Nichols on the Catechism
(Extracts from The Service of Glory.)
Aidan Nichols OP
Catechesis is an institution supported by a text. At first the text in question might 'only' be the Creed, but the Creed represents a triumph of the Church's mind in decanting the content of the Scriptures in the light of the 'rule of faith', the expression by explicitation of the apostolic preaching. Along with a rudimentary moral teaching, the Creed would be 'handed over' to the catechumen of the patristic age in ceremonies at once didactic and mystagogic, the whole process coming to its climax with the rite of Baptism, on Easter Night, the feast of the Lord's Passover. The Johanno-Pauline Catechism reproduces after its own fashion this fourfold pattern from the Church of the Fathers: for its credal section (Book 1) is joined to its ethical segment (Book III) by the bond of the Liturgy (Book III), which, however, is not complete without the dimension (Book IV) of personal prayer.
Although the Catechism eventually produced does not follow the question-and-answer scheme which the post-patristic Latin church introduced in the age of Charlemagne - this is a source book for teachers of the faith, not a primer for little ones - the crucial element of memorisation, vital to the learning process as this is, receives due weight in its numerous pithy 'summaries' of material.
On the eve of the Reformation, the lacunae in the doctrinal, liturgical, moral and spiritual formation of the Church's faithful (which, however, be it noted, will always remain after some fashion, unless the Catholica is to deny her universal nature and dwindle to a sect of the pure), led a Catholic reformer like Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, to pin his hopes on a new generation through the better catechesis of children. The collapse of doctrinal formation - and so of all else that flows from it - in local churches whose membership had hitherto been well-instructed (above all in Western Europe and North America), in the ecclesiastically and culturally disorienting 1960s was likewise the chief stimulus to the production of the Catechism of Pope John Paul II.
Much could be, and was, learned likewise from the Protestant Reformers where the formal act of catechising (as distinct from its material substance) is concerned. Luther's Large Catechism was a teachers' book which provided a cue for the production of similarly comprehensive works by Catholics, mid-sixteenth century archetypes, so far as genre is concerned, for the papally promulgated work of 1992.
But despite the excellence of the books of the Dominican Bartolorné Carranza de Miranda, and the Jesuits Edmond Auger and Peter Canisius (especially the latter), the Council of Trent felt an evident unease at the notion of a Catholiccatechism authored by a single individual, or even by the members of a single civil society or nationality. Trent built in a deliberate internationalism to the drafting commission it established, entrusting the treatment of the Pater to the Louvain doctors and the French, and that of the Creed to Spaniards as theologians 'most sure in the faith'. (In the event, a Dalmatian archbishop and two Italian Dominicans in episcopal orders did most of the work!). The same desire not to render a catechism destined for the whole Church tributary to one nation led the present Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to seek out from the Old World a Frenchman and an Englishman, a Spaniard and an Italian, with an Austrian to act as editorial secretary; from the New World two Latin Americans, one of Slav extraction, and a citizen of the United States to write the index. Finally, from the ancient churches of the East came a Lebanese priest of French origin to author the draft of the treatise on prayer.
These, then, are some of the ways in which the Catechism. considered in this two-part commentary stands in a great tradition. It remains to consider the practical questions of the (prior) need for the Catechism, and its (subsequent) reception in the Church. As already suggested, the Catechism was brought into existence as the result of a widespread perception that Catholics below a certain age were, in many parts of the world, ill-informed and confused about their faith. In reaction against a sometimes dessicated Christian scholasticism, it was forgotten that Truth can hardly be had without truths. But the articulation of the truth in well-formulated propositions is a chief glory of the human mind, and a principal means whereby the Spirit of God brings us to salvation. The discovery that divine revelation is, at the deepest level, the self-communication of God in the personal reality of his own triune life, was allowed to obscure the fact that without the medium of germane truths this wonder could never be brought home to us. The bell whereby St Francis de Sales called together the children of the towns of his diocese, accompanying the words 'To Christian doctrine, to Christian doctrine, which will teach you the way to salvation', was ceasing to peal.  Yet a creedless Catechism is, as an American educationalist has pointed out, a contradiction in terms.  More than sixty years ago, the English Dominican philosopher-theologian Thomas Gilby was attacking the rote-learning of abstract formulae not yet understood as 'psittacism', and the schemes of religious education that fostered it as 'obsolescent parrots'. Yet he immediately went on to add:
And in point of fact, the catechisms of the Catholic Reformation, weighted though they were to memorisation, sought the assistance of the imagination through adaptation into verse, pictures and music, as with Peter Canisius' graduated study programme through the steps of the Minimus, Minor and Maior Catechismus. But those responsible would have considered it a travesty to make of catechesis a 'happy hour' of children's entertainment, or an exploration of the child's own experience, something which could only guarantee the enclosure of revelation within a moralistic frame of reference. But they did not have to cope with the dominance of an educational method for which the priority of savoir had been displaced by that of sujet.
