Book Review: The Catechism of the Catholic Church

It feels a little strange to be writing a book review of the catechism. For obvious reasons, this review will not focus on the book itself, but on its usefulness to a medievalist.

I’ve stressed several times and will probably continue stressing that an understanding of Church history is vital for medievalists. The Catechism of the Catholic Church that’s currently available is not a medieval work, so it will not always be the best resource, but it is usually a good one. The OED defines “catechism” as “An elementary treatise for instruction in the principles of the Christian religion, in the form of question and answer; such a book accepted and issued by a church as an authoritative exposition of its teaching….” This is a useful definition for understanding what kind of information can be found in the catechism.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1992. Obviously, the information contained in it was not new—it is based on the Bible, documents from church councils, encyclicals, previous versions of the catechism, and other Church documents that predate it by hundreds of years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a modern work, but it is useful for medievalists because Catholic theology (you may need to look up the word “theology”) hasn’t changed that much since the Middle Ages.

The catechism is useful as a research tool because researchers always need to carefully define their terms. For example, the exact nature of sin as something which separates man from God needs to be understood in order to understand medieval culture because modernity often uses the word “sin” to mean simply “something bad,” which can affect our contextual understanding. Likewise, transubstantiation is a concept that rarely appears in modern conversation, but understanding it is necessary to understand the importance of the Church to medieval man. The catechism is a useful resource for all of these questions.

The catechism is filled with documentation. This can help you decide whether or not it is useful for your medieval research. If a source used in the catechism is medieval or earlier, it’s applicable. If a source is post-medieval, it is not. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a modern work, you may not want to quote it for your term papers—it would be better to use the Summa Theologica or a medieval Church document—but that’s what documentation is for. You can look up a term in the catechism and that will help you find the source for that piece of information. This will likely bring you to a medieval source that you can use for research.

The Catechism is meant to be used as a reference work. It’s organized clearly with an extensive table of contents and a glossary. I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it from cover to cover, though you certainly can if you’re of such a mind to do so.

The Catechism is easy to find. It’s available for free on the Vatican website, though since I hate reading on the computer, I don’t find it more beneficial for anything save the search function. Printed copies are easily available used, new, paperback, hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, e-reader, and any form you could want. As long as it says “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” it’s the right book. Be aware that the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults is a study supplement and does not contain the full text of the Catechism.

Table of Contents

(The Table of Contents is much longer and more detailed than this. I’ve only included the first 4 levels in the hierarchy for ease of web reading. Click here for the full thing in English.)

  • Prologue
  • Part One: The Profession of Faith
    • Section One: “I Believe” – “We Believe”
      • Chapter One: Man’s Capacity for God
      • Chapter Two: God Comes to Meet Man
      • Chapter Three: Man’s Response to God
  • Section Two: The Creeds
    • Chapter One: I Believe in God the Father
    • Chapter Two: I Believe in Jesus Christ, the Only Son of God
    • Chapter Three: I Believe in the Holy Spirit
    • Part Two: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery
      • Section One: The Sacramental Economy
        • Chapter One: The Paschal Mystery in the Age of the Church
        • Chapter Two: The Sacramental Celebration of the Paschal Mystery
  • Section Two: The Seven Sacraments of the Church
    • Chapter One: The Sacraments of Christian Initiation
    • Chapter Two: The Sacraments of Healing
    • Chapter Three: The Sacraments at the Service of Communion
    • Chapter Four: Other Liturgical Celebrations
    • Part Three: Life in Christ
      • Section One: Man’s Vocational Life in the Spirit
        • Chapter One: The Dignity of the Human Person
        • Chapter Two: The Human Communion
        • Chapter Three: God’s Salvational Law and Grace
  • Section Two: The Ten Commandments
    • Chapter One: You Shall Love the Lord with All Your Heart and with All Your Soul and with All Your Mind
    • Chapter Two: You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
    • Part Four: Christian Prayer
      • Section One: Prayer in the Christian Life
        • Chapter One: The Revelation of Prayer – The Universal Call to Prayer
        • Chapter Two: The Tradition of Prayer
        • Chapter Three: The Life of Prayer
  • Section Two: The Lord’s Prayer

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