European Enthusiasm: A Bestseller for the Hungering Faithful

A Bestseller for the Hungering Faithful

In the countries where it has been released, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been a true bestseller: 700,000 copies have been sold in France and 500,000 in Italy, where for many weeks the publisher (the Vatican Press, which is not organized to distribute texts in such numbers) was unable to respond to the demand. In Spain, too, the Catechism has sold extremely well, although its absence from the newspapers’ bestseller lists shows how unreliable those lists are.

It was to this true “plebiscite” of the Christian people that Cardinal Ratzinger referred in a lecture to the clergy of Milan last March 24: the Catechism’s reception exceeded his most optimistic expectations. Very positive reactions were also received from the Protestant and Orthodox communities (to whose traditions the Catechism devotes a great deal of space), who have said of the new Catechism that they can accept it almost entirely.

The publication of this catechism is therefore an ecclesial event of primary significance. John Paul II considers it one of the most important acts of his papacy; he summed it up in his meeting at the Vatican on March 20, with the bishops of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin: “I consider its publication to be among the principal fruits of the Second Vatican Council and one of the most significant events of my pontificate.” Elsewhere, the Pope has emphasized the very close connection between this catechism and the Second Vatican Council; even if one cannot technically call it the “Council’s Catechism,” in fact it is one of its fruits, destined to be most strongly engraved upon the Christian people. The Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, with which the Pope ordered the publication of the Catechism, has truly dedicated itself to uniting the Catechism with the renewal of ecclesial life so desired since Vatican II.

In the years since the Council, as Cardinal Ratzinger recalled at the Milan conference, requests arose for a new summary of the Faith, but this proposal was judged to be premature. The Church was in too agitated a state to be able to produce an enduring work. The current situation of the Church, however, has finally permitted this instrument to be prepared in greater serenity.

In October 1985, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which convened to reflect on the effects of the Second Vatican Council 20 years after its closing, declared in its final report the need to develop “a catechism or summary of all Catholic doctrine,” referring both to faith and to morals, that could be a point of reference for catechisms prepared worldwide. The Pope adopted this request, declaring in the same discourse during the closing of the Synod that it fully corresponded to a real need in the Church. Thus, in 1986, a commission of 12 cardinals and bishops was formed with the mission of offering guidance and monitoring the results of the seven diocesan bishops who, in preparing the Catechism, created nine successive drafts.

The project of the Catechism was subjected to a very lengthy examination by all Catholic bishops and institutions of theology and catechism. There were 938 replies stemming from this review, containing about 24,000 suggestions. In the 1990 synod of the bishops, Cardinal Ratzinger revealed that of these 938 replies, 73 percent considered the proposed revision “good” or “very good,” 18 percent “satisfactory with reservations,” 6 percent “negative,” and 2.7 percent “unacceptable.” The majority of the proposed modifications referred to the parts on morals and prayer. As a result, these two parts were modified extensively in the last draft, while the first two (on the Creed and the Sacraments) remained substantially unchanged.

The long project of compiling of the Catechism and the vast consultation which preceded the draft of the definitive text, was the result of a truly collegial labor. The Pope emphasized this aspect in Fidei Depositum: “One has reason to affirm that this catechism is the fruit of a collaboration of all the episcopacy of the Catholic Church, which generously received my invitation to assume their part of the responsibility in an initiative which is closely tied to the ecclesial life. Such a response stirs in me a profound feeling of joy, because the concord of many voices expresses truly what can be called the ‘symphony’ of the Faith. The completion of the Catechism thus reflects the collegial nature of the episcopacy, and is a testimony to the Catholicity of the Church.”

To understand the historical significance of this catechism, one must realize that the preceding universal catechism of the Catholic Church emerged in 1566, as an expression of the Council of Trent. At one time, it was urgent to reinforce the knowledge of the Faith in the face of the Protestant Reformation. It is known as the Roman Catechism, or that of Saint Pius V; it was principally directed toward priests as instruments for the formation of the faithful; its compilation took three years.

