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Vol 38 No 1


Frank Fletcher MSC

Neil Brown

Veronica Lawson RSM

Peter Price

Matthew C Ogilvie

Kevin Mark


Is the Catechism enough?
A Theological Perspective on Using the Catechism in Education


A GOOD NUMBER of Catholic educators and educational authorities use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the cardinal source for teaching and explaining Catholic faith and beliefs. Taking this practice as our starting point, this article will not deal directly with the Catechism itself, but the manner in which it has been misused. We shall deal with four main themes. The first regards the perceived reasons for and readership of the Catechism; the second is the insufficiency of relying upon the Catechism alone; the third is the contribution that can be made by employing systematic theology as envisioned by Bernard Lonergan and Thomas Aquinas; and the fourth is a set of reflections on future theological renewal towards the service of Catholic education.


In 1965, Bernard Lonergan prophesied that:

Classical culture cannot be jettisoned without being replaced; and what replaces it cannot but run counter to classical expectations. There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is perhaps a not too numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait (Lonergan, 1988, 245).

Many members of what Lonergan called the ‘solid right’ fear that the truth of the Catholic faith has been compromised since the Second Vatican Council. In an effort to restore what they see as the doctrinal integrity of Catholicism, some Catholics have sought to use the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC/ The Catechism, hereafter) as the basic text for religious education. While the Catechism is used widely as a standard reference source for official Catholic teaching, it has been proposed, or even enforced, as a fundamental text from which to communicate Catholic doctrine. In this article, I wish neither to criticise the Catechism itself, nor to question the usage of the Catechism as a reference source for official Catholic teaching. What I would like to do in this article is to describe the manner in which the Catechism has been misused. This article shall cover four main themes. The first deals with the common understanding of why the Catechism was written and what its anticipated readership may have been; the second explains the inadequacy of the ‘Catechism alone’ approach; the third puts forward the contribution made to Catholic education through a genuinely systematic theology as envisioned by Bernard Lonergan and Thomas Aquinas; and the fourth covers some reflections on future theological renewal towards the service of Catholic education.

Why ‘the Catechism.’
Why should some Catholics want the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be used as a standard text for Catholic education? Their desire seems to be driven by the perception that the Church is under siege from dissidents who are in open disobedience against official Church teaching. Those of the ‘solid right’ often regard themselves as remnant Catholics (often a persecuted minority) who maintain the purity of faith against liberalizing or so-called ‘modernist’ trends. It is ‘common knowledge’ that many Catholics in teaching and leadership positions are in open conflict with either official Catholic teachings, Church authorities, or both of these. It is not surprising then, that a text which is presented officially as ‘an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety’ (CCC 18) should be viewed, by those who call themselves ‘orthodox Catholics,’ as a document intended to embarrass allegedly heretical officials and teachers into correcting their wayward positions.

A quick survey of the world-wide-web shows that many, who call themselves ‘orthodox Catholics,’ have long been dissatisfied with their teachers and leaders, and that they see the Catechism as the means to bypass the leaders and teachers who are not promoting the official teaching of the Church. The Catechism has thus been used directly and universally by Catholic laity in order to establish what is, or is not, true Catholic doctrine. Even though the Catechism is addressed formally to bishops, its most numerous readership has been lay Catholics who use it as an authoritative reference and teaching tool. Whether or not the Catechism was written with such intent, it has lent itself to such use in a number of ways, four of which I would like to note.

First, the provisional draft of the Catechism, called ‘Catechism for the Universal Church, Provisional Text’ (CUCP), contained a sample glossary. This glossary included definitions of words such as: Atheism, Archbishops, Apostle, Altar (CUCP, p419-20). It is inconceivable that Bishops would require such a glossary of basic Catholic terms. The nature of the glossary suggests that a significant lay readership was anticipated for the Catechism.

Secondly, in both the draft and final texts, the Catechism contains ‘In Brief summaries,’ which are commended to ‘local catechists,’ so that they can form ‘brief summary formulae that could be memorized.’ It is also recommended to all Christian faithful as ‘useful reading’ (CCC 12, 22; CUCP, 0025). It is also disappointing to note an apparent conflict between the encouragement to use the Catechism’s ‘in brief’ summaries for local catechesis and Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Constitution, on the publication of the Catechism, which states that ‘This catechism … is meant to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms’ (Fidei Depositum, 3)

Thirdly, we find revealing the number of Catechisms being bought, not by professional readers, but by laity. The English translation of the Catechism has sold in its millions and is accessible on the Internet. Anecdotal evidence from its publishers and the Vatican suggests that the Catholic authorities were not surprised that so many laity were buying and using the Catechism.

