Understanding the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Author: Fr. John Hardon


John Hardon

The twentieth century is the most critical in the history of Christianity. The decades since 1900 are more than so many years that might just as well apply to any other period of history. They mark the beginning of a new age in human civilization and correspondingly, of the Christian religion.

What does this have to do with our subject, "Understanding the Catechism of the Catholic Church?" Everything. Unless we realize the gravity of the crisis through which the Church is now passing, we shall look on the Catechism of the Catholic Church as just another book, or just another piece of religious literature. Which is not true.

This Catechism is of historic importance. Depending on how seriously we take it, the future of the Catholic Church will be shaped accordingly. No one who has any knowledge of our age should have any doubt about the contemporary crisis in Christianity. A crisis, by definition, is a turning point in the course of anything. The course of the Christian religion will, in large measure, depend on whether we see this Catechism as an act of God.

He is providing us with the opportunity of helping to make the twenty-first century the most glorious since the coming of Christ, but on one condition: that we capitalize on the gift He is giving us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There are three aspects of this subject as follows: 

• Understanding the content or the what of the Catechism of the Catholic
• Understanding the importance or the why of this Catechism.
• Understanding our obligation to put this gift of God into apostolic use, or
   the how of the Catechism.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a mere collection of doctrines. It provides the groundwork for understanding what we Catholics believe. On this level, the Catechism is unique.

The Holy Spirit guiding the Church knows that the modern world is the most academically sophisticated in history. In America alone, over five million students go to college every year. We are trained to the hilt in every humanistic subject under the sun. But most Catholics are undereducated in their faith. The result is predictable. By the time they finish even high school, they find themselves in conflict in their own minds. If anything, they are overeducated in science, history, and world literature. At the same time, their minds have been, to say the least, undereducated in knowing the religion they profess. What happens? They abandon their Catholic faith as a remnant of childhood.

The Catechism provides the beginning of what should be considered the single greatest Catholic need in the world today, namely, to understand what we believe.

Recall the sower parable of Our Lord as narrated by St. Matthew. The sower in the parable sows all good seed, but on four different kinds of ground. Only the last soil produces any yield. It is especially the first fruitless soil that applies to these reflections.

In the words of Christ, as the sower sowed the seed, "some seeds fell on the edge of the path; and the birds came and ate them up."

When the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable, He told them, "When anyone hears the words of the Kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart. This is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path" (Matthew 13:10, 18-19).

This is both simple and tragic. The seed of God's revealed truth has been sown into our hearts at Baptism. But that was only the beginning. We must do everything in our power to grasp the meaning of what we believe. Otherwise the devil will come along and steal the faith from our hearts.

There has never been a substitute for understanding our Christian religion. There is no substitute today. But now, this understanding is absolutely imperative. The world in which we live is hell-bent on stealing from our hearts what we believe.

That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church is such a providential Godsend. It provides the believing Catholic not only with information about what to believe. It also gives us an explanation of the meaning of what we believe.

Of course, the Catechism is only a start. But it promises to be a powerful initiative for waking up a sleeping Catholic world to the duty we have, to know:

• What we are to believe on the revealed word of God
• What the faith we profess is all about
• That Christianity is the most credible religion in the world and, within
   Christianity, that the Catholic Church has the fullness of the truth
• That, as a result, we Catholics have a grave responsibility for educating a
   world that is wandering in darkness and the shadow of death.


It is one thing to know theoretically what Catholics are to believe. It is something else to know where to find the true faith expressed in straightforward and unambiguous language.

The confusion among Catholics on even the most fundamental doctrines of faith and morals is widespread.

Part of my work for the Church requires that I read books by professed Catholics, which show how deep this confusion really is. Just two examples out of a thousand. In the first example, the author is speaking of the Mass as a memorial of the Last Supper.

The Church recreates the Last Supper by bringing followers of Jesus together and recalling through readings and prayers what God has done for His people. Then the priest announces what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper and himself offers bread (and on some occasions wine) to the people to eat.

Then to explain just what this means, the author asks, "How is Jesus present at Mass?" He answers that Christ is "present in a real way in the bread and wine that symbolize His body and blood."

There is no such ambiguity or heterodoxy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. People may not want to accept what the Catechism teaches. No problem. Not everyone wants to be a Catholic.

The second example just came to my attention. A large circulating national Catholic newspaper carried a full-page advertisement released by the Seamless Garment Network, Inc. The ad is signed by scores of prominent people, and a corresponding score of national organizations. The basic theme of the ad is to equate such moral issues as abortion and capital punishment, claiming that both issues are part of the same seamless garment fabric. This is not true. But how is the average reader to know, when he sees Catholic bishops and prominent professed Catholics placing the murder of unborn children in the same category as justly condemned criminals?

