The Baltimore Catechism and Blue-Collar Catholics

Sociologist Charles Murray’s new book has inspired a lot of useful discussion about the decline of America’s working class. In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray shows that we Americans have divided into two distinct classes, including a working class in which many men don’t work, get married, or go to church. Murray is not the first public intellectual to contend that most blue-collar workers are no longer the virtuous yeomanry depicted in John Steinbeck novels and most of Bruce Springsteen songs, but he has popularized the argument.

Catholic intellectuals too have joined the debate. Elaborating on Murray’s thesis, conservative George Marlin blames the culture of Vatican II for the decline of working-class Catholics:

Men in Catholic neighborhoods have not been immune from the anti-marriage syndrome [Charles] Murray describes. Let’s face it, post-Vatican II craziness contributed to the decline in religious devotion. Inner-city Catholics who were committed to rock-solid doctrines of the faith were bombarded by zealous innovators who, in the name of Vatican II, discarded, tampered, revised, or eliminated beliefs, moral principles, and ceremonies that had been cherished for generations.

Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes and Church grammar schools. By 1980, researchers found that among Catholics: three out of four approved sexual intercourse outside of marriage; eight out of ten approved contraception; and seven out of ten approved of legalized abortions.

As a rule, I am wary of heaping the Church’s woes after 1965 at the feet of Vatican II. The secularization of non-Catholic America was well underway in the 1950s, and Catholics were all but helpless to stop it. But to the extent that the reforms of Vatican II, and the liberal reaction to them, contributed to the decline in religious devotion, the behavior of a few dissident priests does not strike me as the main or sole reason. In my opinion, the institutional Church’s failure to appeal to ordinary Catholics was the bigger reason.

The eclipse of the old Baltimore Catechism is a good example. From the 1880s to the late 1960s, the Catechism was a staple in Catholic schools. Its chief appeal was simplicity: It explained the Catholic faith in a question-and-answer format. Take question number four: “What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? To gain the happiness of heaven, we must know, love, and serve God in this world?” As the late Archbishop Philip Hannan wrote in his autobiography, the Baltimore Catechism had great appeal to those without a four-year college degree:

One of the real benefits of the old Baltimore Catechism was that it was condensed and gave direct, pithy answers that Catholics, even those with limited formal education, could memorize and learn. I had seen during World War II the effect of the Baltimore Catechism on our Catholic soldiers – they simply would not steal because they had learned from the catechism that would be. The Baltimore Catechism also made it easy to prepare students for first Holy Communion and for Confirmation, because the children were prepared to answer questions about their faith when posed by the bishop … To this day I don’t think enough has been done to produce a more concise version, but I still think it would be beneficial.

In other words, the Baltimore Catechism was not elaborate, overly complex, or opaque. It didn’t require an advanced degree to read and understand. As a result, Catholicism was accessible to ordinary church-goers, including the working classes. It was the way of our people.

Until it wasn’t; in the 1970s, the Catechism fell out of general use and was viewed as a byproduct of an earlier time. Sure, some Catholic parishes and home-schooling Catholic parents rely on an updated version of it. Yet the old boy is a ghostly presence in the Church today. Who among our readers reads it still?

Probably you don’t. To learn about the faith, you read the full Catechism or books or listen to the Pope, priests and bishops, and friends and family members. I am an admirer and devotee of the full Catechism, Pope Benedict, most bishops, and popular Catholic thinkers like Father Barron. But let’s acknowledge that most Catholics rarely dip into the Catechism and don’t read papal encyclicals or bishop’s letters.

By accident or design, the American Church has gravitated toward the college educated. It is pulling in great intellectuals and theologians, but losing the non-intellectuals among us. Revising the Baltimore Catechism would help win them back.





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