The Importance of the Catechism

The Catechism of the Catholic Church can be read through, read in, or consulted on any of the subjects it covers. For the mature and knowledgeable believer, it represents a rich source for continued meditation, as surely as it is an informative guide for the less knowledgeable, the perplexed, the ignorant, or those simply uninformed.

The catechism covers the entire range of the faith: it contains all the tenets of the Catholic faith contained in Scripture and Tradition and authoritatively expounded by the magisterium of the Church. It sets forth these tenets of the faith, along with the essentials of what follows from these tenets, in short and remarkably lucid successively numbered articles — 2865 of them in all. Included in these numbered paragraphs is a veritable treasure trove of quotations from the fathers, doctors, and saints of the Church — they are to be found on page after page. For example: St. Therese of Lisieux: “If the Church was a body composed of different members, it couldn’t lack the noblest of all: it must have a heart, and a heart burning with love.”

While this catechism is no doubt not intended, nor is it entirely suitable, to serve as a “textbook” as such, neither is it so difficult, technical, mysterious, arcane, or obscure that it has to be “interpreted” to the Catholic people by “experts” of any stripe. One’s confirmation certificate alone attests to sufficient “expertise” to immerse oneself in this catechism. It can be taken straight, in both large or small doses. Try reading it or reading in it yourself and you will see.

This brings us back to our basic question of the present and future importance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It truly does reduce itself to this: this catechism is accessible to everyone, and what the Church truly holds and teaches can therefore no longer be doubted by anyone.

Among other things, with the issuance of this catechism, there should no longer be any place for the dissenters and revisionists and minimizers in the Church to hide. What the Church holds and teaches is back out in the open again for all to see; there can no longer be any mistake or confusion about it. Anybody can look it up.

For the Catechism of the Catholic Church does reaffirm virtually every single point of faith and morals disputed by theological dissenters in the years since Vatican II. You name it, and the catechism is sure to reaffirm it, almost always quite clearly: Original Sin; the existence and power of Satan ; the existence of angels; that Satan is an angel; Purgatory , not to speak of the Four Last Things to be ever remembered, which we once learned about in childhood: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell; the perpetual virginity of Mary ; the teaching authority of the Church; the strict obligation to profess the faith and accept the teaching authority of the Church, which, not incidentally, simply excludes modern-style “theological dissent”; the truth that the end can never justify the means; Transubstantiation; the institution of the Seven Sacraments by Christ; the limitation of sacred ordination to baptized males; the truth that priests are not “delegates” of the people; the indissolubility of the marriage bond; the prohibition of remarriage after divorce, of the use of contraception, and of homosexual acts, and so on.

In making this observation, we are not, by the way, “uncharitably” engaged in accusing and pointing fingers at those who have helped bring the teaching and public affirmation of the Catholic faith in our day into such a generally low estate: rather, it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself which in effect “accuses” and “points fingers” at them, if such indeed is any true description of what is the case here. The catechism does this simply by affirming, unequivocally, what not a few of the new catechists and the new theologians have been systematically trying to deny over approximately the past generation. The catechism also does this by denying, again unequivocally, what some of the same people have been systematically trying to affirm during all this same postconciliar time.

Among its unequivocal affirmations, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that the Catholic faithful have a right to be instructed in the true faith. The promulgation and diffusion of the catechism thus itself constitutes a giant step forward in accomplishing that very same authentic instruction.

The chief importance of the catechism, then, lies not only in the fact that it so clearly and comprehensively states the faith, the whole faith, and nothing but the faith; it also lies in the additional fact that it is basically accessible to anybody who can read. It may sometimes profit from, but it in no way requires, the mediation of “experts.” Anybody can “look it up” in this catechism, and nobody has to be enthralled by the new catechists any longer.

Still, the catechism will not be self-implementing; its publication does not mean that some of those in the Church’s current religious education establishment will not try to go on conducting catechetical business as usual, trying to persuade Catholics that they, the new catechetical experts, still remain the preferred founts of religious knowledge and practice for modern Catholics. On the contrary, there are more than a few indications that this is precisely the line some of the new catechists and their theological gurus will be taking — pretending, in effect, that the issuance of the new catechism does not really represent any new or essential difference concerning how catechetical instruction has typically been carried on in the years since Vatican II. At a recent workshop for religious educators in the midwest, for example, an associate professor of theology did not fail to assure the religious educators present that “the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only one resource to use in catechesis and was not written for everyone”; the same associate professor on the same occasion further declared that the catechism was “not the full expression of our faith, either.”

