Conversion Memoir Entry #7: The Gift of the Catechism

CCCI still recall from my childhood learning the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism: What is the chief and highest end of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever. This is the catechism used by Reformed churches, but I never heard it in church. My mom thought it would be a good idea for us to try and learn the Catechism (even though we did not attend a Reformed church at the time). The discipline didn’t last very long, and was soon abandoned. But over all these years I have remembered that first line. I also remember being a little confused about what the Catechism was and which churches professed it. I sort of understood that John Calvin and other early Protestant theologians contributed various portions of different versions of Protestant catechisms, but I also got the feeling that these were old documents that newer churches didn’t use that much anymore, because, well, they didn’t.

When I was growing up, my family attended many different Protestant and Evangelical churches and denominations.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that these denominations disagreed strongly on certain Christian doctrines or moral issues; in fact, my parents left many churches after finding out that they had significant differences of opinion on theological matters with either the denomination as a whole or the individual church pastor. In none of these churches did I ever hear a common Protestant catechism mentioned, and there were definitely no catechetical classes for children (or adults) to take. And how could there be one? These denominations had some stark differences of opinion; there are actually over 20,000 Protestant denominations because of their differences.

What was typical instead was to see individual statements of faith for denominations or independent churches. These documents usually highlighted what made them unique as a denomination.  Sometimes these referenced the Apostle’s creed in order to establish basic Christian orthodoxy. As a result, I grew up very familiar with the differences in the denominations, and I certainly grew up with a strong knowledge of the Bible; but I had no document to reference that was definitive on Church doctrine and teaching on moral issues, because every church had different doctrines and teachings on moral issues. That doesn’t mean that these churches didn’t have any established doctrines and beliefs in common, but there was no resource — outside of the Bible — that the pastors ever pointed us to for answers to doctrinal questions. Besides that, if I went to another Protestant church down the road, the Pastor may have had a different perspective, pointing me to different passages in the Bible.

Some Protestant denominations have more complex statements of faith and even long-established Catechisms, mostly the mainline denominations. However, the more independent Evangelical churches — which were the ones that I mostly attended throughout my life — have nothing even close to a substantial catechetical document. Moreover, many Evangelical church plants have nothing but a brief statement of faith on their websites. In my experience, these churches would simply confess their orthodox Christian beliefs, perhaps by referencing the Apostle’s creed (which is, of course, an early Catholic document), or by creating a basic statement of Christian faith that was somewhat a paraphrase of it. From there, the message to their congregations was simple — study the Bible; it will give you all the Church doctrine you need, and it will tell you how to live your life. This is the Protestant concept of Sola Scripture (“Scripture alone”). Now, is the Bible the inspired Word of God? Absolutely! Do we get Christian doctrine from it? Of course. Does it guide us practically in how we are to live as the Church, as members of the body of Christ? It certainly does. But there is one problem: Sola Scripture doesn’t work.

If it did, then why do we have such a fractured Protestant church with so many different denominations? All of these groups have read scripture — even studied it fervently — and they have come to some very different interpretations of it. This was actually one of the aspects of Protestantism that bothered me the most in my adult years. I thought that it couldn’t be God’s design for the Church to be so fractured and divided into so many denominations, and I began to suspect that one of the main causes of this fracture was the concept of Sola Scripture in determining church doctrine and teaching. As I started studying this issue I realized something that should have been obvious to me before — church tradition (oral tradition) actually preceded written Scripture. The Bible that Protestants use — that they claim should be the only resource for church teaching and doctrine — wasn’t even agreed upon until after the year 300 AD. Moreover, it is the Catholic Church and Catholic Church tradition that approved the canon! The Catholic Church tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, determined what texts were actually the inspired Word of God and which ones were not. When I reached this understanding, I suddenly had a strong sense that I may actually become Catholic.

In preparing to enter the Catholic Church, my husband and I didn’t go through the typical process of RCIA classes. We met individually for a couple of months with a local priest in D.C., Monsignor Charles Pope. At the beginning of our first session, he handed each of us a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). I remember thinking, wow, that is big, and, we don’t need two copies of it. Now, I couldn’t be more glad to have my own copy; it’s all marked up and all mine. This past June I started a reading plan to read through the Bible and the CCC in one year. I’m over 100 days into it now, and it has been life-changing. I have attempted to read through the whole Bible before, unsuccessfully; but reading the Bible and the Catechism side-by-side provides a beautiful and structured explanation for the doctrines that we get from Scripture and Church tradition.

When I started reading through the CCC, I think I expected it to be a little dry and a bit of a chore to get through (perhaps due to my past experiences with certain documents like that). Nothing could be further from the truth. The writing is beautiful, and each section flows into the next in such a clear and meaningful way. Throughout each article of the CCC there are dozens and dozens of footnotes referencing passages of Scripture, words of early Church fathers, and doctrine established at Church councils. The way that quotes from Church fathers and Church councils are woven together with passages of Scripture is so seamless and complementary. It creates such a complete and well-rounded context for Christian doctrine, which inspires me to faithfully adhere to it.

For me, the Catechism is a tremendous gift, because I never had such a resource for my faith growing up; and neither did my peers. Looking back, I see how unsatisfied questions regarding Church doctrine impacted the formation of our faith and our ability to practically live as faithful Christians. Not only has Sola Scripture contributed to a fractured Church, due to the emphasis on personal interpretation of Scripture run amuck; but it has also created inconsistency on Christian doctrine and practical Christian living. Teaching on moral issues between various denominations is extremely inconsistent and varied, and many of my peers grew into adulthood adopting a “buffet theology” — take what you like, leave what you don’t — that impacted both their beliefs and their behavior. In reading through the Catechism, I find an anchor for both our confession of faith and how we live our lives faithfully.

I don’t have the burden of personally and individually interpreting Scripture for the answers to major questions of doctrine and moral behavior. The work has already been done. I have the benefit of a couple of thousand years of Church tradition and teaching in the Catechism — the diligent and collective work of Church fathers and councils who have been guided by the Holy Spirit — that I can reference at any time.

Are you skeptical of Catholic Church teaching, as either a Protestant or a disillusioned Catholic? I have a challenge for you — the same challenge that I had for myself. Read through the Catechism. Read every substantiating footnote that references and cross-references Scripture and Church tradition. Take note of the structure of each section and article that breaks down and elucidates the creeds of our Christian faith. I have a prediction, one that has proved true for me; if you are seeking to know Jesus Christ and his plan of redemption for His Church that spans human history, then that is exactly what you will find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And then I think you will agree with me that it is a beautiful gift.

“The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.” ~ CCC 25, excerpt from the Roman Catechism.

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