The Catholic Way

What Is a Catechism?

What will you find when you open the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Basically, you will find what Jesus Christ came to teach and what the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit over twenty centuries, has nurtured, applied, and articulated--the Catholic faith.

It is a wonderful gift to each one of us. The Catechism provides for every believer a summary of what we believe, of the faith that we so deeply cherish. In this little book you hold now, I hope we will deepen our understanding and appreciation of the richness and life-giving character of our Catholic faith as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


How did this catechism come about? Its roots go back deep into the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. From Pope John Paul II, we learned that "the principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine, in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will" (Fidei Depositum).

Since its conclusion, the Second Vatican Council has continued to inspire the Church's life. Pope John Paul pointed out in 1985 how the council had been a "special grace" for him as a bishop and how as Pope the council was always "the fixed point of reference for all my pastoral activity" (Discourse of January 25, 1985).

But because some of the council documents have been interpreted in different ways, it became apparent that an authoritative compendium of the faith was not only desirable but necessary. In the middle 1970s, I spoke about these problems with Cardinal John Wright, who was then Prefect of the Vatican office responsible for--among other things--catechetics, the teaching of the faith. Out of that discussion came The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, published in 1976 and subsequently revised three times. This catechism, a product of the collaboration and dedicated work of a large number of bishops, scholars, and catechists, was widely used almost immediately and was translated into more than a dozen languages. Yet there was still a need for a catechism for the whole Church.

At an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, proposed that a new compendium of the faith be drawn up in the light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This new catechism would function as a norm for all catechetical teaching. The idea was immediately and favorably received, and out of it came the decision of Pope John Paul II to create a worldwide commission of cardinals and bishops to produce a catechism for the whole Church--the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Essentially a catechism is a means to an end. God gives us the gift of faith, and the Church nurtures and sustains that faith through her teaching and sacramental ministry. A catechism is a tool for those involved in teaching the faith--and we all know how important it is to have the right tool. Whether we work in the yard, in the kitchen, or in the workshop, if we have the right tool the task is a lot easier.

Why is the Catechism of the Catholic Church the right tool for the task of teaching the faith today? First, it is complete. In this long yet somewhat concise book, we find a full survey of the whole body of Catholic teaching on faith and morals.

In an age that has come to think of the teaching of the Church as a cafeteria line where one picks and chooses what one wants to believe, the Catechism is a reminder that the whole meal is necessary for a well-balanced spiritual diet. The Catechism provides completeness.

It is also authentic. Its content is not someone's opinion about what the Church believes or should believe. It is the true teaching of the Catholic Church proclaimed with authority by those who are responsible for guarding the integrity of the faith. (In the next chapter, we'll talk more about what it means to teach with authority.) The Catechism of the Catholic Church represents the effort of Pope John Paul II together with the bishops to present a complete and authoritative proclamation of the faith of the Catholic Church today.


What does the Catechism rely on for its sources as it presents the faith? It turns to "the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living tradition in the Church and the authentic magisterium as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers and the saints of the Church" (Fidei Depositum 3). The foundation on which the Catechism rests is the teaching of Jesus. That teaching is contained in the pages of Sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the Church, and it is articulated in the magisterium, the teaching office of the bishops. It is also found over centuries in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and its saints, who have lived out the faith in loving response to the will of God. All of these are source material for the faith presented in the new universal catechism.


The Catechism is divided into four sections:

The first section deals with the creed or profession of faith. Here we find the revelation of Jesus that illumines and gives meaning to life.

The second section is devoted to the sacramental life of the Church, or, as it is called, the celebration of the Christian mystery. Here we consider how we express our faith through the sacramental presence of Christ.

The third part is devoted to how we live out in our daily lives the moral obligations of being a follower of Jesus Christ. How do we live in a way that pleases God? How do we become true followers of Jesus? This section unfolds the moral teaching of the Church and our vocation to live in the Holy Spirit.

The final section is devoted to prayer. Here the Catechism uses the petitions of the Our Father to guide us through an understanding of how we should pray and for what should we pray.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is designed primarily for bishops, so that they will have an authentic source of teaching against which to gauge all catechetical efforts in their particular dioceses. However, this catechism is also for every believer. This present book, The Catholic Way, is meant to introduce you to the Catechism. Each short chapter explains one important idea in the Catechism, and at the end of each chapter are some questions to help you think about how the Catechism applies to your life. We start with the most fundamental ideas, of which the first is the most important question: Where does this Catechism's authority come from?

Chapter 2

The Bishops: Teachers of the Faith

We call the Catechism of the Catholic Church "authoritative" or "authentic." What does that mean?

Both of these words have the same Latin root: auctoritas. They mean that the teaching is more than opinion--it has authority.


In the New Testament, the followers of Jesus marveled that, unlike other teachers, he taught with authority. In Matthew's gospel, for example, we read: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7:28-29). Saint Mark recounts how Jesus "entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority" (Mark 1:21-22).