Similarly, an archdiocesan director of religious education, also in the midwest, hastened to publish a set of principles on “how to read the catechism in an adult way,” in which he declared, among other things, that the catechism must be used in “balancing the weight of tradition with the insights of theology”; he also said that “the presentation of ‘sure teaching’ must be in dialogue with the actual practice of the Christian” (emphasis added). Thus, while the catechism unequivocally condemns the use of contraception, for example, many Catholics, if polls are to be believed, use it anyway without thinking twice about it — or mentioning it in confession if they go to confession! This is what “balancing” tradition with “theological insights” and carrying on “dialogue” with “sure teaching” inevitably means in practice.

It has been made more than plain in some of the same professional catechetical circles, in fact, that, to the extent that the product in question, the catechism, is to be considered as anything more than merely a document “for the bishops,” it must now be thoroughly “adapted” and “inculturated” — by the new catechists — in order to be suitable for the modern “culture” in which we live today.

Unfortunately, even some of the highest authorities in the Church have lent far too much credence to the idea that this catechism has to be “inculturated” and local versions of it produced. While the idea of inculturation may be perfectly valid in theory, these Church authorities seem to be unaware of how “inculturation,” in the present catechetical climate, can serve as the pretext for those who never wanted this catechism in the first place to be able to try to change it in whatever way they want; they have already seized upon the notion of inculturation thus conveniently provided to them in order to try to water down both its authentic message and its power (not to speak of what Cardinal Ratzinger has called its beauty).

Moreover, we should never lose sight of the fact that the “culture” in which we are obliged to live today John Paul II has aptly called “a culture of death.” The catechism does not need to be “adapted” to this modern culture so much as it surely needs to be used to challenge it, and in a very fundamental way!

Given the kind of world we live in today, it is surprising how often appeals to the “culture” by the new catechists and the new theologians have been thought to be pertinent. Sadly, too many Catholics may still continue to be taken in by this kind of appeal, which they often and typically encounter, of course, within the Church’s own official educational structures; and, out of habit, inattention, laziness, or whatever, too many do continue to be taken in by it.

But there is no longer any excuse for Catholics who do care about the integrity of the faith and how it is being taught to go on complaining about what the new catechists and the new theologians have been doing. Now it is the Church herself that has authoritatively and definitively spoken with the issuance of this catechism. If the catechism is not soon made the basis of the teaching offered in your school or parish, it is now entirely legitimate to ask why. If the catechism is not recognized as the authoritative “point of reference” for settling whatever questions that may arise concerning what is being taught, it is again entirely legitimate to ask why.

Moreover, even if the catechism is not implemented immediately or promptly in our schools or parishes — as may be only too likely for awhile yet, considering the state to which religion teaching has descended over the past generation — we still nevertheless now have the document in hand, and we can and should proceed to use it both for own instruction and edification, as well as for that of our children, associates, relatives, and friends. For the near future we should not only promote this book whenever we can, but a copy of it should henceforth be the gift of choice for confirmations, birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and all other appropriate occasions until the book is simply diffused everywhere. Henceforth it should be as available on everybody’s shelf or bedside table as is the Holy Bible itself.

It is within our power, in other words, to insure a very wide distribution and diffusion of this catechism; and we should not fail to exercise that power. The resulting diffusion of the book will, in turn, insure a wider diffusion of its message than perhaps we can even imagine or foresee at this time. Let us never forget that the true word of God does have a compelling power for those given the opportunity to hear it. With this catechism, we can help multiply those opportunities. Even those who are relatively inarticulate about their faith can nevertheless help pass the faith on by promoting this book of the Church.

For this is a book that can and must “catch on.” Above all, we must not wait for the experts and the professionals to popularize it. Nor must we expect the clergy to do it by themselves either, although priests surely have special opportunities to promote the catechism. Parishes should consider investing in a supply of the volumes to be sold to parishioners, as some parishes have already done. In fact, everybody should consider “investing” in a “supply” of these volumes to be given out as occasions warrant. One of the chief features of the new era which is hopefully being inaugurated by the publication of the catechism is that, by means of it, a new and effective means of re-affirming and spreading the faith has now been given to the whole people of God.

A final word concerning the importance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and it is this: just as the catechism makes the traditional Catholic faith itself accessible, so it also makes accessible, finally — the Second Vatican Council! In a very important sense, this book is the Catechism of Vatican II, just as the Roman Catechism of 1566 is even better known to us as the Catechism of the Council of Trent.

This catechism, although drawing upon “the whole of the Church’s Tradition,” nevertheless does also expressly describe itself as aiming to present “an organic synthesis of the essential contents of the Catholic doctrine as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council.” It singles out the Council, in other words. After sacred Scripture itself, Vatican II is the single most frequently quoted source for the catechism’s teachings.

