A catechism that teaches the content of the faith!

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

A true reform of the Church will, without a doubt, include a considerable effort to re-establish a teaching of the Catholic catechism, not only to the children but to the new baptized , or also to those who are starting again who get close to the church again, but also to all the faithful whose ignorance of the essentials of Catholic doctrine is often abysmal.

In some countries like France catechism has for a long time involved the quasi totality of the population even non practicing, 80% of children attended the classes: the solemn communion (profession of faith) at the age of 11-12 years old was the conclusion of the catechism years so much that practically all families made it a point to celebrate, whatever their level of religion. As such, catechism was “the work by excellence” according to Mgr Dupanloup, a continuous missionary work. Even if children of non-practicing parents ceased themselves to practice after the ceremony, yet they had received an instruction which made religion familiar to all.

The black hole of the post-Council

In France, the great rupture in the Sunday practice took place in 1965, according to Guillaume Cuchet in Comment notre mode a cessé d’être chrétien (How our world ceased to be Christian) which we have often quoted[1]. This rupture manifested itself in the fact, as recorded by Canon Boulard, that a most of those aged 15 to 24, coming form practicing Catholic families, have ceased to practice themselves. But, the rupture in the number of catechized children took more time to be noticed. What happened is that non-practicing parents stopped sending their children to catechism class, in parts thanks to the priests who themselves denounced the hypocrisy of solemn communion ceremonies as they often were immediately followed by the abandonment of the Sunday practice. Then, as the number of practicing Catholics diminished, less than 2% of the population today, the number of catechized children decreased consequently and even more rapidly, insofar as the majority of those who continue to practice are now grand-parents.

In 1982, 54% of children aged 11 through 12 were still enrolled in catechism. As a matter of fact, today, most of the parents who still ask for catechism for their children, take them out of the instruction cycle after their first communion (8-10 years old). If in 1982, 60% of Catholic children aged 8 to 11 were still enrolled in a catechism class, in 2016-17, they were only 16%. All the testimonies, both from urban and country settings, agree: never before the number of catechized children has ever been so low. Further more, the attendance of the children enrolled in catechism is irregular and, even more irregular, their attendance at Sunday mass. In any case, whatever they are able to learn from these classes is so limited that, in many cases, “catechized” children don’t even know basic prayers.

But furthermore, the great catechetical collapse has to do with its content. It started at the time of the emblematic Dutch Catechism in 1966. The set up around the “renewal”, at the end of the seventies, worsened the crisis with publications in the ways of tracks (the most famous being Pierres vivantes in 1981[2]). Same causes produce same effects, the result was analogically similar to the one of the new teaching of history and literary subjects in secondary schools: the instillation of false ideas maybe, but most of all, of a cultural void. In fact, it was about the content of the Creed…

The textbooks that were being replaced then were not from an other time, as it is said sometimes: to the contrary, a great effort had been done (not without some forewarning signs of a drift, for sure[3]) to diversify their presentation, add some liturgical notions and some direct knowledge of Holy Scripture, and most of all in order to help the work of catechist priests, a whole ensemble of cards and pedagogical instructions had been made available[4].

But the new instruments put into service after the Council followed the current wind of pedagogical reform: ludic sessions peppered with “dialogues” between catechists and children, finding a conclusion in “liturgies” now a privileged place for extreme inventiveness. Especially considering that now almost 90% of catechists are recruited from among laities with only a rather elementary knowledge, or even sometimes with a knowledge twisted by catechist sessions not in line with Catholic orthodoxy. The result is as a matter of fact not so much the orthodoxy – except that “hardcore” dogma, original sin, hail, are out the door – than the absence of doctrinal knowledge.

Even today, the site L’Église catholique en France, explains complacently: “In catechism class, the most diverse ways are put into practice to make Jesus known to children. One day, the children study a text of the Gospel and make their own drawing. An other day, they watch a dvd or video and mime a story from the Bible, learn more about it through games, they meet other believers, they listen to the history of the life of a saint. Or, furthermore, they take part in a celebration and pray together. The catechist follows the children in their discoveries, listens to them, engages in debates, responds to their questions, invites them to pray.”

