More Than a Rule-Book: Why the Catechism Matters

One of my favorite comics is “Calvin and Hobbes,” which chronicles the adventures of an active young boy- Calvin- and his stuffed Tiger, Hobbes. A game Calvin and Hobbes especially enjoy is “Calvinball.” Invented by Calvin, the rules change with every frame. Wear a mask, carry a hockey stick, sing the “I’m Sorry” song (unless you’re in the “no-song” zone) and, “if you don’t touch the thirty yard base wicket with the flag, you have to hop on one foot!” It’s a game that was fun to read about but impossible to win (unless you happened to be the “Calvin” for which the game was named).

Maybe you’ve experienced a game where the rules kept changing (or just plain weren’t enforced). The umpire who can’t to tell a ball from a strike. The “house rules” that dragged the Monopoly game on for another hour. It can be fun for a while, but it’s eventually frustrating to realize the futility of trying to play a game with no boundaries.

Concrete Boundaries. Established Rules. They do more than keep order, they bring us peace and assure us that our efforts aren’t in vain.

Our Catholic faith isn’t a game — it’s our response to God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. All we do — the creed we profess, the sacraments we celebrate, the commandments we follow and the prayers we offer – is how we say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to follow Him.

But when we look at the world today, we don’t have to look very far to see that people have lots of different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. Even among communities of Christians, we see people passionately disagree about what Christ taught. Instead of us all “being one” as Christ prayed we’d be, Christianity can look like a big game of Calvinball- minus the hockey sticks. Everyone is following different rules.

This is nothing new. Scripture tells us that almost as soon as Christ ascended to heaven, His words were distorted. In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul exhorts him: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid profane babbling and the absurdities of so-called knowledge. By professing it, some people have deviated from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). In St. Timothy’s days, “deviating” from the faith might mean worshipping statue of Zeus in your living room after you were baptized as a Christian. Today we see folks deny the necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or claim that Jesus would have been cool with Abortion. We’re pretty sure that this is #StuffJesusNeverSaid, but how do we know?

What had been entrusted to St. Timothy- and the Church- was all that Christ had taught through his words and deeds. This is what we refer to as “Sacred Scripture” (the words inspired by the Holy Spirit that make up the Bible) and “Sacred Tradition” (all that Christ taught the apostles). At the Second Vatican Council, this was described as the “one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” (Dei Verbum, #10).

It’s this “deposit of faith” that keeps us “always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles” (Dei Verbum #10). In other words, when we follow Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, we can be confident that we’re following Christ.

Most of us know how to find Sacred Scripture- look no further than the Bible on your nightstand- but what about Sacred Tradition? The teaching office of the Church, also known as “The Magisterium”, is “the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (CCC #85). (For an explanation on apostolic succession, see Fortunately, we don’t have to call up our Bishop every time we have a question about Sacred Tradition (although that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?)

Almost since the founding of the Catholic Church, Bishops have compiled catechisms. Where did this funny word come from? “Catechesis” was the word used from the beginning of the Church that described the act of teaching the Catholic faith. It came from a Greek word meaning “to echo”. So, to teach the Catholic Faith is, literally, “to echo” the voice of Christ (The Love that Never Ends, 14).

In the 2000 years that the Catholic Church has echoed Christ, we constantly encounter new challenges and questions as we strive to follow him (for example, cloning was probably not a topic St. Thomas Aquinas even fathomed in the 1200’s) . For that reason, the Church is constantly clarifying what Christ taught. The Magisterium “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on… it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Dei Verbum 10). In other words, the Church make up anything new. Only clarifies to what Christ taught as questions arise.

“The Catechism” is a household word for most Catholics. There have been many catechisms published over the years, but when we use it we’re usually talking about The Catechism of the Catholic Church- the most recent presentation of this sacred deposit of faith. Described by Saint John Paul II as “a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium”, he declared it to be “a sure norm for teaching the faith” (Fidei Depositum, #3).

In four sections The Catechism of The Catholic Church explains the creed, sacraments, morality and prayer. Using Sacred Scripture, the writings of Saints and explanations given by the Magisterium itself, The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what Christ taught the apostles and what we have believed as Catholics since Christ established the Church on the rock of St. Peter.

Seeking to follow the teachings of Christ is not easy. The world is full of self-proclaimed experts who have watered down or completely mis-read what Christ said and, like St. Timothy, we can see many deviate from the faith. However, Saint John Paul II’s words about the Second Vatican Council can apply to us as well, when he explained they were not to “first of all condemn the errors of the time, but above all to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith” (Fidei Depositum).

What we believe — who we believe — is Christ. Guard what has been entrusted to you and, with the help of The Catechsim, know what has been entrusted to you.

Ready to learn how to read the Catechism? Here’s a blog explaining how it works!