It was the realisation of a number of bishops, more percipient, or willing to 'trouble-shoot', than the rest, that not all was
well in the 'official' schools
of catechesis that finally alerted Rome to the problem. The hypertrophy of method over against content; the excessive
privileging of immediate experience visà-visa wider knowing-about; the predominance of the anecdotal over the essential; the deliberate
non-directivity: these weaknesses bred disillusion among many laity and clergy but also a determination by some
that the faith deserved better.
And if the reception of the Catechism has been a bumpier ride in the Anglo-Saxon world than anywhere else, the reason may not be unconnected with the relative predominance, in that English-speaking Catholic Church, of the United States of America. For the ethos of intellectual life in America is deeply unsympathetic to what the Catechism represents. As one Orthodox writer has remarked:
The 'inculturation' of faith, in such a climate, will tend towards the subjective and selective unless the sensus fidei can assert itself vigorously in this unpropitious environment. A catechism of its nature, however, will always aim at the objective and comprehensive, hence the mismatch between expectations in such a culture and the reality of our text. The instinct of the drafters of the Catechism to make it as universal as possible is the more truly Catholic, since the vocation of a particular or regional church should always be the refraction of the universal whole ('catholic' means 'according to the whole', kat' holon) via the prism of its own life. As Father David McLoughlin of St Mary's College, Oscott, has written:
It goes without saying that the Catechism could have been improved. Who would maintain that not a line in even the greatest works of Racine, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, could have been more incisive, more mellifluous, more terrible? But all tales must be brought to an end somewhere. Those who deny the need for a universal Catechism, or perhaps for any formal catechism; or who regard the attempt to gather up all the Church's teaching, whether defined or non-defined in a single organic whole, as misplaced; or who cannot see that the specifically ecclesial understanding of Scripture will inevitably go beyond the deliverances of the historical-critical (or any other secular) method, would not have been content, we can rest assured, with any book so devised as to stand in palpable continuity with what I have called above the great catechetical tradition. It is, unfortunately, the case that influential sections of the theological and catechetical departments and agencies of educational and administrative institutions in the Catholic world today are out of sympathy with the Catechism's project. The existence of such titles as, for the German-speaking world, Der Weltkatechismus. Therapie oder Symptom einer kranken Kirche? or, for the French, Le nouveau Catéchisme. Vent-il tuer l'Eglise ? is evidence enough that the problem is not confined to AngloSaxons. The protracted 'silly season' which the Catholic Church has enjoyed or endured, not without journalistic stimulus, for over a generation is no more at an end in Paris or Paderborn than it is in Philadelphia. There will, of course, always be contrary individuals so long as the human race lasts. What is alarming about a strongly worded yet fully documented survey of the commentary literature emerging from the United States is that catechists and pastoral ministers trained under Church auspices are learning from this very training that (in the vigorous if unlovely idiom of America):
The at best de haut en bas, at worst quite destructive tone of much of this literature appears clearly enough in the reporting, replete with judicious citation, in Wrenn and Whitehead. Fortunately, there are works available (even apart from this one!) of different stamp, and perhaps the serene exposition of the content of a Catechism that is, well, Catholic is a better answer to critics than scholastic refutation, though some of the latter is needed as well.
Yet institutions are not run on seminars, and the outcome of such struggles, crucial as it is to the shape of the Church to come, cannot rely on the pen alone. The formation of fresh cadres of catechists is, therefore, a major priority. As Calvin realised, one might have the best Catechism in the world but without provision of a determinate rôle in Church organisation it will be but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. That was why, at Geneva, his Formulaire was to be communicated to children Sunday by Sunday until they were sufficiently instructed to confess the faith in the presence of the gathered church. The Catholic response of the same period was the institution of new religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods whose members - the men of the Congregation of Christian Doctrine, or the Ursuline nuns - created a context in which the texts (most frequently St Robert Bellarmine's construal of the Tridentine Catechism in his Doltrina cristiana breve of 1597 and the Dichiarazione piu copiosa della dottrina cristiana of 1598)  could enjoy efficacy. Some equivalent is surely needed today.
