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The Catechism as Opening Statement

In 1992, after years of planning, Pope John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). It took a few months for the official translation of the Catechism from Latin to English to be approved, and then even more time for it to be published. It was pretty much available for all who were interested by the spring of 1995.

The Catechism was envisioned as a comprehensive summary of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. As such, it was intended primarily for teachers, catechists, bishops, priests, and vowed religious men and women. Basically, it was to be used by the men and women of the Church who were entrusted with the ministry of faithfully passing on the Church’s beliefs, traditions, and practices to believers. It was never imagined as something that the general public would be interested in. However, the Catholic general public had a completely different idea.

Generations of Catholics, formed by the Baltimore Catechism, had fond memories of the old catechism and assumed that the new one would have the same usefulness. Imagine their surprise when the 264-page Baltimore Catechism, in its user-friendly question-and-answer format, was replaced by the 574-page CCC. A readable and familiar catechism had been, in effect, replaced by a reference text.

The difference between the two catechisms was not just in page length. The Baltimore Catechism was meant to be a catechetical roadmap to help ordinary Catholics navigate the faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as noted, had a narrower purpose and a much smaller audience in mind. This difference in the intent of the publishers is essential in forming a satisfying perspective and understanding.

To effectively use and understand the CCC, it is not enough to be able to read it. It is more important to be able to understand its full intent and context. Every word, sentence, or canon of the Catechism does not hold equal weight. There are dogmas, official doctrines, quotations from various sources, writings that are representative of the Church teachings, writings from the practiced traditions of the Church, and the list is endless. To simply read something from the Catechism and state, “This is what the Catechism says,” may be woefully inadequate, inaccurate, and misleading.

Some of what the Catechism presents is historical theology. Some of what it presents reflects the thinking of systematic theologians. It also presents the musings and practiced piety of the saints. Some of it is settled tradition and practice, while other canons represent what the Church teaches about a subject now, but the theology on the matter may be unsettled. Readers err if they do not understand the nuances of what is written and instead give equal weight to everything in the book. No matter how informed they might think that they are, they are misinformed. Even worse, they are confused and misdirected.

To illustrate, think of the contents of a daily newspaper. Informed newspaper readers should know the editorial bias of its editorial board. They also need to understand that the paper’s various sections are different. An editorial is not the same as a comic in the funnies, and a front-page news story is vastly different from the recap of a ballgame or a movie review. Simply stating, “This is what the newspaper says,” fails to give the full story. Thus, a newspaper and our Catechism have commonality.

Another important point is that although the Catechism of the Catholic Church is intended to be a comprehensive summary of Catholic belief and practice, it is deliberately incomplete. By its very nature, a summary is incomplete. The CCC does not present or pretend to present a complete statement of Catholic beliefs on sacred Scripture, moral theology, cosmology (metaphysics), medical ethics, or current and orthodox pastoral practices in whole or in part.

That explanation should help you understand what the Catechism is not, but what is its intent? It is the starting point for discussion and teaching. The groundwork. The opening statement. The historical reflection. The CCC is the practiced and respected summary of some of the beliefs of the people of God in the Roman Catholic tradition.

All of this is an important perspective for all people who intend to reference the CCC, but it is particularly important for people with scrupulosity. Do not use the Catechism as your resource in trying to uncover the clarity and certitude you think you need in order to navigate the push and pull of the scrupulous condition. You will not find what you seek. At the very most, you might experience a temporary reprieve and a sense of satisfaction, but those feelings will soon be replaced with another question. Another doubt. Even more anxiety.

The Catechism does offer some guidance. However, there is equally important guidance available from a trusted confessor and/or spiritual director. The real authority, the convincing authority is within you because of God’s manifold grace at work in your life. Answers in a book are not what you need. Rather, learn the dynamics of your scrupulosity, recognize your individual triggers, resist the isolating force of the disorder that is sustained by anxiety and fear. Learning to manage your scrupulous condition is more important than knowledge gained from any resource book.
Your effort in managing your condition is the only path to real peace in real life.

Of course, keep the Catechism on your library shelf or tucked away in the unused files of your computer. But you do not need it to manage your scrupulous condition.

Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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