Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Catechism Demystified

This is a talk that I gave to our RCIA class last week. I'm sharing it here for anyone else who'd like a little help finding their way around the Catechism, which can be confusing but need not be.
I am not an expert on the Catechism, but I do know how to use it.

The Catechism can be a bit tricky to find your way around so I wanted to take just a couple of minutes to familiarize everyone with it.

Let’s start with what the word catechism means. A catechism is a summary of principles.

So, the Catholic Catechism is specifically designed as a reference guide. Some people call it the Catholic “rule book.” It is much more than that though.

“In the Catechism, we see the wealth of teaching that the Church has
received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history. From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith."

That is what Pope Benedict says about the Catechism ... and he should know.

The current Catechism was requested by Pope John Paul II and produced under Cardinal Ratzinger’s supervision. Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI.

This Catechism is the first systematic synthesis of faith issued since the Council of Trent in 1566. Between then and now there were catechisms that were issued locally as various people saw the need.

The English version of this catechism came out in 1994 and was revised in 1997, so this is really current.

Think of it as the sort of encyclopedia from the days when all we had were books ... when you would sit down to look up facts about the moon and get pulled into other sections because they were so fascinating.

Of course, when you have a two thousand year old institution whose goal is to help get us to Heaven, they don’t think quite the way we do about organization.

The Catechism is arranged in four main sections that are often called the “Four Pillars” of the Faith:
  • The Profession of Faith (the Apostle’s Creed)
  • The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (the Sacred Liturgy, especially the sacraments)
  • Life in Christ (including The Ten Commandments in Catholic theology)
  • Christian Prayer (including The Lord’s Prayer)
Numbering system:

Let’s look at a page. (get pdf of sample page here)

Every paragraph is numbered. (red circle) Those numbers are very important.

When you look up something in the index, the numbers it refers you to are
paragraph numbers, NOT page numbers. This can be confusing until you get used to it, but it does give us an idea of just how much information is packed into each paragraph.

The numbers in the margins (green square) are cross-references ... to other paragraphs in the Catechism that refer to the same subject and may shed more light.

The cross-reference paragraphs are a good reason to have the actual book. The Catechism is on-line in a lot of places (the Vatican’s web-site, the US Bishops’ website, etc.) and is super handy for searching. I use the online version all the time.

But those versions don’t have the cross-reference paragraphs ... and sometimes those lead you to just what you were looking for or for added depth you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

In Brief:

The writers of the Catechism know that this may be more information than you wanted. Maybe you were looking for a simple answer and didn’t need all the extra info.

Each chapter ends with an “In Brief” section that summarizes the main points of the chapter in one or two sentence paragraphs.


Of course, there are are copious footnotes for both direct quotes in the text and also where they refer to sources of the teaching, in particular the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils and other authoritative Catholic statements, such as those issued by recent Popes.


Just finding your way to the correct “In Brief” answers may seem a bit daunting if you’re trying to find something quickly ... which is something I’ve experienced in our small group.

And the writers of the Catechism realized that too.

So, in 2005 they came out with the Compendium to the Catechism. (Download a sample page here.)

It is a more concise and conversational version of the Catechism.

Again the paragraphs are numbered. These paragraph numbers don’t have any relationship to the numbers in the Catechism.

However, these numbers in the margin (red circle) DO correspond to numbers in the actual Catechism so if you want to read more, it is easy to find.


Say you need more explanation though, and the Catechism is a bit too confusing. I’ve been there. Here are three good books. (Links lead to my reviews.)

For one thing, how can we trust these books though to tell us the truth about Catholic teachings?

Two reasons.

First, they all use those same, all-important paragraph numbers from the Catechism so that you can go check what they’re saying against the Catechism itself.

There is a much easier way to be sure though.

I didn’t trust these books myself ... until I saw that each went to the trouble of getting the Catholic seal of approval.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Look on the copyright page for one or more of these phrases (below). These mean that the book has been submitted to Catholic authorities to be checked for accuracy.

If the author belongs to a religious order, the book is submitted to the order’s superior. If the author is just a regular writer, the book is usually submitted to local Catholic authorities, like the local diocese.

In either case, first the book is examined by an expert, called a censor. If the book is accurate, they issue:
Censor’s stamp: NIHIL OBSTAT (“nothing stands in the way”)
After the Nihil Obstat has been obtained, the manuscript will be submitted another person for checking.

In the case of a religious order, it is examined by the order’s religious superior ... in which case it receives the:
Religious Superior’s stamp: IMPRIMI POTEST (“it can be printed”)
I have only come across the Imprimi Potest once ... in The Catechism, which has Cardinal Ratzinger’s stamp of approval.

In the case of the regular book given to the diocese, the manuscript would go from the censor to the bishop to receive the:
Bishop’s stamp: IMPRIMATUR (“let it be printed”)
The religious superior may also go ahead and submit the manuscript they approved for an Imprimatur. So it is possible to have a book with all three seals of approval.

By the way, it is only necessary to put the Imprimi Potest or Imprimatur on the book. You can assume it has gotten a Nihil Obstat first if it made it to those two stages.


A word of warning though ... if you see a book that only has a Nihil Obstat, be cautious. It may be in error. This happened in the 1960s a lot and some of those books contained incorrect material, even heretical material. You need the double-check system to be sure something didn’t slip by someone. That is why if one bishop gave the Nihil Obstat, another bishop has to give the Imprimatur.

The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are often followed by this statement on the copyright page:

The “Nihil Obstat” and “Imprimatur” are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed.

So if one of these authors has all theCatholic truths right but is using them to try to prove that we shouldn’t drink hot coffee because it’s the devil’s temperature ... we can’t blame the Catholic Church.


Remember those footnotes in the Catechism? The ones for materials that are simply referenced, where they might have summarized twelve pages of a Church Council document into two sentences?

If you ever wonder just what was summarized, there’s a book for that too.

The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church ... which is a compendium of texts referred to in the book but not quoted there.

It has every word of the pertinent part of the originally referenced materials, in English, so you don’t have to go all over the place looking for something.

It is almost 1,000 pages long and is really fascinating and enlightening if you want to see it all from original sources.

Just imagine if all this material had been included in the Catechism.

That would’ve been a book no one would have wanted to open.

It makes the Catechism not look so big after all, does it?


  1. Thanks! Very informative!!

  2. I found your explanation very clear and thorough. Thanks for making it available.