The following article and resource originally ran on July 8, 2018. A few weeks later, Pope Francis announced a redaction of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church for the inclusion of a manifest error regarding the liceity of capital punishment. In light of such deviation from the universal ordinary magisterium on this issue (as reflected in dozens of catechism spanning more than five centuries), we have modified our evaluation of the 1992 catechism. Accordingly, minor edits have been made to this article.
For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine;
but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers,
having itching ears; and will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth,
but will be turned unto fables. (2 Tim 4:3-4)
Are you Catholic? Are you sure?
Because without doubt, the most frequent question we receive at Whispers is:
“Where Can I Learn The Faith?”
On the one hand, there is a certain tragedy implicit here, as this question wouldn’t need asking in any normal, healthy period of the Church’s life.
Such are not our times.
The causes of such an era are many indeed, although the long abdication of Catholic parents seems to factor highly among them. Amid legitimate blame placed on the schools, the media, the culture, etc., parents still bear the task of disposing their children to the Christian life and salvation; and in truth, many have neglected their sacramental vow to beget children and raise them in the Faith. In the midst of an increasingly toxic surround, orienting parents’ lives in every regard toward this principal formative task of achieving heaven has long been minimized or outsourced to “professionals,” and we continue on generations of miserable results.
More discomfiting is the discovery that poor religious instruction in the early years can no longer be so easily remedied as: “Ask your priest.” Even aside from the steadily dropping number of priests in active ministry, the dismal training that most have received over the past fifty years continues to show itself in moral and doctrinal errors now taught at every level of the hierarchy – embracing even the See of Peter, as was recently pointed out by Cardinal Eijk of Utrecht:
“Observing that the bishops and, above all, the Successor of Peter fail to maintain and transmit faithfully and in unity the deposit of faith contained in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, I cannot help but think of Article 675 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the mystery of iniquity in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.'”
Final trial or not, such are our times.
The question is therefore most pressing: Where can I learn the Faith?
Tradition and Catechism
Historically, one of the most availing means for learning the truths of the Faith, even amid social upheaval and open persecution, has been catechism. Derived from the Greek katekhein (“echo”), this term denotes an ordered religious instruction often founded on accurate oral repetition: the faithful handing down of a single, changeless Deposit of Faith, something already given in Christ. Such is Sacred Tradition in its doctrinal dimension: for indeed, Christ committed to His Church one “defined body of doctrine, applicable to all times and all men” – a truth that Pope St. Pius X was keen to assert against the modernist heresy in its nascence (cf. Lamentabili Sane), with its critical error of the evolution of dogma.
Remarkable continuity in religious instruction will always be the unique purview of the true religion. Such is the “echo” running out from the one Word, spoken forever, whereby God’s immutable Truth is expressed and preserved through the ages by those with divine authority to articulate it. For this reason, tracts and books containing systematic instruction in the Faith have long been referred to as “catechisms,” and (to the surprise of many born after 1980) there are many such works in the Catholic tradition, especially following the Council of Trent (1545-63).
That we are in dire need of such instruction on the salvific truths of our Faith – and that this instruction widely collapsed after Vatican II – has been observed countless times by many interlocutors, including none other than Pope Benedict XVI:
The catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too obvious.
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.
Full stop. The Pope believed that the truths of the Faith were not being transmitted in the Church after the Second Vatican Council. Does anyone really believe we aren’t living in a crisis period?
But take heart!
If you are reading this, then you find yourself in possession of a tremendous gift for facing the crisis of our day: one that the vast majority of Catholic faithful never had.
You can read.
Perhaps the wisdom of Our Lady’s 1917 directive to the Fatima visionaries now stands out a bit more clearly: she told them to learn how to read.
Amid rising socialist power and the swelling of modernism among the clergy, it seems the Virgin had a very precise countermeasure in mind for the coming darkness; and although vast clerical lapses into heresy are contrary to God’s will and lead many souls astray, Church history shows that such times have never been without unique divine provision. One such provision for our own time must be seen in widespread literacy, combined with unprecedented access to traditional catechism.
In her Champion apparition, the Blessed Virgin’s instructions were likewise telling:
“Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, and how to approach the Sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”
Here we are today, “children of a wild country” in more ways than one, and there remain truths necessary for salvation – too often omitted or undermined by the very shepherds commissioned to proclaim them. Yet we find ourselves uniquely positioned in history: able to read, and able to access the works of the Church Fathers, Doctors, Saints, Popes, and Councils (translated into our own language, no less) – sometimes at the mere touch of a button. Even in an age of widespread heresy and apostasy, have we any excuse not to know the Faith?
