When we speak of “catechism” today, we most likely refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
For more than a decade, bishops, theologians and other experts have worked on a “compendium of all Catholic doctrine concerning both faith and morals”. The fruit of their labor was the Catechism, an organized presentation of the essential teachings of the Catholic Church regarding both faith and morals, “in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole tradition of the Church “.
The creation of an official, authoritative and authentic reference text for the teaching and transmission of Catholic doctrine was not new, however. In 1566 the so-called Roman Catechism was published in response to the request made three years earlier by the Council of Trent. Used until 1978, it inspired, as expected, the creation of many national catechisms.
Often these nationals catechisms were in the form of questions and answers, bringing to life the very meaning of the word catechism, derived from the Greek verb “to echo”. For centuries, students would repeat or rehearse answers to questions to their teachers, who perhaps hoped that students would not only learn Catholic doctrine but echo the faith in their own lives.
In the United States, the most famous of these question-and-answer catechisms is the Baltimore Catechism. Published by Baltimore’s Third Plenary Council in 1884 and in use until at least 1962, its 421 questions and answers have become ingrained in the minds of millions of American Catholic high school students who grew up before the council.
Although Catholics around the world flocked to buy a copy of the 1992 edition (it became a bestseller), the catechism was not intended for the study and reflection of Catholics in general. Its intended readers are “those responsible for catechesis”, namely bishops, priests and catechists.
In 2006, the American bishops published the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA), intended for American Catholics. Based on the CCC, it is written in light of American Catholic experience and developed for the ongoing formation and growth of adult Catholics.
But neither catechism is meant to be the sole reference for Catholic teaching. It contains only small sections of the actual documents it refers to. The rich tradition of the Church, the Bible and the liturgy enlighten each other and help us to grow in faith, hope and love.
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of american catholic (Vol. 76, No. 7, page 46).
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