Such a foundation would meet a crying need in Western Europe and North America in general. But after making some critical animadversions of the state of things across both Atlantic and Channel, it would be foolish to pretend that all is well in Albion's sceptred isle. The publication by the National Project of Catechesis and Religious Education in the years 1987-1988 of a framework for such education in Catholic secondary schools of Weaving the Web echoed the American experience. Here too was a guide for the development of the school curriculum widely criticised for an aversion to doctrine and an incipient religious indifferentism. Though the defence has been offered that religious education belongs to the school, catechesis to the parish (and the home), that distinction simply does not correspond to anything so far recognisable as the mind of the Church. Thus less than ten years previously, the combined efforts of synodal and curial drafting led, via Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, to the contrary statement:
As one recent chronicler of the decline of the Catholic school system in England and Wales when that system be viewed as an instrument of an evangelical and Catholic mission has noted:
Against this background it is exceptionally encouraging to read What Are We to Teach?, a short but serviceable
and accurate summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church launched with a preface by the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster and an introduction by
the Bishop of Menevia precisely as 'foundations for religious teaching' in the Catechism's
light.  This may be the turning
of the 'ebbing tide': the beginnings
of a recovery of Catholic Christianity's mighty ocean-voice in England.
2. M.J. Wrenn, Catechisms and Controversies. Religious Education in the Post-Concilar Years (San Francisco 1991), p. 29.
3. T. Gilby, OP., 'The Obsolescent Parrot', Blackfriars Xll, 135 (1931), p. 365.
4. F. D. Kelly, 'The Catechism in Context', The Sower (September 1994), p. 34.
5. F. Schaeffer, Letters to Father Aristotle. A Journey through Contemporaiy American Orthodoxy (Salisbury, MA 1995), cited in extract in The Christian Activist 7 (1995), p. 10.
6. See for an analysis of one such attempt-namely, R. A. Lucker, P.J. Brennan and M. Leach (eds.), The People's Catechism. Catholic Faith for Adults (New York 1995); M. J. Wrenn and K. D. Whitehead, Flawed Expectations. The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco 1996).
7. D. McLoughlin, 'The Treasure House of Faith' , The Tablet, 28 May 1994, p. 655.
8. H J. Verwyen, Dec Weltkatechismus. Therapie odor Symptom einer kranhen Kirche? (Düsseldorf 1993).
9. Le nouveau Catéchisme. Veut-il tuer l'Eglise?Des catholiques parlent a André Bercoff (Paris 1993).
10. Wrenn and Whitehead, Flawed Expectations, p. 329.
11. For example, A. McBride, O. Praem, Essentials
of the Faith. A Guide to the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (Huntingdon,
IN 1994);J. Tolhurst, A Concise Companion and Commentaiy for the New
Catholic Catechism (Leominster 1994). For those who have the language
there is R. Fisichella (ed.), Commento teologico al 'Catechismo della
Chiesa Cattolica' (Casale Monferrato 1993). Other edited essay collections
whose overall view is somewhat jaundiced contain, of course, outstanding individual articles. Two issues of journals
whose contents can be unreservedly recommended as studies of the Catechism are: Communio. International Catholic Review
XXI, 3 (1994); The Sower 16, 1(1994).
13. Catechesi tradendae, 18-19.
14. J. Arthur, The Ebbing Tide. Policy and Principles of Catholic Education (Leominster 1995), p. 67.
15. Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, What Are We to Teach ? Foundations for Religious Teaching in the Light of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (London 1994).
APPENDIX: THE CATECHISM'S IMAGES
The cover image, from a Christian tomb in the (third century) catacombs of Domitilla, depicts a shepherd, guarding with his crook a single, presumably representative, sheep, which he entertains by pipeplaying as he takes his rest beneath the overhanging branches of a convenient tree. It derives from the pastoral tradition of ancient poetry and art, as that emerged in a largely agricultural society in southern Europe, where climate would lead one to associate repose with shade from a too powerful sun. In funerary art, such an image, borrowed from pagan culture and used in a new context by Christians, svmbolised the 'refreshment and peace' which the Roman Canon seeks for the departed souls of the faithful. By a process analogous with the reception of elements of pagan philosophy in the Church, Christian artists appropriated items in a pre-existing repertoire of images, and used them for the iconographic, rather than conceptual, articulation of the new faith. The early Church 'filled existing forms with a new content which gradually called forth its own proper stylistic expression'. The kriophoros - a shepherd carrying home his sheep - is an 'age-old'  motif, while the freedom with which Christians felt able to draw on the iconic resources of paganism is shown by its occasional interchange with Orpheus  (and the presence of the musical instrument in the hands of the Catechism's own shepherd may point towards this extra-biblical metaphor for the bringer of peace, security, eternal life).
