Clash of the Catechisms: Part I

By Aaron Seng

Author’s Note: This series endeavors to correct the historical record and encourage Catholic parents and educators with a sure sign of hope for the future. Part I demonstrates the public rupture in the catechetical manuscript tradition over the past sixty years, while Part II offers a critical review of the new catechism Credo within this same manuscript tradition.

In light of the Vatican’s summons to “new categories and new languages” in catechesis[1] and its formal adoption of the terms “transgender person” and “homosexual person,” one may reasonably expect another update to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) in the not-too-distant future.

Whatever the next CCC update entails, isn’t it high time it got underway?

After all, it’s been five years since the current occupant of the See of Peter rewrote the CCC’s teaching on the death penalty. Since then, he’s gone on to break with apostolic tradition in granting minor orders to women, reaffirmed Communion for public adulterers, and considered condemning “ecological sins” and weapons manufacture in the CCC — not to mention all the “synodality” of late.

It seems that if Catholics are to keep up with the Vatican and the ever-evolving CCC, they had better forget St. Paul’s injunction to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” (2 Thes 2:14), and instead “run fast, and forget the traditions”!

Meanwhile, the faithful sense that the Deposit of Faith should exhibit a bit more permanence than all that — something about “the same doctrine, in the same sense, and the same understanding.”[2]

Cosmetic adjustments, sure. Contemporary applications, certainly. But folks who profess the Faith of our Fathers expect a kind of discernible continuity in catechesis; a certain abiding quality that should make all contemporary teaching ring true, as the clear and resounding echo it should be: that of our divine Teacher.

Such “echoing” (katechein in Greek) should likewise inform the teaching of Catholic bishops, living successors of God’s chosen representatives to “teach all nations … whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Sadly, it appears that many such successors, although bound by public oath to “maintain the Deposit of Faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church everywhere and at all times,”[3] have widely abandoned traditional catechesis, once described by Pope Clement XIII:

The faithful, especially those who are simple or uncultivated, should be kept away from dangerous [ideas]…. Rather, only those ideas should be communicated which are definitely marked as Catholic truth by their universality, antiquity, and harmony…. Teachers of the people should establish boundaries around them so that no word strays beyond that which is necessary or useful for salvation.[4]

In a word, traditional Catholic catechesis is characterized by clear, crystalline truth, delivered in a received and recognizable mode. Theological speculation, ambiguity, and novelty have no place in this art. Indeed, the very presence of such would already be a betrayal of the discipline:

The popes clearly understood this. They devoted all their efforts … to cut away certain developing ideas which either could prevent the Christian people unnecessarily from bearing a greater fruit of faith or could harm the minds of the faithful by their proximity to error…. [T]hey proposed that only what is necessary and very useful for salvation be clearly and plainly explained.[5]

It is entirely understandable, amid our own “catastrophic failure of modern catechesis,”[6] that a kind of revisionist history should emerge: a narrative seeking to explain the collapse of faith in terms of “poor catechesis” — as though insufficient or ineffective teaching was or remains the chief problem.

Although the causes of the current crisis in the Church are complex and beyond the scope of this series, we may at least endeavor to correct the historical record on this point.

For, the past sixty years in the Church have not seen a failure to teach effectively; on the contrary, we are unfortunate heirs to a highly effective effort to teach error. This effort has long been facilitated by Catholic hierarchs who (knowingly or not) have authored, approved, or permitted the dissemination of bad catechisms: texts purporting to teach the Faith, while being erroneous or ambiguous enough to warrant censure.

This expanding rupture in the Church’s catechetical manuscript tradition has likewise impacted her own self-understanding — a connection perhaps nowhere clearer than in New Vision, New Directions (1994), the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership’s official handbook for implementing the CCC:

The pre-Vatican II church was a relatively closed society…. As Vatican II updated the church, no one expected the explosion that happened when the council changed the Latin Mass, questioned age-old Catholic ways of doing things, and refocused the church’s responsibility in the world…. In the emerging church that followed Vatican II, much of the old system no longer worked. Catechism lists of what must be done or not done no longer sufficed, as Catholics discovered the wisdom of the scriptures and judged church directives by new standards. In this process, the former institutional identity of the church changed… (4-5).

