My grandmother used to tell us that when she was a child, their parish priest used to gather the children of their town on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to teach them the Catholic faith. It was from him—in those lively sessions—that she learned the Creed and the Ten Commandments, and got her first notions of the Sacraments. Nowadays, it seems, catechetical instruction is quite low in the priorities of the parish. In contrast, the Born-again Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects are quite aggressive in their proselytism—even conducting house-to-house visits. Does the law of the Church establish anything in this regard?
In the previous article, we talked about the ministerium verbi. Among the forms of exercising this ministerium verbi is also catechesis “which—in the words of Vatican Council II—is intended to make man’s faith become living, conscious and active through the light of instruct tion.”
Notion and Content of Catechesis
Catechesis is the teaching of Christian doctrine generally given in an organic and systematic manner, directed towards initiation into the Catholic faith and the growth and fullness of Christian life. Its function is to develop in men a living, explicit and active faith, enlightened by doctrine. It is therefore a process during which one discovers his initial conversion and educates it towards maturity. We shall consider the aspects of catechesis with greater juridic relevance—i.e., content, subjects and catechetical materials.
The Church has always considered it a sacred right and duty to transmit the teachings of Christ and not just the doctrine of any teacher. Thus, it is never licit for anyone, on his own initiative, to make a selection of the deposit of the faith for catechetical instruction; rather, everyone must faithfully follow the directives of the Magisterium of the Church, whether solemn or ordinary.
In general, the following have constituted the central topics for catechetical instruction since the first centuries of Christianity: the Creed, the Decalogue, the Sacraments and the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, c.777 of the Code establishes that: In accord with the norms established by the diocesan bishop, the pastor is to make particular provision:
1° that suitable catechesis is given for the celebration of the sacraments;
2° that children are properly prepared for the first reception of the sacraments of penance and Most Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of confirmation by means of a catechetical formation given over an appropriate period of time;
3° that children are more fruitfully and deeply instructed through catechetical formation after the reception of First Communion;
5° that the faith of young people and adults be fortified, enlightened and developed through various means and endeavors.
Subjects of Catechetical Instruction
The most precious gift that the Church can offer to the confused and restless world of today is to form convinced Christians through an organic program of thorough catechesis. As John Paul II affirms: “To evangelize is the proper grace and vocation of the Church, its most profound identity. The Church exists for evangelizing, which means preaching and teaching”. And this is a service rendered not only to the Christian community, but to the entire society.
However, the diversity of participants leads to catecheses of different natures and different levels of authority. While all catechesis is an ecclesiastical action and consequently will always depend on the pastors to some extent, it is no less clear that all the faithful have the right to catechize. Thus, before anything else, it is important to make the following fundamental distinction.
1) Official vs. Unofficial Catechesis
a) Official catechesis—is that which depends on and receives public recognition from the authorities who direct it. It has an institutional character, and the pastors are
publicly responsible for its organization and adequate provision. Such Catechesis is intimately bound with the pastoral life and functions of the Church. The reason for this is because not only her geographical extension and numerical increase, but even more her inner growth and correspondence with God’s plan depend essentially on catecheses. As such, catechesis is bound to the other pastoral functions while not losing its specific character.
b) Unofficial catechesis—is that which does not have an institutional character, but rather depend on the free action of the faithful and which is only under the general supervision of the pastors. It arises because the faithful do not require any mandate or any authorization from the hierarchy to catechize. No less than John Paul II had pointed out the danger of parochial catechesis tending to “monopolize” and “homogenize” the multi-faceted catechetical task.
2) Active Subjects of Catechesis. Under the supervision of legitimate ecclesiastical authority, this concern for catechesis pertains to all the members of the Church in proportion to each one’s role (c.774, §1). In the words of the 1977 Synod of Bishops, catechesis is a shared responsibility that rests on the shoulders of all the members of the Church. Everyone must therefore shoulder this commitment according to one’s possibilities and the particular gifts or charisms one has received. Nevertheless, the Code makes specific mention of the following subjects:
1° Parents: Parents above others are obliged to form their children in the faith and practice of the Christian life by word and example (c.774, §2). This is a primary right-duty of parents, for which they may count on the help of the catechesis organized by the pastors but only as a subsidiary measure. On the other hand, the Code itself establishes that the pastor is to promote and foster the role of parents in the family catechesis (c.776, in fine).
2° Godparents and Guardians: Godparents and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equivalent obligation (c.774, §2). Thus, this is also a right-duty.
3° Pastors of souls (i.e., parish priests and chaplains): There is a proper and serious duty, especially on the part of pastors of souls, to provide for the catechesis of the Christian people so that the faith of the faithful becomes living, explicit and productive through formation in doctrine and the experience of Christian living (c.773).
4° Religious superiors: Superiors of religious institutes and of societies of apostolic life are to see to it that catechetical formation is diligently imparted in their churches, schools and in other works entrusted to them in any manner (c.778).
5° Local Ordinary: It is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop to issue norms concerning catechetics and to make provisions that suitable instruments for catechetics are available...by fostering and coordinating catechetical endeavors (c.775, §1).
3) Catechetical Materials. The catechism is a synthesis of all the fundamental truths of the Catholic faith, expressed in an elementary, organic and systematic way, with specific and unequivocal formulas. Canon Law regulates catechisms and catechetical texts in the following terms:
1° Universal level (e.g. text of the catechism for universal use): Norms depend on the Holy See.
2° National level: National catechisms should be approved by the pertinent Episcopal Conference, not just by an organism dependent on it (even if the Episcopal Conference may make use of such organism for the preparation of the catechism). The reason for this is that such organisms do not have any normative capacity, and the normative capacity of the Episcopal Conference in this matter cannot be delegated. In any case, these catechisms need approval (recognitio) of the Holy See.
3° Particular level: The diocesan bishop can approve and establish catechisms for use in the catechesis officially carried out in his jurisdiction, even if a duly approved national catechism exists.
4° Non-official level: The Catholic faithful, in the free exercise of their right-duty to do catechetical work, can seek approval for the use of other catechism and catechetical texts. In this case, the ecclesiastical authority is truly obliged to give approval if the contents of such materials are in accord with Catholic faith and morals and the universal catechetical norms.
To end, perhaps we can just say that catechesis has not lost its importance, neither in the Law of the Church nor in its pastoral programs. It cannot be otherwise, since it comes ahead in Christ’s mandate to the Apostles just before his glorious Ascension to Heaven: Go and preach to all nations…!
 Aside from the Code, of primordial importance are: John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, 16.X.1979; General Catechetical Directory, 11.IV.1971; SCDF, Response regarding approval of catechisms, 7.VII.1983.