Re-informing the Faithful: The Catechism that Completes the Council

One could not easily exaggerate the importance of the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. The “Informative Dossier” published by the Editorial Commission to provide background on this catechism, notes what Pope Pius XII said of any good catechism:

That small book is itself more valuable than a huge encyclopedia; it contains the truths that are to be believed, the obligations that are to be fulfilled, the means for one’s sanctification. What is there of more importance on earth? It is the book of wisdom, the art of living well, the peace of the soul, security in one’s trial. It teaches us how to please God.

But what can be said of a catechism as exceptional as this Catechism of the Catholic Church? It has been more than 400 years since a catechism of such authority has appeared. When the Roman Catechism (mandated by the Council of Trent) was published in 1566, the Church was in disastrous disarray. The cumulative bad experiences of earlier times—from the dark sides of the Renaissance, from the Great Western Schism and other troubles—were magnified in the tragic attacks on faith by the Reformers. Great masses of the faithful were losing their faith. Efforts to combat the spiritual disorder on the pastoral level were ineffective until the Roman Catechism appeared. But that catechism proved a mighty tool in the hands of Saint Charles Borromeo and other courageous leaders. When it appeared, the Catholic Reformation was able to begin seriously. Faith blossomed again.

The spiritual disorder of our time is no less profound than that of the sixteenth century. We have passed through unprecedented moral, cultural, and social revolutions, and the electronic media have brought all the disorder of our times into every home and every imagination. On all sides one hears the lament that Catholics no longer know what they should believe and do to find salvation. This new catechism can do for the Church what the Roman Catechism accomplished in its time. The Catechism itself, of course, does not do things. It was Saint Charles Borromeo and a host of heroic leaders who used the magnificent tool of the Catechism in ways that it needed to be used, and accomplished much.

We now have the tool that we can use to change our world. We need only to see if we have among our leaders and our people, men and women of sufficient courage to use it effectively.

This catechism was not mandated by the Second Vatican Council, but it is the catechism of that council. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are cited in it endlessly. This Catechism is the instrument through which the Council finally will be able to speak to the world in the ordinary tasks of preaching and catechesis, with the hope of achieving what the Council sought from the beginning. For in this book, all that the Council taught is gathered systematically and integrated with the voices of the Church through the centuries, to speak the whole message of the Faith with great tranquility.

The earlier draft of this catechism, sent to all bishops for their study and suggestions, was notably flawed in many ways. It was uneven in style, unclear and improperly ambiguous on important doctrinal points, and very weak in its moral section. It received severe criticism, both because of its flaws, and because there were many who really did not want a catechism at all.

But, the final text of the Catechism is a far better one. It deserved the approval that it received from the Holy Father on June 25, 1992. It became a good catechism not simply from the work of the small committee that produced it. It was also, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in his Holy Thursday letter to priests on April 3, 1993: “The result of fruitful cooperation of the Bishops of the Catholic Church.” For the bishops of the world responded with unexpected vigor to the invitation of the Pope to offer their criticisms and suggestions to improve the Catechism. They were determined to have a good catechism, and they have one.

Lay people and priests also cooperated in the task of making this a fine catechism. For example, Professor Germain Grisez did outstanding work. With great speed and accuracy he wrote a detailed critique of the version sent out for evaluation—a critique as long as the 500-page Catechism itself. Like the bishops, he did his work quietly, published none of it, and wished it simply to serve this necessary task of the Church. Such labors of many people have served this catechism well.

This catechism now gathers together skillfully what the Church has spoken to present her faith and her way of life to the people of our time.

On a certain level, the Church has done magnificent catechetical teaching in our time. The documents of the Church at the Second Vatican Council, as well as the documents published by the Church before and after the Council to state her faith precisely in the face of current problems, responded well to the doubts and the aberrations that have arisen in our time. The Church has spoken well of central dogmatic points, of what it means to believe in God, of who Christ is, of the nature of His resurrection. She has spoken well of the Eucharist, and the forms of Christ’s presence among us. The Church has addressed well the frightening moral problems that disturb our age: abortion, euthanasia, the artificial making of children, and the like. She has spoken well of the authentic sense of prayer, amid the strange tendencies of the time. The many documents of the Church touching every area of faith and of moral life needed very much to be gathered together, not in a “huge encyclopedia,” but in a manageable catechism. In this single coherent volume, the relevance and coherence and unity and beauty of the Catholic vision could be revealed. This catechism collects what has been scattered through the decades, and lost to many.