Fourthly, one also notes a defensive tone in the Catechism, which is highlighted by some variations between the provisional and final texts. One key difference is found under ‘The Structure of This Catechism,’ (CUCP 0011) in which acknowledgement is given to ‘the great tradition of the catechisms’ of Luther and Calvin. The final text, however, eliminates references to these Protestants, choosing instead to commend the work of Catholic catechists (CCC 9, 13).

Against such a background, a number of Catholics now believe they can maintain doctrinal purity in religious education, RCIA, or other faith formation programs by using the Catechism as a basic text. I would like now to turn to asking if the Catechism alone is really adequate as primary resource for teaching religion, in school, tertiary or adult education contexts. One could put this question alternatively by asking if the ‘Catechism alone’ standard expresses the fullness of Catholic orthodoxy.

The Insufficiency of Catechism-Based Education
Can the Catechism really be used alone or as the basic text ‘in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life’? (CCC 5). To answer that question, I would like to use the example of the Catechism’s teaching on human sexuality (CCC 2351-59). When one reads the relevant sections, one can admire the Catechism’s clarity, one can respect the authority with which it is written, and one may accept the truth of the doctrines presented. However, even if one accepts the truth of the doctrines, one may ask if the ‘truth alone’ is adequate for teaching Catholic faith.

The relevant sections of the Catechism present doctrinal statements that define certain moral acts as: illicit, disordered, counter to the Magisterium, against natural law, contrary to dignity, justice or charity. I propose that such statements, true as they may be, are not sufficient for moral education. I would clarify, though, that I am criticizing not the Vatican for producing the Catechism, but those who misuse it as a standard text for moral education.

The teacher who seeks full knowledge and understanding would not be satisfied state only the doctrines that certain sexual activities do damage or violate human dignity. The effective teacher would not only ask ‘Is this an action contrary to the human person.’ Rather, the effective teacher would pose the question ‘How does this action do such damage?’ In other words, the key question is not ‘Does this cause damage?’ but ‘What is the exact nature of that damage?’ The Catechism only deals with this second question cursorily when it points to the injury done to the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity of persons.

The distinction between the questions ‘is it?’ found in statements of doctrine like the Catechism and the ‘what is?’ found in teaching tools, comes to light if we consider the point in the light of the question: ‘Can persons in the concrete world express their experience of sexuality in the terms in which the Catechism expresses its doctrine?’ One thinks not. The terms and conceptions of the Catechism are, by both necessity and nature, abstract and general, somewhat removed from ‘real life.’ The conceptions used in the Catechism are not intelligible within the concrete situations of those to whom the teaching is ultimately meant. The concrete situation of people, both children and adults, demand more concrete aspects, that is, the what, why, and how of an action, and not just the abstract it is. In other words, what is required for genuine education is a person’s appropriation of the reasons for the truth that is being presented.

It may be the case that doctrines may be validly deduced from scripture and tradition. Yet education demands more than deduction and presentation of truths or facts. The real value of the Catechism is not so much in the truth of its doctrines, as much as it is in skilled teachers being able to present these truths to people in a manner that makes sense to them. That is, a religion needs to be able to take its truths and relate them positively in a manner comprehensible and concordant with peoples’ own experience and horizon of understanding. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church may serve well the role of a reference point for the validity of doctrines, it does not communicate sufficiently the intelligibility of those doctrines to Catholic educators and their students.

Systematic Theology
To take another perspective on the methodological inadequacy of the ‘Catechism as textbook’ approach to religious education, I would like to refer to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan and the authority of the First Vatican Council.

First, when asked whether authorities or reasons were more useful for instructing students, Thomas replied (Quaestiones Quodlibetales IV,q9a3 [18]) that an argument could have one of two intentions. On the one hand, an argument could be aimed at removing doubts, so that one was concerned with establishing the intellectual certainty of what is so. In that case, one was better served by appealing to the authorities recognised by the hearer.

