Back to the Basics: Navigating the CatechismGARY SHIRLEY
From nuclear war to stem cell research, modern Catholics wrestle with issues that are simply not addressed in the Sacred Scriptures and far removed from our childhood CCD classes. The new Catechism fills the void by carefully delineating the teachings of the Church and the source reference of those teachings.
From nuclear war to stem cell research, modern Catholics wrestle with issues that are simply not addressed in the Sacred Scriptures and far removed from our childhood CCD classes. The new Catechism fills the void by carefully delineating the teachings of the Church and the source reference of those teachings. The second edition of the Catechism (green cover) was released in 1997 and contains improvements from the first edition such as inclusion of a comprehensive index and glossary.
Reading and studying the text, however, can be a bit daunting to the average Catholic. A catechism is a reference text and should be read as such. Small forays into its depths with subsequent time for reflection is more productive than attempting to read it like a novel. Like Scripture, it presupposes a certain understanding of Sacred Tradition. Without this grounding, readers may have difficulty unearthing the great wisdom in its pages.
Perhaps a short review of some key building blocks of the Catholic faith will assist in this regard. The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church which, guided by the Holy Spirit, seeks to safeguard and explain the truths of the faith. Magisterium comes from the Latin magister meaning “to teach.” All the world’s bishops united with the Pope comprise the Magisterium. Their singular goal is to protect the authentic teachings of Christ until the end of time.
The Deposit of Faith is the body of saving truth entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and handed on by them to the Church to be preserved and proclaimed. This deposit has numerous components, such as the oral tradition of the Apostles, Sacred Scripture, writings of the Fathers of the Church, the documents of the twenty-one Councils of the Church, testimonials of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, and pontifical “teaching letters” (known as encyclicals). As evidenced by the list, the Roman Catholic religion runs deep and wide.
As with any component of the Deposit of Faith, however, the Catechism does not stand alone but is part of a vast mosaic. Like hyperlinks on the Internet, the new Catechism presents a teaching and then leads us on to other references so we can pursue the supporting Scripture passage, theological writings or conciliar document. Those who contend that the Bible is the sole reference for faith life miss out on these profound resources.
How is the catechism structured? It begins with the Apostolic Letter from the Holy Father which describes the evolution of the text and authorizes it as a valid reference for teaching the faith. A review of the Contents page shows that the catechism is set upon four “pillars” which form the framework of the entire text. These pillars, and the doctrines they present, are as follows:
Profession of Faith
This part of the Catechism discusses man’s relationship with God and the unfolding of God’s revelation to man. God chose to reveal Himself slowly over time as Father, Son and Spirit, and the reader begins to see the deep mystery of this relationship. The text carefully lays out the importance of the Old and New Testaments and their value to the Christian. The reader is then taken on a journey through the twelve articles of the Profession of Faith, the creed that summarizes the key truths of the Catholic religion. In summary, this part of the Catechism explains:
A. Divine Revelation
B. Apostolic Tradition
C. Relationship between Scripture and Tradition
D. Sacred Scripture
E. The Profession of Faith (referencing the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds)
Celebration of Christian Mystery
In this part of the Catechism, we plumb the depths of the seven Sacraments. Many of us received the Sacraments in our youth but never understood how deeply they are grounded in Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the teachings of the great Fathers of the Church. The new Catechism opens up each Sacrament and carefully explains the layers of meaning for each of these powerful gifts. Living among many “Bible-only” Christian groups, this exposition is most valuable in helping us defend these profound moments of grace. The text also gives us an understanding of sacramentals, those physical objects which serve to excite pious devotion and remembrance of holy people or events. In summary, this part of the Catechism explains:
A. The Sacraments of Initiation, Healing, and Vocation
Life in Christ
This part of the Catechism encapsulates the teachings of the faith on the inestimable value and dignity of human life. It is here where we explore those issues that often put the Church at odds with the global “culture of death.” We learn about how, from the earliest years of the faith, Christians honored human life from conception to natural death. We go on to learn how, contrary to societal notions, sin and its devastating effects cannot be masked behind euphemisms or “relative” morality. The Catechism conducts an exhaustive review of the Ten Commandments, reminding us that they are still in force and how they must serve as the template to shape our lives. In summary, this part of the Catechism explains:
A. Dignity of the Human Person
B. Christian Morality
E. Social Justice
F. The Ten Commandments
The last section of the Catechism offers insights into the importance of maintaining intimate contact with our Creator through prayer. We learn about the various types of prayer, the intrinsic value of prayer and the obstructions that can affect the quality of our prayer life. Prayer is essential to our pilgrimage but, like any endeavor, it takes practice and commitment. Saints have reminded us that God is interested in quality, not quantity. The Catechism closes with a superb exposition of the Our Father, the prayer taught to us by the Lord himself. In summary, this part of the Catechism explains:
A. The Revelation of Prayer
B. The Tradition of Prayer
C. The Life of Prayer
D. The Lord’s Prayer
A wonderful feature of the book is that, after every few pages, there is a bullet-type summary (known as In Brief) encapsulating the major points presented. In a culture grown accustomed to sound bites, each In Brief section gives us a quick review and provides the cross-reference back to the main text. These summaries come in handy when the material is especially deep or theologically complex.
A journey through this profound document would be extremely difficult were it not for the supporting material that comprises almost one-fourth of the book’s total pages. Located at the very back of the Catechism, this material gives us the tools to pursue the source of Catholic beliefs and doctrines. It starts off with the Index of Citations which give us the source reference of each footnote, from Sacred Scripture (all taken from the Revised Standard Version or the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible) to the Ecumenical Councils, the Pontifical Documents, Canon Law, and the Ecclesiastical Writers.
Perhaps the most important navigation tool is the Index of Topics, an improvement made to the second edition of the Catechism. This comprehensive Index is a wonderful pathway to the vast array of topics inside. Those new to the faith find it especially helpful to go here first. They find a topic of interest or concern to them and zero in on the appropriate paragraph in the text to see where the Church stands on that issue. Coming from a “Bible only” background, it is often a revelation for them to see that the Church has squarely faced the difficult issues of the age and given a clear, supported teaching. For those of us who grew up in the Catholic faith, we find comfort in the fact that the Catholic Church is consistent, i.e. that her commitment to virtue, piety and moral living is always the same no matter what new challenge comes along. The difficult topics addressed by the Catechism remind us that Holy Mother Church never was, nor will ever be, afraid to stand as a moral voice for all ages. A helpful Glossary follows the Index, which aids in understanding some liturgical or theological terms we may not come across every day.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a treasure. Its riches are wide open to the faithful, reminding us that we are members of an ancient Church, “...so old yet so new.” In mining the wisdom of its pages we hear, once again, the voices of the Apostles, the Popes, the Fathers, and the Saints. They remind us that, in our humility before the world, we can still be proud to be members of the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ.
Gary Shirley. "Back to the Basics: Navigating the Catechism." St. Catherine's website.
This article was published for the St. Catherine's website.
Gary Shirley, his wife, and three children are members of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Kennesaw, Georgia, where Gary serves as catechist in the adult education program. This article is part of a monthly series Back to the Basics and is used by permission of the author. Gary can be reached via email at email@example.com.
© 2003 St.Catherine of Siena.org
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.