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The Place of the Catechism

Ever since I wrote here about the importance of care with language, distinguishing between “Vatican” teaching and authentic “church” teaching, (What are “Church teaching” and “Church” teaching?) our reader David has been engaging me in a dialogue in the comments thread, which has come around to a discussion of the place of the Catechism. As I do not like to use comments as a place for complex arguments, and as the issue of the Catechism is an important issue in its own right, I want to reply to David’s last question here, instead.

First, a selection from the comments thread of the relevant points on the Catechism which have gone before:

Terence: The Catechism is a dumbed down summary of the content of teaching across a wide range of primary sources, best known for its use in teaching children by rote. The modern version is better, but I still cannot understand why otherwise intelligent adults use it as a substitute for thought

David: And you would propose what as the textbook?

Terence: I wouldn’t.

David: What are you proposing as “the Church’s teachings”? How is a layperson, such as myself, supposed to inform himself on the Church’s teachings?

And it is this last question, which I have not yet answered, that I want to address here.

My own education was entirely in Catholic schools. Throughout my primary education, at least since I was old to enough to use textbooks, a catechism was a key part of my religious education – in primary school. First, it was a slim little red one, later a slightly fatter edition, in a pale sea green, if memory is correct.  We used this for rote learning. When I moved to high school, the Catechism disappeared. Instead, the key book that was used to in our RE classes became the Bible, in a Ronald Knox edition. Over the course of five years, we explored the Bible from many different perspectives, highlighting passages, checking the cross-references in the footnotes, writing out verses and summarising important passages. (How I wish I still had that old Bible, which for years I carted around the country with me, unopened). In the early years, we concentrated on the narratives of the Old Testament. Later, we covered the Gospel stories and parables, and later still investigated specific themes as illustrated in Biblical texts: “God is love“,  “God is Truth“, “God is father”, “God is compassion“, “God is Mercy”, “God is Justice“, “God is Light“, “God is Wisdom“, and so on. To illustrate each, we hunted down and wrote out in our exercise books a wide selection of relevant verses, and memorised them all. But although we memorized the verses, they were always presented to us as guiding principles, not as a set of rules. Formal Bible study was also supplemented by a wide range of other lesson material, from practice with different forms of prayer and meditation, to homely and uplifting stories from the Reader’s Digest. In the last years of school there were even lessons examining the lyrics of popular songs of the day – the late sixties – for both the damaging (drugs, indiscriminate sex) and more inspiring messages (love, justice ) they might contain. More  and more, in the later years, the emphasis was on thinking for ourselves and evaluating moral principles, rather than simply applying rules.

I suppose this has coloured my approach to religious formation ever since.  For me, the Catechism is firmly positioned in my mind as part of elementary rote learning, while a more mature approach to learning about the faith includes reflection on Scripture,  the use of supplementary materials, and consideration of competing views.  This was further modified for me during the years in which I was heavily involved in the Christian Life Communities (CLC) in Johannesburg. For the CLC, the “formation” program was essentially about offering training in Ignatian spirituality, in the application of specific techniques of prayer not just to to send messages to the Lord, but also to learn to listen to the messages God is sending to us, with direct application to our personal lives.

I fully recognise that the modern Catechism is directed at adults, and is far more sophisticated than the kiddy version I had at school, but for me the fundamental problem remains. It is a dumbed down summary of a range of complex documents – and represents quite specifically the thinking of the Vatican. It most certainly has a place, but we need to understand what that place is. David asked “What textbook would I use?”, and I replied “I wouldn’t”. I do not believe that religious belief can be simply reduced to a set of rules inscribed in a text book.

He asks further “How is a layperson, such as myself, supposed to inform himself on the Church’s teachings?”, to which I now reply, by all means us the Catechism to inform yourself on the Church’s (i.e. Vatican) teachings, at least in the first instance. But understand that it is just a summary, sometimes of far more nuanced and complex issues, and that far more important than Vatican teaching is the discernment of God’s will. The two, Vatican teaching and Christ’s teaching, do not always co-incide.