Unfortunately, on a grass-roots level the task of catechesis has not been carried on very well in our time. Many pastors and good catechists have not known how truly rich is the treasury of authentic Catholic teaching that needs to be presented to our people. Many have been teaching thin religious pabulum, and little of the strong and bracing content of faith. But there is now no excuse for any catechist who can read to assert that he simply does not have a clear grasp on what the Church in fact does teach in all the important areas that touch the life and the hopes of people in these times.

Publication Dilemma

Some have complained bitterly against the decision to publish the present version of the Catechism (deeply different from the earlier version circulated to the bishops) without first seeking further evaluations from other Church leaders.

The Church faced a dilemma. If she decided to submit version after version to the massive criticisms that could be expected in the present ecclesial atmosphere, in which the media so amplify the voices of persistent dissent, no catechism would ever appear. But the Holy See had inquired, and knew that the vast majority of bishops judged that a catechism was needed and desired to have it. On the other hand, the new version could be expected to have many serious flaws if it were not adequately criticized (see, for example, how badly the Catechism treats lying [2482-2483]).

So the Holy See decided: (1) to publish the Catechism now; (2) but not in a final or completely decisive form. By publishing the Catechism, the Church made it clear to dissident voices that their efforts to stop the Catechism were useless. By arranging to have the final, decisive text of the Catechism to be a Latin version not yet prepared, it made clear that the authoritative version would be able to take into account corrections and suggestions that are of major importance. Future printings of the Catechism in the various vernacular languages would incorporate the changes that will be made in the Latin edition.

When This Winter Ends

Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal John Wright, then Bishop of Pittsburgh, explained in a well-known lecture (“Seed Ideas: Reflections at Easter after the Council”) the context and meaning of that council. This council, he said, is not a springtime for the Church. We are living in the autumn. We are gathering into the barn seed for the spring planting, when winter has ended. Now, perhaps, the winter of poor popular teaching of the faith may be at an end. What was gathered into the barn of Council and other official documents, may now be scattered in a single book to all who have the splendid task of teaching the faith. Here, in this book, it all is abundantly presented.

This catechism is a large book: it will have well over 500 oversized pages. In a way, it is a very simple and traditional catechism. It is divided into four parts. In the first part, the mysteries of faith are studied, following the order of the articles of the creed. Then the Catechism treats the sacraments—the many ways in which Christ personally touches us and calls us to newness of life. Then it treats of the moral vision we are called to live, loving God and one another, and doing good. (The Ten Commandments have great prominence here.) Finally, the Catechism treats the Our Father and the life of prayer.

Yet, this traditional catechism also is entirely up-to-date. It is a catechism speaking to our time, and speaking of the anxieties and of the doubts that disturb our time. For example, when it speaks of Christ’s humanity, and of His knowledge of us, it avoids entering into all the theological complexities that a catechism should avoid. But it does show clear awareness of where contemporary errors have wounded the faith of the people, and teaches the message of faith in ways needed in times when the meaning of that faith has become obscure to many.

When the Catechism speaks of the Eucharist, it speaks of it with admirable balance, not ignoring the sacrificial aspect or the essential nature of Christ’s real presence. It speaks what we need to hear because of the special kinds of confusion we have experienced. And it speaks not only in the precise words of councils, but also in the magnificent language of the Fathers.

When the Catechism speaks of the moral life, it is very much aware that for the Christian all duties are duties that flow from love. But it unfolds these duties well: it draws on the magnificent teaching documents of the Church in this century on chaste married life, and on abortion and euthanasia and all the many questions on which the authentic contemporary documents of the Church have spoken.


The Catechism is well documented and stands as a fine compendium of all that the Church has been teaching in our time. Scripture indeed is quoted endlessly; so is the Second Vatican Council. The faith is often expressed in the words of the Fathers of the Church, of the saints, and of recent Popes. Because the faith of the Church is expressed in its prayer, the language of the liturgy is very appropriately used. Generally, the Catechism, as every good catechism should, seeks to express the message of faith in familiar words that are most dear to the faithful.

Still, the documentation does have notable flaws. For example, while the Catechism makes considerable use of recent documents of the Church in which she has addressed pressing doctrinal and moral questions, it does not often enough quote or even specifically cite these documents. One would expect, for example, that in treating abortion (2270-2275), the Catechism would refer to the 1974 Decree on Abortion, and that in speaking on euthanasia (2276-2270), it would speak of the 1980 Decree on Euthanasia. But it does not. Frequently it neglects even to name contemporary documents that would be most helpful for catechists and preachers. But there does not seem to be any consistent principle involved. Some such documents (e.g., Donum Vitae) are cited frequently.

