Radio Show

What Is the Catechism?


A radio listener, who isn’t Catholic but who loves the show and is interested in learning more about the faith, calls Father Dave with a series of questions concerning the same topic: the Catechism. “Where did it come from? Who wrote it? Are there different versions? Does it ever get updated? Is it the same for everybody?”

Father Dave starts off by explaining that the word “catechism” can be used in a couple of different ways. For the purposes of answering her questions, Father Dave asks her to think of catechism with a lowercase “c” as one use of the noun, and the uppercase “C” Catechism as another. The former version means the general and essential teachings of the Church. A student in a religious education class might say that they’re going to catechism class, although now it’s more common to hear those classes referred to as “CCD” for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.” When one speaks broadly about catechism, it is usually in this sense — referring to the teachings of the Church as a whole and not to a specific book or code. As Father Dave says, “catechism, in a sense, is the teaching body of the faith as it is taught.”

On the other hand, the Catechism with an uppercase C would be used to refer to the actual compendium of Catholic doctrine and sacred tradition. To answer a few of the caller’s questions, Father Dave explains that yes, this text is updated to include new papal and magisterial teaching documents, and yes, there are different translations depending on what part of the world you’re in. The famous, older American edition was known as the Baltimore Catechism because Baltimore was the location of the first diocese in the United States. The Baltimore Catechism was the first American-Catholic “body of teaching — almost like a curriculum,” and “one of the hallmarks of the Baltimore Catechism was that it was in question and answer format.” For example, text in the Baltimore Catechism would be written like so: “Why did God make me? God made me to praise Him in this life and be with Him in the next…” Since then, newer American versions have been written, which take into account the documents produced at the Second Vatican Council as well as new encyclicals.

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Father Dave clarifies, though, that the Catechism is a collection of Church teachings, it is “not meant to be definitive, exhaustive, or even necessarily authoritative. It’s kind of like a curriculum that quotes everything else. … The Catechism is a useful tool for us to take in the deposit of faith.” Many non-Catholic Christians don’t understand this distinction and some of the other nuances regarding the Catechism because during the years of the Protestant Reformation, the phrase “sola scriptura” became very popular, in which Protestants asserted that Christian practice should be rooted “in scripture alone” and not in any other documents.

Father Dave explains that the Catholic Church, though, has always taught that there are “other complements in the deposit of faith,” such as “sacred tradition.” This belief is actually rooted in Scripture, when Christ commissions Peter to be the founder of the Church and essentially says, “What you declare bound on Earth will be bound in Heaven. … The Holy Spirit will come and teach and remind you of everything that you need.” So, the Catechism is a collection of teachings that have been accumulated over the centuries from that first declaration of Christ that there was more knowledge to come. (Original Air 02-02-17)