Happy anniversary to the Catechism!
This treasure of the church, which provides “a sure norm for teaching the faith,” is celebrating its 25th year in existence. Envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and brought to fruition under Pope St. John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to guide the church in the work of evangelization today.
Handing on the Faith
While the truth of God’s revelation never changes, growth in its understanding, the need to apply it to current situations, and the expression of it in a meaningful way necessitate its relevant and effective communication throughout various times and places. For example, Jesus did not have to address the issue of weapons of mass destruction with his disciples, and St. Peter did not have to respond to the moral implications of embryonic stem cell research among his people. Thus the need for a catechism to remain up-to-date.
Prior to the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Oct. 11, 1992 (coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council), the last time a universal catechism was published occurred almost 500 years ago. What prompted the writing of a universal catechism at that time was the need to clarify certain teachings of the church in light of the Protestant Reformation.
What is distinct about a universal catechism is that it is addressed to the entire world. Local catechisms with which we may be familiar, such as the Baltimore Catechism or the more current United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, are derived from a universal catechism. Local catechisms don’t change the church’s teachings but present them in a way that is applicable to a certain audience.
Our current universal catechism came as a result of the Second Vatican Council, whose “principal task … was to guard and better present the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will” (Fidei Depositum). This council was not called to condemn errors of the time, as some earlier councils had been. Instead, this council responded to the need to show the beauty and relevancy of the church and the truths of the faith more clearly to the world.
By focusing renewed attention on certain doctrinal statements and providing guidance for the church’s pastoral activities, the council’s purpose was to bring about “renewal of thought, action, practices, and moral virtue, of joy and hope” among mankind (ibid.). In the years following the council, it was determined that a way to foster this change was through the creation of a universal catechism, one which would provide a summary of the church’s teachings on faith and morals (what we believe and how we are called to live).
The teachings in the Catechism are structured in such a way that the book can be used as a reference, including such things as an index, glossary, and paragraph numbers. Someone wanting to know what the church teaches about the Sacrament of Reconciliation can use the index to look up the appropriate paragraph.
But even though the Catechism is structured in a reference format, it is much more than an encyclopedia. The Catechism interweaves the truths of our faith in a beautiful, organic way, telling the story of God’s desire to share his own life with us and how he has made that possible. It has been described as a “symphony of the faith.”
What we profess in our creed, stating who we believe God is – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and what He has done – created us, came to earth as man, suffered and died, rose from the dead – and what He wants us to do – be joined to him through his church, united with the communion of saints, now and eternally – leads to our participation in his saving work through the sacraments. This sharing in the life of God’s grace allows us to grow in holiness and draws us into deeper relationship with God through prayer.
All of these seemingly varied aspects of our faith come together in the Catechism, teaching us, exhorting us, and leading us to live in union with the one who made us.
The Catechism is a compendium, or collection, of God’s revealed truth and what the church has reflected upon, taught, and handed on through the years. The hundreds of footnotes show the sources that articulate these truths – Scripture, church councils, papal documents, liturgical texts, and saints’ writings. The Catechism provides a wonderful summary of what the church believes and teaches. Because its source is God’s revelation, it is not just one opinion among many. It communicates the truth of God.
An exciting thing about the Catechism is that this summary of the church’s teaching is accessible to everyone. We don’t need to gain access to ancient documents locked away in the archives of the Vatican. We don’t need to obtain a degree in theology. We don’t even need money to purchase it, because it can be accessed online or even checked out of a public library.
The celebration of the 25th year of the Catechism’s existence can help us discover or rediscover the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Catholic faith, leading us into deeper relationship with God, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (CCC Prologue).
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.