Love and Dogma


A certain gentleman I know told me that his young son is attending a private Catholic school that is run independently of the diocesan or religious order systems. He and his wife were evidently happy with the school: “It is a much more loving place, no Baltimore Catechism sort of thing.” Aside from the fact that few remember the last time that famous and worthy catechism was actually taught to anybody, this remark set me to thinking about what it logically implied.

What first came to my mind was the memory of my own first- or second-grade experience in Eagle Grove, Iowa. My brothers and I went to the local Catholic school, not the larger public school. When we walked by the public-school kids on our way home, we were often taunted as “Catleggers.” There were hints that they wanted to fight us. A few years later, in another town, I can recall that we went out of our way to avoid a bigger and tougher kid by the name of Ray. Whether we were better prepared to stand for what we held by turning the other cheek or by defending ourselves — or perhaps by a little of both — was not always clear. I do not mind little boys learning to be “loving,” provided they also learn at a pretty early age that sometimes they have to stand their ground and defend the truth, even if they lose.

But this brings up a further question: Is the teaching of the catechism, Baltimore or General, really an impediment to teaching children to be loving? I think, on the contrary, that it is rather dangerous to teach boys to be loving without also teaching them doctrine. This is more than the “tough love” that we sometimes hear about in connection with delinquents or other types of problem students or adults. Indeed, I would contend that we cannot know what love is unless we know the general doctrinal framework in which love exists in relation to the rest of life and to other virtues. Love does not come to us in spite of the truth but rather — if it is to be sane and safe — because of it.

The first thing that a young boy learns is not love but justice. When we were young, most of the fights I had with my brothers were over conflicting claims to justice. It was in this context of sorting out what was just and what was unjust among me and my brothers that some inkling of love for them came into my mind and heart, something including but also beyond justice.

Christ said, “If you love me, keep the commandments.” What can this mean except that in order to love, we must know what the commandments entail? Moreover, I advocate teaching young men and women what it is that they are to hold even before they can understand the full meaning of what this teaching implies. Thus, teaching the catechism is not a bad idea. If we are only taught to be “loving,” without any doctrinal context of what this means, chances are that we will have a difficult time distinguishing between selfishness and love. It will be easy to buy into the modern doctrine that whatever it is we want ought to be ours because we “love” it.

My acquaintance’s remark about his son reminded me also of Dorothy Sayer’s 1954 essay “Creed or Chaos?” from The Whimsical Christian, still one of the great expositions on the relation between what we know and what we do. Though she spoke of England in particular, her words still ring true:

The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ…. Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope.

Simply advocating love or tolerance without informing our children of the structure of the world is not the best way to educate them at any point in their lives.

Critics of the Baltimore Catechism assume it taught that a second-grade memorization of basic Church doctrine — the Church never doubted that children should be taught serious things — would suffice for the same Catholic at 40, who in the meantime had learned absolutely nothing more about the intelligence of his faith and its logic. In fact, the Baltimore Catechism had different editions for different ages. Its creators assumed that on reaching college or adulthood, the reader would continue to seek an understanding of the faith more adapted to his stage in life.

In the end, the chances of succeeding in teaching students to be “loving” while neglecting to teach them doctrine are almost zero.


This column originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Jake Frost

    Schall Rocks. I love reading this guy. He brings Wisdom and Truth to the table, full-strength, not watered-down. Give us more Schall!

  • Bender

    The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ

    This is true. But we sometimes forget that it has ALWAYS been true that the world is enveloped in darkness. Because society has been Christianized to some extent, given the large presence of the Church in Western history, we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that it is no longer a largely pagan world, including a pagan America. We have assumed too much. Hence, we end up on the defensive, trying to preserve something that was never really firmly established in the first place. But the mission of the Church has always been “offensive” in nature, not defensive, that is, pro-active, a beacon of light extending outward because the darkness is, and always has been, everywhere, unless and until that light is brought to it.

    We cannot assume that even cradle Catholics know the faith, as if by osmosis. It must be taught to them.

  • Melinda T

    I am a new Catholic only eight months in the Church – and I am still learning all the time – reading, studying, and just generally taking in something new everyday – it will be a life time project for me because there is so much to learn and the history is so very rich…but I couldn’t be more content with the situationsmilies/smiley.gif

  • Kathryn

    The Balt. Cat. hasn’t quite be sent to the dusty bookshelves in basement storeroom. Quite a few Catholic homeschoolers like it. We’ve been using it for a couple of years now, although I must admit the illustrations are a little, well, um, not for our family anyways.smilies/wink.gif

  • Too late for me

    Justice as regards to marriage has been replaced with false charity in the guise of mercy.

