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Catholics And Catechisms

Reading here and there, I sometimes have the impression that there is some misconception about what a catechism is.

Particularly the younger generations (those grown up in the doctrinal vacuum of the Paul VI – JP II era) must be under the impression that the one issued under Pope John Paul II is the Catechism, either believing that there was no catechism before it or that this catechism made everything that came before it superfluous.

I would like to point out to a couple of concepts and give the reader some background and reading hints.

1) A catechism is not infallible. Every catechism is nothing more than an attempt at explaining Catholic teaching in a way easily digestible for the non theologically trained laity. Similarly, no catechism is mandatory. There is an official catechism, but every catechism approved by ecclesiastical authority (particularly if in tempi non sospetti, as we say in Italy) can be used with profit.

2) Catechisms are broadly of three types: for small children (that is: coming from the time when people still cared to convey Christianity to children); for boys and girls approaching the age of confirmation or preparing to it and, lastly, for adults and confirmed youth. In some cases, entire sets of catechisms were released at the same time (the Catechisms of St. Pius X and the Baltimore Catechisms are probably the best known examples).

3) As a result, some catechisms can be of better quality than others, and some better suited to the intended readership. Always for this reason, catechisms can be criticised if someone believes that they contain doctrinal errors. As a catechism is never ex cathedra, it is never expression of papal infallibility.

4) Typically, a catechism was written in question/answer format, a remnant of a time when important things had to learned by heart (and as a result, remained impressed in the faithful’s memory) and the question/answer method made it easier both to learn the subject matter and to control the level of preparation of the pupil. I don’t need to comment about the consequences of abandoning this method.

5) There are many catechisms and every good catechism can be used by you with profit. With the recovery of Catholic tradition and the advent of the internet, the access to catechisms is nowadays certainly better than at any other time in the history of Christianity. Therefore you can easily pick a catechism that suits you and start working seriously on it. Catechisms are also more and more available as applications for smartphones, which means that you can have your favourite catechism always with you and read from it on the train, in a queue, etc.

Following, I will give some information about the catechisms I know myself. I am grateful for every indication of further catechisms available in English.

1) Catechism of John Paul II.

This is, if you ask me, the worst catechism of them all. I mention it first so that you are not tempted to waste money by buying a paper copy of it. This catechism is written for a more mature audience (priests themselves, and well-instructed laity). It is not truly fit for summarily instructed Catholics (that is: most of them). Furthermore, it is burdened by an obsessive need to justify almost every concept with V II documents, which besides being grating in itself gives the not properly instructed Catholic (that is: most of them) the impression that Catholic doctrine is obsolete if not confirmed by the Council; furthermore, it makes the printed work bulky and unpractical to carry. This catechism is also notable for the huge effort of political correctness and attempt at making people digest uncomfortable concepts (say: doctrine of war, or capital punishment) by formulating them in the most clouded way as possible. This is clearly wrong as Truth must be given straight, not diluted according to the readers’ dalai-lama-cum-ghandi prejudices.

This catechism is also notorious for having been heavily attacked by a noted theologian of the XX century, simply known as the Abbé de Nantes, who accused it of being heretical on a dozen of counts. Whilst the Abbe de Nantes was a man not noted for mincing words and prone to extreme criticism, on this occasion he must have found attentive ears in the Vatican, as you will read below.

If you need to improve your Catholic instruction – let alone if you need to begin with it – the best thing that you can do with this catechism is to stay away from it.

2) Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This is a serious catechism. It is commonly called the catechism of Benedict XVI because published during his pontificate and probably with his massive intervention. The date of publication is so near to Pope Benedict’s accession that it is widely thought that this catechism was ready and – so to speak – waiting for the end of JP II’s pontificate to be published. This beautiful catechism is notable for the following elements:

1) It recovers the traditional question/answer form.
2) It is easy to read and to carry and it does what a catechism is supposed to do: provide a short but effective and orthodox instruction for everyone.
3) It reacts to the criticisms of the Abbe’ de Nantes – to the full, widely published satisfaction of the latter – on all accounts.

This practical, beautiful, unimpeachable work should find a place on the shelves of every Catholic.

3) Douay Catechism of 1649

This catechism, now available online, is a masterpiece of Catholic writing. The extreme elegance and beauty of the language is the more astonishing, because still very clear and easy to understand even for a foreigner. This work is kept short and to the point, and its question and answer system is extremely effective. This is a diamond of a catechism. You compare this and JP II’s work and can’t avoid thinking that the ability to write properly is not what it used to be.

4) “Penny Catechism”

This is another little pearl of a catechism. It was issued In Pennsylvania but being very little and cheap to buy probably owes its name to the penny it cost to purchase it. It has accompanied the formation of countless young Catholics. Its English is not as elegant as the Douay’s, but this is a highly effective instrument to learn the basics quickly and seriously. The 370 answers/questions were meant to be memorised and digested one a day for around a year. This little book will easily bring every Catholic to a level of orthodoxy and knowledge of Catholic doctrine far surpassing that of most Catholic politicians, and of the totality of “liberal” Catholic bishops. At the same time, such catechisms give one the entire measure of the massacre of basic Catholic instruction coldly perpetrated and ruthlessly executed after V II.

5) Baltimore Catechisms

This is also a product of the US clergy of the XIX century. Three catechisms of increased levels of difficulty were issued, plus a fourth one that is the No.3 with an added commentary. As you can expect, the quality of the work is very high and the availability of different versions allows one to pick the catechism most suitable to his needs. We can note from this catechism that a seven-to-eight-years-old child was fitter in his Catholic instruction than the vast majority of nowadays’ cafeteria catholics and – possibly – than a good number of regular churchgoers. Go figure.

6) Catechism of St. Pius X

This is the unofficial translation in English, made a couple of decades ago to encourage the diffusion of one of the catechisms of St. Pius X. The great Pope and Saint was responsible for the creation of three such catechisms (again: for little children, for more advanced young men and women and for adults), though their adoption never became mandatory and they only found regional application. I found years ago (and lost in a hard disk casualty) the Italian version some years ago and once again, the clarity of the Italian therein used greatly impressed me. The English translation seems rather good too, though it is important to remember that this is not an official version.

These are the choices I would recommend. Again, I don’t think it wise to waste money on the V-II ridden, politically correct, bulky and unsuitable for beginners JP II’s product.

I hope this helps. Best wishes of progress in Catholic instruction to you.


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