Until a year ago, I was like most Catholics and never picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism). I never thought there was a need to. After all, I learned everything I needed to know in 6 years of Faith Formation and whatever the priest decided to talk about on Sunday. I did read the Bible cover to cover a couple times, so never even considered the Catechism.
To me, the Catechism was simply the Catholic “User Manual”. It was just a set of instructions on how to assemble your Catholic faith. Being a typical man, I don’t read instructions. I want to figure it out on my own. If I need help, I will phone a friend. If that fails, I will keep working at it until it looks right.
To non-Catholics, the Catechism is nothing more than a list of rules and regulations that Catholics must follow in order to be in good standing with the Church. Moreso, it is considered to be the Church’s interpretation of Christian faith and not truth. Those who malign the Catechism have likely never read it cover to cover and most certainly do not understand the fullness of it.
The Catechism is seldom appreciated for the depth of faith it offers. After finally reading the Catechism, cover to cover, I can honestly say I got more spiritual insights out of it than I thought I would. The cross-references to Scripture, quotes from the Church Fathers and citations from Church councils brought a deeper understanding of why the Church teaches certain doctrine and why the Catholic Church is the Apostolic Church of Jesus.
In this article, I do not share any new insights, but simply explain why the Catechism should be considered as an important spiritual tool for all Catholics.
Why the Catechism and not just the Bible
Sola scriptura is the philosophy that the Bible is the Word of God, inerrant, sufficient, without error, and the source of all truth. This philosophy is based on the verse “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) In essence, if it is not in the Bible, it is not to be believed. This article is not meant to be an in-depth discussion of the errors of sola scriptura. However, there are a few considerations for the purpose of this article.
Sola scriptura claims our faith should only be based on what is written in the Bible. Based on this principle, sola scriptura itself is not to be believed. There is no verse anywhere in the Bible that specifically and clearly states “If it is not written in Scripture do not believe it.” Sola scriptura, therefore, is nothing more than an interpretation of one verse in the Bible.
The verse itself is taken out of context. When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, the only Scripture that existed was what we now call the Old Testament. If one is to literally believe the verse, then one would believe only what was written in the Old Testament (what Paul was referring to) and would completely throw out the New Testament.
The tenet that Scripture is “sufficient” is a complete misquote of the verse. It should be pointed out that the word sufficient does not even appear in 2 Timothy 3:16. What does appear in that verse, however, is the word useful. “All Scripture is useful.” Hammers are useful to build houses, but hammers are not sufficient to build houses.
Even the writers of the New Testament admit their writings are incomplete. The Apostle John says “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). The Apostle Paul informs us that he, too, did not write everything down. “Stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). Non-Catholics like to demean oral teachings by referring to them as “tradition”; as though they were grandma’s apple pie recipe or something.
The Bible is simply not sufficient for all understanding of faith. To say this is not blasphemy. Being realistic, if the Bible were sufficient then there would only be one Christian faith because there is only one God and one truth. Since the Bible is not crystal clear at times, people believe it must be interpreted. Interpretation of Scripture has led to the formation of over 40,000 Protestant denominations, each claiming to have the one truth. This division is in direct opposition and denial of our Lord’s final prayer “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” (John 17:20-21)
The Catechism is important for promoting the unity for which our Lord prayed, for all Catholics and even all Christians.
Guidance not Interpretation
“How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). The official who asked Philip this question was probably like most Catholics. He likely attended faith formation classes for a few years and learned a little about the faith from his parents. Maybe, his religious education ended after his bar mitzvah (similar to Confirmation). For a while, he just spiritually drifted and went through the religious motions. At some point in his life, he decided that he wanted a deeper relationship with God and thought reading Scripture would be a good idea. He did pretty well on his own, but there were certain verses he did not quite understand. He needed and asked for “guidance”.
Guidance is defined as supervised care or assistance, advice for students. In another definition, the word guidance is used to describe the process of controlling the flight of something to bring it to a specific point. In summary, guidance requires an expert to impart knowledge or direction to bring a person or object to a single point.
Compare that to interpretation. Interpretation is the rendering of a personal judgement upon another’s work to bring out its meaning, according to one’s own understanding. Think about walking through an art gallery. There is a couple standing in front of a painting that looks like the painter just threw a bucket of paint at the canvas. One person says “It’s a dog burying a bone”. The other says “No, it’s an apple tree with fruit falling to the ground.” As you walk by you think to yourself “They are both wrong. It’s obviously a child playing with a ball.” Interpretation assumes there is no single truth, and whatever a person believes about a thing is true for them. Interpretation brings about many truths, even though they may conflict with one another. Interpreting Scripture is wrong and spiritually dangerous.
