Catechism of the Catholic Church
A catechism (“to teach orally”) is a summary or exposition of doctrine and serves as a learning introduction to the Sacraments traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of children and adult converts.
The decision to publish a catechism was taken at the Second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that was convened by Pope John Paul II on 25 January 1985 for the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, and in 1986, put a commission composed of 12 bishops and cardinals in charge of the project. The commission was assisted by a committee consisting of seven diocesan bishops, experts in theology and catechesis.
The text was approved by John Paul II on 25 June 1992, and promulgated by him on 11 October 1992, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, with his apostolic constitution, Fidei depositum. Cardinal Georges Cottier, Theologian emeritus of the Pontifical Household and later cardinal deacon of Santi Domenico e Sisto, of the University Church of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum was influential in drafting the encyclical.
It was published in the French language in 1992. Later it was then translated into many other languages. In the United States, the English translation was published in 1994 and had been pre-ordered more than 250,000 copies before its release, with a note that it was “subject to revision according to the Latin typical edition (editio typica) when it is published.”
On August 15, 1997—the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—John Paul II promulgated the Latin typical edition, with his apostolic letter, Laetamur Magnopere. The Latin text, which became the official text of reference (editio typica), amended the contents of the provisional French text at a few points. As a result, the earlier translations from the French into other languages (including English) had to be amended and re-published as “second editions”
Paragraph 2267 (capital punishment)
Main article: Religion and Capital Punishment
One of the changes to the 1997 update consisted of the inclusion of the position on the death penalty that is defended in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae of 1995.
The paragraph dealing with the death penalty (2267) was revised again by Pope Francis in 2018.
The present redaction of the catechism now reads:
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
In the apostolic constitution Fidei depositum, John Paul II declared that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith”, and stressed that it “is not intended to replace the local catechisms duly approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, the diocesan Bishops and the Episcopal Conferences”.
A catechism has been defined as “a book that explains the beliefs of the Christian religion by using a list of questions and answers”. Documents of religious instruction have been written since the beginning of Christianity and a catechism is typically an assemblage of these smaller documents into one large compilation of Church doctrine and teachings.
The Catechism itself is not in question-and-answer format. Rather, it is instead a source on which to base such catechisms (e.g. Youcat and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults) and other expositions of Catholic doctrine, called a “major catechism.” As stated in the apostolic constitution Fidei depositum, with which its publication was ordered, it was given so “that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms.”
The Catechism is arranged in four principal parts:
- The Profession of Faith (the Apostle’s Creed)
- The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (the Sacred Liturgy, and especially the sacraments)
- Life in Christ (including the Ten Commandments)
- Christian Prayer (including the Lord’s Prayer)
This scheme is often referred to as the “Four Pillars” of the Faith. The contents are abundantly footnoted with references to sources of the teaching, in particular the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils and other authoritative Catholic statements, principally those issued by recent popes.
The section on Scripture in the Catechism recovers the Patristic tradition of “spiritual exegesis” as further developed through the scholastic doctrine of the “four senses.” This return to spiritual exegesis is based on the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 dogmatic constitution Dei verbum, which taught that Scripture should be “read and interpreted in light of the same Spirit by whom it was written”. The Catechism amplifies Dei verbum by specifying that the necessary spiritual interpretation should be sought through the four senses of Scripture, which encompass the literal sense and the three spiritual senses (allegorical, moral, and anagogical).
The literal sense pertains to the meaning of the words themselves, including any figurative meanings. The spiritual senses pertain to the significance of the things (persons, places, objects or events) denoted by the words. Of the three spiritual senses, the allegorical sense is foundational. It relates persons, events, and institutions of earlier covenants to those of later covenants, and especially to the New Covenant. Building on the allegorical sense, the moral sense instructs in regard to action, and the anagogical sense points to man’s final destiny. The teaching of the Catechism on Scripture has encouraged the pursuit of covenantal theology, an approach that employs the four senses to structure salvation history via the biblical covenants.
In 1992, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) noted:
It clearly show[s] that the problem of what we must do as human beings, of how we should live our lives so that we and the world may become just, is the essential problem of our day, and basically of all ages. After the fall of ideologies, the problem of man—the moral problem—is presented to today’s context in a totally new way: What should we do? How does life become just? What can give us and the whole world a future which is worth living? Since the catechism treats these questions, it is a book which interests many people, far beyond purely theological or ecclesial circles.
Ulf Ekman, former Charismatic pastor and the founder of Livets Ord, says that the Catechism is “the best book he has ever read”.
It was expected that the universal Catechism would serve as a source and template for inculturated national catechisms. In the United States, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, officially replacing their previous version, the Baltimore Catechism.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 2005, and the first edition in English in 2006. It is a more concise and dialogic version of the Catechism. The text of the Compendium is available in fourteen languages on the Vatican website, which also gives the text of the Catechism itself in nine languages.
Youcat, a catechism for youth, based on the Catechism and its Compendium, was published in 2011. The Vatican has acknowledged that some translations of Youcat contain errors regarding Church teaching on the status of other religions, contraception and euthanasia, whether due to simple error or poor translations.