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.