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Book Review…

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis. By Pierre de Cointet, Barbara Morgan, and Petroc Willey. With an Introductory Essay by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008. PB. 158 pages. ISBN 978-1-58617-221-3

Reviewed by Kenneth D. Whitehead

            It has long been a matter of fairly common knowledge that the teaching and transmission of the revealed faith of Jesus Christ—“catechesis” is the word the Church uses for this—has fallen off rather drastically over the past generation or two. The reasons for this were various and manifold, but they were also in some ways rather mysterious: how could the gift of the faith be treated as so unimportant by so many to whom that gift had been given?

            One of the reasons for this falling off of the teaching of the faith was surely the pronounced and quite widespread loss of interest in religion and faith in modern society generally, which came about as a result of the radical secularization that has been steadily promoted in our society for a rather long time. Many people came to lose interest in, and often simply to drop, their belief or commitment to any faith in the supernatural or the hereafter, or even sometimes their belief in the very idea of the existence of a binding truth of any kind. There was also a widespread and massive rejection of authority, whether social, political, or religious This kind of change in people’s ideas and beliefs came about almost in the degree that a confident secular culture—often able to bring about many material benefits—insistently repeated the message in a variety of ways that: “This world is all there is! Go for it!”

            In this rebellious climate of the modern world, quite a few people, and not just Catholics by any means, were set adrift by this kind of argumentation. The decline in, and even the outright abandonment of, supernatural or transcendent faith by many people today has been a phenomenon cutting across the entire spectrum of religions and denominations. The Catholic Church has not been alone in witnessing a “crisis of faith” among many of her adherents today.

            And as far as Catholics specifically are concerned, the effects and aftermath of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 played a far from insignificant role in the weakening of faith, and in the decline of catechesis that accompanied and followed it. This was a paradoxical development because Vatican Council II had been convened in order to enhance and renew the faith, not contribute to its decline. In the long run, the overall effect of the Council almost certainly will be to renew and enhance the faith, in ways that can already be seen, among other places, in this new book on catechesis under review here. Nevertheless, this kind of renewal was hardly what seemed most evident in the immediate post-conciliar years.

            In the short run, the changes and dislocations that followed the Council allowed those Catholics influenced by the modern secular outlook, along with those championing what they called “the spirit of the Council” (in contrast with what the Council actually decided and decreed in the sixteen official documents it issued), to introduce alien ideas and agendas into the life of the Church in ways that markedly undermined the teaching of the faith. In particular, there was a school of thought among theologians and religious educators that focused on the supposed benefits of what came to be called “experiential catechesis.” This approach to the teaching of the faith became a kind of fad which minimized the doctrinal content of the faith. The basic idea was to stress the personal “experience” of Christians in order to avoid placing undue emphasis on a doctrinal or “propositional” version of the faith thought by some to be merely formal and even arid.

            Unfortunately, in the process of focusing unduly on Christian “experience,” even the best of Christians could lose sight of—as many did—the doctrinal truths contained in Christ’s revelation of himself, as these had been handed down in the Church from the time of the apostles. The end result of such a process as this, along with some other factors, was that both the teaching and the reception of the faith fell off in a way that was unanticipated when catechists first ventured into such fields as “experiential catechesis.” Catechesis suddenly, even if only temporarily, became a kind of lost art.

            Earlier generations of American Catholics had been drilled in and had memorized the Baltimore Catechism, the truths of which were also embodied in the well-attended Masses that nearly everybody in those days understood—as a result of effective traditional catechesis—to be re-enactments of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The usual result of all this was the kind of vibrant life in grace which was so typical of believing and practicing Catholics in those days, but which later fell victim in too many cases to the modern and post-conciliar confusion.

Another factor of importance in the post-conciliar falling off of the teaching and transmission the faith was that, in spite of the monumental achievement embodied in the sixteen documents of Vatican Council II—an achievement which only now, some forty years after the Council, is finally being fruitfully and permanently integrated into the life of the Church—the Council nevertheless fell drastically short when it failed to produce or mandate an authoritative new catechism for the whole Church to replace the Roman Catechism which had been produced some four hundred years earlier following the Council of Trent. In the United States, one of the derivatives of the Roman Catechism that was the old Baltimore Catechism was simply dropped after Vatican II—and no authoritative catechism was put in its place. This catechetical vacuum allowed the new class of “professional” catechists and religious educators to present sometimes grossly aberrant versions of the “faith” as the real thing.

            Only at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985—twenty years after the end of the Council—did the leadership of the Church finally recognize the deficiencies in the Church’s official religious education programs that were leaving an entire generation and more of Catholics bereft of the authentic truths and substance of the faith. At the 1985 Synod, the Catholic bishops finally did mandate the production of what became the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Drafted over a period of several years after wide consultation with the bishops of the world, the Catechism was written by a drafting committee consisting of eight active bishops from a number of countries under the general editorship of Christoph von Schönborn, now the cardinal archbishop of Vienna—and under the supervision of a committee of cardinals headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It is significant that the Catechism was directly written by bishops, the official teachers of the faith, and not by the kinds of theologians and professional catechetical “experts” who had contributed to the deformation of catechesis in the post-conciliar era.

            The Catechism of the Catholic Church turned out to be a full and comprehensive statement of the whole of the Catholic faith, one which, at the same time, was wholly contemporary and up to date. It was also completely accessible and comprehensible to average Catholics or catechumens, down to and perhaps including those at the high school level (though surely not smaller children). Moreover, the work was thoroughly cross-referenced to sacred Scripture and to other authoritative sources of the faith. It was no longer possible to mistake what the faith was, in all its facets and details—and by implication, what it was not. Henceforth, you could look it up.

