Catechism of the Catholic Church

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813

First published: Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae, 1566 (English translation, 1992)

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Authored by the Council of Trent (1545-1563)

Edition used: Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, edited by the Editorial Committee of the Special Commission of the Holy See for the catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 2003

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Didactic treatise; guidebook; theology

Core issue(s): Catholics and Catholicism; guidance


The need for a catechism for the Roman Catholic Church became critical when Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. As the years passed, the hierarchy of the Church became aware of the need to clarify many items of faith, particularly in light of the scores of tracts and pamphlets that the reformers were writing and distributing. In 1545 the Council of Trent was called and began eighteen years of meetings. The purpose of the council was to find common ground with the reformers and to clarify those issues that marked the differences between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the issues discussed at that council were the role of Mary, the place of devotions and good works in salvation, the number and function of the sacraments, the angels, the primacy of place of Latin in church worship, the reserving of Scriptural interpretation to the clergy, and the primacy of the pope.

As the council progressed, it became apparent that there would be few changes to accommodate the Protestant reformers and that the tradition of the Church would be maintained. At the suggestion of Charles Borromeo, who had been working toward reforming the clergy, the council under the leadership of Pope Pius IV decided to publish a book of instruction in the faith, first to educate the clergy and through them the laity. Under the direction of the cardinals, the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was prepared in Italian and immediately translated into Latin.

Published in 1566 during the papacy of Pius V, the Catechism of the Catholic Church became the staple of instruction in the Catholic faith. At first it was intended primarily for parish priests, but then, through them, it was to provide a fixed and stable format for the Mass and the distribution of the sacraments. Moreover, unlike many church documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was translated into the vernacular of each country. There was also an edition to be used by parish priests as sermon material, since it was divided into sections conforming to the church year.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church was divided into four parts explaining the creed, the sacraments, the commandments, and prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer. The documents of the Council of Trent, together with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, gave the church material with which to wage the Counter-Reformation for the next two centuries. In addition, it provided the members of the church with a clarity and certainty about their beliefs and practices that stood for four hundred years.

Translations and editions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared in various countries in the subsequent centuries. Most American Catholics, especially those educated in Catholic schools, would be familiar with the catechism published in Baltimore in 1885 and used extensively from then until the 1960’s. A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore (1885) was in a convenient question-and-answer format that made it easy, especially for children or for those studying the faith, to find the answers to their questions.

In 1962, aware of the need for modernization in church worship and practices, Pope John XXIII called the Vatican Council II. This council met until 1965, and although it lasted only three years, it brought about many and sweeping changes. Within twenty years of that council, clergy and faithful alike saw the need for a second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to the work itself, the purpose for the second edition was to better present Christian doctrine so as to make it more accessible not only to the faithful but also to all others.

In 1986, a commission of twelve cardinals and bishops prepared a draft of the catechism with the express instruction that the material must be biblical and liturgical, be suited to the present life of Christians, and fully respond to the needs of the universal church. Because one of the first and continuing acts of the Second Vatican Council was the reform of the liturgy (particularly in the use of the vernacular in the Mass and the sacraments), the commission had a lot of work to do. First its members had to compile sections of the catechism using the doctrinal statements and pastoral norms that had been written by the Second Vatican Council. They then had to submit the draft to theologians, scriptural interpreters, and to religion teachers and bishops all over the world for their opinions. The result, the authors hoped, would be a text that was accurate, unified, and coherent. The authors did not intend to make a completely new document, for the church leaders felt that it would be the most beneficial if the new material built on the old. One example of building on the old work can be found in the structure of the second edition: Like the first edition, the new edition is divided into four parts, “The Creed,” “The Sacred Liturgy,” “The Christian Way of Life,” and “Christian Prayer.”

An example of the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church is set up can be seen in the handling of the term “Christian mystery,” explained in sections 1066 to 1073. Starting in section 1066, the Church expresses its belief in the Holy Trinity and in God’s plan for salvation by which God gave his beloved Son and his Holy Spirit for the salvation of humankind and for the glory of his name. God’s plan for salvation was revealed and accomplished through the death of Christ on the cross, his Resurrection, and his Ascension into heaven. Through these acts, Christ was able to conquer death and sin. From this mystery proceeds the liturgy, the religious celebration that is the basis of Catholic worship. Sections 1067 to 1070 describe the relationship between the liturgy and the Christian mystery. Then, section 1071 describes how the liturgy engages the faithful—both as prayer and as fruitful action in their lives within the community. Section 1073 describes the participation of the faithful in the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers during various parts of the liturgical service. In this section as in all others, ample footnotes supply references to sources from the Bible, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and other religious writings.

Despite the fact that the second edition is easy to read and has ample notes and scriptural references, in 2002 the International Catechetical Conference asked for a more basic synthesis of the essentials of the faith that would be helpful in its mission to teach the faith. Accordingly, the Catechismo Della Chiesa Cattolica (2005, Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2005) was created to compile the various sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and to put them into a prose both easy to read and to comprehend. The editor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, meant the compendium to be brief, clear, and comprehensive. As an example, the section on the Christian mystery, which runs to four pages in small type in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is condensed in the compendium into three questions (218-220), complete with clear and concise answers. As in the catechism, scriptural references are given, and reference numbers to the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are set in the margin beside each of the questions. It is easy to reference each section to the appropriate area in the catechism.

The three principal characteristics of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are, first, its close reliance on the catechism—all sections are clearly marked as to the section to which the question refers. The second characteristic is its question-and-answer format, and the third is its inclusion of graphic images drawn by artists throughout the ages. Recognizing the power of great art, the editors hoped that reproductions of sacred images could express more than words alone could convey.

Christian Themes

The catechism, as envisioned by Pope John Paul II (Karol Jozef Wojtyła), was to make Catholic doctrine easy to understand by those individuals interested in studying Catholicism and the Catholic Church. It was intended to draw the reader into the study of God and God’s mysteries. One of the purposes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is to be an instruction manual for the faithful, furthering their love of God and increasing their understanding of the practice of their faith. In particular, the question-and-answer format of the compendium seems intended to directly address issues and questions commonly held by the laity. However, other purposes, such as providing an official statement of Church doctrine for the perusal of non-Catholic readers, should not be regarded as absolutely secondary to the instruction of the faithful. Dominant themes expressed by the writers of the catechism revolve around the nature of the Trinity of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; the interpretation of the Bible as a sacred text; the role of the clergy; and, most important, the function of the Eucharist. The catechism clearly delineates the role of the Eucharist within the structure of the Mass both as a theological concept that connects the physical presence of Jesus Christ with his followers and as a metaphysical concept that establishes certain roles within the Church for the celebrant, the priest, and the congregation. The Eucharist, the literalized “body of Christ,” draws together the three persons of the Trinity along with the assembled congregation of laity in both a remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and a celebration of Jesus Christ’s ultimate triumph over sin and death by his acceptance of God’s Will.

Sources for Further Study

  • Johnson, Kevin Orlin. Why Do Catholics Do That? New York: Ballantine, 1994. This book has an imprimatur indicating that it has the approval of a church official, in this case the bishop of the author’s diocese. It is recommended for non-Catholics curious about Catholicism and Catholic tradition.
  • Keating, Karl. What Catholics Really Believe: Setting the Record Straight—Fifty-Two Answers to Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992. This work suggests possible responses to questions posed by non-Catholics regarding a variety of commonly held rumors about Catholic beliefs and practices.
  • Neuhaus, Richard John. Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Written by a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism and then entered the priesthood, this work has a nicely objective voice while discussing the impact of popular issues on the current methodology behind the teaching of Catholic doctrine.

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