Someone, somewhere in the Church founded by Christ must be in a position to tell the faithful, "this is true, and that is false;" or "this is morally good, and that is morally bad." Otherwise, the very existence of Christianity is in danger and the survival of the Catholic Church in any given country or locality is in jeopardy.

In many dioceses of America, attendance at Sunday Mass is down to some twenty-five percent of the professed Catholics in a diocese. Some Church officials are scrambling for a solution and recommending the most bizarre solutions. It never seems to dawn on these "experts" that the heart of the problem is the massive uncertainty in millions of Catholic minds about what is unchangeable doctrine in faith and moral principles.

That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church has not been released one month too soon. It is the hope of restoring unity to a pathetically dismembered Christianity.


There is still one more important aspect of this subject to explain; it is also the most important practical question that needs raising. How is The New Catechism of the Catholic Church to be put into apostolic use.

Before going any further, certain things should be made clear.

• This Catechism is no mere reference work that we may occasionally
   consult, like a standard dictionary or encyclopedia.
• This Catechism is no mere summary of religious ideas or ideals that provide
   a readable handbook on how Catholics think.

No, the Catechism is an indispensable arm of instruction on every level of the teaching apostolate.

We now have a one-volume reservoir of Catholic truth and practice for everyone who wants to bring others to Christ, if they are not yet Christians; to solidify the faith of those who have been baptized; to defend Roman Catholicism in a world in which the Church has been abandoned by so many once-believing Catholics and is being betrayed even by some of her ecclesiastical leaders.

The question, however, still remains: How to use the Catechism in the apostolate of evangelization and catechesis? I have five recommendations:

• Know the Catechism 
• Trust the Catechism 
• Adapt the Catechism 
• Live the Catechism 
• Share the Catechism

Each of these recommendations deserves detailed explanation. We shall be satisfied with just a short comment about each of the five.

Know the Catechism. Our most fundamental duty is to know the Catechism. How do you come to know anything? By reading, by discussing, by hearing it explained by competent persons.

Speed reading of the Catechism would be self-defeating. If anything, the Catechism should be not only read but prayerfully meditated. Spend some time set aside for reflecting, in God's presence, what the Catechism teaches through more than 500 pages of print.

How much time people waste in reading fiction, or worse. Is it too much for Christ to expect us to spend a few hours a week in reading, alone or with others, what promises to be the food that feeds the soul on revealed truth?

Trust the Catechism. Already, critics have appeared who discredit the Catechism on both sides of the spectrum.

• Some criticize it for being outmoded and out of touch with the times.

• Others criticize it for giving in to Modernism and therefore discredit what the Vicar of Christ is offering the believing faithful for their spiritual sustenance in a world that is dying out of hunger for the truth.

Pay no attention to these critics. To distrust the Catechism is to play into the hand of the devil, who fears nothing more than security of doctrine among the followers of Christ.

Adapt the Catechism. The Catechism is not simple reading. But neither is it sophisticated and out-of-touch with the vocabulary of the people. In any case, the Catechism contains all the essentials for Catholic faith, morality, and divine worship.

In using the Catechism to teach others, adjust the language to the mentality of those you are teaching. Adapt the ideas, without watering them down. Accommodate what the Catechism says, to the mental and spiritual level of those with whom you are sharing God's truth.

Live the Catechism. This is no pious platitude. Teaching the true faith is unlike any other form of pedagogy.

The purpose of teaching the Catholic faith is to enable those you are teaching to practice the virtues which Christ expects of His followers. Very well, but how do you enable those you teach to practice what they have learned? You don't! Only Christ can give them the grace they need to practice what they believe. So how do they get the grace they need? From Christ, of course. But through you, their teachers.

What are we saying? We are saying that God uses holy people as channels of His grace to others. In the measure of our own union with Him, He will communicate to those we teach the light and strength they need to live the Christian faith. God uses humble people to give others the gift of humility. He uses chaste people as conduits of His grace of chastity; patient people to inspire patience; prayerful people to make others prayerful.

In a word, if we live the Catechism, we become instruments of divine faith to everyone whose life we touch. This, we may say, is the law of spiritual generation. Sanctity is reproductive; holiness is procreative.

Share the Catechism. One final point should be made: On the last day we shall be judged on our practice of charity. How we hope that when Christ appears, He will say to us, "Come, blessed of my Father, and possess the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; thirsty and you gave me to drink; naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me."

What does this have to do with the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Everything! This masterpiece of sacred wisdom provides us with all the resources we need to meet the spiritual needs of America. But we must be convinced that these needs are desperate, and that we have at hand the means of saving the soul of our society.


"Lord Jesus, you have given us the Catechism of the Catholic Church to bring light to those who are walking in darkness and supernatural life to those who are sitting in the shadow of death.
"Enlighten our minds with your revealed truth and inspire our hearts with your divine love — so that by our courageous witness to your Name here on earth we may bring countless souls with us to that heavenly Kingdom for which we were made. Amen."