Why We Should Read the Catechism Cover to Cover
By Father Matthew Habiger, OSB | A moral theologian, former president of HLI and noted expert on Natural Family Planning, Fr. Habiger is a monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas. Contact him at email@example.com.
Do you know what it means to be a Catholic in a secular world? Can you explain your faith to others, and answer their questions? Have you found good answers to your questions about faith and morals? Faith and Reason go together. If you stress only faith, then you drift towards fideism, which becomes a mindless faith, verging on superstition. On the other hand, if you stress only reason, then you open yourself to specious arguments, rationalizations and rhetorical sleight of hands, for all of which Faith can give you advance warning.
Reason deals with what our senses tell us. We can come to understand what we experience in things happening around us. But there is more to reality than what we experience by our senses in this passing world. We have an insatiable capacity for truth, beauty, goodness and love, and we cannot find satisfaction while passing through the limited trajectory provided by our 70-80 years on planet Earth.
We must have Faith, which opens us up to the Transcendent, to the intelligent Word, to the personal Creator-God, to the Spirit who fills us with his supernatural gifts and with an all-satisfying love
We foster our Faith by Sunday Mass, regular prayer and use of the Sacraments. That is what a “practicing” Catholic does. But there is still more to be done. We must feed our natural intellectual hunger to understand what it is that we believe. We are in constant formation. Learning more about the riches of the Faith never ceases. If we stop learning about the Faith, then something within us begins to whither and harden – our relationship with God. A relationship can never stand still and simply coast.
One great gift to us from the Church is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). This is correctly called the catechism of the Second Vatican Council, because it assimilates all the major insights that are found in the Council’s 16 documents. The Catechism is a compendium of the Faith. It is a well-organized synthesis of the four pillars of the Faith. Our Faith is a great mystery which we shall never fully fathom. But there is much about it that we can know and make our own. Don’t ever worry about exhausting the deep reservoirs of the Faith. But, begin by going out into the deep water.
What are the Sources of the Catechism?
The first and primary source is Sacred Scripture, the Word of God that is divine revelation. The Bible (46 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament) is a collection of writings, written by many inspired writers, over a time span of many centuries. The Bible requires a guide to help us see how all the parts fit together harmoniously. That is the task of the Catechism. Other sources for the Catechism are the writings of the great Church Fathers, both in the East and West. Then there are the past 21 Ecumenical Church Councils, and especially the 16 Vatican II documents, the encyclicals of various Popes, Canon Law and the writings of faith-filled saints and theologians. Clearly the CCC is a treasure trove of teachings. We have 20 centuries of lived experience by our Catholic ancestors to draw upon. Over this period of time, we see how the Church has deepened her understanding of all that God has revealed and given to her. We are heirs to a very rich heritage. The Catechism’s task is to draw the reader into a deeper understanding of the Faith.
How Is the Catechism Organized?
The CCC uses a format that was devised early on by St. Augustine and then repeated in the great Roman Catechism after the Council of Trent (16th century) and then replicated in the Baltimore Catechism in the USA (1883). There are four pillars, or four major parts to the Catechism. Part I deals with what we believe in our Faith. This is organized around the twelve articles of the Creed. The Creed is a succinct and compact synthesis of the Faith. But, whereas the Creed only states what it is that we believe, the CCC opens this up and explains in greater detail what all is included in each article of the faith. You will be amazed at what all is contained in the Creed.
Part II deals with the Liturgy and the Sacraments. Each of the seven Sacraments apply to our times the saving graces, or divine life, which Jesus won for us by His Passion, Death and Resurrection (the Paschal Mystery). The Sacraments initiate us into God’s own life. They make us his adopted sons and daughters. Two Sacraments (Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation) are accessible to us on a regular basis. They make it possible for us to deal with any challenge that real life offers to our living out the Christian way of life. The CCC takes you many steps beyond what you received in earlier forms of catechism. Since 1965, and the close of Vatican II, there has been very vapid catechesis with little substance.
The Third Part of the CCC deals with morality, with how we are to live the Christian life in the modern world. We all know that real life throws many challenges at us. Today many voices are speaking, each presenting very different values and appeals. There are many areas of darkness through which we must walk. What is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is evil? Only God can determine the moral order. We do not design, or define, morality – what is good and what is evil. If we pretend to, then we are playing God.
The CCC uses the Ten Commandments as its outline for morality. With the Commandments God gives us a keen insight into our human nature, as He designed it. If we make our choices and deeds comply with the Commandments, then we fulfill ourselves as authentic persons. This is the formula for happiness. If we choose to ignore, or reject, God’s design for human life and community, then we distort and corrupt ourselves. Today we see the imperative need for understanding God’s plan for such basic human realities as marriage, spousal love and family. Ever since 1968, and the encyclical Humanae Vitae, there has been a vacuum of moral teaching. Part III of the CCC is well written, and is greatly needed for our times.
Part IV of the CCC deals with Prayer. Prayer is the way we keep our relationship with God alive and green. We are designed to be in communion with other persons. What a stupendous gift it is that God wants to maintain a steadily deepening relationship with us. We begin that relationship with Baptism, nourish it daily with prayer, and upgrade it constantly with the Sacraments.
The CCC draws upon the experience of the many protagonists in the Old Testament, on the experience of Our Lord when He lived among us, of the early Church, and of the many generations which followed. Everyone is naturally drawn to prayer, beginning with small children. The CCC provides a wealth of materials and insights to help us with our prayer life.
I think that it makes good sense to say that every Catholic should read, and digest, the CCC from cover to cover. Some people think that it is too complex, and too daunting a task to read. Yet, it was designed for everyone, not just for clergy and religious. If you don’t know the CC, then you have only a superficial knowledge of your Faith. Today there are many strange theories and ideologies which are proposed as the “new teaching” of the Church. A quick way to check the veracity of a “new teaching” is to go to the CCC and see what the Church teaches on these topics. The Church speaks with the authority given to her by Christ. If contemporary lectures, books and articles do not match the CCC, then you know you are in unchartered territory, replete with hazards.
Heaven is our goal. Faith is our guide and compass. The CCC makes more precise the articles of our Faith (Creed), the spiritual tools that God provides us (Sacraments), good moral principles which guide our choices and human acts (Morality), and how to communicate with God (Prayer).
One way to get acquainted with the CCC is to refer to the Subject Index at the back of the book. Look for the topics that naturally interest you. Then read all the paragraphs listed on that topic. Do this with 6-10 topics, and you will develop a sense of ease with the CCC. Eventually you will come to the decision: “I can read this stuff! And I can understand what I’m reading!” Then you are ready to read it cover to cover. This is the Year of the New Evangelization. The CCC is one of your basic source books. Tolle et lege! Then bring some light into the great darkness that surrounds you.