The Catechism Crisis
Did the original Christians use catechisms?
How divided opinions of the bishops have caused a crisis.
By “Awake!” correspondent in France
“THE revealed word should not be diluted and virtually destroyed by catechisms that are based on speculative, psychological and sociological ravings.” So spoke Cardinal Lorscheider of Brazil, head rapporteur of the Fifth Synod of Catholic bishops held in Rome from September 30 to October 29, 1977.
In Catholic usage, the word “synod” refers to “gatherings under hierarchical authority, for the discussion and decision of matters relating to faith, morals, or discipline.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia) The Fifth Roman Synod, at which 204 Catholic cardinals, archbishops, bishops and other ecclesiastical experts gathered, had as its theme “Catechesis, especially for children and youths.”
What is “catechesis”? According to the authoritative Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, “the word catechesis comes from the Greek verb katecheô, meaning literally to resound or to cause to resound and, figuratively, to teach by word of mouth or instruct orally, the teacher’s words resounding in reply to the student’s questions, and the student’s answers resounding in reply to the teacher’s questions. . . . Acts XVIII, 25 . . . Luke I, 4 . . . Gal. VI, 6.”
By way of explanation to our non-Catholic readers, a catechism is a manual, often written in question-and-answer form, used to teach Catholic doctrine, especially to the young.
The danger that God’s revealed Word might be “diluted” by Roman Catholic catechisms was well illustrated by an exhibition near the hall where the synod convened. It displayed over two thousand different catechisms, in 63 languages! And the differences were not only in language, but also in doctrinal content.
The Bible describes Christianity as “one faith.” (Eph. 4:4-6) But how can Catholics throughout the world have that faith if what they are taught from childhood differs from one country to another, or even from one diocese to another in the same country? It is no wonder that just before the synod a group of French priests and Catholic lay workers sent Pope Paul VI a letter bemoaning the fact that no single Vatican-approved catechism yet exists in France, and deploring “the poor quality of the teaching set forth in modern catechisms published under the auspices of the National [Catholic] Center for Religious Instruction.”
“The Blame Lies with Us Churchmen”
As far as religion is concerned, Catholic youths are confused. Surveys carried out even in Catholic countries invariably reveal that “unbelief is growing among the young and they are becoming increasingly skeptical toward any confession of faith.” (Le Monde, October 29, 1977) But how can youngsters in Catholic families be expected to have faith in God if, as Cardinal Hoeffner, archbishop of Cologne, Federal Republic of Germany, put it, they are fed “a horizontal mixture of psychology and sociology.” As a last resort before plunging into the bottomless pit of atheism, many young Catholics are turning to Eastern religions.
Whose fault is this? At the Fifth Synod, Cardinal Picachy, archbishop of Calcutta, India, blamed the Catholic Church itself, stating that it has “failed of its mission.” (Le Figaro, October 21, 1977) Cardinal Suenens, archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Belgium, joined in this ecclesiastical mea culpa (self-blame), first quoting Napoleon’s words: “There are no bad soldiers; there are only bad officers.” Then the cardinal added: “If so many youths reject the [Catholic] Church, is it not partly our fault? . . . The blame lies with us churchmen because in the eyes of the young, through ossification, formalism or inhibition, we reflect little or nothing of Christ’s true face.”
Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh of Vietnam “emphasized that it was important to talk to the young in the language of Marxism, for this was the only language they knew.” (London Observer, October 9, 1977) He stated: “As to the language used, it must be adapted to a new situation, even going as far as to use the Marxist vocabulary, imitating the [Catholic] Church of years gone by, when Saint Thomas [Aquinas, 13th century C.E. Catholic theologian] used Aristotle’s vocabulary.” However, this kind of talk was not to the liking of all prelates present in Rome for the Fifth Synod.
Reflects Two Trends of Thinking
The world catechism crisis actually reflects the general crisis within the Roman Catholic Church, caused by the profound disagreement between conservative, traditionalist Catholics and the modern, progressive Catholics. As might be expected, these two trends quickly manifested themselves at the Fifth Synod.
The traditionalists recommended publishing a common universal catechism for use throughout the entire Catholic Church. The progressives came out in favor of different catechisms and teaching methods in each country and even in each diocese.
The second trend won out. Reporting on this, the French provincial newspaper La Voix du Nord reported: “The majority [of the bishops] are of the opinion that cultural differences must be taken into account and that in each diocese the Christian message must be transmitted in a different way.”