Jesus had authority because of who he was. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," he proclaimed (John 14:6). The truth--the very reality of who Jesus is--is what he shares with us through the Church.

When Jesus was on trial, Pilate asked him, "Are you a king?" Jesus answered, "For this I was born. For this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Anyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (John 18:37).

We call the truth that Jesus brings us revelation.


In the early days of salvation history, God made himself known through the prophets. (See Chapter 5 for an explanation of what we mean by "salvation history.") God did not, however, communicate through them all that God wanted us to know. Finally, God spoke to us "by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being . . ." (Hebrews 1:1-3).

This explains why the teaching of Jesus is different from that of any other person. Christ, in his being, his deeds, and his words, is the perfect revelation of the Father. Jesus is God come into our midst to reveal to us the inner life and very word of God. Through him we have learned how we should live.

On our own, none of us could come to know the mind, heart, love, and identity of God because God is so far beyond us. But Jesus came to reveal truth--the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. As God's word among us, Jesus brings us a message from God that we could not otherwise have. Hence the teaching of Christ--his revelation--is spoken with full authority.

But how does the revelation of God in Jesus Christ continue to come to us?

It comes through the Church. God sent Jesus, and Jesus sent the apostles. And just as the word of God spread through the twelve apostles, so it must continue to be taught through today's apostles--the bishops. The Church continues to pass on the revelation of truth in the same way it has since the days of the apostles.

Because the teaching of the Church is rooted in the teaching of Christ that has come to us from the apostles, the Church is called "apostolic." That means it traces its origins to the apostles, and it still maintains continuity with them. It was Christ's will that his revelation should be preserved always for the salvation of all people. That was why he built his Church on Peter and the other apostles--the Catholic Church, which he protects by his own presence and the gift of the Spirit. It is through this teaching that God's revelation reaches us. Hence it is called authentic or authoritative teaching.


With the end of the apostolic age, the time of new public revelation came to a close. Since then, the task of the Church has been to hand on the word that had been entrusted to the apostles--the deposit of faith--to grow in it, to nurture its development, and to make it living and effective, a leaven to renew the earth.

We teach that revelation continues today, but only in the sense that the living God remains present to God's people, caring for them and providing the gifts of grace that enable them to recognize and love God and the good news of the gospel. But we affirm at the same time that Jesus proclaimed the full saving message and gave it to all who would continue after him. Now, as the Second Vatican Council teaches in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (see 1 Timothy 6:14 and Titus 2:13) (Dei Verbum 4).

Theologians and scholars teach the word and help the Church to penetrate its full meaning. They are not official teachers in the way that bishops, the successors of the apostles, are; and theologians do not receive with the bishops that "sure gift of truth" (Dei Verbum 8) that apostolic witnesses of faith receive. But they are important companions of faith, for bishops look to scholars for appropriate assistance in understanding divine revelation.

Still other teachers are parents, whom the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Christian Education calls "the first and foremost educators of their children" (Gravissimum Educationis 6). Those who teach the faith in schools and in centers of catechetical learning are also very important teachers. They too do not rely on knowledge derived from human scholarship alone, from human philosophies and sciences: they rely on the teaching of Christ. They find a sure guide for their teaching in the voice of the pastors of the Church.


In the history of the Church there have always been people who have proclaimed their own interpretation of God's revelation. From time to time we hear people say "this is really what Jesus meant" and "that part of the teaching doesn't count, but this is the really important thing." People continue to make such claims today. They open the Bible, pick out a phrase, and conclude that their interpretation is authentic.

To avoid this confusion and the possibility of misunderstanding God's word, Jesus chose apostles and charged them and their successors with the responsibility of teaching the true faith, making sure that it is presented clearly and applying it to the problems and needs of the day.

Authentic Catholic faith is never partial or selective. It is always universal. We say "yes" to the whole mystery of the faith and to each of its elements because of our personal faith in God. We believe the truth that God reveals because we believe God, and we believe that God is still teaching in and through the Church. When Peter came to recognize that God was in Christ, he was prepared to believe any word of Christ, for it was clear to him that God is always to be believed. "You have the word of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God" (John 6:68-69).

While every Christian shares in the mission of spreading the truth and bearing witness to the gospel, the apostles, as we have noted, had the prime responsibility of guarding, proclaiming, and verifying the gospel message. For this reason the Catechism of the Catholic Church is directed primarily to the bishops, their successors, as an instrument to use in measuring the fidelity of all catechetical materials and as an authentic gauge with an authority rooted in the very revelation of Christ.


This brings us to the question of what means are available to us if we want to live the gospel and share the good news in a way that is faithful to the message of Jesus. It was precisely in the face of this concern that Pope John Paul II ordered the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be written so that everyone, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, catechists, teachers, and all the faithful would have a complete and authoritative presentation of the faith of the Church.
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