Seventeen years after its first publication, The Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to fascinate and instruct readers around the world. Today’s column enumerates a few of the things that inspire and delight me about The Catechism. Call it Catechism trivia if you like.
The Catechism is a Monumental Achievement
The idea for the Catechism of the Catholic Church came in the first days of the Extraordinary Synod in Rome in October 1985. John Paul II convened this meeting of the world’s bishops, who were the presidents of their national bishops’ conferences, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Vatican II.
The bishops discerned that, as the world has become a “global village,” there was a growing need for the one faith of the Church to be proclaimed in a single universal volume. Not that there weren’t already catechisms available. But there had not been a UNIVERSAL catechism, or major catechism, in over 400 years, since the Roman Catechism of 1566, following the Council of Trent.
Historically speaking, this was a big deal for Catholics. And a major undertaking of faithfully handing on the Deposit of Faith, as received from the Apostles through the ages. It required a systematic catechetical overhaul of the Roman Catechism, while maintaining integrity of content. Plus it must incorporate the enormous wealth of two millennia of Christian experience. The goal was to create a universal resource that made the teachings of the Catholic Church accessible both for the modern Catholic, and for generations to come.
(And just for a moment, consider that this global task began in the late 80s before widespread use of email and electronic reference texts and tools existed. Not only that, you pretty much would want to hire a spiritual Superman for the job, given the impact this work is going to have. Imagine the job description: Wanted: Excellent communicator with a genius level understanding of Catholic doctrine and theology, coupled with a passionate fidelity to orthodoxy. Candidate should possess a pastor’s heart and concern for those who teach and learn the faith. Success as a published author a must!)
In 1986, following the Synod’s recommendation for a new universal catechism, John Paul II assigned Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to lead a commission of bishops and Cardinals to develop the next universal catechism. Ratzinger, a renowned theologian and author in his own right, and the Pope’s go-to man as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would later become Pope Benedict XVI.
Over 6 years, the new catechism received the input of over 1000 bishops worldwide – a true work of collegiality between the bishops, the pope, with the Holy Spirit. Over 24,000 modifications were assimilated into the text from the bishops’ suggestions through the skillful editing and writing style of Christoph Schönborn, (a former Ratzinger protégé, now Cardinal of Vienna, Austria.)
Finally, the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was presented in October 1992 in French. It was the 30thanniversary of the opening of Vatican II. The English edition arrived later in 1994. The official Latin version was published in August 1997.
To date, The Catechism has been translated into over 50 languages.
The Proportions of the Text
The Catechism is both concise and comprehensive. It uses a numbering system, as do many ecclesial texts, to reference its subject matter. There are 2865 numerical paragraphs in total.
There are four parts, sometimes called “pillars”, of The Catechism:
· Part One (beliefs or creed) represents 39% of the content, and covers paragraphs 1-1065.
· Part Two (sacraments) = 23% and covers paragraphs 1066-1690.
· Part Three (the Christian life) = 27% and covers paragraphs 1691-2557.
· Part Four (prayer) = 11% and covers paragraphs 2558-2865.
The actual doctrinal portion of The Catechism covers about 700 pages, depending on font size of the version you read. It’s multiple indices and glossary are 100-200 pages.
In June 2005, Benedict XVI released the Compendium, a shorter, more concise format of The Catechism, using a question and answer format. It does not replace The Catechism, but serves as a faithful introduction to the doctrines presented in the larger work.
Each page of doctrine is heavily footnoted and cross-referenced. (One gets a good education just by meandering through The Catechism’s many sources!)
Scripture is the most frequently cited source in The Catechism. In fact, 40 out of 46 books of the Old Testament are cited, and all 27 books of the New Testament are quoted. It is a wonderful to discover the biblical underpinnings of Catholic doctrines. I recommend having a bible nearby when reading The Catechism for referring to the scriptures found in the footnotes. (Or use the resource below.)
The Documents of Vatican II are the second most quoted source. (You might want to have a copy of that handy too! Or use the resource below.) Sixteen other ecumenical councils from history are also quoted.
The writings from 22 popes are quoted, as is Canon Law, and numerous other ecclesiastical documents.
Hundreds of quotes from over 50 saints, Church Fathers, and Doctors provide a wealth of inspiration for one’s meditation. By the way, 6 of which are women: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Rose of Lima, St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.
The most quoted saint in The Catechism is St. Augustine with 87 citations, followed by St. Thomas Aquinas with 61.
The Catechism and Related Works On-line
To conclude, allow me to share useful websites for your reading. While I always encourage Catholics to buy copies of The Catechism for their personal reading, I realize that many Catholics find their reference needs online. The sites below are worthy of bookmarks in your browser.
1. My favorite source for The Catechism on-line is the website sponsored by St. Charles Borromeo’s Parish. This is a wonderful apostolate, and their site has a very user-friendly search engine: https://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm.
2. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops also has The Catechism online, but the search engine is difficult to use. However, their site provides the glossary to The Catechism, which is handy, and not always found on other sites:https://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/.
3. The Vatican website, naturally, has any reference work you might need. The search engine, while comprehensive, is a little tedious for beginners. But here’s what you can find:
The Catechism: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM
The Documents of Vatican II: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/index.htm
4. The Catechism uses the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible in its text. To browse or search the RSV Bible, go here:https://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rsv/.
©2009 Patricia W. Gohn
This article first appeared at CatholicExchange.com.