Weaponized Catechisms

Recent updates to Canon Law make it likely that we'll see new and updated catechisms being used to propagate errors in faith and morals—a kind of “viral vector” for doctrinal innovation.

It should be clear to all that the current occupant of the Chair of Peter does not intend to honor the First See with doctrinal precision.

Whether it be in light of his recent insistence that apostasy does not separate one from the Communion of Saints, his statements about God willing a plurality of religions or giving impossible commands, or any number of other scandalous pronouncements, the ongoing catechetical collapse in the Church is evidently occurring not simply on Francis’ watch but after his example. 

“The catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too obvious,” wrote then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1991. It has only grown more obvious in the thirty years since.

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Previously in the pages of Crisis, I addressed the general catechetical breakdown and its connection to contemporary catechisms and the teaching curricula based on them. Whether employed in parishes, schools, or seminaries, such works may include propositions or endorse acts that simply cannot be squared with the Church’s prior catechetical tradition. As stated before:

To use any catechism as a vehicle for constant “development” in this way, tinkering with it whenever it serves popular opinion or the passing fancy of liberal elites, undermines the usefulness of that particular document. It also causes grave scandal and confusion about the abiding constancy of Catholic doctrine as a whole.

Now, it seems, we may need to brace for a new wave of catechetical confusion.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis updated the Code of Canon Law to allow for a more “decentralized” approach to the composition of local catechisms, pursuing the vision already laid out in his 2020 Directory for Catechesis: “It is a good idea for the local Church, precisely because of its responsibility for the inculturation of the faith, to proceed with the publication of its own catechism” (n. 405).

Having already revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to contain a novel doctrine and advised the world that more updates will be forthcoming, the question begins to loom large: Will new and updated catechisms be used to propagate errors in faith and morals—a kind of “viral vector” for doctrinal innovation? 

Writ small: Are catechisms being weaponized? 

From the Greek katechein (“echo”), catechesis may be simply defined as systematic instruction in Catholic doctrine. As the term suggests, authentic catechesis will always be characterized by fidelity to that original and divine Word, “sounding down” through the ages. The term catechism is used almost exclusively to denote a textual artifact designed for the same: i.e., a book presenting the Faith in a concise and orderly way, often in a question–answer format evoking oral instruction, as “faith cometh by hearing” (Romans 10:17).

It should therefore be evident that language has always been of paramount importance in the Church’s work of catechesis and in her catechisms. In the words of Clement XIII:

 The faithful . . . should be kept away from dangerous [ideas.]. . . Rather, only those ideas should be communicated which are definitely marked as Catholic truth by their universality, antiquity, and harmony…. Teachers of the people should establish boundaries around them so that no word strays beyond that which is necessary or useful for salvation. (In Dominico Agro, n. 3, emphasis added)

Another testimony to this same approach may be found in Pius X’s famous Pascendi (1907):

It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications of a style inspired by unsound novelty which seems to deride the piety of the faithful and dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions of the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilization. Language of this kind is not to be tolerated either in books or from chairs of learning. (n. 55, emphasis added)

Historically speaking, Catholic catechisms were designed to summarize the truths of faith and morals in a clear, concise, and systematic way according to the received doctrine of the Church and in accord with her proven terminology: “Avoiding the profane novelties of words” (1 Timothy 6:20). For the same reason, catechisms have long served as weapons—whether for combatting doctrinal innovation, or for spreading it. 

Beginning with Luther’s two catechisms of 1529, Protestant revolutionaries found the genre to be highly serviceable for disseminating their errors, particularly as more rapid print technology became available. Ironically, this rapidity of publishing often undermined their own credibility, as Catholic apologists could show the doctrinal shifting sands upon which the innovators were building simply by pointing to the continuously updated editions of their catechetical works.

In contrast, Catholic catechisms of the period were outstanding for their doctrinal cohesion, particularly following the Council of Trent (1545–63). Although other catechisms had already been in use for centuries at that point, the need for additional resources was keenly felt in the early years of the Protestant revolt, and thousands of “official catechisms”—those approved by bishops or councils—began appearing in every major language (and continued to do so for the next several centuries). 