This is important. Vatican Council II, the twenty-first general council of the Catholic Church, even though it was itself one of the most significant Church events of the twentieth century, has nevertheless been one of the most misunderstood events of the twentieth century as well. In the experience of the average Catholic it has been too often misapplied, and hence it still remains widely misunderstood.

Although students of the history of the Church can make an excellent case that Vatican Council II was not only necessary, it was long overdue — the work of the First Vatican Council, after all, had never been formally completed, having been interrupted by the entry of an Italian occupying army into Rome in September, 1870. Thus Vatican I was never either re-convened or officially closed out. Several subsequent popes thought of reconvening it, but what finally happened, as everybody knows, is that Pope John XXIII finally decided in 1959 to convene an entirely new council, which became Vatican. II.

As everybody more or less realizes, though, Vatican II, as it actually took place, had both “official” results embodied in the sixteen documents which the Council issued, and “unofficial” results which arose at least partly out of the fact that certain liberal elements in the Church desirous of “change” seized upon what they called “the spirit of Vatican II” to import into the Church’s life many things which the Council had not only not mandated or called for, but in some cases had actually prohibited.

Meanwhile, many traditionally-minded “good Catholics,” especially in North America, had never really seen the point of the Council anyway. For them the Church seemed to be “just fine” as she was and no “changes” were considered necessary. When, however, what appeared to be almost a mania of change for its own sake seemingly came to be the principal result of the Council, it was perhaps not surprising that some of these Catholics reacted against what they understood “the Council” to be. Indeed, some traditionally-minded Catholics even today continue to hearken back nostalgically to the pre-conciliar days when the Church seemed “just fine” — when there were more reverent and better attended Masses, sounder teaching, stricter moral practice, more respect for authority, conversions up, vocations up, divorces down, etc. It is not terribly hard to understand, in fact, a preference for the Church as she seemed to be in those days, before she was beset with all the problems that have obviously plagued her since.

It is true that all of the changes in Church practices legitimately voted by the bishops at Vatican II did necessarily mean the inauguration of “an era of change” in the Church. In the course of this particular era, however, a number of other agendas besides Vatican II’s official agenda of conciliar change unfortunately also got introduced into the life of the Church, and too often these alien agendas were successfully promoted by various interested parties working in such areas as theology, liturgy, catechetics, and the like.

Much of the confusion in the Church over the past quarter century, in other words, including especially the new catechesis itself, came in under the guise of changes supposedly mandated by Vatican II. The Council, again, did mandate many changes, though it did not mandate all of those which have actually taken place nor was it responsible for the way in which some of them occurred. The new catechesis itself, though demonstrably incompatible with the doctrines of Vatican II, was nevertheless successfully represented and implemented as something that had been mandated by the Council.

The average Catholic could not distinguish between changes legitimately mandated by proper authority and those introduced on their own by zealots and innovators working within the Church’s own structural “system.” Indeed it has sometimes seemed that many pastors and bishops have had trouble distinguishing which changes have been legitimate and which ones not, according to the authentic mind of Vatican II as set forth in its official enactments.

Doctrinally speaking, of course, Vatican II changed nothing, even while it clarified much and signaled important and legitimate doctrinal developments. Few of the faithful, however, have ever directly studied the sixteen documents of Vatican II in depth. Instead Catholics, out of long-standing habit, have naturally tended to rely on their priests and theologians to interpret and implement all the changes for them; and consequently, depending upon whether the Church’s official Vatican II agenda or a dissenting variant of it was being implemented in any particular case, they got widely varying versions of just what it was that the Council actually taught and mandated and entailed. In fact, things in the Church are still pretty much going on in this same confused fashion today.

In such a confused situation, it is not surprising that some sincere Catholics could even come to question the legitimacy of Vatican II itself. At the very least, it is understandable that they might have sometimes reacted quite negatively to certain things which they had been told and experienced as resulting from “Vatican II.” Some traditionalist Catholics even imagine, apparently, that the whole conciliar and post-conciliar experience has been nothing but a bad dream and that somehow, some day, in their view, the Church will just wake up and restore the Latin Mass and the other practices remembered as the Church of Pope Pius XII, or imagined to be such by those who never experienced it, back before all the unpleasantness began.

This “traditionalist” view, of course, is untenable: there is no way that Vatican II can be considered anything but an entirely legitimate ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, including its doctrinal teachings guaranteed by the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to the extraordinary Magisterium of the Church, and its legitimate practical mandates incumbent upon all loyal Catholics.

With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, it is now possible for the most traditional-minded of Catholics to be able to see how Vatican II really fits into the long and inspired history of the Catholic Church.


  • Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Rev. Michael J. Wrenn is the director of the Catechetical Institute of the New York Archdiocesan Department of Education, Yonkers. Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. His most recent book is Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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