Sunday, December 15, 2013

What is a catechism?

THE NATURE OF CATECHISM. In the USA today, the Catholic Church is the most powerful institution working for mysticism. While the Catholic Church loses some members to other mystical groups and a few to the movement for reason, the Church also steadily gains new members. To join the Catholic Church, a new Catholic takes several steps. One early step is understanding certain ideas about God, man, and their relationship. Learning those ideas comes partly through oral instruction. Catechesis is the ancient Greek term. The instructor, the catechist, may be a priest or other agent of the Church; the student is a catechumen. Often the catechist teaches from a book, a catechism.

Throughout the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, writing a catechism has been a local or regional matter.  Some catechisms are long, and others are short. Some catechisms are collections of short essays, and others are dialogues with questions and answers brief enough to memorize. Some catechisms emphasize theology or ritual or prayer. Some catechisms emphasize answers to local problems, such as the best way in Africa for a formerly pagan man having several wives to move toward lifetime Catholic monogamy. Some catechisms are written for adults, and others—such as Totally Catholic!—are written for children. 

1. What is Faith? Catechism[:] A longing for God is written in our hearts … Did you know that our sun is one star in the Milky Way galaxy, which has at least 200 billion other stars? … Looking up at the stars at night, don't you wonder: Where did everything come from? Why am I here, living on planet earth? We Catholics can answer questions like these because we have faith or belief. We believe in God, the Supreme Being who loves us and communicates with us. We believe that in Jesus, God came to earth and taught us. … [Totally Catholic: A Catechism for Kids and Their Parents and Teachers, p. 1]

The Church has generally relied on local officials, especially the bishops, to examine each catechism for quality and orthodoxy.

WHY ARE CATECHISMS IMPORTANT? Catechisms are training manuals. They educate candidates who want to convert to Christianity. Catechisms prepare Christians to be activists because being Christian includes an obligation to spread Christianity in some manner, even if only by example. Catechisms are a lens. Through it, the Church focuses and transmits its main messages to all prospective members of the Church. Some members, the non-intellectual majority, may engage in no further study, though they will hear similar messages from Catholic lay-preachers, priests, bishops, and popes. A few new members will study further through formal education in Catholic schools, through special study groups, or through reading the articles and books of Catholic intellectuals (for example, George Weigel, whose recent book. Evangelical Catholicism, reviewed in the October 18, 2013 post, here).

SUMMARY. A catechism arms new Catholic Christians with ideas about God, man, and the Church—ideas which the new Catholic will use to guide him in supporting the Church and in spreading Christianity to other individuals in the world. Those ideas include concepts about mysticism, such as revelation and faith.

P. S. — In my next post, I hope to review the relatively new, official Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is an archetype of local or specialized catechisms.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

1. "Catechism," "Catechist," and "Catechumen," A Catholic Dictionary, Donald Attwater general editor, Rockford (Illinois), Tan Books, 1997 (a reprint of the 1958 3rd edition by Macmillan).
2. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," Wikipedia,
3. "Roman Catechism," Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic Online,

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