Monday, April 27, 2020
A Brief History of Catholic Catechisms

The word “catechism” today is often used only in reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, originally published in 1992.  Yet, this catechism often fails in many respects for converts and even for adult Catholics: its verbose language, its frequent references to the novelties of Vatican II as opposed to actual dogmatic works, and the recent errors promulgated by Pope Francis in regard to capital punishment.  In fact, the number of religious education programs that feel they must teach children from this catechism is frightening – no young child could attempt to learn from a text that is best suited for an undergraduate or master’s course.  So why do we either water down the faith or teach children that the only true source of doctrine is the 1992 text?

Unbeknown to many, the new catechism is far from the only catechism.  St. Peter Canisius, who was instrumental in fighting Protestantism in Germany, wrote the first catechism in 1555, known as the "Catechism of St. Peter Canisius."  Shortly afterward, in 1566, the Roman Catechism was commissioned by the Council of Trent, overseen by St. Charles Borromeo, and issued by His Holiness Pope St. Pius V.  It remains the most authoritative catechism in print.  Known as the “Roman Catechism,” the “Catechism of St. Pius V,” or also as the “Catechism of the Council of Trent,” this book has unfortunately fallen into extreme disuse.

The decades after the Council of Trent saw Fr. Laurence Vaux "Catechism of Christian Doctrine" published in 1567 and St. Robert Bellarmine's Catechism published in 1597. 

Fr. Henry Tuberville followed with the Douay Catechism in 1649, which was modeled on the Catechism of the Council of Trent and written to help combat English Protestantism.  It remains one of the clearest English catechisms ever written as it contains a simple-to-understand question and answer format. 

Fast forward to 1781 and Bishop George Hay published the extensive and heavily Scripturally based "Hay's Catechism" with a longer question and answer format.  Fr. Stephen Keenan in 1846 published his catechism with the purpose of countering heresies of the time especially in regard to papal infallibility.  And one year later in 1847, master catechism Fr. Joseph Deharbe wrote the most accomplished German catechism ever written called "A complete catechism of the Catholic religion."

Throughout the mid-1800s additional catechisms by Fr. Francis Jamison, St. John Neumann, Fr. Patrick Power, Fr. Michael Muller, and Cardinal Gibbons were also published.  Then in 1885, the Bishops of the United States enjoined by order of the Third Council of Baltimore the Baltimore Catechism, which was the most widely used catechism in the United States for over a century up until Vatican II. 

The notion that the “Catechism” is the exclusive right to the 1992 text promulgated by Pope John Paul II is absurd.  In fact, as the crisis in the Church deepened, Pope Benedict XVI remarked while still a Cardinal of the failure of modern catechesis in the Church when he said in an interview with Zenit in 2003, “It is evident that today religious ignorance is enormous; suffice it to speak with the new generations. Evidently, in the post-conciliar period, the concrete transmission of the contents of the Christian faith was not achieved.”  This echoed his previous sentiments which he published before the New Catechism was written when the future Pontiff wrote, “The catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too obvious.”

Some of these older Catechisms, like the Baltimore Catechism and the Roman Catechism, are still in print. Others that have fallen out of print are being published once again by the work of Tradivox. And organizations like are combining passages from various Catechisms along with Scripture and relevant prayers and commentary to teach the Faith in a way that resonates with more people. Whispers of Restoration lists 20 older catechisms and links to them in an online format.

As the many catechisms show us, the Faith is the same yet it can often be explained in slightly different ways. Whereas one definition or example may teach one person, another person may be better able to understand it explained in a different way. The Faith is changeless and timeless but we can use many different catechisms to teach the one, same Faith.

Check out some of these older catechisms and resources. Share them with your family and friends.

1 comment(s):

del_button May 2, 2020 at 9:32 AM
JMCM said...

I just recently read about St. Peter Canisius on his feast day and remember an article that contained a note about Pope Benedict XVI. He remembered fondly those early days of his catechism teaching while growing up in Bavaria and recalling with pleasant memory ,"We simply called it our Canisius." How cool is that!!

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