In the twentieth century, the Catechism of Pius X, which the Pope prescribed for the diocese of Rome in 1905, has been widespread. It was a simple work, composed of questions and answers, and modeled after a catechism used in the diocese of Milan. Its diffusion was remarkably quick, because it presented itself as an excellent instrument of catechesis, thanks to its accessibility and clarity; it made no attempt, though, to be a catechism for the universal Church.

The Second Vatican Council brought a great desire for a revision of the catechism; unfortunately, the results of this desire did not always correspond to its intentions. The intent to render the Christian message more relevant to the people influenced the national editions of catechisms, which at times omitted important aspects of Christian doctrine, or confused the need for universally accessible language with the use of fashionable philosophical categories. There was a great preoccupation with form, without perhaps an adequate assurance of the contents and the integrity of the proposed message.

An Objective Model

The current Catechism was written not to be universally adopted, but is offered as an indispensable model and reference for the national editions adapted for different groups of people: children, young adults, adults, etc. The synopses at the end of each chapter will be helpful for the readers of this catechism and for the editors of national compendiums. It is intended to be a major catechism with the bishops and the editors of catechisms as its primary audience, but it is offered to all Christian people and, as noted, the sales figures show it has been well received.

One of the problems facing this edition of the Catechism was method of exposition. A deductive method was selected and used in a form offering a secure affirmation of the contents of the Faith. Some reference to contemporary issues is made, although overly specific problems are avoided in keeping with the Catechism’s didactic purpose. This work contains the Faith of the Church, not the opinions of theologians. For this reason it avoids subjectivism in its language and instead uses formulations like “The Church believes that…” and “We affirm that….” This means of expositions avoids devoting space to the prevailing subjectivism, according to which access to the truth itself is not possible, but rather all things depend essentially on the judging subject. The Catechism’s style is measured, and the editors have succeeded in gaining their objective of a full and ordered exposition of Catholic doctrine. The text has been enriched with brief citations from the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the saints; these offer to the reader beautiful gems of meditation and the mysteries that they present, illuminating the text and revealing the richness of the treasure of Christian spirituality and the secular tradition of the Church. There was no desire for originality, but rather for clarity and fidelity, sustained by the conviction that it is the profundity and simplicity of orthodoxy that captivates.

The scheme of this catechism follows the classic division into four parts found previously in the Roman Catechism: exposition of the Creed, the sacraments and liturgy, morals, and prayers—divisions which were abandoned in some recent catechisms. The four parts are bound to each other: the Christian mystery, which is the object of the Faith (first part), celebrated and communicated in the liturgical acts (second part), is present to illuminate and guide the children of God in their actions (third part), which is the foundation of our prayer (fourth part).

Answering Objections

One of the criticisms aimed at this scheme is that it is hardly “Christocentric,” to which one of the Catechism’s editors, Alessandro Maggiolini, Bishop of Como, replied in an interview: Making this criticism “is like blaming the Apostolic Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed for not being Christocentric. The Creed is Trinitocentric.’ And because of this, it is Christocentric: indeed, we do not apprehend the Trinity itself if not through Jesus Christ who sent us the Holy Spirit and formed His Church. In the first part we set forth the Creed. In the second we said that it is Christ who works in the liturgy, because above all He is present and acts in all the sacraments. In the third part we said that it is Christ, the perfect man, whom sanctity overtakes. Not to mention the fourth part, where all prayer is explained starting from Christ, model of the one who prays, master of praying. What more do they want?”

A second criticism which has been leveled at the Catechism is that it does not adequately illuminate the “hierarchy of truth,” according to which the essential truths are distinguished from the secondary ones. Maggiolini’s reply: “What does ‘hierarchy of truth’ mean? For me it can be understood in two ways. The first seems incorrect to me: that there is a hierarchy of truth because some things are solemnly from the Magisterium, and others are shown but not definite. In the other way of conceiving the hierarchy of truth, one grasps a center and truths are more or less important according to how close they are to this center. If you choose the first way, some expositions of ordained Christian thought are made impossible. That Jesus Christ is the Savior of men because He liberates them from sin and gives them grace is not defined by any council. The Church has not felt it necessary to define this. That God exists is not defined by any council.”