    There is no such thing as marriage anymore. It is dead; civilly and as a Catholic institution.

  • Joe Garcia

    Our CCD program, run by the VERY excellent Carmelite Sisters, showcases the Baltimore Catechism (in conjunction with more contemporary material) to excellent effect.

  • Linda Lee

    When my youngest was in 3rd grade, I decided to home-school him. We chose Seton Home School out of Virginia for its wonderful curriculum. The Baltimore Catechism was a big part of their instruction. I was advised by many, even some priests not to use this outdated version of the catechism but figured since Seton got a lot of other things right, that there might be something to be gained by using the Baltimore version. My son is now a senior in college and has thanked me numerous times for that choice. Not only does the catechism give one a good structure to build from in matters of the faith, it taught him DISCIPLINE, which is, as they say in the commercials…priceless!

  • Mother of Two Sons

    No time better than the moment to share a link to the Baltimore Catechism; it is my attempt at putting it into the hands/minds of those who may not have read it ever, or in a while… a worthwhile read…. for all of us so that we can actually appreciatate the good priest’s perspective on the gap of knowledge… in particular that value of doctrine in the Catholic Faith. We live in a time that lacks a clear understanding of the importance of doctrine; or have fallen under the spell of the much spoken position of the man-made importance of doctrine; that it is of no value to God, doctrine.
    Hope this day finds you well, Fr. Schall.

  • Becca Balmes

    We just got our first copy of the St. Joseph First Communion Catechism (that second-grade Baltimore Catechism that gets so much hate) in the mail Friday, in preparation for our first-born’s first year homeschooling. I can’t wait to crack it open with him! I’ve already read through the first few pages, and can’t believe how much easier it’s going to be to explain the Mysteries of the Church to the kids now!

    I’m sponsoring a 14 year old girl for Confirmation this year, as well, and can tell you that my 5 year old’s catechism book has in it 100 times the value of the pablum found in the ‘loving’ modern Confirmation book our parish uses. If they gave the adult version of the Baltimore Catechism (or heck! even the current Catechism!) to the Confirmation students, I would feel like I could confidently state that my candidate will persevere in the Faith of the Church past October.

  • John

    Father Schall makes an excellent point. So many Christians and Catholics have no idea what the Church stands for. Somewhere along the way a big dose of feel good therapy and Oprahism has been mixed into what people think is the Via. Teaching RCIA in my parish we use the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Pope John Paul II’s gift to the Catholic Church and I find everything we need to know about the magisterium and the mysterium fidei in it. It is a shame that so many catholics have no knowledge of our ancient and sacred religion and are easily led by the Zeitgeist of pagan America.

  • mts1…416&sr=8-1

    Look up the new Compendium of the latest catechism. It is also in the beloved BC question and short answer format. I do remember my Catholic school teaching from the BC, and I found it one of the easiest textbooks in class. Since the Faith is the Faith over the ages, this new one doesn’t replace the BC in my mind (since what has changed: nothing in terms of Faith and Morals), but is a great read for what the contemporary phrasing of answers is.

  • Uncas

    A few years back I attended an RCIA program at my parish as a sponsor for a convert to the faith. We were taught that it doesn’t matter what you do, say, or believe, as long as we love each other (and refer to God as “She”). I wish that everyone connected with Catholic education at any level would be required to read this Father Schall article.

  • Ann

    I appreciate and nagree with Fr. Schall’s point. Love AND truth– God is both– we need both!

    I inferred soemthing completely different from the father’s remarks, probably because I projected my own exeprience onto it. I was raised Catholic, and I encountered a lot of hostility and anger from the priests and parish of my childhood. There was an air of harshness everywhere. There was truth without love! That seems to have been common for people my age (I am in my mid forties).

    I have several frioends who were raised Catholic, in very harsh environments, and later left the Church to become Unitarians. They sought the love they had not found in the Catholic Church. That love is definitely there !!!!! However, these ladies did not experience it, because their families and parishes were not practicing the love of Christ.

    Sadly, it is all too easy to run from one error (truth without love) to the opposite (love without truth). I hope we who do believe in the truth can try to exhibit compassion toward people, and put a “new face” on Catholicism for those alienated by truth without love.