As the respected Capuchin Fr. Weinandy articulated so well (notably after his being fired by the USCCB for raising valid concerns), those who seek a sound Catholic formation in the midst of doctrinal and moral decay are not “neo-gnostics,” nor seeking to become little Popes of their own. Rather, they are the Catholic faithful: living their Baptismal call in obedience to the Truth, better forming their own sensus fidei that they might “test all things, and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
In his Forward to a new edition of Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (highly recommended), Bishop Athanasius Schneider offers a clear and timely reminder:
“We live at a time of grave doctrinal confusion when the sheep are often left without shepherds. Against the dangers of doctrinal ambiguity and the loss of clarity in moral matters, the faithful are called more than ever to seek to know their Faith, so they can defend it and pass it on to their children. Catechism is necessary, but perhaps now it is not enough to only know one’s Catechism. The subtlety of the many contemporary errors assaulting the faith practically require from the ordinary faithful today a good understanding of Catholic doctrine that is not separated from its traditional and immutable roots.”
What About Newer Catechisms?
If the current crisis is marked by a defective transmission of true doctrine, then even leaving aside the real possibility of containing false doctrine, catechisms of more recent vintage (say, post-1960) should be read with a careful eye to doctrinal continuity. If knowing, living, and handing on the Faith must today occur in the midst of a widespread deviation from that Faith, then “measuring” recent catechisms by traditional Catholic doctrine is not only perfectly legitimate, it is necessary.
To take a few instructive examples:
The Dutch Catechism (1966) issued by the bishops of the Netherlands was the first major catechism to come after Vatican II, selling millions of copies in multiple languages and informing religious textbooks worldwide. Sadly, it was so rife with heresy (on the Creation, Fall, Virgin Birth, Atonement, Mass, Eucharist, Infallibility, Priesthood, Marriage, and more) that the Holy Office was at last forced to intervene, ordering the Dutch bishops to make major revisions. They collectively refused. Although censured, the work remained in print under Cardinal Alfrink’s imprimatur, without any clear condemnation from Rome or (almost incredibly) any discipline for the rebel bishops – some of whom would openly dissent from Humanae Vitae a few years later, again without discipline. Dutch Catholics were forced to “measure” their own bishops’ teaching against tradition in order to keep the Faith – but sadly, many lost it instead. Fifty years later, the once largely Catholic nation now identifies at just under 16% Catholic and dropping; less than 6% of whom even attend Sunday Mass. By 2025, two thirds of Catholic parishes there will be closed. Apparently, the “new springtime” never came to the Netherlands. This catechism never should have.
The Catholic Catechism (1975) is often known by the name of its author, the widely esteemed Fr. John Hardon. One of the best-known American catechists of the 20th century, Fr. Hardon was a priest before, during, and after the tumultuous years of Vatican II, and held a strong reputation for orthodoxy among the Jesuits of his day. Penning his 623-page tome under imprimatur at the request of Pope Paul VI, he saw its widespread success before being largely eclipsed by the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a project he consulted on. Yet like the Vatican II documents and the 1992 Catechism, Fr. Hardon’s text was not immune from certain ambiguities, problematic formulations, and even a few striking contradictions, e.g. his Introduction maintaining that Vatican II (and his catechism perforce) presumed traditional doctrine, taught nothing new, and simply speaks better to “modern times” – yet later in the text we learn to our surprise that Vatican II “marks a turning point in doctrinal history”! Seeing as St. Paul is rather unfavorable towards doctrinal turning points (see top), we suggest Fr. Hardon’s catechism be read alongside more traditional works, and not as a primary reference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) was issued after bishops requested a compendium of doctrine “suited to the present life of Christians” and “expressed in a new way in order to respond to the questions of our age.” Although some of said questions may have arisen from the explosion of changes after Vatican II (new Mass, new Divine Office, new Sacrament rites, new Book of Blessings, new Bible translation, new Code of Canon Law, etc.), it seemed only fitting to issue a new catechism. Appearing in 1992, Pope John Paul II declared it “a sure norm for teaching the faith,” chiefly intended for bishops in writing local catechisms to guard “the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine.” The text relies heavily on the documents of Vatican II, thus echoing a number of that Council’s novel formulations (particularly regarding the one true Church and its necessity for salvation, human dignity and rights, religious liberty, false religions, priesthood, and marriage), as does its 2005 Compendium and the 2006 Catechism for Adults. Furthermore, an official edit was made in 2018 to include a manifest error regarding the liceity of capital punishment, which it now declares “inadmissible.” Similarly heterodox updates will likely continue. Thus, whereas the well-catechized may retain a copy for scholarly reference or as an historical curiosity, we suggest it might serve better as a functional doorstop.