In short, the Catechism was at long last an authoritative and reliable guide to the content and the teaching and the practice of the faith. It was the instrument which could now truly serve as the solid basis for the renewal of the faith which Vatican Council II had called for.

            And upon its promulgation by Pope John Paul II in 1992, the Catechism instantly became the favored new instrument for the teaching and transmission of the faith. Henceforth there was a foundation for the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II called for. At one stroke, the bishop-authors of the Catechism had produced a way by which the Catholic bishops, the successors of Christ’s apostles, could take back their rightful episcopal role as the official teachers in and for the Church. The very existence of the Catechism now means that anyone attempting to present a variant version of the faith now has to reckon with the fact that the Catechism is there. It cannot be by-passed, set aside, or gainsaid. The Catholic faith is true; and you can now look it up and verify what it is and what it entails in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

            There remains, of course, the question of how the Catechism should now be used to impart the faith and try to lodge it securely in the hearts of the faithful. The Catechism contains the faith in its entirety, to be sure, but it is still, after all, only a book consisting of paper and ink, while the faith is a living thing. This is where the catechist, or teacher of religion, comes in. The Church has always understood that the faith is a living and active thing and has therefore always depended upon living teachers and preachers to transmit the faith, even while its formal content was also set down and committed to paper and ink in the pages of a book. Teachers and preachers properly trained in the elements of the faith have therefore always been necessary and important. You have to have catechists to catechize, just as you have to have evangelists to evangelize. Another one of the reasons why catechesis went awry in the post-conciliar era, by the way, was, precisely, that catechists of the day had no proper Catechism during that time; and since this was lacking, their training was almost bound to be deficient as well.

            Now, however, there is no longer any excuse for any deficiency in the training of catechists. Thoroughly grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the catechist today is much more likely to be an effective teacher and transmitter of the faith than has been the case in much of the post-conciliar era.

            In point of fact, many of the deficiencies in contemporary catechesis have been undergoing a process of remediation in recent years. More and more Catholics, including many pastors and bishops, have become aware of the contemporary “crisis of faith,” and of the consequences that have flowed from it. It is now more and more widely understood that we have to get back to basics. The renewal of the faith that Blessed Pope John XXIII called for when he convoked Vatican Council II, like the proclamation by John Paul II of his new evangelization in the face of today’s “culture of death,” point to the need for a fit instrument to help accomplish these goals.

            With the appearance of this book on the “craft” of catechesis, we now have an important new instrument to help advance the remediation and renewal that is now increasingly going on in the Catholic Church. It is, quite simply, one of the best things that has been published about catechesis for many a year. Among its other merits, it is a systematic guide for studying and mastering the content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself. While it is primarily written for catechists and religious educators—and one hopes it will be widely adopted in training programs for catechists—it is accessible and helpful for anyone for anyone seeking to deepen his knowledge of the faith and achieve mastery of the content of the Catechism.

            The authors of the book, a Frenchman, and Englishman, and an American, are all very knowledgeable and experienced catechists and teachers, who clearly seem to know what they are talking about. Father Pierre de Cointet is a professor of the Studium of Notre Dame in Venasque, France, where he teaches philosophy and anthropology. Petroc Willey, Ph.D., S.T.L., is the editor of The Sower and Deputy Director of the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England. Barbara Morgan is the retired Director of the Office of Catechetics and Assistant Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

The authors do not dwell on the deficiencies of catechesis over the past forty years. They cover this topic in a page or two, and then go on to accentuate the positive, laying out what can and should be done to achieve effective catechesis. They include a good deal of material about the history and practice of catechesis in the Church. They insist that their book does not only or merely describe a method or technique for teaching. They insist, rather, that catechesis is a craft which involves the whole person, whether the teacher or the learner—just as it also, certainly, involves the whole faith, as this is set forth under the well-known four “pillars” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, namely, Creed, Sacraments, Commandments, and Prayer. Among other things, the authors explain why the Catechism presents the faith under the rubrics of these four “pillars.”

            The very content and structure of the Catholic faith involve a pedagogy, the authors contend, which in the course of the book they describe and develop under twelve headings which they characterize as what they call “keys.” These “keys” to effective pedagogy, which they discuss at suitable length in successive chapters, require that effective catechesis or pedagogy must be: holistic, graceful, organic, personal, true, attractive, purposeful, faithful, evangelizing, scriptural, liturgical, and prayerful.

            Simply to list these keys, however, does not do justice to the way in which the authors succeed in relating them to effective catechesis. In fact, the authors do not simply list them all together until the end of the book. Rather, they develop each key in a chapter describing how and why it is pertinent, and only then state what each key consists of in a simple formula.

            In the course of their discussions, the authors draw upon their obviously solid knowledge, not only of the Catechism, but also of Scripture and of the other sources of Church teaching generally, about which they offer many helpful illustrative examples. The authors also exhibit a commendable fidelity to the teachings of the Church. Thus, the book can be relied on by those studying the Catechism, especially if they intend to teach the faith in their turn as formed catechists. This is therefore a book from which everyone involved in the teaching of the faith at any level—and this means priests preaching from the pulpit, as well as parents teaching their children—can profit. We have waited a long time for anything comparable to it, in fact.

            Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn, who as general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is surely as aware of the meaning and purpose of this epochal Church document as anyone could possibly be, contributes a fine Introduction to this book on the authority of the Catechism which helps to set the whole question of the effective pedagogy in the teaching of the faith in its true and proper context.


Among other books, Kenneth D. Whitehead is co-author with the late Monsignor Michael J. Wrenn of the book Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1996).

This version: 4th November 2008

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