Thomas explained, however (Quodl IV,q9a3 [18]), that one could also intend to bring a student to understand the truth at hand. If one sought understanding, one would leave a student empty if one appealed only to authorities, for the student would have neither understanding, nor any grasp of the principles of the matter. In Thomas’ words, ‘the listener will indeed be made certain that the matter is so; but he will acquire no scientific knowledge or understanding and will go away empty.’ Aquinas argued that one is better served by establishing the reasons that both illuminate the grounds of the truth, and also enable one to know how what is said is in fact, true.

Thomas’ distinction between certainty of what is so and understanding of how that is so is analogous to the difference between a commonsense description of an event and a theoretical explanation of how it is so. Thus, the difference between describing the reality that ‘objects fall’ and the explanation that objects fall according to the laws of gravity, is analogous to the difference between affirming our faith in three persons in one God and giving a theoretical explanation of how this could be so by analogy with the processions of human intellect.

Thomas’ distinction between the two sorts of arguments may illustrate a commonly observed reality. Students who attend institutions sustained by the ‘solid right’ tend to be certain of the doctrines of faith and they are often able to describe these doctrines with conviction and precision. However, what is often found lacking is an articulation of how it could be that the realities of these mysteries affirmed in these doctrines may be so. I propose that, despite contrary claims, the ‘solid right’ does not have a monopoly on Catholic orthodoxy. The ‘solid right’ has done orthodoxy a disservice at a time when those antagonistic to the faith are able to go beyond their description of the doctrines with which they disagree, to a proposed explanation of why these doctrines cannot be so.

Aquinas spent his life seeking to make intelligible to his contemporaries the doctrines affirmed in his Church. Aquinas’ project is built upon in Lonergan’s writings on systematic theology, on which I have written a more detailed study (Ogilvie 2001). Lonergan argues (1994, 335-6) that within theology, as in any other area of learning, there is a distinction between the types of questions ‘Is it so?’ and ‘What is it?’ Such questions pertain to the distinct activities of judgement and understanding, and reflect the distinct corresponding theological specialties of doctrines and systematics. Distinct from what would be the doctrinal certitude promoted by the Catechism, Lonergan presents systematic theology not as seeking the facts of faith so much as ‘some inkling of how it could possibly be that the facts are what they are.’

Lonergan’s intention for systematic theology carries forth the purpose stated by Aquinas above, that of showing a student how what is said is true and guiding the student to understand the reasons and principles underlying a matter of faith. It is illuminating to note that Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1975, 1,16) cites the same text from Aquinas to illustrate ‘the distinction between dogmatic enquiry and authoritative quotation.’ I might also clarify, with Doran (1995, 1:181) that what is sought for in systematic theology’s seeking ‘reasons and principles’ is an explanatory understanding, rather than a merely descriptive exercise.

To support his position on systematic theology, Lonergan cites the First Vatican Council (DS 3016/TCF 132), which retrieved the notion of understanding in theology. It stated that,

If [human] reason illumined by faith inquires in an earnest, pious and sober manner, it attains by God’s grace a certain understanding of the mysteries, which is most fruitful, both from the analogy with the objects of its natural knowledge and from the connection of these mysteries with one another and with man’s ultimate end.

In other words, beyond the facts taught in faith, there is the understanding of what is affirmed in faith. That understanding is not only achieved by arranging the mysteries of faith into an interconnected matrix, it is also taught that this understanding comes by analogy with what human beings know naturally. Following the spirit of the First Vatican Council, I would propose, given the significant variation in what people know naturally – by way of factors such as culture, historical circumstance or level of education, that if Catholics have the right to genuine faith formation, they have the right to have the realities of their faith explained in terms that are concordant with their own knowledge and capacity to know.

The project of systematic theology, as outlined above, is needed for religious education because the days are long past when theology could be conceived as communicating immutable certitudes to a single universal culture. Rather, as Lonergan proposes (1994, xi), theology is a mediation of a religion’s significance and function to a concrete, ongoing culture. If theologians take seriously the realities of developing and changing cultures, they face the challenge of making a religion intelligible to people of the various historical, social and cultural contexts within which a religion may be found. The challenge arises because religion may exist in itself, but it takes on intelligible meaning only within a concrete cultural context. Culture, we further note with Lonergan (1994, 344), is hardly static, but it is ongoing and manifold. There are more challenges created when one culture develops into another or when different cultures may meet and interact. Each of these cultures will have its own common sense, science, scholarship and philosophy. Vatican I states (DS 3016/TCF 132) that theological understanding is achieved by analogy with the objects of people’s natural knowledge. I argue that it follows that, if from time to time and culture to culture, there is variation in both the contents of knowledge and the very way that people approach knowledge, one should expect theology and theological understanding to vary proportionately.

