While on its face this paragraph appears administrative in its content, and even a touch benign, in fact there is a significant sea change that quite frankly is still not fully appreciated. Among its first components is the very nature of the book and the term “catechism.” The first catechisms, speaking anachronistically, would look for all the world like creeds to us today, and rather brief ones at that. As formularies they would have had three purposes: (1) a statement of the nature of Christian life, particularly for those seeking baptism; (2) liturgical or communal worship, and (3) boundaries on preaching and teaching statements regarding the core of Church belief. I cannot recall a time when a creed or catechism embodied everything a Christian needed to hold and obey—even our Nicene Creed at Mass does not explicitly mention such doctrines as the Real Presence of the Eucharistic food. Such doctrines would today be subsumed under the fourth tenet of the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church….”
From the days of the Apostles creedal statements have always been buttressed by a much more extensive body of Church faith and morals. Given the well-established hypothesis that the Gospels derived from earlier and oral traditions, we have to assume that Jesus said and did many things not recorded in the sacred books (John 20:30-31 and John 21:25 affirm this.) The Gospels, each in their own way, provide the essential Jesus with his core message of salvation. Four centuries later several Church Councils would produce essential elaborations of belief—Jesus is fully divine and human, he is consubstantial or of one substance with the Father, etc.—in a formulary we profess at every Sunday Mass. We have very good evidence, however, that the Church fathers vigorously debated the doctrinal questions at hand from resources of Scripture, worship, popular piety, and particularly the writings of an already large body of Church fathers, many of whom would be venerated one day as saints.
With the passage of the centuries the lists of teachings of popes and bishops, as well as the dictates of local and regional synods of bishops, were becoming quite numerous. Add to this the rules of religious orders and the moral guides to Irish confessors, known as Irish Penitentiaries, and by the thirteenth century the need for collecting, editing and screening this material was becoming pressing, particularly in light of new ideas springing from universities, the challenges of kings and princes, and the appearance of significant heresies. A major achievement was Gratian’s Decrees, a summary of teachings that served the Church well and today is recognized as the template for contemporary Canon Law.
The work that probably most resembles the present day Catechism is The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563); the 1978 edition I happen to own notes that this 293-page text was intended to refute Protestant errors and to generate a true reform of the Catholic Church. Arguably this was the intent of the 1994 Catechism, too, except that Protestantism on the whole was less a worry to John Paul than what we might call secular influences: relativism, indifferentism, materialism and the like. The decrees of Trent find their ways into today’s Catechism in multiple footnotes. What is interesting, too, is that just one year after Trent a true “catechism” also appeared, the Roman Catechism as it has been called, but this work was targeted to priests serving parochial settings.
Catechisms as Catholics have generally understood the term—simple summaries of important basic beliefs—have been composed in great numbers until well into the twentieth century. Among them are the Catechism of St. John Neumann, nineteenth century bishop of Philadelphia; St. Pius X, c. 1900, available here on line; the Baltimore Catechism, product of the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884; and the “Penny Catechism” produced in Great Britain about a century ago.
Which brings us back to our question at hand about the nature of the Catechism of John Paul II in 1994. It is fairly clear that the CCC was not composed as another brief compendium for handy reference by the faithful. Para. 12 indicates a pecking order of reception: first, the Catechism is intended for bishops, who by Church Law are the primary catechists in their dioceses. The text is a tool for assessing the Catholicity of Catholic faith formation. Para. 12 goes on, interestingly, to address itself to “redactors of catechisms,” i.e., composers and publishers of classroom texts, to insure fidelity of parish and diocesan enterprises. The implication of para. 12 has been assumed in one important way by the USCCB, which reviews catechetical series and issues an approved list on its website here. During the NCEA Convention in Orlando, however, I was told by several publishers mentioned here that the USCCB does not have the manpower to assess the proliferation of internet sites, blogsites, and community based education projects that simply spring up and do not seek approbation. Caveat emptor. (Disclaimer: as owner of “The Catechist Café” I purchased a membership for the site in the USCCB—for a hefty price, I might add—alongside religious orders and other Catholic organizations in my Orlando Diocese, so as to be available for Church scrutiny of contents at any time.)
A subsidiary effect of para. 12 has been a more intense scrutiny of speakers and presenters and their fidelity to Catholic teaching. For a number of years I presented on mental health issues at the annual NCEA Convention. When I switched to the religious education speaking track this year, the vetting was more intense than the previous years combined.
Para. 12 rounds out the Catechism’s intended audience as priests and catechists. It adds that the text would be “useful reading” for the general faithful. I would agree; the CCC is a much better literary product than its predecessors. Thus the thrust of this paragraph makes clear that the Catechism is the present authoritative summary of what constitutes official teaching of the Church Tradition. Future popes may, of course, issue catechetical directives with different emphases to face new problems or needs. History has made that clear.