The Catechism guides. It starts with a spiritual truth and guides the reader into the knowledge of the truth. The truth is supported by many verses brought together throughout Scripture into a cohesive doctrine. That doctrine is then supported by writings from the Church Fathers and confirmed by ecumenical councils. All references in the Catechism are footnoted so the reader can look up the original verse, quote or text and read it for themself.
Giving the Complete Picture
As mentioned above, the Catechism brings together verses throughout the Bible to provide a balanced teaching concerning spiritual truth, as opposed to basing teachings on isolated verses. Let’s consider teachings about salvation, for example.
Some churches teach a confession of faith is all that is needed for salvation, based on “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works [of the law].” (Romans 3:28) Some churches teach that salvation can never be lost, based on “they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Some churches teach that God predestines some to Heaven and others to Hell, based on “For those God foreknew he also predestined.” (Romans 8:12) Based on different combinations of these verses there could be eight different teachings about salvation.
The problem with any theory of salvation based only on these verses is that the verses are interpreted in isolation, disregarding the rest of Scripture. Consider the following verses…“faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), “If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26), and finally “He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). The Bible, the entire Bible, must be the foundation of faith. Faith must not be formed first and then justified by finding one or two Bible verses that support that belief. The Catechism brings it all together.
Documenting Oral Teaching
Oral teachings are important and cannot be ignored. Consider a teacher instructs students in a particular ideology but does not write down the ideology or theory behind it. Later, a student who sat in the teacher’s class and learned directly from that teacher writes it down. The student’s written word would normally be considered correct as though it came from the teacher. We believe this in regards to the Apostles; as their Teacher did not actually write anything down. Let’s consider another such example in St. Ignatius of Antioch.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of the Apostle John and was hand-picked by the Apostle Peter to become the third Bishop of Antioch (Peter being the first Bishop of Antioch). Peter must have had complete confidence that Ignatius held true to the faith which Peter and John preached. Otherwise, he would not have chosen Ignatius to follow him as Bishop of Antioch. In the year 107, Ignatius wrote in his letter to the Romans “I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” Whether written or not, this is evidence that the Apostles believed and taught the Eucharist was the true body and blood of Christ. This was a teaching, not a tradition.
The Catechism references various letters from the Church Fathers in supporting teachings of the Catholic faith. The Catholic “Deposit of Faith” includes both oral and written teachings, as Paul instructed (2 Thessalonians 2:16). This deposit of faith is brought forth by the Catechism.
Protection from False Doctrine and Lies
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) Wolves come to steal our faith in many forms. Interpretations, Bible verse isolation, refusing oral teachings of the Apostles…these are all ways that wolves attempt to steal our faith. There are even wolves inside the Church. Simply because a priest, Bishop, Deacon or Catholic teacher proclaims a certain belief does not mean that belief is Church teaching. One of the first heresies of the Church, Arianism, started in the early 300s by the Alexandrian priest Arians, and many fell to his teaching that Jesus was created by God so was not divine in nature.
False doctrine can only be combated by knowing the truth. The Catechism protects us from false doctrine by giving us the fullness of truth as it is written in Scripture, completed by oral teaching and confirmed in Church ecumenical councils.
The Catechism also protects us from lies about the Church by documenting in writing exactly what the Church teaches. Lies concerning Church doctrine, such as claims that Catholics worship Mary and believe salvation is by works, are completely debunked in the Catechism. There are lies that claim Catholics are not even Christian. One can protect themself from any lie concerning Catholic doctrine by making one simple request…”Show me the exact paragraph in the Catechism that supports what you are saying.” Most preachers will fail this test.
“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:4) Our faith is a precious gift from God and should not be taken for granted. Our faith must not be based on teachings of dynamic preachers who tickle our ears. Our faith must be based in Jesus Christ alone. The Catechism gives us the fullness of Christ’s teaching through Scripture, oral teachings and ecumenical councils. The Catechism is our guidance and is not an interpretation of Scripture. The Catechism is an explanation of faith and not a list of instructions or rules.
Please…know your Catholic faith and be strong in it. If you do not have time to read the Catechism, consider an online podcast or video from a reputable source such as Father Mike Schmitz, Father Chris Alar or Bishop Barron.
And please…if anyone you know is considering leaving the Church or failing in their faith, have them read this article and first look into the Catechism before making any decisions. One of the saddest things I have ever read is a comment where someone posted “I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.”