Given the above, an essential challenge to theology and theologians is to make the mysteries of faith intelligible within the concrete life and history of a specific culture. Despite the truth of the doctrines that can be upheld within a catechism, no simple defence of those doctrines can make them intelligible to different people. Instead, the demands of explanatory understanding mean that theologians must conceive the mysteries of faith in terms intelligible in concrete, specific contexts. Such is the aim of systematic theology, which as Lonergan points out (1973, 58), is concerned not only with ‘supernatural’ aspects of theology, but also with the concrete effect of God’s grace on humanity and our world. Systematic theology promotes an understanding of the mysteries in terms of its audience’s acquired culture. To do this, it goes beyond religious categories to employ those from more human fields of study, such as philosophy.

Such an approach to theology is not at all new, in evidence of which Lonergan (1973, 23) cites Fuller’s account (1979, 243-7) of the New Testament’s development. Fuller’s theory proposed that, within the New Testament, one finds several different strata, which correspond to attempts to preach the same Gospel message to several different cultures. A first stratum presents the Gospel message as it was communicated to Jews who read the Old Testament within a Hebrew culture. A second layer shows the Gospel as it was preached to Jews who had read the Old Testament within a Greek context. A third stratum presents the Gospel, as it was communicated to Gentiles who had no cultural contact with the Old Testament. The varying strata of the New Testament illustrate the need to conceive and communicate the Gospel message in as many different ways, as there were different cultures to which that message was addressed. To give the Gospel any chance to success, Christian missionaries had to present it in ways intelligible to different cultures. The neglect of cultural variations, which required different conceptualisations of the Gospel, would have meant the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Gospel.

Lonergan also argues (1973, 25-6; 1994, 344) that systematic theology’s promotion of understanding is prompted by the challenge of presenting divine realities to people who think with different worldviews and ways of thinking. He first notes that people in a culture could express their understanding of God in mainly symbolic terms, so that to transform that expression, one needed only to change the relevant symbols. Alternatively, in Clement of Alexandria’s culture, which came under Xenophanes’ influence, one could no longer take seriously anthropomorphic conceptions of a God. To overcome that problem, and to make God intelligible within his cultural context, Clement conceived God (Stromateis, V, xii) by abstracting from all corporeality. Similarly, Origen conceived spiritual beings, including God, in line with middle Platonism. This enabled Origen (De Principiis, I,1) to defend the strict spirituality of spiritual beings, according to the intellectual standards and within the philosophic culture of his time. Importantly, neither Clement nor Origen denied the doctrine of God nor did they reject the realities affirmed by Scripture. Rather, they promoted a new understanding of God intelligible within the philosophic and cultural contexts of their times. Thus, while Christian faith remained constant, its theological activity needed to devise new conceptions of its doctrines in order to meet the exigencies of different times. It is important to us that ongoing developments in culture are still occurring. Lonergan emphasises (1994, 345) that our own contemporary culture has produced a range of new problems. In today’s concrete world, people may be familiar with Church doctrines. From within their concrete context, though, people still ask what these doctrines could possibly mean. Such inquiry, he holds, is the work of systematic theology. This theology pursues a ‘homely’ project because it deals with the truths of faith confessed by Christians, who at different times ask what those truths may mean (Lonergan 1994, 350). Systematic theology thus works towards a theology that is more concrete and more manifestly relevant to the faith into which it inquires.

My essential point is that theologians must conceive the doctrines of faith with expressions that are intelligible within the culture in which it finds itself. New conceptions of doctrines are called for by new questions and new contexts. This contention corresponds with Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Second Vatican Council. In promoting joy and hope, against the despair of the ‘prophets of doom,’ Pope John encouraged our Church to remain faithful to the constant deposit of faith, while simultaneously promoting the mutable modes of presentation and conceptualisation, which meet the challenges of different times (Lonergan 1985, 225).

Theological Renewal for Catholic Education
The reflections above make clear certain limits to the ‘Catechism-as-textbook’ approach to education. After all, the Catechism itself (CCC 24) states that ‘By design, this Catechism does not set out to provide the adaptation of doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed.’ It is ironic then, that those who prompted this article by imposing the Catechism as the primary text of faith education do, in fact, violate a teaching contained within it.

