The Catechism and what really matters

Why did the Catholic Church produce a catechism of several hundred pages’ worth of information? What is the point of that? Is anyone going to remember everything that it says? Of course not. There is way too much there for that to be a practical goal. So let us acknowledge one thing from the outset of this post: the purpose of the Catechism is not to enable Catholics (or anyone else) to stuff their heads with a bunch of facts and ideas. Those facts and ideas are of course valuable, but the book is entirely impractical for the chore of pouring that much information into people’s heads.

Why do it, then? This is not the first time the Church has done it, either. One of the fruits of the Council of Trent was another catechism of — yes — several hundred pages.

So, if the Church does this, and it isn’t for the purpose of memorizing everything in the book, why then do they do it? Despite the fact that millions of laymen have read/are reading the Catechism, it’s worth pointing out that we are not the primary audience intended for either the Catechism of the Council of Trent or for the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. For the earlier catechism, the intended audience consisted of pastors:

Hence, before we proceed to develop in detail the various parts of this summary of doctrine, our purpose requires that we premise a few observations which the pastor should consider and bear in mind in order to know to what end, as it were, all his plans and labours and efforts are to be directed, and how this desired end may be more easily attained.

(Roman Catechism, Introduction)

We see the same thing with the new Catechism:

This work is intended primarily for those responsible for catechesis: first of all the bishops, as teachers of the faith and pastors of the Church. It is offered to them as an instrument in fulfilling their responsibility of teaching the People of God. Through the bishops, it is addressed to redactors of catechisms, to priests, and to catechists. It will also be useful reading for all other Christian faithful.

(CCC §12)

So these big fat books were not written with you and me in mind as the primary audience. We can benefit from them, but they weren’t written for us. Rather, they were written for those who would teach us: our pastors and bishops and other teachers. In other words, bishop and pastors are expected to use the catechism as a handbook or guide for teaching their flocks.

There is one other thing that we should know about the catechisms’ purpose. It is repeated over and over (presumably so that our teachers can get this one idea wedged in their noggins, and ditto for us if we read them):

Knowledge Of Christ

The first thing is ever to recollect that all Christian knowledge is reduced to one single head, or rather, to use the words of the Apostle, this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. A teacher in the Church should, therefore, use his best endeavours that the faithful earnestly desire to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that they be firmly convinced, and with the most heartfelt piety and devotion believe, that there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved, for he is the propitiation for our sins.

(Roman Catechism, Introduction; emphasis added)

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.

(CCC §25, emphasis added; see also §§23-24)

Catechesis aims at putting “people … in communion … with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.”

(CCC §426; ellipses in original; emphasis added)

In short, as they tell us repeatedly, the purpose of the Catechism (both the first and the current one) is to help our pastors and bishops teach us to love God in Jesus Christ, to help us to be “in communion” with Him, to be in relationship with the living God. We cannot love what we do not know. It is impossible. The Catechism’s purpose is to teach us about our Lord, then, so that we can love Him. Why so much information, then? Well, really, we can’t even say that several hundred pages of text even scratches the surface! After all, God is infinite: no matter how much we know about Him, no matter how well we know and love Him, we are finite and therefore will always find more to know and love in God! It is not a question of dry facts I can plug up my brain with; it is a question of coming to know my Savior better and better every time my priest instructs me from it and every time I read the Catechism myself, because it teaches me about Him, and about what He has done for me, and about how I can love Him better. I miss the point entirely if I suppose that those several hundred pages are jam-packed with trivia, so that I can show how much (or how little) I know about Catholic doctrine. That is not their purpose. No. Their purpose is to put us into communion with Christ. They are intended to help us love God. St. Paul wrote:

And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains—if I am without love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2, NJB; emphasis added)

Knowledge without love of God is worthless. It is nothing, as St. Paul insists. And this fact ought to affect how we approach the Catechism. It is not hundreds of pages of tedium. It is not a tome of mere facts. Its purpose (and ours, when we read it) is to assist us in entering into living communion with the living God.

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Posted in Catechism, Charity

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