The YouCat (2011) appeared as a super-cool pocket guide to Catholic doctrine in question-and-answer format, intended for young people. A doodle-rich introduction to the 1992 Catechism, it sparked controversy from the outset. Of the many language editions, some (or all) contained serious ambiguities or errors on: the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrine of creation, and the intrinsic evils of euthanasia and (surprise) sexual deviance – particularly sodomy, masturbation, and contraceptive use. Prepared by Cardinal Schönborn and a team of German theologians, reviewed by multiple Vatican Congregations, printed with a foreword from Pope Benedict XVI and with imprimaturs from various local ordinaries, the text was running in multiple languages and millions of copies before the errors were discovered and edits made (or not). We suggest this one be quietly disposed of.
You get the picture.
That every articulation of the Faith must exhibit discernible continuity in all its propositions with those preceding is the logical conclusion of the Divine Fact of God’s Self-Revelation in history: for God is Truth, and cannot contradict Himself. As such, while faithful expressions of His Truth grow in profundity and precision from age to age, they can never contradict one another. This is the heartbeat of the “Vincentian Canon,” recognizing that the truths of the Faith are held and taught everywhere, always, and by all, abiding forever.
For the average Catholic seeking to learn this Faith and hand it on to others in an error-plagued age, few things will bear this out like the reading of traditional catechisms. The continuity found in such study is both clear and compelling, and little wonder; for it illustrates the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium. The traditional consensus of approved catechisms in fact offers an infallible reference point on matters of faith and morals.
Explaining Our List
Our team has collated a list of twenty traditional Catholic catechisms (and three additional reference works) that represent some of the best texts available in English from 1550 to 1950. Our downloadable list gives them in chronological order by original publication date, and since most are in the public domain, internet archive links are included wherever possible to facilitate free reading online.
Similar to our Top 40 Reading List, we also took the liberty of adding some brief descriptions, and our own rating criteria based on expanse and clarity. Given numerous requests for “must-own” recommendations, some works have received our highest ranking (three stars), as books that we feel should be owned in hard copy. They are certainly worthwhile investments.
The resource is linked below. Share it with friends, and bravo the restoration!
Conclusion: First Things First
Access to traditional catechetical works is a tremendous blessing, particularly in light of our living in days long foreseen by St. Paul:
“I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. And of your own selves [the bishops] shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)
While we pray for the end of this period of ecclesial topsy-turvydom, when many sheep must suffer under erring shepherds, bleating to them and to one another as they look in distress for the good pastures of right doctrine and morals, it is worth noting that catechisms and bibles in the hands of the laity are a relatively recent phenomenon; and not one to be taken lightly.
Another observation then follows: something ensured the faith and unity of the Church well before widespread literacy – before books, even. Whatever it was, it did it for centuries, and still does it better than any other measure provided by God.
That something is the traditional Mass. Vetus Ordo, Vetus Credo, Vetus Actio.
“What then should a Catholic do if some portion of the Church detaches itself from communion of the universal Faith? What choice can he make if some new contagion attempts to poison, no longer a small part of the Church, but the whole Church at once? Then his great concern will be to attach himself to antiquity which can no longer be led astray by any lying novelty.”
If one seeks to ensure the integrity of right faith and right morals in an erring age, we remain convinced that right worship comes first. All else will follow.
Commit to the Traditional Latin Mass!
 Cf. 2 Thess 2:15. This insight long informed the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, who gave a compelling interview on the theme, noting the value of traditional catechisms like that of the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X:
“In the name of flexibility, there is a certain aversion to any attempt to ‘crystallize’ a doctrine in words, and there is a certain anti-dogmatism that is alive in many hearts. …[Yet] the faith, as such, is always the same. Therefore, St. Pius X’s catechism always retains its value. … [This catechism] stemmed from a text that was prepared by the Pope himself when he was Bishop of Mantua. The text was the fruit of the personal catechetical experience of Giuseppe Sarto, whose characteristics were simplicity of exposition and depth of content. Also because of this, St. Pius X’s catechism might have friends in the future.”
 Joseph Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ (New York, 1991), p 35.
 Joseph Ratzinger, see interview cited in supra note 1.
 So said St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century: Commonitory, n. 3.7.
 “Promulgation [of Dogma] by the Church may be made either in an extraordinary manner through a solemn decision of faith made by the Pope or a General Council (Iudicium solemne) or through the ordinary and general teaching power of the Church (Magisteriurn ordinarium et universale). The latter may be found easily in the catechisms issued by the Bishops… [who] exercise their infallible teaching power in an ordinary manner when they, in their dioceses, in moral unity with the Pope, unanimously promulgate the same teachings on faith and morals. The Vatican Council expressly declared that also the truths of Revelation proposed as such by the ordinary and general teaching office of the Church are to be firmly held with ‘divine and catholic faith’ (DZ 1792)… The agreement of the bishops in doctrine may be determined from the catechisms issued by them” (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 4, 300).