Against the ‘Catechism alone’ approach to faith education, Lonergan’s model of systematic theology is part of a method that fosters a coherent self-image of the Christian in the modern world. He (1974, 112; 1994, 315) thus lauded Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s efforts, but lamented the inability of some to appreciate Teilhard’s efforts because his theology challenged the classicist notions of permanence, immutability and universality. In his own work, Lonergan (1974, 3) believed that a coherent worldview of the Christian would come from an understanding of humanity, which did not mean either an abstract, or an a priori understanding of the supposed nature of ‘man.’ Rather, one would find a coherent theological worldview in beginning ‘from people as they are.’

Lonergan (1974, 45, 49, 62) admired the example of Thomas Aquinas and stated his aim ‘to do for our age what he [Aquinas] did for his.’ He hoped to emulate Thomas’ achievement in taking the Arabic and Greek thought that influenced Thomas’ culture and fitting these ‘pagan sciences’ into a Christian context. This enabled Thomas to master the Greek and Arabic philosophies and to use these philosophies to present Christian doctrine. The Summa Contra Gentiles presents a prime example of Thomas’ achievement. Lonergan argues that in his Summa Thomas effectively made a presentation of Christian doctrine against its adversaries, which was coherent, up-to-date, persuasive and demonstrative, when necessary. Thomas’ writings presented systematic theology, rather than a repetition of dogma, because they were coherent, modern and persuasive, because his work met the standards of the dominant science of his time and because he employed the science’s more valid insights for his purposes. Lonergan observes (1974, 45) that, in using this approach,

St. Thomas wrote against the Gentiles, but he used their own weapons, and used them so skilfully that he provided his age with a concrete instance in which essential features of Catholic truth and of Greek and Arabic culture were fused into a single organic whole.

Lonergan’s observation manifests his desire to engage a systematic theology that both met the standards of the modern world and was able to take the more useful insights from modern thought and apply these to theology. Moreover, the observation that Thomas used his adversaries’ own ‘weapons,’ calls to mind the work of Cardinal Newman (1974, 91-2), who argued that the ‘the assailants of dogmatic truth’ had available the tools of modern thought, thus having a clear advantage over those whose job it was to defend Christian dogma. For Christianity to retain any credibility or capability of argument, Newman maintained that it would have to adopt the tools of modern history. In his words, ‘An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument.’ Newman’s response to modern thought was not to reject it and keep Christianity aloof from the concrete existence of people. Rather, Newman effectively held that ‘theological humanity’ was needed unless one was to abandon humans. In that light, he insisted that modern historical methods be used to verify and give expression to Christian doctrine.

In this article, I have criticised the ‘solid right’s’ practice of using the Catechism as the textbook for Christian faith education or formation. In response to people in this category, I would suggest that the model of a truly systematic theology, at the service of Christian education, is not a novelty, but a practice rooted deeply in our tradition, and witnessed to in Aquinas, Vatican I and Newman.

If one were to conceive religious education as citing the Catechism in order to settle the truth of Catholic doctrine one would be guilty of that sort of argument that uses only an appeal to authority. It reminds one of Thomas’ words that ‘the listener will indeed be made certain that the matter is so; but he will acquire no scientific knowledge or understanding and will go away empty.’ (Quodl IV,q9a18) Such would form much of Aquinas’ respectful, but firm, criticism of the ‘Catechism alone’ approach to religious education. The Catechism meets the aims of Thomas’ first form of argument. It establishes truths by appeal to authorities. But for Aquinas, Vatican I and Lonergan, the real potency of teaching is in understanding how something is so. Systematic theology raises questions such as ‘How is it that the moral life is uplifting, and the immoral life damaging?’ Systematic theology leads to the more effective, the more compelling component of teaching, which is in the way people can recognise a reality, its meaning and its value in their own lives. Unfortunately, if people are only given the Catechism, they may be made certain of Church doctrines, but without the understanding formed by systematic theology, they will be sent away empty.

Matthew C Ogilvie, PhD (Sydney) is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, University of Dallas. He is a proud member of the Mustang Club of America.


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This is a paper revised for Compass and reprinted with permission from the Australian E-Journal of Theology from the MacAuley Campus of Australian Catholic University (http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/).