So alongside familiarity with the Catechism as a guide to Vatican teaching, I urge the use of Scripture, and reflective prayer, especially what the Jesuits call the prayer of awareness (“examen of consciousness”) to discern what the Lord is saying to us about our own lives.  I also recommend the open-minded reading of additional material, of views from other sources and of additional Vatican  documents, and the use of our God-given powers of intellect and reason, assisted by prayer,  to  evaluate the confused and conflicting  messages that will ensue.

Use the Catechism by all means. to inform oneself on “Church” teaching. Just do not treat it as a text book, or confuse it with Gospel truth.


13 Responses

  1. Terence,

    Many thanks for the special effort.

  2. Dear Terrance et all,
    I would like to respond re: the uses of the Catechism. I served as Coordinator of Rel. Ed in several parishes.
    This was in the 80’s and early 90’s, before this Catechism came out. We had text books, but getting volunteers, mostly lay persons to actually use the textbooks, teacher’s manuals and visual aids was almost impossible. People taught whatever they had absorbed growing up and a great deal of it was off the proverbial wall. There was great need for a reference material that actually stated what the Church intended.
    Not at all a totally by-the-book person myself, I found myself wishing there existed a source of reliable faith matters. Once I pointed out to a teacher that what he was teaching was Protestant Fundamentalism. He thought for a second and replied: “Well, we’re MAKING it Catholic.”
    Please remember the needs of those under the heading of “Here comes everybody”, they are al around you.

    • Pat,

      I think you make some very valid points. Personally, I think the Catechism is a wonderful reference manual on the teachings of the Church, even if the teachings are expressed by the Vatican.

      It might not work very well for theologians and philosophers, but for lay Catholics there is more than enough material to give a quick, broad overview of the subject matter.

  3. Good stuff here. I dislike the catechism because the popular feeling is just what Pat Stack asks for. Where can I find the rule book? If I just knew that, then the rest can be left up to experts.

    I firmly believe that most of our rules and thought must remain speculative. Jesus gives us those simple, never easy rules. Love God. Love each other. Forgive more than you think you can. Take up your yoke. He also says that those who say they see are blind, and those who are blind are not doomed to darkness but can come to see.

    We chuckle at the insolence and hubris of the Jewish hierarchy in creating a rule book, and then we make our own, as if these rules and thoughts won’t change and grow as they always have. Much better in this time of high speed communication would be a Thesaurus, a Concordance, a reference to passages and authors. Those who need to delve more deeply (I’m one of them, and blessed are those who don’t need so much research to believe) can search our Catholic multiverse of faithful opinions.

    Terence, what a cool and faithful teaching method you were exposed to. I didn’t appreciate it at the time either. I miss the feeling that I was entrusted with these guideposts. Instead, today it feels like teaching entails getting me to line up properly, and I’m way too Irish for that.

    • Thanks, mjc.

      When I was at school, I was one of those bookish types who enjoyed every subject – except for history, and least of all religion. I absolutely did not appreciate the quality of what I was getting until many years later, after I had left the church and returned to it.(Even better, we had the option (not compulsory, mind, except on major feast days) of attending Mass four days a week.

      It’s also ironic that one of my concerns at Queering the Church is precisely combining history and religion!

  4. I think that is very interesting. I went through 8 years of Catholic schooling and never once saw a catechism book. (This was 80s-early 90s.)

    The first copy of the Catechism I ever saw was when my aunt, outraged that I was marrying a Lutheran, mailed it to me with a letter telling me to “read this and learn.” I dumped it in the garbage and have been happily married for almost 10 years!

    • Sounds good to me, Erin – although many Catholic loyalists would be horrified.

      • Here is a statement from the Prologue:

        “To conclude this Prologue, it is fitting to recall this pastoral principle stated by the Roman Catechism:

        ‘The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.’

        Throw the Catechism in the garbage if that is what you want. But, I think there is much to be learned. And, I can think of no better synopsis of the Church’s teachings than the Catechism.

        • David, that’s an admirable principle. and I thank you for pointing it out. Unfortunately, there are fer too many people who ignore it, in their own abuse of the Catechism as a weapon to bully those who disagree with their own limited sense of Catholicism – quite inappropriately, as Bill Lindsey has shown in his own post on the subject.


        • Terry,

          I agree with you. Scripture is often read quite narrowly to promote a specific agenda.

          However, it is easy to create a limited sense of “Catholic” and limited sense of “catholic” by disavowing the merits of what the Vatican is teaching through the Catechism.

