catholic” on the cover but with content differing significantly from that of prior catechisms. This is often done without mention or explanation of these differences beyond sweeping imperatives like: “To be truly Catholic is to live according to the spirit and attitude launched by the Second Vatican Council,”9 or, to put it more simply: “Things have changed, get with the program!” In fact, for those with any training in logic, the fallacy of the bare assertion has been the standard fare of most catechisms in recent years, regardless of how divergent a given tenet or practice might be from the Catholicism of our saints and forebears—and there are few now living who remember it. For fifty years, stacks of catechisms, summaries, handbooks, and curricula have been published with “Catholic” on the cover but with content differing significantly from that of prior catechisms.Tweet This

Nevertheless, a simple and unbiased comparison of nearly any catechism from the “postconciliar period” against those which came before will generally lead to the conclusion: One of these things is not like the other. Even a cursory review by the average adult reader will inevitably betray a characteristic shared by most catechisms written since 1965, summarizable in one word: discontinuity.

However, all of that has recently changed.

A new catechism was launched in Rome last month; one written by a bishop, approved under another’s imprimatur, and endorsed by several more: Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith, by Bishop Athanasius Schneider. In this new summary of faith and morals, the bishop has sought to “respond to the requests of many sons and daughters of the Church who are perplexed by the widespread doctrinal confusion” and to offer “a guide to the changeless teaching of the Church” (p. xxiii).

Although it bears canonical approval and pages of ringing endorsements, the wisely cautious Catholic will immediately ask how this new Compendium “measures up” against the Church’s received tradition; the catechism crisis is, after all, still with us. But, with this text, faithful Catholics have cause for rejoicing—Credo exhibits a brilliant return to form.

Rather than dazzle the reader with ambiguous phrases and circumlocutions, Credo poses thousands of direct and concise answers to understandable questions (2,630 of them, to be exact) on matters of faith, morals, and worship. Rather than laud a “turning point in doctrinal history,”10 Credo is at pains to demonstrate (with copious citations) its own continuity with prior teaching and why “this principle of fidelity to Sacred Tradition [is] essential for right faith” (p. 133).

When the highest ecclesiastical offices issue catechetical documents packed with neologisms like “synodal perspective,” “inner physiognomy,” and “fluctuating concrete situations,”11 Credo abides by foundational concepts, classical categories, proven terms, and concrete definitions; like the clear tones of a bell ringing through a foggy swamp.

As all Catholics once expected of their catechisms, Credo’s treatment is systematic, comprehensive, and highly readable (suitable for readers of high school age and above). Yet, as one scholar detailed during its international launch, perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Credo is not any one of its compelling propositions, nor its courageous treatment of current issues (gender, technology, etc.), nor even the spirit of pastoral charity and zeal palpable on every page. 

Rather, it is the book’s internal coherence, its meat-and-marrow integrity, the splendid cohesion of the whole. And, when compared to any celebrated preconciliar catechism, it is entirely of a piece—it “rhymes.” As another scholar recently affirmed: “Credo reads like any of the veteran Catholic catechisms of the past millennium, although including contemporary applications of the same timeless moral principles.”

In truth, Credo represents a masterful reclamation of the catechetical manuscript tradition: a righting of the episcopal ship, a reconnection of the disjointed tracks from which the magisterial train seemed to have jumped years ago. It is a testament to the indefectibility of the Church and the continuation of the apostolic doctrine in the Church’s living hierarchy. The voice of the apostles resounds in its pages, as if a saintly patriarch of the past were to assess the present, place his hand on one’s shoulder, and say: “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21). In sum, Credo offers a faithful and contemporary account of the Faith of our Fathers; a complete and coherent guide to believing, living, and praying like a true Catholic today.

The soul of beauty is order. As such, Credo may be justifiably considered the most beautiful book of our time, fully warranting the publisher’s claim of it as “The Book of the Century.”

Author

  • Aaron Seng

    Aaron Seng is the president of Tradivox and general editor of the Catholic Catechism Index, a twenty-volume collection of traditional Catholic catechisms published by Sophia Institute Press.

  1. Roman Pontifical, Ordination of Bishops (1968).
  2. See the assertion of Pope Leo XIII: “The Church, who is the custodian and vindicator of the integrity of faith and morals…has ever striven, as far as lay in her power, to restrain men from the reading of bad books, as from a deadly poison” (Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, no. 1).
  3. I have intentionally omitted full bibliographic information for the various “bad catechisms” considered herein, believing myself so obligated in conscience.
  4. See especially Session 13, Can. 4. See also the subsequent Catechism of the Council of Trent, which directs: “Caution should be observed by pastors in explaining the mysterious manner in which the body of our Lord is contained whole and entire under the least particle of the bread. Indeed, discussions of this kind should scarcely ever be entered upon” (Tradivox Catholic Catechism Index [Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2021], 7:265).
  5. Roughly 40% of all Netherlanders self-identified as Catholic when the Dutch catechism appeared. Today, only about 18% so identify, and only 2% of these attend Mass on Sundays, according to the extensive demographic research of Radboud University, Nijmegen. See https://www.ru.nl/kaski/onderzoek/cijfers-rooms/.
  6. All contrary to the 1909 Reply of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1948. See Heinrich Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 30th ed., trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Boonville: Preserving Christian Publications, 2009), nos. 2121–2128, 2302.
  7. Translated from the original Acta of the 1860 Synod of the Archdiocese of Cologne. See Fr. Michael Chaberek, O.P., Catholicism and Evolution (Kettering: Angelico Press, 2015), 73.
  8. Pope Pius IX, Syllabus Errorum, nos. 79, 78.
  9. As maintained in one of the many approved editions of a Redemptorist pocket catechism, reprinted in the millions from the 1970s to the present.
  10. As trumpeted in The Catholic Catechism of 1975.
  11. As found among dozens of other confusing phrases in the Vatican’s 2020 Directory for Catechesis.

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