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Why We Need a U.S. Catechism


From Trent to Baltimore
What's in It?
Not Without Controversy

“Who made you?” Older Catholics will surely remember the rote response, “God made me,” learned from drill after drill in elementary school, and at home, of the Baltimore Catechism.

Then came Vatican II, in the 1960s, and the end of rote memorization. As a Church, we sought to deepen our faith, to go beneath the methods that had, in some cases, nurtured a faith ill-equipped for a rapidly changing world. We renewed our liturgy and we renewed our catechesis, the way we share our faith together.

But many would agree that our efforts were incomplete. The Vatican II generation—those who were adults at the time of the Council—was, on the whole, ready to move into new expressions of a timeless faith and, for the most part, they did so. But they forgot one genius of the old system: its ability to hand on the particulars of the faith to future generations. Forty years later we have yet to renew that fully, and it shows.


From Trent to Baltimore

Concern for the next generation of Catholics after Vatican II—many themselves parents now—is what drove the bishops of the world, led by some of those from the United States, to ask for the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was started in the late 1980s and promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1997. But that was only part of the plan.

Once the universal Catechism was completed (it was updating Trent’s Roman Catechism of 1566!), it was meant to be adapted into local cultures (or as the Catechism says, “particular Churches”).

So we shouldn’t be alarmed at the forthcoming United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which will be published sometime in the next year or so. That’s how we got the Baltimore Catechism in 1884 and its two later revisions. The U.S. bishops of the time knew we needed a catechetical tool suitable for the American culture of the day.

The idea today is to have a catechism solidly grounded in the 1997 universal Catechism, yet adapted to the needs and style of our particular American culture.

The U.S. bishops have been working on the project for some years, and approved a final draft at their plenary meeting last November. That draft is being reviewed at the Vatican, and, when it gets the O.K. there, it will be published in the United States.

What's in It?

The draft of the U.S. Catechism ap-proved by the U.S. bishops last November bears little resemblance to the Baltimore Catechism. The underlying difference is that this U.S. Catechism is directed to young adults, whose faith formation came after Vatican II. So it doesn’t have the question-and-answer, quiz-type format better suited for elementary classrooms.

Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, chairman of the U.S. Catechism’s editorial oversight board, recently told St. Anthony Messenger that this book is designed to help young-adult Catholics learn about their faith “in a way that is concise, attractive and inviting, and at the same time, complete,” and, while doing so, “show how that faith challenges some of the presuppositions of today’s culture.”

To achieve that goal, the authors begin each section with a story of faith, most often about some well-known American Catholic. From there they tease out various themes of the teaching and its relation to American culture.

The structure follows that of the universal Catechism: The Creed, The Sacraments, Moral Life and Prayer. Each chapter within those sections concludes with a summary of doctrine, questions for discussion, a brief meditation and a prayer. The book includes a glossary and a short collection of traditional Catholic prayers.

The draft was close to 500 pages long, but it was in a manuscript form that included changes and marked-out sections. One could expect a final book that’s somewhat shorter, but still substantial with its 36 chapters.

Not Without Controversy

One of the changes of last November caused a bit of a flap after the bishops met. Thomas Merton’s story had been replaced in the first section with that of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Merton advocates felt that ultraconservative Catholic voices had prevailed in getting Merton eliminated, though they admitted that the presence of farmworker-organizer Cesar Chavez, Venerable Dorothy Day and others was admirable.

Bishop Wuerl defended the move as age-related—young Catholics don’t know Merton—but not so convincingly, considering other little-known stories that were kept. On the other hand, the many thousands of Seton advocates—Seton herself being a laywoman, convert, mother, then widow before she founded the Sisters of Charity—must welcome her prominent inclusion.

Even from that small foretaste of the book, you can see that we’ll have something different from the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church and particularly engaging for Americans. We’ll be hearing plenty more details as its publication nears.

Some Catholics might wish that every other form of catechesis would now go away. I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Catholic faith is wide and deep, capable of expression in a multitude of ways. This new U.S. Catechism will be one particularly definitive—but not exclusive—way of sharing our faith with one another.—J.F.


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