By PHILP TROWER
The title and subject of this article were suggested to me by a conversation I recently had with three Catholic friends — a man and two women in a parish where I often visit. I have known them for a long time, but not perhaps as well as I thought I did. I will call them John, Mary, and Susie.
John is a retired engineer. Susie, unmarried, is a retired hospital matron. Mary, who has scientific qualifications, is a widowed mother of a family. All three are faithful, if confused, practicing “cradle” Catholics. However, just how confused I only realized for the first time after we were talking about the Church and the faith the other day.
The ladies began with some criticisms, no doubt not entirely unmerited, of the way they had been taught the faith as children. You had to believe everything you were told without asking any questions. Then they moved on to the state of things today, and I quickly realized that they hadn’t a clue about what has been happening in the Church over the last 50 years or what should or should not be believed today.
This particularly applied to relations with other Christians. Mary, for example, asked me whether, if she moved to a village where there was no Catholic church she could worship regularly at the Anglican church. Surely if so many of them are such good Christians, their ideas can’t be all that wrong?
Like so many confused Catholics, she didn’t understand that the Church does not claim to have a monopoly of virtue. What the Church does claim, in the words of Vatican II, is to have the fullness of divine truth and means of grace and it is this, come what may, which Catholics must uphold at all costs if we are to be faithful to our Lord’s call.
When I mentioned a copy of the CCC or Catechism of the Catholic Church as the best way of discovering what the Church wants us to believe and do, none of the three had heard of it. Or if they had heard of it they had forgotten about it, which suggests that it is something rarely if ever talked about in the average parish or mentioned from the pulpit.
Earlier this year, during Lent, I had a somewhat similar experience in my home parish. I was taking part in a small lenten discussion group. Again it was a question of faithful practicing Catholics, but this time better informed ones. There were no doctrinal aberrations or doubts about what should be believed. But there were some uncertainties.
Again, therefore, I suggested that these could be resolved by the CCC only to find that, though they had heard of it, none of them had a copy. So, the following week I took along copies of all three versions for them to look at: the full version; the shorter version in the old question-and-answer form called the Compendium; and the version for young people called Youcat.
They looked at them politely, but no one showed much interest in getting a copy, and one lady said it was too difficult to understand. This, certainly cannot be said of the Compendium, which she may not have seen. But, with a little patience and study, even the full version ought not to be beyond the intelligence of anyone who can understand the kind of manual that comes with a new car or the literature pouring in from our banks and insurance companies. It’s mainly a matter of familiarizing oneself with some theological terminology and concepts which any parish priest can explain.
The CCC is used in our seminaries in England, as I imagine it is in the United States, and lay people can takes courses in it at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham founded in the 1990s by the late Archbishop Couve de Murville. But it is now obvious that most of our lay faithful who should know about it and be using it clearly don’t, in spite of the fact that Pope Benedict put it at the top of his list of recommended reading for the recent Year of Faith along with the Second Vatican Council’s four dogmatic constitutions.
A glance at the differences between the past and present situation will perhaps best help us to understand why, in God’s Providence, we have suddenly been given this unprecedented teaching tool, which is unique in the history of the Church. The catechism of the Council of Trent was much more limited, with the main emphasis on Protestant errors.
Until relatively recently, the majority of Christians lived in countries where almost everyone was a Christian. The level of practice might need elevating. But there was no one who had not heard the Good News, and only a few small minorities who did not accept it in theory. Missionaries were select groups of clergy organized in religious orders who carried the message of salvation abroad mainly to tribal peoples and the agricultural poor. The evangelization of mandarins in China and Brahmins in India by the Jesuits Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili was by and large exceptional.
Today, instead, Christians or practicing Christians are in a minority almost everywhere, including once Christian countries and the peoples to be evangelized are totally different as well as the circumstances that more and more of them live in.
Their backgrounds tend to be urban rather than rural, in the West all of them have received some kind of general education, with growing numbers receiving a college education too, and this situation is spreading everywhere.
But it’s not just a matter of education. Via the media and IT gadgets, even those who have had the minimum are more and more being exposed day in day out to the most sophisticated ideas and insinuations. Even men and women who live in the Himalayas or the Gobi Desert will have mobile phones, iPads, and so on, and will be chatting with Facebook friends in Delhi or New York and forming their minds and ideas through what they learn from these contacts.
As for the seriously poor or destitute, whose condition understandably concerns the Holy Father so much, they too are no longer immune. Like the rest of us, they are daily subjected to a bombardment of information, imagery, ideas, and suggestions subversive to an unprecedented degree of any surviving traces of Christian faith and morals. On a minor scale, there are resemblances to the situation facing the early Christians in the great Mediterranean cities of the Roman Empire.
In these circumstances a simple penny-catechism-type education in the faith is obviously going to be insufficient, at least for adults.
This is why the Church is now calling all of us to be missionaries and in the CCC is providing us with the necessary tool for it. In today’s world, once the faith has been preached or proclaimed and taken root, there is not going to be a quiet lull before the questions about the why and wherefore of this or that belief begin. They are likely to come pouring in instantly.
The second reason why the CCC is so important is that it is both a product of Vatican II, and the officially authorized guide to how it should be understood.
If people do find the full version of the CCC too much to begin with they can always start with the Compendium and familiarize themselves with the full version gradually or when they have more time.
Here is what Pope Benedict said about the Compendium in his motu proprio authorizing its publication. “I entrust this Compendium above all to the entire Church, and in particular to every Christian, in order that it may awaken in the Church of the third millennium renewed zeal for evangelization and education in the faith, which ought to characterize every community in the Church and every Christian believer, regardless of age or nationality….With its brevity, clarity, and comprehensiveness,” it is also directed “to every human being, who, in a world of distractions and multifarious messages, desires to know the Way of Life, the Truth, entrusted by God to His Son’s Church.”
What can we do personally to make it better known?
I would suggest in the first place tell as many other Catholics as possible about it whenever subject of the faith comes up in conversation. Secondly, try and interest your parish priest in it. Thirdly, try and get it distributed as widely as possible.
There are now a number of good Catholic organizations distributing bibles at home and abroad as a way of spreading the faith. However, given the words of our Pope Emeritus just quoted, it seems to me they should also give a copy of the Compendium with each bible as well. This would be much more consistent with our beliefs than handing out bibles alone. Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters, we do not see the bible as self-explanatory. We also believe that divine Revelation exists in two sources, not one, Scripture and Tradition, the latter being embodied in the CCC along with the Church’s interpretation of Scripture. (See the council document Dei Verbum).
Nearer home, I would suggest that every Catholic church should have permanently on sale at least two copies of the full version of the CCC, four of the Compendium, and perhaps six of Youcat. But this will not be enough by itself. Our priests must actively promote it, show how to use it, and explain why it matters. So I would suggest that classes for this purpose in every parish should be seen as sine qua non of the new evangelization.
It is true that knowledge without love will not win hearts. But love without adequate knowledge will mislead both evangelist and evangelized.
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(Philip Trower, a longtime contributor to The Wanderer, is the author of Turmoil & Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church. He lives in England.)