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...
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