          I think the Catechism has to be read in prayful reflection. If one assumes that it was written in conjuction with the Holy Spirit a much deeper and fuller sense of the document emerges. So, in that sense, I can’t agree with Bill about the merits of the Catechism.

          • Though you’re addressing Terry, David, you conclude by making a statement about your disagreement with my position.

            So I’d like to respond.

            I haven’t ever heard, throughout the history of Catholic teaching, that our catechisms are “written in conjunction with the Holy Spirit.”

            This ups the ante vis-a-vis catechisms in a very dangerous way, one that tries to absolutize what we’ve always known to be historically conditioned presentations of core doctrines. It lends a patina of divine authority to a human document which, frankly, dilutes the divine authority of Scripture itself.

            Catechisms are and always have been historically and culturally conditioned presentations of the core teachings of the church, written for particular audiences. We would no more read a catechism written in the 16th century today as a document to be received with divine authority, “written in conjuction with the Holy Spirit,” than we’d read the Baltimore Catechism that way.

            Why? Catechisms aren’t written in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. They don’t have divine authority. They don’t even, to a great extent, make sense to those who aren’t living in the historical and cultural context in which they’re written.

            Like any other human document, catechisms are written by human beings, who inevitably have human political goals and agendas. I happen to have been “on the scene” as the current catechism was written, insofar as I was teaching theology at the time and knew several people (all teaching theology in seminaries) who were sent copies of the proofs of this document, to read and make comments on before it was published.

            In each case, they were sent huge documents with a day or so turnaround time, which–as they well knew, and they knew this was the game plan from Rome–prevented their reading the document carefully and making careful comments. This catechism was imposed from the top down with only a pretense of consultation with the bishops and theologians of the church.

            It may or may not be a good statement of Catholic teaching at this point in history, for the Euro-American context in which it was primarily crafted and which it primarily addresses. Divinely inspired it’s not, nor is any catechism throughout history.

            And it has never been part of our tradition to make such a claim about catechisms. That claim departs from traditional Catholic teaching in a fairly dramatic way.

          • Bill,

            I am not suggesting that it was divinely inspired so as it make it Sacred Scriptures.

            I am suggesting that it be read, by the reader, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. If one reads it in its most spiritual light, or as is suggested in the Prologue – in the light of love – a completely different meaning comes through.

          • David, I appreciate the clarification.

            But you said, “If one assumes that it was written in conjuction with the Holy Spirit a much deeper and fuller sense of the document emerges.”

            My remarks are directed to the claim that this or any catechism is “written in conjunction with the Holy Spirit.”

            This is a claim that, to the best of my knowledge, all Christian churches have never made about their catechisms, precisely because the language of something being “written in conjunction with the Holy Spirit” is reserved exclusively for the Scriptures as the Word of God.

            The churches have–rightly, to my mind–recognized that it would be very dangerous to extend that language beyond the scriptures to documents like the catechism, or even credal statements, for that matter.

            One can speak of the Spirit’s presence and inspiration in various documents, in the lives of believers, etc. But that’s very different from saying that a document is “written in conjunction with the Holy Spirit.”

            Interestingly enough, a cursory search at the google site for discussions on Catholic blogs about the catechism as a divinely inspired and/or infallible document doesn’t return many hits. And the hits the search does return show (me, at least) that even “traditionalist” Catholic sites want to shy away from language about the catechism as infallible (i.e., divinely inspired).

            In one interesting discussion I found through google on a “traditionalist” blog, some readers were opining that they really do wish the catechism could be declared infallible. But others who share their “traditionalist” views responded, saying that this is not a claim the church has ever made or wants to make–for the reasons I’ve discussed above.

            At a deeper level, the hankering of some Catholics today for a divinely inspired catechism reveals just how much authentic catechizing the church needs to do–and hasn’t done, in this period in which the catechism has been in effect.

            I’d submit that this hankering, and the mistaken belief of some Catholics that the catechism is an infallible document, demonstrates the validity of my argument: the answer-book approach to the catechism has had some really deleterious effects on our church at this point in history.

            I understand people’s thirst for absolute certainty. But that certainty is to be found in God alone. Locating absolute certainty anyplace else, especially in a book, is idolatrous.

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