As the authors point out, the shepherd of the catacomb of Domitilla can stand for the 'global meaning' of the Catechism itself. The shepherd is, evidently, the Good (or Beautiful, halos) Shepherd of the Fourth Gospel, leading and protecting his faithful flockwith his staff, the symbol of his legitimate authority. He draws them to himself, or keeps them by his side, through the melodiousness of his music, that is, his symphonic truth (there is a covert reference here, in the theological explanation of the iconography, to a favourite notion of Balthasar's).  Finally, Christ gives his faithful people a place where they can take their rest, in the all-sheltering shadow of the redemptive cross, the tree of life, as so much Christian art would have it, making Paradise real again.
The image introducing the first sub-book of the Catechism, on the Creed, comes from another Roman burial-ground of the early patristic period, the catacomb of Priscilla. A fragment of fresco from the early third century (the Shepherd Christ of the cover-image is usually dated a few decades later) gives us the first known representation of the Virgin and Child. Though modest in execution, it is, as the initial member of a series which includes the Madonna and Child of the greatest Christian artists from Cimabue to Sutherland, one of the glories of Christian Rome. As the Catechism remarks, in being a visual evocation of the mystery of the incarnation, the image makes manifest in painterly terms the very centre of the Christian faith. For the Creed finds its centre - even in the straightforward literary sense of the mid-point of its exposition - in its account of the Son who is at once revealer of the Father and giver of the Spirit.
More specifically, the Mother and Child of the catacomb of Priscilla evokes the Saviour as the divine answer to the human hope for redemption. The figure of a man pointing to a star hovering over Mary's head has with good reason suggested to art-historians  the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17:
This messianic prophecy, embedded in the text of the Pentateuch, is made by the lips of a pagan seer, and so the Catechism can interpret the Priscilla image as an expression not only of the hope of Israel, the 'expectant' attitude of the Old Testament, but also of the less focussed, and often inarticulate, yet still very real aspirations of fallen humanity for some kind of Redeemer.
The Catechism treats the prophecy of Balaam as fulfilled in the birth of Mary's Child, conceived as he was by
the Holy Spirit. Though in St Matthew's Gospel there is a more specific fulfilment still in the star which guides
pagan astrologers, the representatives of the nations beyond Israel, to the manger at Bethlehem. Yet on both occasions, Christmas and Epiphany,
it is the Virgin Mother who shows the Child - to the shepherds, to the magi - justifying the Catechism's comment on this fresco that here
Mary gives Jesus to the world, and gives him to men. In the God-bearer's rôle, we see the personification - in the literal sense of that word - of what the Church is
called to be.
Given the quasi-liturgical setting of all the images of the catacombs, the Catechism is not necessarily practising 'eisegesis' when it finds in this scene an expression of the power of the Son of God, precisely through his sacraments, to touch the human person and make them whole. The divine power, flowing out through the humanity of Christ, not least in the sacraments, which are its continuing signs in the age of the Church, 'saves the human person in their totality, spirit and body'. The Catechism's iconological commentary speaks of the sacraments in Leonine terms as the extended manifestation of the deeds worked by Christ in his flesh. It also adds a more ecclesiocentric remark: the sacraments are mediated by Christ's Church-body, to ends both recuperative and transformative - they heal the wounds of sin, and give new life in Christ, both by way of originating such life and in the form of giving it growth.
The catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, cheek by jowl as it was with the private necropolis of the equites singulares, the emperor's guards, had housed numerous martyrs of the Diocletianic persecution, and these, when not anonymous, were all males. But the cubiculum of Nicephorus, where the haemorhissa still reaches out in the confidence of faith to the Saviour's person, boasts a series of scenes featuring women. Probably this portion of the catacomb was a woman's burial place: fittingly, given the Catechism's emphasis on the femininity of the Church, as Bride of Christ and Mother of the faithful, a woman stands here for the sacramental Church, which, healed and houselled by Christ can nurture spiritually in her turn.
The Catechism's book on Christian ethics understood as 'life in Christ' boasts the only one of the entire text's images to be precisely dated. Beneath the altar
of the 'confession' (that is,
of the place of the prince of the apostles' last testimony as a martyr) in St Peter's Basilica at Rome there stands
the sarcophagus of a Christian gentleman, Junius Bassus, bearing the date 359. Conveniently for the Catechism's purposes, it shows Christ in the
act of giving his New Law to the apostles Peter and Paul, the co-founders of the Roman church. The glorified Christ
is depicted on his throne, enjoying the full authority over human destiny which the Son acquires through his incarnation,
and saving death and resurrection. Beneath his feet, holding a footstool for him, there stands a truncated and
slightly disgruntled looking figure of the pagan god of heaven, Uranus. John Milton had known enough of the patristic
tradition to present the moment of the incarnation as the depotentiation of paganism: 'the chill Marble seems to sweat, / While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat'. But
it is above all through his pascal victory that Christ reigns and 'must
reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet' (I Corinthians 15:25),
enemies which include pagan misconstruals of cosmic order that, at times, led men astray.
thus spoke the prophet Isaiah (56:11).
