Is Rod Dreher Smarter than a Baltimore-Catechism Educated Fifth Grader?

Over at his blog on The American Conservative’s site, Rod Dreher criticizes my argument in support of the reintroduction of the old Baltimore Catechism. Dreher implies that reintroducing the text would not do any good because Church teaching has been oversimplified already:

It’s hard for me to imagine Catholicism more stripped down and basic than postconciliar parish Catholicism. For Stricherz’s hypothesis to be correct, one has to assume that the institutional Church replaced the simple, declarative, easy to grasp teaching of the Baltimore Catechism with an elaborate, complex, opaque catechism. Does this strike any Catholic as true to what happened? To the contrary, most Catholics I know complain that the rigor and complexity of Catholic thought and teaching has been radically dumbed down and denatured. Who needs an advanced degree to understand quotidian Catholicism today? Whatever is keeping the working classes away from mass, it’s not liturgies in Latin and sermons that are classes on Scholastic theology.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Dreher that Church teaching has been dumbed down and denatured. How many God-loves-you or be-kind-to-one-another sermons have you heard? Too many, I would say. (If you are like me, your reaction to these sermons is the same: Uhh, huh. Yeah. Right. Great. And we should apply this lesson to our lives in what way?). As Pope Benedict asked the priests gathered at Catholic University in 2008, “Has our preaching lost its salt?”

But Dreher errs in assuming that the old Baltimore Catechism was “stripped down and basic.” This statement could not be further from the truth. (I might have contributed to this false perception by providing only one example of the catechism’s question-and-answer format). If anything, the Baltimore Catechism was comprehensive and complex. No, the catechism was not elaborate; and it was not rigorous in the sense of testing its own assumptions. Think of it as a Catholic’s guide to the galaxy. To paraphrase reader Laura’s comment, reading and studying the Baltimore Catechism is like understanding arithmetic before being able to move on to algebra.

I spent half an hour browsing through and reading the 1941 edition of the Baltimore Catechism. Whatever can be said of that edition “stripped down” is not one of them. It is comprehensive. There are 500 answers to 500 questions. It defines the nature of God, man, sin, angels, grace, the sacraments, virtue, and redemption. If this list does not impress you, consider a couple of its questions and answers on indulgences:

436. How many kinds of indulgences are there?
There are two kinds of indulgences, plenary and partial.

437. What is a plenary indulgence?
A plenary indulgence is the remission of all the temporal punishment due to our sins.

438. What is a partial indulgence?
A partial indulgence is the remission of part of the temporal punishment due to our sins.

439. How does the Church by means of indulgences remit the temporal punishment due to sin?
The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.

For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, bearing witness in his own time. (I Timothy 2:5-6)

The Baltimore Catechism was comprehensive not simply about subjects that even orthodox Catholics today would regard as slightly esoteric. It was comprehensive about the tenets of the faith. For example, it defined and explained some of God’s perfections: God is eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.

In addition, the Baltimore Catechism was not dumbed down at all, but rather complex. It explained the three persons of God, the difference between venial and mortal sin, and the obligations of faith, hope and charity. To me, the Catechism’s definition of a spirit and God is a highlight:

9. What is a spirit?
A spirit is a being that has understanding and free will, but no body, and will never die.
To whom then have you likened God? Or what image will you make for Him? (Isaiah 40:18)

17. If God is everywhere, why do we not see Him?
Although God is everywhere, we do not see Him because He is a spirit and cannot be seen with our eyes.
God is a spirit; and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

33. Can we fully understand how the three Divine Persons, though really distinct from one another, are one and the same God?
We cannot fully understand how the three Divine Persons, though really distinct from one another, are one and the same God because this is a supernatural mystery.

As I wrote in a follow-up post and readers have commented, the Baltimore Catechism is no substitute for the full Catechism, which is one of the Church’s many treasures. But it was a treasure in its time and could be one if it was reintroduced today.

It gives you a foundation in the Catholic faith that all but a small percentage of priests, prelates, theologians, and intellectuals possess; if you can identify five of God’s perfections or distinguish between plenary and partial indulgence, you are smarter than me. Dreher may well be able to get both answers correct, as he is one of the nation’s sharpest and most soulful writers about religion. This doesn’t mean he would be better catechized than a whip-smart Catholic fifth grader from the mid-20th century, though.

Dreher should embrace the Baltimore Catechism. He could spread the word about its greatness. With this foundation in the faith, why wouldn’t Catholics and Christians more generally be able to counter such heresies as moralistic therapeutic deism?

* This text has been altered.



  • Mrs. T

    From 1954 to 1962, I attended Catholic grammar school which utilized the Baltimore Catechism. For those who lack this experience, I can attest to the ability to answer many of the questions contained in it decades later. Also, each year, the truths imparted in the Catechism were elaborated on, giving a better understanding to our Faith. The best part was the spirited questions coming from the class. I always marveled that every nun and priest could answer any question put to them, always using the truths of our Faith. When my 10 year old daughter came home from Catholic school (1989) and announced “all they want is your opinion” in discussing her “religion” book, I bought the BC and supplemented my children at home.

  • Father-of-Boys

    I am a father of two boys, now ages 13 and 10. We live in New Jersey, and since our public schools are so good, they go to public school. From the very beginning, I resolved that we would “home school” for religious education. I just could not send them to the parish CCD program. The “approved texts” have such wiz-bang graphics that they look more like a Happy Meal rather than a religion text. The nun told me that even though I homeschool I had to used the Archdiocesan texts. I pushed back. I used texts and workbooks developed by Catholics United for the Faith”. Thanksfully, I could show the nun that our Archbishop praised these texts in a quote printed on the web site.

    So, with more standard and respectful texts, I do supplement their learning with the Baltimore Catechism. There is something timeless and crystaline in the questions and answers. The best part is that even as an adult, I find the questions and answers meditative, and even prayerful. “Question 6: Why did God make you? Answer 6: God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.” As I go through life’s trails, this grounds me as much as scripture. And because this is part of our Majesterium, it is divinly inspired, as is the Bible, by the Holy Spirit.

    I sometimes even say Question 238 in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. “What is the Holy Eucharist? The Holy Eurcharist is the sacrament which contains the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine”. How beautifully succinct! What a gem!

    They boys actually enjoy the accomplishment of memorization. We take it slow, so that they do not get overwhelmed. We as adults fail to remember that children feel pride of accomplishment, and that the Baltimore Catechism provides an opportunity for memorization.

  • Brian

    Rod Dreher is a schismatic. What he says about anything with regard to the Church is about as relative as teats on a bull.

  • Kerry

    Personally, I would credit the Baltimore Catechism for bringing this CCD-educated and confirmed 25-year-old back to the Catholic church. Actually, it was God, but through the BC.

    At age 25, I knew none of the material from this book.

    Four years later, I now teach CCD. Guess what book I use? And it’s not the magazine-style format CCD workbooks.

    My lapse-Catholic, teacher-of-the-year, baby-boomer mother gave me this advice when first starting to teach catechism: teach them to be good to each other.

    Well, that’s nice. They can be good to each other with the truth.

  • Mike

    I thought Rod Dreher left the Catholic Church.



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