Sense and Nonsense: Le Catechisme de l’Eglise Catholique

Before spring semester began, I sat down and read the remarkable new catechism that the Holy Father has just presented—Le Catechisme de l’Eglise Catholique (Paris: Mame/Plon). It was a welcome, indeed exhilarating experience. This book is not merely an aid to understanding the faith but itself a grace and even something of a miracle. I am amazed and consoled by it, if only because it affirms and reaffirms the basic teachings that the Church has always held.

The French is the original text of this document, and I would recommend that anyone who can read French obtain a copy, particularly if the English translation has obscuring inclusive language (not present in the French or other versions). Not including the useful indices, the French edition comes to 581 pages. The main text is in clear type. The supplementary explanations in each section are printed in smaller type, and the useful summaries at the end of each section are in italics. Each of the 2,865 paragraphs is numbered. Cross references to other paragraphs are cited by the appropriate numbers in the margins. The footnotes, kept to a minimum, identify sources. Scripture citations—the Catechism uses Scripture often and effectively—if directly quoted are identified immediately after the citation in the text.

The document is addressed mainly to bishops, namely, to those in the ecclesiastical hinterlands who by divine law are responsible to see that precisely these truths are available to the faithful. And the faithful, as the Catechism stresses, themselves have a right to be taught faithfully, accurately, and without deception or confusion.

To that end, Le Catechisme de l’Eglise Catholique is undoubtedly the most concise and clear statement ever written of what the Catholic Church teaches about itself and each of its particular doctrines and practices. Though some attention, when appropriate, is paid to heresies or deviations from doctrine, the general approach is positive and straightforward. In a sense, the document does not care what anyone else might think of what the Church holds; it just wants what it does hold to be stated calmly and objectively, in terms of the faith’s own sources in reason and revelation. Any man of good will and normal intelligence, believer or not, can see just what the Church says of herself, just what she teaches.

In recent years, I have reflected with much sadness that for all practical purposes in the public order, the noble name of “Catholic” has all but disappeared in terms of identifiable and coherent teaching. If someone, even the pope, says that the Church teaches this or that, a cynical journalist will immediately refer the issue to some priest, theologian, nun, bishop, professor, ex-cleric, or prominent layman, who will proceed to deny it or so modify it that the substance of the teaching is not saved. The Church that maintains she knows what she holds and why thus appears in the public forum rather confused and silly.

Though this catechism is addressed mainly to bishops and others who write catechisms and teach, it is also recommended for any interested layman, priest, or scholar. Nothing quite like it exists. It has been a long time since specifically Catholic doctrine in a coherent and systematic sense has been found in most Catholic universities or high schools. Many public and private universities, however, now have courses in Roman Catholicism in which what the Church says of herself is to be accurately presented.

And many more people are just curious to know, not what Father or Professor So-and-So suspiciously might say, but what the Church holds. This catechism is ideal for precisely these audiences. If something troubling or dubious or clearly inaccurate is said in a sermon or a class or a publication, it can now be quickly checked with this text on the essential point at issue. But beyond all of this, the new Catechism is a basic reference book to consult on the many questions that come up in the course of any normal, reflective life of faith. Yet, as I say, it is to be read as a whole, as a sudden realization that the Catholic faith can explain itself coherently—believe it or not.

The Catechism, then, is designed to state and teach exactly what the Church holds, especially to those who already have the faith, which, as the Catechism explains so well, is ever a gift, not something we merit or figure out for ourselves. It recognizes that the Church, whatever more it is, is an intellectual organization, obliged to account for what it has said about itself in the almost 2,000 years of its existence. Seen in context and over the centuries, there is something uncanny about this consistency and unity, almost as if there is something more than a human power keeping track of things and ensuring that what is fundamental remains to be said in every age and polity.

Reading this book, one realizes that the Church has at its fingertips, say, the Gospel of Luke, Augustine, the Councils of Orange and Trent, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Leo XIII, Pope Clement of Rome, the Lord’s Prayer, the Byzantine Liturgies, the Nicene Creed, as well as all the disciplinary, moral, and intellectual problems to which the Church has addressed itself over the centuries. That is to say, the Church maintains that it stands for a certain body of truths addressed to the human mind and heart, which mind and heart are restless and desirous to find out what they are, what they are open to, what God has revealed to them. The Church likewise maintains that there are a certain number of concrete acts, like baptism and communion, that we are to undertake, that our lives have an order, that right and wrong are not unknown or unreal but things that we can come to and understand in our own lives and polities.

Moreover, these teachings, contrary to modern skepticism and doubt, can be set down in intelligible language because language leads directly to being and to the mystery that it is designed to elucidate. The language or dogmas are not presented as some kind of separate, rigid entities, however, that are in their historical formulation somehow the essence of faith. Rather, living words are properly used to reach and explain the reality to which those words point. In short, there is no “dogmatism,” in the pejorative sense of that much abused word, in this presentation. It is not contrary to reason and certainly not to Christianity, the religion of the Word made flesh, to seek to perfect and state what a specific religion holds about God, man, and the world. Catholicism does not avoid reason but, on the contrary, boldly directs itself to it, knowing that our intellects are finite, knowing that while God is mystery, He is not confusion.

This Catechism is not, however, an apologetic. It does not directly intend to be a missionary document to non-Christians, though it can be most useful for this purpose. Still, the ignorance—among both Catholics and non-Catholics—of what Catholicism teaches no longer has any real justification other than lack of effort or bad will.

The book is divided into four parts. The first section is based on the Creed. This section explains what we mean by Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The second section is devoted to the seven sacraments: what they are, what they do. The third section is an explanation of the commandments, the two great commandments of love of God and neighbor, and the ten commandments. Each commandment is explained, along with a discussion of the moral and theological virtues and the vices opposed to them. Under several of the commandments, there is a good discussion of the Church’s social doctrine as it has developed from Leo XIII to Centesimus Annus. The final and surprisingly excellent section is on prayer: why we pray, the kinds of prayer (including a discussion of meditation), and, at the end of the book, a long and lovely explanation of the Our Father as the conclusion of the book.

Thus, we find in this Catechism as it comes from the Holy Father’s hands what it is that we hold about the nature of God and His relation to us. We want to know what are the aids God has given to us—the sacraments—to believe in and follow Him. Next we need to know what it is we are to do and not do in the light of God’s reality, of His creation and redemption and ascension into Glory. Finally, the section on prayer teaches us how we are to respond to a God who seeks us more than we seek in grace to know His trinitarian life.

What I found most striking in reading this text was the sense that each human life, including my own, is seen from the angle of the plan of God for the world and those in it. In no sense is there any denigration of the mission of man to the world. But there is a kind of sober realization that we live in a graced world, that we are first to seek God and His Kingdom, that we are to believe, pray, receive the sacraments. We are pilgrims, on the “way.” The mystery of God and our relation to Him takes on new dimension and new life. What is wrong with the world is that it does not believe rightly and does not choose to act rightly in the light of this belief.

This catechism, I conclude, is an extraordinary document, addressed to our very minds, hearts, and souls. If we want to know honestly, clearly, forcefully what Catholicism teaches about ourselves, about God, about our world, about what God has said He is like, about our destiny, we will not find anything more exciting or more penetrating than Le Catichisme de l’Eglise Catholique. When we obtain a copy, we would do well to follow the words addressed to Augustine about the Bible, “tolle et lege,” take it and read it. It will make it clear, I think, why God does not want the Gates of Hell to prevail against His Church, lest we, too, forget who we are and what we are created for.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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