July 09, 2015

America needs a new 'Baltimore Catechism'

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

The religious formation of Catholic children and young people before Vatican II generally followed a deductive method, one that understands education as an organized process of imparting clear, well-defined concepts and principles.

The tool of this system was the Catechism: a relatively short compendium of Catholic teaching in question-and-answer form. The Catechism was comprehensive, precise, and concise. All answers were given in one sentence. Memorization was the mode by which the contents were mastered.
Following the Second Vatican Council, a new approach took over in the religious education of children and young people. The method was an inductive one, which sought not so much to impart clear doctrinal information, as the Catechism did, but to draw out the student’s own religious experience and shape it in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching.

In recent decades, many have criticized the post-Vatican II experience-centered catechetical methods. Some texts seem to be short on content. They fail to impart a thorough and comprehensive grasp of Catholic belief, and, by spurning memorization of concise formulations, they leave children with inadequate verbal mastery of the fundamental concepts of faith.

This is a judgment with which I generally concur, and is constantly reinforced by my experience with Catholic school children and those who attend weekly religious education classes. I often hear it said that Catholic children today “know nothing” of the faith, and are unable to explain or account for it.

The Catechism with which pre-Vatican children and young people in the U.S. was the Baltimore Catechism, promulgated by the U.S. bishops at the Third Council of Baltimore and published in final form in 1885. This Catechism was notably comprehensive, clear, and precise.

As a result of the perceived inadequacies of post-Vatican II catechesis, some parents and religious educators have returned to the Baltimore Catechism similar publications. (In 2010, Tan Publishers reprinted the Baltimore Catechism, which, I am told, is becoming increasingly popular in some quarters.)

While I would not recommend the use of the Baltimore Catechism in its 1885 explanation of the faith--chiefly because Vatican II has intervened--I suggest the time has come to revisit the genius of the Catechism system of education—as the core, but not the whole, of an adequate curriculum. The best of the newer catechetical systems would be used alongside the Catechism.

A new Catechism for the young would have to be grounded in the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated as the model for all newer Catechisms. It would be evident that there exists, as Pope Benedict XVI has often stated, a fundamental unity between pre-Vatican and post-Vatican expressions of faith, not least in publications for the formation of adults, youth, and children.

There exists already a text adapting the Catechism of the Catholic Church for youth. This is the YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), edited by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, with a foreword by Pope Benedict XVI, and published in 2011. The YOUCAT could become the theological basis of a new, updated Baltimore Catechism, wedding the format of the Catechism and the contents of the YOUCAT.

Why do I propose the Baltimore Catechism as the model for the way forward? Because it was the normative Catechism in the U.S. for nearly a hundred years, is still well known by many, and symbolizes a particular kind of catechetical method.

Highlighting the Baltimore Catechism makes clear what I am fundamentally proposing: a complete overhaul of contemporary catechetical theory and practice. The need is urgent if we are not to produce another generation of illiterate Catholics.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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