By Don Fier
“Father, . . . this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). This Scripture verse, the opening words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), succinctly and beautifully expresses its very purpose. The CCC’s first paragraph goes on to expand on this teaching of Jesus Christ: “God, . . . in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life. . . . He calls man to seek Him, to know Him, to love Him with all his strength. To accomplish this, . . . God sent His Son as Redeemer and Savior.”
Recalling my childhood religious formation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was reminded of three opening questions and answers in the Baltimore Catechism, the de facto standard Catholic religious education text for children in the United States from 1885 until the 1960s: Why did God make us? “. . . to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in Heaven.” What must we do to gain the happiness of Heaven? “. . . we must know, love, and serve God in this world.” From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God? “. . . from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Although stated in slightly different terms, are these two expressions not precisely the same teaching on the ultimate meaning of our lives on this earth?
The primary objective of the CCC, as touched upon in the introductory installment of this series, is to safeguard the Sacred Deposit of Faith while at the same time presenting it in a style and manner better suited to contemporary times. The Truth, in its essence, is immutable — the Church’s doctrinal teaching on faith and morals is unchangeable. However, every age in history has its own unique problems and questions. And so the enduring truth needs to be handed on in a way more accessible to modern man in the times and conditions in which he finds himself. Furthermore, as the CCC explains, “indispensable adaptations” that are faithful to its core teaching are needed to accommodate the “doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by the differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed” (CCC, n. 24).
The aforementioned Baltimore Catechism is an excellent example of one such “indispensable adaptation” from times past. Written well over a century ago, it served a vital purpose in the religious education of children for many decades and, in fact, is still in use today. The CCC’s Prologue mentions many great Church Fathers (e.g., St. Peter Canisius, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Robert Bellarmine) who engaged in the publication of catechisms. The essential teachings on faith and morals, as they wrote of them, are one and the same as taught by the CCC — their work served as a model for future catechisms. And, in fact, the Roman Catechism, a fruit of the Council of Trent which was written in the 16th century after the Protestant Reformation, is often cited in the CCC.
Returning now to the CCC’s first paragraph, volumes could be written in explanation (as Fr. John Hardon, SJ, was wont to say). In His goodness, God freely created man to share in His own divine life. He created us out of love and He wants us to return that love. Now, love of God and knowledge of God go hand-in-hand. How can one love what one does not know? By coming to know God, one cannot help but love Him, for “God is love” (1 John 4:16). And loving Him, one wants to know more about Him; coming to a fuller knowledge of God, one desires to love Him all the more; and the cycle continues. Even when man rejected God’s love through sin, He continued to love us, sending His only-begotten Son in the fullness of time to redeem us. As we go through the Catechism, these truths of the faith will be examined in great depth.
Switching gears now, the CCC speaks of catechesis and the necessity of handing on the faith (nn. 4-10). The word “catechesis” comes from the ancient Greek word katechizo, which means “to teach by word of mouth,” or to “re-echo” the truths of our faith. It is a fitting word to describe the activity of the apostles whose ministry was to pass on, to transmit, all that Jesus Christ revealed. Catechesis is formally defined in the CCC “as an education in the faith of children, young people, and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life” (n. 5). In his apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae (CT), as cited in the CCC’s Prologue, Blessed John Paul II stresses “the need for organic and systematic Christian instruction” (n. 21). The CCC further clarifies: “This catechism is conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety. It should be seen therefore as a unified whole” (CCC, n. 18).
The three italicized terms — organic, systematic, and unified whole — are of critical importance here. An organic whole has the unity of a living organism whose parts have specialized functions that act for the good of the whole; the parts have no independent existence apart from the whole. By analogy, think of the difference between an automobile and the human body. Automobile parts are manufactured independently, shipped to a plant, and assembled. In contrast, the truths of the faith form a unified whole like the human body. The four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the Creed (what the Church believes), the Sacraments (what the Church celebrates), the Commandments (what the Church lives), and the Our Father (what the Church prays) — are interrelated. They form a unity. As expressed by Blessed John Paul II when he promulgated the Catechism, they are like “four movements of a great symphony.”
In like fashion, the presentation of the faith should be integral and systematic. Indeed, its presentation of the faith is complete and unambiguous — it is ordered in a tremendously logical fashion with no improvisation. If its organization were arbitrary or random, important aspects of the faith might be left out. Great wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, is evident in the overall structure of the CCC.
The final paragraph of the Prologue emphasizes the primacy of charity. It is not enough to learn the Church’s doctrine — we must bear witness to it by the way we live our lives. Having come to know God’s divine plan, we are able to more effectively cooperate with His grace and become useful instruments for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. As expressed admirably by Fr. Hardon: “Everything we believe and everything we hope for is founded on the fact that God is infinite love who became incarnate out of love for us. We are to spend our lives here on earth giving ourselves in selfless love to God in return.” In other words, to attain the final end for which we were created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:27), we must become “the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (cf. Matt. 5:13-16), primarily through our selfless actions and witness, performed out of love.
As the famous saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes, we are called to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. With the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, Fier is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)