Without a doubt, can we see any malign convenience in the exhibit of religious ignorance from Catholics by the media: we almost come to believe that the agents of polling firms are the only ones to still consult the Catechism in order to show through their line of questions that surveyed Catholics don’t know their catechism or the Creed: indeed, only half of the people surveyed and calling themselves Catholics believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God! Saint-Simon entertained himself in his Memoirs of a great lady who thought that God “looked twice” before condemning a person of quality at the time of particular judgement. How many Catholics today know what “particular judgement” is – this on the basis of science – and admit the possibility of an eternal condemnation – this on the basis of faith.

There is a void of two and, soon, three generations that have not been catechized, in France particularly, except through recreative and cute crafty activities organized by laities, certainly good willed but totally incompetent, relying on tracks at best totally bland. “But if the salt lose its savor, wherewith shall be salted? It is good for nothing anymore but to be cast out, and to be trodden on my men” (Matt 5, 13). It is actually religion as a whole that is being trodden.

This analysis of the absence of transmission of the religious comes in addition to an other assessment which goes beyond in the Church of France all the other preoccupations and nourishes all anguish: She is becoming a Church without priest, and therefore, a Church without these men usually designated to the teaching of Christian doctrine.

The tentative to return to the years of restoration

A double event, already far away, had marked the start of a tentative of catechetical “return”. It is in 1983 that Cardinal Ratzinger giving a conference at Notre Dame of Fouvière and Notre Dame of Paris, the 15 and 16 January, affirmed that the literary genre of the catechism, with its synthesis funded on the commentary of the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments and the Pater (that is the schema of the Catechism of the Council of Trent and of the Catechism of saint Pius X), was not too old. “It was a first and grave fault, as he said, to do away with the catechism and to declare “too old fashioned” the very genre of the catechism. […] What was behind this erroneous, hasty and universal decision? The reasons are many and so far hardly examined. It is first surely to be put in relation with the general evolution of education and pedagogy, which characterizes itself by an hypertrophy of the method in comparison to the content of diverse disciplines.” It is obvious that this absorption of the content by pedagogy is still the major defect, even in classic style parishes.

We had to wait till 1985 so that at the end of an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of the bishops, an assembly troubled by the stir of The Ratzinger Report which has just been published, was decided the undertaking of the Universal catechism[5], the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One year before its publication, in 1991, the French bishops, stung by some restorative flies, had themselves published a Catechism for adults[6], though well forgotten (one must say that the weekly La Vie had labeled it a “dangerous catechetical model” and a “funeral monument” for the French catechetical movement!). It was of a quality well above those of the contemporary German and Belgium bishops, with its globally classical plan: he was speaking of the existence of angels and demons, the original sin as a sin of origin, of the perpetual virginity  of Mary unto childbirth, the authenticity of the miracles of Christ, of the continuity between his mortal glorious body, of the resurrection as a historical fact and object of faith, of the suffering expiation of the sacrifice of Christ which has a satisfactory value, of the sacraments, sensible and efficacious signs of the action of Christ and instituted by Him, of the Eucharist, sacrifice of expiation and propitiation for the sins, of the forbidden access for “remarried” divorcees to sacramental communion.

It took 30 years after the opening of the Council for such publications to be published again! Though they were still only catechisms made for adults or educators. They never triggered the publications of manuals for children. A Compendium, a short version of the CCC, was published in 2005. The CCC raised some issues, the same as the documents of the Council: the Catechism of the Catholic Church took on items discussed at Vatican II, ecumenism, religious liberty, framed in a particular way, what Benedict XVI will call “the hermeneutic of progress in the continuity.”

Praiseworthy tentatives, though insufficient in the end, have for a long time rested on the Ratzinguerian’s efforts. In the diocese of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger whose episcopate lasted 24 years (1981-2005), about the reign of John Paul II (1978-2005), wanted as he would say, “siffler la fin de la récréation” (to be serious again), yet without returning to traditional ways. He gave his support in this way to an enterprise of publication of new manuals for all ages and levels, such as: Pour grandir dans la foi[7], Connaître la foi catholique[8], etc. (To grow in the faith, To know the Catholic faith).

