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What every Catholic needs to know

To overcome 'religious illiteracy' is the most vexing challenge of catechesis in our times

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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 the 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. And the upcoming Year of Faith, which Pope Benedict has called for to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, also wishes to highlight this Catechism as one of the most important fruits of the Council.

In the 20 years since the Catechism, three important works have also been published and serve to make the content of this post Vatican II Catechism more accessible to average Catholics.

In 2005, 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 U.S. from 1885 to the 1960s. 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 instruction. 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 complement them.

In 2006, the United States bishops published the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. This catechism has proved very popular in many of our RCIA programs. Last year, at the World Youth Day in Madrid, YOUCAT, a version of the Catechism for young people, also made its debut. All these resources are available in Spanish and many other languages. In our recent listening sessions, many expressed the need for better faith formation. These books — if put to good use in our various parish programs — will go a long way towards meeting that need.

These books, which are also available digitally, are useful tools for any Catholic interested in learning more about his or her faith. In any case, all these texts can 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 subtitles of these books could well be: “Religious Literacy: what every Catholic needs to know.”

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