It's Not Your Grandmother's Catechism

Admit it: When you hear the word "catechism," you're eyes start to glaze over, or, if you're of a certain age, you may even have flashbacks to those line drawings of a red-horned devil that once filled the pages of the old Baltimore Catechism. But if you haven't tried the "new" Catechism of the Catholic Church (20 years is new in a Church that moves by the century), you're really missing out on something remarkable.

This is where you can read about adultery, angels and environmentalism all in one place; where you come face to face with all those things you thought knew about the Catholic Church only to realize you didn't really know the whole story after all.

Why bring up the catechism two decades after the fact? Because Pope Benedict XVI has asked Catholics around the world to rededicate themselves to studying it during the Year of Faith, which runs from Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24, 2013.

"From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith," the pope wrote in his apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith, which is meant to be a time of renewal for Catholics.

"In its very structure, the Catechism of the Catholic Church follows the development of the faith right up to the great themes of daily life. On page after page, we find that what is presented here is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church," he wrote.

So, now's your chance to see what you've been missing, and I'm here to help you get started.

When I first began writing "The Complete idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism" about six years ago, I had never read the full catechism, which clocks in at about 1,000 pages, from cover to cover. I used it more as a reference tool. As I worked my way through the somewhat intimidating collection of topics and teachings, however, I found my own faith was being renewed. Prayers I'd said my whole life suddenly took on deeper meaning. Teachings I'd never really stopped to consider became fodder for reflection.

Although I'm a lifelong Catholic, my time spent with the catechism prompted a conversion-like experience in my own spiritual life. I've since heard from lots of others who read my "Idiot's" version of the real thing and began to understand for the first time how certain Church teachings fit into a bigger picture. That wasn't so much due to anything in particular I had done as a writer but rather what the Church had done in bringing together, in poetic fashion, everything Catholics believe and the reasons behind those beliefs.

Still not convinced that reading the catechism should be on your "to do" list for the coming Year of Faith? Then let me take you on a quick tour of what's inside. (For the record, the word "catechism" simply refers to any manual used to instruct others in the faith.)

First let's talk about what the catechism is not, since it too often gets an undeserved bad rap. The catechism is not a rulebook. Yes, there are some pretty specific do's and don'ts listed in its pages, but it goes much deeper than that. It's also not a book preaching judgment, fire and brimstone, or punishment. Rather, the catechism covers the most basic and meaningful teachings of the Catholic faith. I like to think of it more as operating instructions for Catholics. If you want to know what it means to be a Catholic and how to live a Catholic life, the catechism is the book for you.

The catechism is divided into four main sections:
  • The Profession of Faith, which covers Catholic beliefs about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary and a host of other related topics (purgatory, Communion of Saints, forgiveness)
  • The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, which focuses on liturgy and the seven sacraments.
  • Life in Christ, which covers human dignity, morality and the Ten Commandments
  • Christian Prayer, which includes a discussion of prayer in general and a detailed explanation of the Our Father.
So you can see there's way more to the catechism than teachings about why you should go to Mass every Sunday and why you shouldn't cheat on your taxes. (Although, never fear, that's in there too.)

Probably the most surprising and satisfying thing about the catechism is the way it weaves together the many varied teachings of the Catholic faith into one seamless fabric. All those things that are frequently reduced to sound-bites, headlines and status updates in mainstream society, are expounded upon and put into context. If you thought you knew why the Church says certain things about certain behaviors, think again, and then read it for yourself in the catechism.

Through the prism of Scripture, the catechism lays everything out on the line in black and white. There's really no way you can read this book and not know what Catholics believe. And lest you think that means it's only about heaven, hell and holiness, check out these random but consecutive entries from the index of the full catechism:
  • lust, lying, magic
  • order, organ transplants, original sin
  • tenderness, terrorism, tests
Catholic teaching does not simply apply to a narrow band of behaviors; it's meant to influence all of life, from the seemingly ridiculous to the positively sublime.

So as Catholics embark on the Year of Faith, I challenge you to throw away any preconceived notions and dive into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or any book written (ahem) to help make the original easier to understand. My bet is that before you're even halfway done you'll realize you have begun a journey you never expected to undertake, one that will continue to unfold long after you've turned the last page.

Mary DeTurris Poust, is the author of 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism" (Alpha, 2008) and "The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass.; Contact her through her blog at