A look at the Catechism after 30 years


Dorothy Day pinpointed the problem. The co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, whose Orthodox faith coexists with radical social views, said she didn’t want to be called a saint because then people would stop paying attention to what she said. (It’s hard to say what Day would say now, as her cause for canonization is underway and she bears the title of Servant of God.)

Of course, the situation is very different with the Catechism of the Catholic Church — not a person but a book, and therefore not a candidate for sainthood. Yet 30 years after its publication, the catechism risks becoming the literary equivalent of a saint – an object of respect and veneration that holds an esteemed place in the Church but does not receive the attention it deserves. from many of the faithful.

If so, it is a great loss, but not so much for the catechism as for those who do not read it. In three decades this volume has aged remarkably well and, while not exactly what you would call a good read, it is a book that, read slowly and carefully, is capable of attracting attention, uplift spirits and even warm hearts from time to time. — perpetually topical precisely because of its timelessness.

“This catechism is intended as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith as a whole,” the text boldly announces at the start. Today, just like 30 years ago, it is a daunting and ambitious goal that she is remarkably successful in achieving.

Here, a bit of history is in order.

In January 1985, Pope John Paul II convened an “extraordinary general assembly” of the World Synod of Bishops to discuss successes and failures in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council over the previous two decades since its end. Among the problems of this time was the rise of public dissent—and, with it, public confusion—about Church teaching.

Pope John Paul II commissioned Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI, to oversee the writing of the Catechism in the 1980s. Benedict XVI later called the completion of the seven-year process a “miracle.” (CNS/Catholic Press)

Now, 400 years after the Catechism of the Council of Trent, hadn’t the time come for a new universal catechism which would expose Catholic doctrine in the light of Vatican II as its predecessor had done after Trent?

The synod’s response was a resounding yes. The pope readily accepted. Conceptually, at least, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was born.

A commission of 12 cardinals chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was set up to draft the text, assisted by a committee of seven diocesan bishops. Looking back many years later, Cardinal Ratzinger – now known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI – called it “a miracle…that this project finally succeeded”.

One of the obvious reasons for his surprise was the scale of the project. The participants in the synod had asked for “a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine concerning both faith and morals” to serve as a reference for national catechisms. The presentation of doctrine, they said, had to be “biblical and liturgical” as well as “appropriate to contemporary Christian life.”

It would have been asking a lot at the best of times, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the catechism were far from the best. In fact, not everyone welcomed the idea of ​​a universal catechism, especially those who found doctrinal dissent and confusion favorable to their goals and were happy to see it continue. Seen in this light, an authorized text stating in black and white the faith of the Church would only be embarrassing.

Despite opposition, however, over the next seven years Cardinal Ratzinger’s “miracle” progressed steadily. Written in French, nine distinct projects were prepared. The commission of cardinals sent a draft text to world bishops to solicit their comments, and soon responses were pouring in. While reaction to the text was generally positive, 24,000 separate comments arrived offering additions, subtractions and changes.

The approved text was finally published on October 11, 1992—significantly, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—along with an “apostolic constitution” by Pope John Paul titled “Fidei Depositum” (“The Deposit of the faith”) .

Just as Saint Pope John XXIII convened the Council with the aim of safeguarding and making more accessible the doctrinal body entrusted to the Church, so, said Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church now presented as “a norm for the teaching of the faith and therefore a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion”.

Quoting the first letter of Saint Peter, the pope said the catechism was intended for pastors of the Church in their capacity as teachers, for lay Catholics seeking to deepen their faith and for all those who seek “a testimony of the hope that is in us”. …who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. (Shutterstock)

Adopting the same structure as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the text organizes its 2,865 numbered paragraphs into four main sections (“pillars”): the creed, the liturgy and the sacraments, the Christian way of life considered according to the order of Ten Commandments, and prayer discussed with reference to the requests of the Our Father.

In presenting the Catechism, Pope John Paul emphasized the Christocentric nature of this structure: “Being dead and risen, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in the sacraments; he is the source of our faith, the model of Christian conduct and the master of our prayer.

If the doctrinal formulations are at the heart of the catechism, the text contains many others. One of the characteristics of the catechism is its extensive use of material drawn from sources such as the Old and New Testaments, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, ecumenical councils, papal documents and canon law. In this way, the reader comes into contact with the lived faith as it has been transmitted over the centuries and expressed by people as diverse as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Teresa of Lisieux.

But for readers who don’t want so many words, the Vatican published in 2005 a Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church described by Pope Benedict XVI as a “faithful and sure synthesis” of the older and longer work. . Organized on the same plane as the Catechism, he said, it more briefly sets out the elements of Catholic belief in an effort to make the Catechism “more widely known and more deeply understood.”

The fourth section of the catechism, a treatment of prayer based on the Our Father, ends with a prayer by the fourth-century doctor of St. Cyril’s Church in Jerusalem.

Thirty years later, the words of the great doctor appropriately conclude this remarkable work: “Then, after the end of the prayer, you say ‘Amen’, which means ‘So be it’, thus ratifying with our ‘Amen which is contained in the prayer that God has taught us.


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