Such “rupture narratives” are as ubiquitous (if not as substantial) as atmosphere in Catholic publications since Vatican II. Indeed, previous condemnations of the very sentiments trumpeted in New Visions today sound nearly like an indictment of breathing:

It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications of a style inspired by unsound novelty which … dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions of the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilization. Language of this kind is not to be tolerated either in books or from chairs of learning.[7]

As outlined elsewhere, “Catholics have been living in a serious catechism crisis for the past half-century,” in which “scores of faulty catechisms have appeared under Catholic auspices, containing manifest errors in faith or morals, or both.”

While there are abundant conspiracy theories on this score (and “weaponized” catechisms do form part of our history), this series is not concerned with malicious plots and affiliations. In fact, actors and intentions are entirely immaterial. The endeavor here is far more mundane, namely: to catalogue concrete artifacts in textual support of the alarming claim of the late Pope Benedict XVI:

“In the post-conciliar period the concrete transmission of the contents of the Christian faith was not achieved.”

As will be shown, in place of the “contents of the Christian faith,” evident departures from the Church’s perennial faith and praxis have instead been introduced on a massive scale.

Demonstrating the Rupture

Among the numerous examples that could be given, four traditional propositions are chosen here for effect — two of faith, two of morals — from formulations common to catechisms before Vatican II. [8] In contradistinction, each of these is followed by four excerpts from different “post-conciliar” catechisms. While scores could have been referenced, only titles with hierarchical approval (imprimatur or other printed endorsement) and significant circulation have been cited.[9]

Of course, the fact that many self-identifying Catholics today will read the four traditional propositions with surprise (even offense) may itself dispense with the need for any textual demonstration. Widespread reactions of: “Surely, the Church doesn’t teach that?” could suffice.

To the inevitable charge of “cherry-picking” books or excerpts, this author pleads guilty in advance. Professional research necessitates selection and emphasis, and while there have been some entirely respectable catechisms issued since 1962, these form a vanishingly small minority, and generally have not achieved wide circulation. The point of the catena below is to demonstrate the historically dominant current of ideas over decades of catechesis in parishes, schools, and seminaries.

Charges of “misrepresentation” are only answerable by additional context — something beyond our scope here, and which should not be necessary. Contentions that the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” may be successfully applied only serve to further demonstrate the rupture.

Without further ado:

Sacred Scripture is divinely inspired, inerrant in all its parts, and the first three chapters of Genesis relate true history; including the special creation of Adam and Eve, from whom all human persons have descended by physical generation.

“The Catholic Church does not officially teach … that mankind was created directly by God…. This is a matter of scientific investigation rather than a matter of faith necessary for salvation…. The Catholic Church believes that only these truths pertaining to human salvation are without error.” —Your Catholic Faith (1989), pp. 17, 65.

“The declarations of faith concerning the special creation of man by God express man’s special position among the other creatures…. The question of monogenism or polygenism is a purely scientific one, not a question of faith.” —The Church’s Confession of Faith (1989), pp. 97–98, 112.

“Are we obligated to follow any particular theories of the world’s development? No…. [A]s long as we hold fast to the fundamental truths of the scriptural accounts, we are free to accept any of the various theories advanced to explain how the created world arrived at its developed state.” —Through the Catechism (1996), p. 15.

“God himself is the author of Sacred Scripture. For this reason it is said to be inspired and to teach without error those truths which are necessary for our salvation.” —Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2006), p. 9.

Jesus Christ personally founded one true Church, the Roman Catholic Church, in perfect and indestructible unity of faith and government, outside of which there is no salvation.

“Did Jesus intend to found a Church? The answer is ‘No’ if by ‘found’ we mean some direct, explicit, deliberate act by which Jesus established a new religious organization…. This Church, at once local and universal, embraces more than the Catholic Church…. It sets aside the pre-Vatican II concept that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the one, true Church.” —Catholicism: Study Edition (1981), pp. 575, 685.

“In earlier times the Church saw itself as the only means of salvation. It believed that God chose to save humanity only through the Church…. The error of this understanding was recognized and the teaching has been expressed differently in more recent times.” —Faith for the Future (1998), p. 48.

“The Church explicitly teaches that many who call themselves non-Catholics are saved…. The Church of Christ ‘subsists in’ the Roman Catholic Church most completely but not exclusively.” —Catholic Christianity (2001), pp. 103, 112.

