In 1 Peter 3: 15, the Apostle tells his readers: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope”. But, “to be ready” presumes formation in the content of our faith – and such formation has always been the challenge of catechesis. Over the centuries, while relying on the Sacred Scriptures as the cornerstone of all catechesis, the Church’s shepherds and teachers have also made use of short summaries or creeds that synthesized the Christian faith. These proved especially useful in the instruction of candidates for baptism.
The relativism that has pervaded much of public education in the United States for the past century has resulted in what some have called, “Cultural Illiteracy”. As E.D. Hirsh pointed out in “Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know”, an experiential approach to education has impoverished generations of students who know little about Western history, literature and art (not to mention religion) that have shaped who we are as Americans. A parallel development within our faith communities has also resulted in a “religious illiteracy” that ill prepares us “to give an explanation” for the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.
To overcome this “religious illiteracy” – to preserve the memory of Christ’s words and actions and to hand on the content of faith to future generations – is the most vexing challenge of catechesis in our times. To respond to this challenge the Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated in 1992 In its structure, it is essentially a catechesis on the Creed.
Two important works have recently appeared that will serve to make the content of this Post Vatican II Catechism more accessible to average Catholics.
Last March, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published. A summarized version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI “a faithful and sure synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” and “contains, in concise form, all the essential and fundamental elements of the Church’s faith.” It uses a question and answer format – a format familiar to anyone instructed in the Baltimore Catechism in wide use in the US from 1885 to the 1960’s. Developed with the instruction of teens and young adults in mind, the Compendium should be used as a standard reference to which teachers and catechists refer their students – in much the same way they use their Bibles for instructions. While not meant to replace current religious textbooks which in any case need to be written in conformity to the Catechism, it is meant to augment and compliment them.
And last month, the United States’ bishops published the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. During our Synod, Starting Afresh from Christ, the need for serious adult formation in the faith was expressed in our listening sessions and in the discussions of various Synod commissions. These two books will help meet that need.
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) complements the larger Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and responds to the Holy See’s call for the development of local catechisms. While the Compendium’s audience is youth and young adults, the USCCA will be a significant help in the preparation of adults entering the Catholic Church and will be a useful tool for any Catholic interested in learning more about his faith. In any case, both texts will be an effective remedy for those whose education in the faith was inadequate or incomplete in any way. To paraphrase E. D. Hirsh’s book, the subtitle of both books could well be: “Religious Literacy: what every Catholic needs to know”.