Catechisms cannot be flawless. All of them are disappointing in some ways. Who could speak the message of faith as it deserves to be spoken? But the flaws I find in this one are surely not disastrous. I do not know why the treatment of infallibility (891) does not mention specifically that the ordinary teaching of the Pope and bishops is in some circumstances infallible (Lumen Gentium 25). Nor do I know why the moral teaching is at times less clear than the documents on which this text relies. Still, this catechism remains an astonishingly sound presentation of Catholic faith and life.

A Book of Faith

But this is much more than an intelligent compendium of the teachings of the Church. It is a true catechism. It does not aim simply at teaching all the points of faith (though it teaches the whole faith very well indeed). Rather, it teaches what faith is, and helps us both understand and feel the reasons one has for believing the Catholic faith.

Simplicity and Complexity

Every catechism must have about it a certain simplicity and a certain complexity. There is about catechetical work always an evangelization, as the Pope reminded all priests in his letter to them this Holy Thursday. To catechize is also to call to faith, and to make faith new and fresh again.

The first service of one who teaches faith is to help people realize that they are not just learning official teachings, but believing a Person. To find faith, they must find Christ, who has found them and called them to life. They need to recognize His voice in the family of faith, so it will be intelligent and good to say yes to the message of faith with all the heart.

This is the simplicity of catechesis. To discover Christ and His saving message is basically simple: “Only one thing is necessary.” The fundamental reason we have for believing the most profound and challenging of truths is a simple one. The Lord has found us and allowed us to recognize Him; and we believe Him. We need not understand great measures of cosmology and metaphysics to have good reasons to believe. Saint Peter explained to Christ in quite simple words why he believed all that the Savior had said about the Eucharist. “We have come to believe and to know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is personal faith in Christ that must be central in all catechesis.

In its prologue, this catechism reminds us of what its predecessor, the Roman Catechism, has said: “The whole aim of doctrine and teaching must be put in the context of the love that never ends.” All that we believe and hope and do “has no other origin and no other end than love” (25). We need only find Christ, in whom the Father’s love is made known to us by the Spirit, calling us to love.

This catechism assists in the “new evangelization” which the Holy Father speaks of as so essential today, in the ways a great catechism should. It presents the faith in such a way that the very message communicated becomes a sign of the truth of faith, and of the presence of Him on whose word we confidently rely.

It presents a rich message. It presents the countless human truths we always have known but are constantly forgetting, and presents them with impressive balance and force. It speaks also of things of which we could never have dreamed, if we had never heard of Christ—strange and wonderful things, unbelievably good things, that fit so intricately and wonderfully with the ordinary human wisdom, of which divine faith appears as a secure guardian. We cannot help realizing that these sure and ordinary truths and these incredibly good sacred sayings are inseparable.

The very appearance of this book becomes a kind of grace. The margins are filled with numbers reminding us that this truth and this requirement of love must be studied in the light of this and that other one, on another page. More and more we see and feel how all things fit together. Everything is one thing. And the spirit of the Church lives in this book. This is not the study of a solitary scholar. The book resounds with the voices of faith through all the centuries. It speaks the faith that alone has bound great multitudes of people, of all ages, of all classes, of all lands, of every intellectual level. It speaks in a thousand ways the same joy: that we have heard the word of the Lord. We have believed Him; we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

This one central mystery is so rich that it touches everything in our complex lives. To know who Jesus is, we need to know the Father and the Spirit. To know who Jesus is, we must learn with joy how truly He is our brother, and how truly He is our God. The mind must faithfully cling to all the truths that are inseparable from faith in what is most central, and this catechism is a splendid help for catechists in coming to realize the meaning of their faith.

This catechism is meant to transform catechesis in the Church for generations to come. This volume itself is not, indeed, meant to be used on all levels for all people of all countries. There still will be a need to write a variety of catechisms for various levels of development and for different cultures and circumstances. But this is to be the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is truly to be the basis for all the others, and a point of reference for all of them. Their possession of the right catechetical spirit, and the soundness of their doctrine, will be judged by their faithfulness to this basic text. And this basic text is going to be everywhere. When the Catechism appeared in French, Italian, and Spanish, it immediately became a best-seller beyond everyone’s expectations.

The actual existence and the ubiquity of this new catechism, presented to the Catholic world by the authority of the Holy Father as collegial work of the bishops of the world, makes great changes possible if we and our leaders have sufficient courage. The Church is suffering intensely from the loss of faith in many of her people. But she is not without resources to recover when much has gone wrong. Even in our age, God is able to make faith come back to life again. The appearance of this catechism is a pledge of great things that shall be, if we faithfully insist upon it.


Father Ronald D. Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., was one of America’s leading theologians, as well as a teacher and a prolific writer. He died in 2003.

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