Despite the vast panorama of nations and cultures in which they were composed and translated, these classic catechisms exhibited a striking doctrinal continuity, in evidence of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Even so, the official catechisms of the Church were never regarded as infallible documents. Although some mistakenly regard their propositions as free from all possibility of error simply by being “in the container” of an approved catechism (a notion closer to the inspired inerrancy of Sacred Scripture), the reality is quite different. Official catechisms are simply expressions of the ordinary, non-infallible teaching office of bishops; and although they generally serve as helpful summary guides and may be taken in concert as testimony for infallible teaching (I might add that the Tradivox project illustrates this rather remarkably), each individual catechism should be assessed on its own merits and no one taken as de fide in itself.*

This helps to explain the (admittedly few) deficiencies found in some Catholic catechisms issued prior to the Second Vatican Council and the all too frequent deviations found in catechisms published since. Several examples of the latter could be cited: the infamous “Dutch Catechism” (1966) and its errors on original sin, the virgin birth, atonement, the Eucharist, etc.; Christ Among Us (1972) with its difficulties on grace and conscience; The Catholic Catechism (1974) with its novel ecclesiology and liturgical theology; the Catholic Catechism for Adults (2006) holding the old covenant as “eternally valid” for the Jews; the YouCat (2011) and its approval of contraception; and, of course, the latest iteration of the CCC.

Each of these more recent catechisms (more could be added) appeared under magisterial approval, yet each contains statements that cannot be reconciled with prior teaching. None appears “definitely marked as Catholic truth” by that “universality, antiquity, and harmony” of language that ought to distinguish the genre. Instead, each tends to exhibit a strange preoccupation with precisely those “new directions of the Church” warned against by Pius X.

Now, imagine if a bishop (or several) sought to lead a revolution in Catholic faith and morals—but without ostensibly separating himself from the Church.

This could never be achieved through definitive magisterial acts, since the Holy Spirit guarantees the integrity of those acts through the Church’s infallibility and indefectibility. Catechisms, on the other hand, could easily be put to such revolutionary use; and if the faithful lacked a firm grounding in right doctrine, such catechisms could do serious harm to souls.

Then again, we need not limit ourselves to imagination: history tells of just such a scenario.

Jansenism was rampant in the 1700s, when a number of (perhaps formerly) Catholic bishops began promoting its heretical tenets through dubious catechisms. To the great confusion of the average pew-sitter, bishops in France and elsewhere could be found issuing official catechisms with Jansenist doctrine for several decades, often flatly contradicting catechisms still in use in their own territories. Although most of these “bad catechisms” were eventually censured and fell into obscurity, they were true weapons of revolution in their day.

In our own time, with bishops openly calling for a “magisterial reassessment” of homosexuality and contraception, and others fielding a “bold new approach” to catechesis that informs children about atheism, “sexual identity” questioning, and other nonsense, it seems opportune to recall our history. Catechisms certainly have served as weapons of subversion in the past, and many do so today. We now face a more constructive question: What to do about it?

How might catechisms instead be used as “weapons of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 6:7) in our time? I conclude with two suggestions:

1) Laity: Study good catechisms. The truth has not changed since yesteryear, and many classic catechisms teach it beautifully. Many of these are discoverable online, and several have been republished. Acquire hardcopies, gift them to others, and study well the Faith of our fathers.

2) Bishops: Write good catechisms. It will take considerable time and effort, but you might just take a page from your episcopal forebears and write your own catechism, upholding right doctrine in our time. Make it one “definitely marked by Catholic truth”!

*I have intentionally avoided explaining the theological distinctions in the Church’s magisterium as they pertain to infallibility, since the specifying terms are employed variously by theologians after Pius IX’s Tuas Libenter of 1863 (cf. especially Dei Filius and Lumen Gentium). I am also aware of the statements of Clement XIII and John Paul II affirming the respective doctrinal integrity of the Roman Catechism and CCC; however, neither appears to meet the requirements for a definitive act or capitulation of the ordinary and universal magisterium that could render either catechism infallible in toto. Indeed, contra factum non est argumentum—both texts contain prima facie errors on certain points.

[Image Credit: LifeTeen website]


  • 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.

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