  • Nick P

    I’ll comment on this sharply perceptive piece in my next post. First, a complement to IC and its editorial staff:

    This has become one of my three must-read sites. There are always articles to tickle the humor bone, provoke the mind, and challenge the faith. Rev. Schall occupies a distinguished place for me in the IC pantheon.

    Dr. Z wields humor like an epee, and he and I usually agree. It’s always dangerous reading him — it has inspired me to wade into debates with colleagues, leading with one of his “bon mots.” Lacking his wit, I quickly fail to carry the rhetorical day, while managing to offend someone needlessly.

    Mark Shea is provocative and challenging. We don’t always agree, but he frames a mean argument. I cannot help but read his pieces and develop some greater respect for other points of view. Oh, and we agree on far more than we disagree.

    Deal is the consummate reporter/journalist. His pieces are focused on key issues, and he does masterful work bringing the immediacy of many issues to the fore.

    Ah, and then Rev. Schall. Each time I see his byline, I get the same thrill-dread I used to feel when I, a mediocre rock climbing student, had an instructor tell me, “Nick, I’ve found a really challenging new climb. You’ll love it. And, I think you can do it, too.” The good reverend’s writing — here on IC, and in his books — demands of me a higher level of attention, and frequent re-reading than almost any other author I read regularly. Fortunately, there’s always a payback for the effort. He tackles topics in wildly non-intuitive ways, and stretches my mind in the process.

    So, dear IC editors, you’re doing a great job managing a great site. Thanks!

  • Nick P

    Okay, now on to the topic at hand. I’ll use the mysterious “P” to preserve anonymity.

    Rev.Schall strikes near the heart of a real problem I’ve been having. By that, I do mean that the problem is mine, driven by my own twisted mind. I’m a recovering alcoholic, with nearly two years in AA. For those who have attended an AA meeting, or perhaps have seen a movie rendition, we spend a lot of time sharing our stories. We seek to identify with each other, finding commonality and fellowship. At the center of the AA program lies “God as we understand him.” This phrase, critical for opening the door to those without faith or with faltering faith, causes me pathological irritation. I often hear a speaker state, “my higher power, whom I call God,” and cringe. I shouldn’t.

    A very common refrain from AAs is that the AA program, “showed me a loving God, not the [mean, vindictive, judgmental, loud-talking, snarling, etc.] God of my childhood.” More often than not, the one making these comments was raised Catholic. I would also note that most of these comments are from people raised in the post-Baltimore Catechism Church.

    It seems that we Catholics may face some “operator error” challenges. Grant, first, that many of my brothers-and-sisters-in-AA misinterpreted what was taught to them. I know from my own journey that the “isms” that accompany alcoholism have effects far beyond the barstool, and often manifest themselves far before the onset of drinking.

    That said, it is not a simple task to impart the necessary rules (e.g. a la Baltimore Catechism) in an integrated way with Christ’s message of love, and love through the law. No matter how well the curriculum is structured and organized, delivering such a message consistently requires long-term commitment, and consistent guidance. This implies a strong need to work with parents, CCD instructors (usually well prepared), the clergy, and many others. A Catholic education, especially K-8, can be a real help with this message.

    My pessimistic side worries that far too many out here — especially parents and clergy — are unprepared for the task, as well as unskilled. I have been heartened by the newer priests I have encountered, yet my concerns remain.

    Have too many turned from the BC approach due to their own shortcomings, and those of their own upbringing? Do we equip parents to work in concert with the CCD programs? Can we? In my own parish, watching my three children grow (now ages 24, 21, and 17) I sense a growing lack of involvement from parents in their children’s religious formation. Such education seems to be compartmentalized, along with soccer and tuba lessons. “Okay, now we’ll talk and think about religion for fifty minutes.”

    I don’t know what can be done. Rev. Schall aptly details the crucial love-law linkages. We as Catholics, especially parents, must develop strategies to help reconstruct this picture for the coming generations.

  • Don L

    It was G.K.Chesterto at the early days of the last century that correctly and prophetically predicted that we will become a world governed by “emotion.”

    With solid core ideas (created by Godless wordsmiths) such as tolerance,sensitivity,self-esteem and silly slogans like, “Make a difference” and “gay rights” governing our motivation in this post-Christian world, who needs truth anymore?