That is tantamount to saying that God should have provided a different Bible for each country, indeed for each “diocese,” or jurisdictional district of a Roman Catholic bishop.
Some of the prelates present at the Fifth Synod in Rome advocated a catechism based more on the Gospel than catechisms had been in the past. That is quite a statement. But how can Catholics be sure that their youngsters will be taught from a catechism that is based on the Bible when each country or diocese is free to choose the one (or ones) it prefers? In spite of the Fifth Roman Synod, it appears that Catholics will continue to learn different things in different ways, depending on where they live.
Summing up the results of these special meetings of Catholic bishops at Rome, Le Monde commented: “To be truthful we must say that the catholicity [universality] of the Church is becoming increasingly difficult to observe. There is little unity of thought between Asian, African and Latin American [Catholicism]. . . . Such is the upshot of the 1977 Synod, that has left the priests and rank-and-file Catholics completely indifferent.” The same newspaper also stated: “In the nineteenth century the Church lost the working class people. In this twentieth century she is losing the young people, and this is even more serious.”
“All Christians Should Be Catechists”
Interestingly, the solution to the world catechism crisis was hinted at in a press conference given just before the close of the Fifth Synod. Cardinal Baggio, an influential member of the Roman Curia, spoke of the urgency of transmitting the Word of God in an understandable way, and added: “All Christians should be catechists and entice people to believe.” The Italian-language periodical Oggi remarked: “The recent Synod of bishops dedicated to religious teaching has revealed the Catholic Church’s consciousness of the following: the present unchristianizing, atheism and indifference are due to ignorance of evangelical teaching and tradition-based doctrine.”
Archbishop Benelli of Florence, Italy, made similar comments, emphasizing the need of “catechesis that provides continuous instruction from childhood and on through adulthood.” And the 18-point message published by the ‘synodal fathers’ at the end of the synod contained this as point number 12: “[Oral instruction] is a vital duty of the entire Church. This duty involves all the faithful, each according to his life’s circumstances and in accordance with his particular gifts. In fact all Christians, as a result of having received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, are called upon to announce the Gospel and to be concerned about the faith of their brothers in Christ, above all the faith of children and youth.”
“No Longer the Same Necessity”?
Regarding religious instruction made available for converts to Christianity at the beginning of the Common Era, A Catholic Dictionary states: “From the beginning of her history, the Church fulfilled the duty of instructing those who came to her for baptism (Mt. XXVIII, 19, 20). . . . We can still form an accurate idea of the kind of instruction given in the early Church, for Cyril of Jerusalem [4th century C.E.] has left sixteen books of catechetical discourses, explaining the Creed [summary of doctrine] to the candidates for Baptism.”
What happened to this arrangement for Christian instruction? Why did it change from instructing people before baptism to formal schooling for children already baptized as infants?
The same Catholic Dictionary informs us: “When the world became Christian there was no longer the same necessity for instructing converts, but the children, and, indeed, the people generally, still needed catechetical instruction. Hence we find a council held at Paris in 829 deploring the neglect of catechetical instruction.”
So there you have it. On the assumption that the world had become Christian, the Catholic Church abandoned the early Christian practice of orally instructing converts who were preparing for baptism. And, judging by comments made at the recent Fifth Synod, the same situation exists today that existed in 829 C.E. Many Catholics are “deploring the neglect of catechetical instruction,” not only for the youngsters, but also for “the people generally.”
The need for true Christian instruction is more pressing today than ever before. By admission of its own clergymen, the Catholic Church is not filling that need. But there is a way that you can benefit from Christian teaching “of the Gospel and according to the Gospel,” such as recommended by Cardinal Lorscheider of Brazil; and indeed without cost to you personally.
In this regard it is interesting to note that in Bogotá, Colombia, the publication El Catolicismo reported that religious leaders in Spain held a conference where they discussed the weakness of the churches in contrast with the “successes” of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The conference noted:
“Perhaps [the churches] are excessively neglectful about that which precisely constitutes the greatest preoccupation of the Witnesses—the home visit, that comes within the apostolic methodology of the primitive church. While the churches, on not a few occasions, limit themselves to constructing their temples, ringing their bells to attract the people and to preaching inside their places of meeting, [the Witnesses] follow the apostolic method of going from house to house and of taking advantage of every occasion to witness.”
Would you enjoy having Jehovah’s Witnesses call at your home to conduct a free Bible study? If so, contact the Witnesses locally or write to the publishers of this magazine.