To reinstate the banished catechism into ordinary parishes

But these tentatives were obviously insufficient. The preservation of the traditional catechism took place outside the official channels. What happened to the teaching of traditional catechism happened to the celebration of the pre-conciliar mass. We note that in France, as in most countries in Europe, the transmission of the faith that still exists often took place through marginal ways, and at the cost for some parents of great sacrifices to ensure the children a Catholic catechism.

Catechism taught in the family, or gathering several families together, developed along with the unauthorized new publications of older books such as the Catéchisme des diocèses de France, from 1947, and the old Miche de Pain, from 1935.

In the line of the reaction provoked by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the resistances against the general post-conciliar line strengthened, starting in the nineties. Pierre Lemaire, director of Téqui editions, had actually placed in circulation in 1993 a sizable Livre Blanc which gathered many documents and especially correspondence with French Bishops in regards to their great responsibility in the failure to transmit the basis of the faith to the children of France. A bishop, Mgr Lagrange, Bishop of Gap, took the risk to publish a clear and pedagogic summary of the Christian faith: Je crois[9]. But most of all, the traditional instruments continued to be published or were published again outside the official channels: We can note among other things the uninterrupted pursuance of the publications by Téqui Editions, the Fraternity of Saint Peter Editions (Les trois blancheurs), the tools made available by Transmettre, the republication in Italy of the Catechism of saint Pius X for which the publication Trenta Giorni, from the Movement Communione e Liberazione actively campaigned[10].

Today, a whole network of traditional catechisms rests on the network of traditional liturgy, or “re-traditionalized” liturgies, in non-parochial places, in many Catholic schools independent from the state, and sometimes too in Catholic schools under contract with the state and in parishes.

We do not wish to invite the Roman Dicasteries to committing a crime or, rather, an other crime, but we can say that one of the weaknesses of Traditionis custodes is in attacking the traditional liturgy and denying it its quality of “lex orandi”, also omitting to attack the very special vehicle of the “lex credendi”, the traditional catechism…

In the same way that the usage of the traditional liturgy, backbone of the restoration of the Roman liturgy, imposes itself, if we seek a true reform then the reintegration of the traditional catechism, opportunely revisited for what concerns its teaching methods, will impose itself. In this way, the teaching of the faith, relegated to the periphery, will again find its place back in the center.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Seuil, 2018.

[2] Pierres vivantes. Recueil catholique de documents privilégiés de la foi (Printing house Catéchèse 80, 1981). Pierres vivantes intended to be an ensemble of documents with which other « tracks » had to be used, all in conformity with a Text of reference voted by the bishops  of France, during their assemblies of 1979. The collection Pierres vivantes will be reworked in 1985, then again in 1994.

[3] Canon Joseph Colomb, National Director of the Centre National of Religious Teaching, had been dismissed following an intervention of the Holy Office, in 1957.

[4] The idea was fashionable. The project which will become properly the great work of Cardinal Ratzinger had been anticipated by Cardinal Silvio Oddi, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, which had presented to the assembly of the Synod the very classical catechism he had had done.

[5] The idea was in the air. The project which was to become the great work of Cardinal Ratzinger had been anticipated by Cardinal Silvio Oddi, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who had presented the Assembly of the Synod the very classic catechism he had put together.

[6] Catéchisme pour adultes. LAlliance de Dieu avec les hommes, Centurion, Cerf, Desclée, etc., 1991.

[7]. Le Sénevé/Cerp, 2000.

[8]. Le Sénevé/Cerp, 2000, with a preface by Cardinal Lustiger.

[9] Paroi-Services, 1998.

[10] In an interview with Trenta Giorni from April 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger held in regards to this catechism remarks one will find in regards to the Tridentine mass on the occasion of Summorum Pontificum : “Faith as such is always identical. As such, even the Catechism of saint Pius X is still valuable.” Yet he added: “On the other end, the way to transmit  the content of the faith can change”, which is not questionable, but allowed him to justify the new Compendium.