By Don Fier
“In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool. It is one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council.” With these words in his apostolic letter Porta Fidei announcing the upcoming Year of Faith (October 11, 2012-November 24, 2013), Pope Benedict XVI stressed the incalculable importance that the Catechism needs to play for the faithful to truly understand what our precious Catholic faith professes.
With the Holy Father’s words to serve as a fitting backdrop, this column is the introductory installment of a long-running series of articles by which The Wanderer intends to take to heart his exhortation. In an age when it might be said that there exists a “crisis in catechesis,” the plan is to go through the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) — from beginning to end — and examine and give explanation to its contents in a systematic and practical way. In other words, the goal is to provide a resource for readers to become more knowledgeable about their faith, to provide helpful insights on ways to put it into practice in their day-to-day lives, and to encourage them to spread it far and wide.
To put some perspective on the importance of this initiative, consider the following sad and telling statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA): Only 20% of those who identify themselves as Catholics attend Sunday Mass every week (and only 12% on holy days of obligation); 45% never avail themselves of the Sacrament of Confession (and another 30% do so less than once per year); only 57% believe that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. A Pew Research Center study showed that only 56% pray on a daily basis. And it’s often been reported that fallen-away Catholics, if such a religious grouping was considered to be a denomination, would be the second-largest in America.
Certainly one reason for this distressing state of affairs is the culture in which we live — one of secularism, moral relativism, and materialism where self-indulgence and immediate gratification are priorities for many if not most. Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, a zealous and faith-filled Jesuit whose cause for sainthood was opened in late 2005, succinctly described the situation as follows: “The whole moral order of once-civilized nations has been subverted. Each person’s mind is now the norm of morality, and each person’s will is at liberty to choose what he or she wants, without dependence on the mind and will of the Creator.”
Another major component of the problem, however, is the aforementioned “crisis in catechesis.” Whole generations have not been properly catechized and simply do not understand the faith of the Catholic Church. Consider the following example: An acquaintance, a young man who was raised in an ostensibly Catholic family, took a one-semester psychology course at a prestigious Midwestern university. Upon completing the class, he informed his parents that he no longer believed in the existence of God. This young man attended Catholic grade schools, CCD classes throughout high school, and served Mass at his parish on Sundays while growing up. Yet, he was able to be convinced that God does not exist by attending just one secular psychology course.
And I suspect this story is not uncommon — so many have fallen away from the practice of the faith, not grasping and understanding the “pearl of great value” (Matt. 13:45) that they so haphazardly are abandoning.
To put the Catechism of the Catholic Church in historical perspective, it came about as the result of a proposal made at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which was convened on the 20th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion. Pope John Paul II subsequently appointed an ad hoc commission in 1986 whose express task it was to produce the CCC. In 1992, after six years of intensive work, the Catechism appeared first in French; an English translation was published in 1994. A second edition of the CCC was published in the United States in 1997 to bring the texts of the English edition into conformity with the official Latin text.
The end result can truly be described as a “gift of love” from Almighty God to the Church. As Pope John Paul II points out in the opening line of the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum: “Guarding the Deposit of Faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church, and which she fulfills in every age.” And, as José Cardinal Sánchez, former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, noted, the CCC “expresses the essential and fundamental content of Catholic doctrine in faith and morals in a complete and systematic method.”
What are the primary sources for the Catechism of the Catholic Church? As pointed out in Fidei Depositum, “a catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living Tradition in the Church, and the authentic Magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the fathers, doctors, and saints of the Church.” The CCC is certainly steeped in Sacred Scripture — in the “Index of Citations” there are more than 30 pages of biblical citations, more than 3,000 references, and quotations from Scripture. There are five pages of references from Vatican Council II documents, approximately two and one-half pages from prior ecumenical councils, and 12 pages of references to fathers, doctors, and saints of the Church. Suffice it to say, the drafting fathers of the CCC were true to their mission: The Catechism is indisputably based on Scripture, Tradition, and authentic magisterial teaching of the Church.
The CCC presentation has a fourfold structure, consistent with the way the Church has presented catechisms since her earliest days. The first part is based on the Creed and sets forth the mystery of faith — what Catholics believe. The second part primarily deals with the sacraments and the liturgy — the means by which the salvation and grace of Jesus are mediated to mankind. The basis of the third part of the CCC is the Ten Commandments — it deals with the moral law and what we must do in order to be saved. The fourth and final part deals with Christian prayer and includes a beautiful exposition of the Our Father. The text of the CCC is divided between these four parts as follows: 39% on the Creed, 23% on the Sacraments, 27% on the Commandments, and 11% on Prayer.
In undertaking this project, it is important to bear in mind Pope Benedict’s insightful teaching about reading the “signs of the times” for effective religious training: “Catechesis makes the universal message contemporary by presenting it to particular men living at a particular time.” The intent, then, is to present the CCC in a manner that speaks to the times in which we live, but without compromising the unchanging Truth that has been handed down through the ages.
An overriding principle that was emphasized in Vatican Council II, especially so in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), is the universal call to holiness. But to be holy, it is imperative that one understands what our Catholic faith demands.
That is the overriding purpose of this series of articles in The Wanderer, for it is the CCC that provides a sure guide toward that understanding. The fundamental goal here, then, is to systematically examine and explain its contents — to impart “doctrinal awareness” to readers. However, a word of caution — to truly understand what the CCC teaches requires more than speed-reading; it requires reflective, meditative reading of the actual text.
Although understanding the content of the CCC is a necessary first step, more is demanded for it to be effective: One must embrace and live what one believes. In a word, one must engage in ongoing conversion. And finally, to be true to what is being asked of us as part of the universal call to holiness is to engage in apostolic outreach — one must become part of the New Evangelization, reaching out and sharing what one has learned and embraced.
One further note to conclude this opening article. Certainly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church can stand on its own and an exposition of its actual text will be the primary content of upcoming articles. However, this track will be periodically augmented by practical segues into the lives of important saints whose words permeate the Catechism. Also, reference will be made to magisterial documents of the Church that have been released by the Holy See since the CCC was published that provide more clarity on new and emerging issues and topics.
Finally, much will be drawn from the teachings and writings of the servant of God, Fr. Hardon, who worked tirelessly as a master catechist, founding and supporting numerous apostolates to teach and spread the faith.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolisbased monthly publication. He is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. Fier, with the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. He and his wife are the parents of seven children.)