“The sole Church of Christ … subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church.… [A]nd to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.” —Catechism of the Catholic Church (2019), nos. 816, 836.

Use of the sexual faculty outside of marriage is intrinsically evil.

“Men now have a more sovereign control of their fecundity…. When there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, … the last word lies with the conscience, not with the doctor or the confessor.” —A New Catechism (1967), pp. 402–403.

“Birth control is a much disputed question in the Catholic Church at present…. Some priests in their counseling permit birth control…. We can see in this moral question a clear development of Church doctrine, a normal event in Catholic moral teaching…. We cannot classify all premarital sex as sinful.” —The Contemporary Catholic Catechism (1973), pp. 149, 227.

“To avoid a pregnancy there are various methods, about the right and wrong of which, even among Christians, there is confusion and differences of opinion. The teaching of the Catholic Church distinguishes between methods … [and] ‘artificial means’ are not allowed…. The decision of Catholics must, in conscience, in the sight of God, take into consideration the teaching of the Church.” —Credo: A Catholic Catechism (1984), p. 200.

“The Church does not demonize masturbation, but she warns against trivializing it.” —Youcat (2011), p. 222.

Active participation in non-Catholic worship is intrinsically evil.

“Catholics may be allowed to attend occasionally the liturgical services of our other [non-Catholic] brethren if they have reasonable ground…. taking some part in the common responses, hymns, and actions of the Community of which they are guests…” —The Catechism of Modern Man (1971), p. 196.

“Occasional worship in another church is proper. On such occasions, Catholic or non-Catholic can surely join with good conscience and full heart in the prayers…. If it is Sunday worship, he need not be scrupulous about missing the services of his own church…. Parties to a mixed marriage should occasionally worship in each other’s churches out of respect for the beliefs each holds.” —Saint Joseph People’s Catechism (1987), p. 80.

“Before Vatican II, the Catholic mythos pictured Catholicism as the one true church and forbade inter-Christian worship with other religious denominations…. Today, this closed worldview has changed; so have its mythos, rituals, and teachings.” —New Visions, New Directions (1994), p. 38.

“Catholics may attend the worship services of other Christians, but normally may not participate in their communion services…” —The Essential Catholic Catechism (1999), p. 144.


There is no “spirit” of Vatican II long since exorcised, like a “rebellious phase” peculiar to the 1960s and 70s.

Implementation is everything; and the small sampling above represents a near-universal rupture implemented in the catechetical manuscript tradition following the Second Vatican Council — one that continues apace in our days.

Whereas Catholic catechisms once reflected the Church’s common and received doctrine as external monuments of Faith “definitely marked as Catholic truth,” the character of most catechisms since Vatican II has been far from “universality, antiquity, and harmony.” Instead, they are predominantly stamped with provincialism, innovation, and dissonance.

Since the Middle Ages, most catechisms have been published to present clear and concise summaries of Catholic teaching for the average lay person. Today, they need advanced training in semantic decoding and theological gymnastics to “square” the propositions of most contemporary catechisms with the faith and praxis of our forebears.

Nevertheless, we must insist: catechisms should clarify, never confuse!

For this reason alone, we look with interest to the newest catechism from the Catholic episcopate: Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith (2023). Composed by one bishop, canonically approved by another, and endorsed by several more, this latest “summary of Church teaching”[10] from the Catholic bishopric warrants careful attention.

Part II of this series will therefore present a critical examination of Credo within the catechetical manuscript tradition.

[1] Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2020), no. 44.

[2] Council of Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, chap. 4.

[3] Roman Pontifical, Ordination of Bishops (1968).

[4] Encyclical In Dominico Agro, no. 3.

[5] Ibid, no. 4.

[6] So called by the late Pope Benedict XVI in The Yes of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991), 35.

[7] Pope Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, no. 55.

[8] Those interested in sourcing these formulations will be rewarded by the classical catechisms comprising the Tradivoxcollection published by Sophia Institute Press, as well as theological manuals such as Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma or Prümmer’s Handbook of Moral Theology.

[9] For reasons of conscience, these citations have been intentionally limited to title and edition-specific publication year. Serious scholars seeking further bibliographic information may inquire at

[10] Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2023), p. xxi.

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