Christophe von Schoenborn, Auxiliary Bishop of Vienna and secretary of the editing of the Catechism, also referred to this problem, which seems to be one of the thorniest. In effect, there are truths which are less central, observes Schoenborn (for instance, the article of faith which speaks of Christ’s descent to the dead), but which are truths in the full sense and have the same degree of certitude as the truth that Christ is both truly God and truly man. Nonetheless, the distinction between defined truths of the Faith, common theological opinions, affirmations of the ordinary Magisterium of the bishops, and so forth, is made clear in the Catechism.

In a paragraph in Fidei Depositum on the “doctrinal value” of the Catechism, John Paul II affirms that this “is an exposition of the faith of the Church and Catholic doctrine, attested to and illuminated by Sacred Scripture, from the Apostolic Tradition and Catholic doctrine and the Magisterium of the Church. I recognize it as a valid and legitimate instrument in the service of the ecclesial community and as a secure means of the instruction of the Faith…. Therefore I ask the Pastors of the Church and the faithful to welcoming this catechism in the spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the Faith and summoning the evangelical life. This catechism is given to them because it serves as a secure and authentic text of reference for the teaching of Catholic doctrine, and especially for the elaboration of local catechisms. Still, I offer it to all the faithful who desire to deepen their knowledge of the inexhaustible riches of salvation.”

New for this type of document is that the first compilation, from which the various translations will be made, was the French one. The official Latin text will appear shortly, and will benefit from the maturity and experience gained through the different translations. The release took place in Paris last November, preceding by weeks the official presentation of the Catechism in Rome on December 8. Perhaps this caused some slight discord, but in places like Italy it also had the effect of doubling the impact on the media of the release of the new Catechism, because it received twice as much publicity.

Before the Catechism was released, the newspapers were most concerned with the section on morals, in search of a scoop on “new sins.” Themes that provoked hypothesis and anticipation were above all the pain of death, the “just war” problem, the issue of taxes, and the Sixth Commandment. These themes were treated by the media with great superficiality and often with very little knowledge of Church doctrine. But every cloud has its silver lining: this game of anticipation, scoop, and polemics helped to place this catechism in the forefront of public discussion. A novelty of this catechism is the amount of space dedicated to the Church’s social doctrine in the section on morals, with a chapter on the relations between man and society in the treatment of the Seventh Commandment. Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the mass media’s interest in the moral themes during the official presentation of the Catechism in Rome. The passion with which they were debated so far in advance of its release was, according to Ratzinger, a sign that the problems it covers truly touch people. The problem of what we as human beings should do, of how we must build our lives so that we and the world grow just, is the problem of all ages, as well as of today. The Catechism treats these questions and thus is a book which is properly of interest to all because it does not merely suggest a private opinion, but rather formulates the response of the communal and secular experience of the Church: “So is the Catechism truly a book of morals?… It is this, and something more. It treats of the human being, but with the conviction that the question of man cannot be separated from the question of God…. Therefore the moral prescriptions that the Catechism offer must not be separated from what it says about God and the history of God with us. The Catechism must be read as a unity. The pages on morality are misread if they are separated from their context, that is, the profession of faith, the doctrine on the sacraments.”

Among the most eagerly awaited fruits of this catechism will be a new missionary zeal throughout the Church. The time of disputing and debating everything ad nauseum is over. The Catechism desires to be an instrument of that unity on essential things that, in conjunction with the broader liberty on nonessential things, is one of the preconditions for the new evangelization that the Pope has spoken of for some time. It was the lived Faith and the clarity on the essential, and not the perfection of complex pastoral issues, which created in the primitive Church the evangelical enthusiasm that in a few decades brought about the conversion of the pagan world in antiquity. Today, too, it is with a more profoundly known and fully lived faith that the Church can experience a rejuvenation.


  • Armando Fumagalli

    At the time this article was published, Armando Fumagalli was former director of the Italian magazine Cultura e Libri and was with the Accademia dei Ponti in Florence, Italy; his essay was translated by Mia Petree.

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