The ancient Christian image-type of the traditio legis, of which the Junius Bassus sarcophagus is an excellent example, expresses both the continuity and the discontinuity which hold between Jesus and the Torah. The Catechism itself does well when it speaks of Jesus explaining the Sinaitic Law of the Elder Covenant in the light of the grace of the New Covenant which is its successor. In Peter and Paul we see the unity of the 'Church from the Circumcision', in its genetic descent from Abraham, and the 'Church from the Gentiles', born of the universalising of the covenant with the coming of the Messiah, not only in the drama of their chequered collaboration at Antioch and the message of their letters but also finally by their dying which sealed the faith of the Roman church in their blood.
The Catechism's final image, the blazon of its book on prayer, is the only one of non-Roman provenance. An eleventh century miniature in a lectionary from a Constantinopolitan workshop, now in the monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos, it is, as this description alone might show, resolutely Oriental. Appropriately, it ushers the reader into the space of the most Eastern section of the Catechism, its commentary on the Our Father. In iridescent gold and blue, it portrays Christ praying on a stylised hillside to the Father, aureoled in a nimbus in the top right hand corner of the page, while on the far left the disciples look on, attentive but respectfully distant. The authors of the Catechism, in their comment, take the image to be one painter's exegesis of the request made by the disciples to Jesus as recorded in Luke: 'Lord, teach us to pray' (11:1). This is the very request which, in the Third Gospel, precedes the giving of the Our Father, the Christian prayer par excellence, with which the Catechism will conclude not only its euchology but its entire enterprise.
3. E. Kitzinger, 'Christian Imagery: Growth and Impact', in K. Weitzmann (ed), Age of Spirituality. A Symposium (New York 1980), p. 142.
4. H. Stern, 'Orphée dans l'art paléochrétien', Cahiers archéologiquesXlll (1974), pp. 1-16; and, more generally, K. Weitzmann, 'The Survival of Mythological Representations in Early Christian and Byzantine Art and their Impact on Christian Iconography', Dumbarton Oaks Papers XIV (1960), pp. 46-68.
5. H. U. von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic. Aspects of Christian Pluralism (E.t. San Francisco 1987). The theme is originally lrenaean, as Balthasar shows in The Glory of the Lord. A Theological Aesthetics II (E.t. Edinburgh 1984), pp. 72-73.
6. And originally to E. Kirschbaum, 'Der Prophet Balaam und die Anbetung der Weisen', Römische Quartalschrift 49 (1954), pp. 157-171. Prior to Kirschbaum, the prophet had more commonly been identified with Isaiah, and the whole image cast as an evocation of the fulfilment of his oracle, 'Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel' (7:14).7
7. In point of fact, three figures, generally interpreted as Matthew's images, appear on the archway of the so-called 'Greek chapel', or cubiculum of the fractio panis, not far from the Mother and Child: F. Mancielli, Catecombe e basiliche. I primi cristiani a Roma (Florence 1981), p.. 28.
8. J. Milton, 'Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity'.
9. H. Pfeiffer, L'immagine di Cristo nell Arte (Rome 1986), p. 16. Father Pfeiffer refers the reader to A. Quacquarelli's Retorica e liturgia antenicena (Rome 1960), and R. Brilliant, Gesture and Rank in Roman Art (New Haven, CT 1963), as well as to the monumental study by J. Wilpert, Die römischen Mosaiken und Malerein der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. his zum X!II, Jahrhundert (Freiburg 19172), p. 121.
10. Paragraph 577.
11. Such is the lectionary's richness that one can well believe Kurt Weitzmann's claim, based on a detailed analysis, that it is an imperial lectionary - and more precisely a gift of the emperor Isaac I Comnenos to the Studios monastery in the great City. After the City's fall, it passed into the possession of the gospodars of Wallachia who presented it to Dionysiou. Thus K. Weitzmann, 'An Imperial Lectionary in the Monastery of Dionysiou. Its Origins and its Wanderings', In idem., Byzantine Liturgical Psalters and Gospels (London 1980), pp. 239-253.
Copyright © T & T Clark Ltd, 1997
North American rights: Franciscan University Press
The above extracts were reproduced from-:
THE SERVICE OF GLORY by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Book Information (from the Publisher).
John E. Pollard, Office of the Catechism, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC, The Thomist
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