The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council

St. John XXIII, Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. John Paul II.

The most mature and complete fruit of the conciliar teaching.1


1. The Council and the Catechism
This past October (Oct 11, 2017) marked the 25th anniversary of promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]. This richest and fullest catechism ever produced, was offered to the world by St. John Paul II on the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. The CCC was promulgated by means of the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum “on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church prepared following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.”2 In this authoritative document, the Holy Father indicated various ways in which this Catechism is linked to and is a fruit of the Council.

This essay is an attempt to sketch the fundamental relationship between council and Catechism. Specifically, the Catechism can be seen to be inseparable from the council in its genesis and compilation, in its content, style and features and in its objectives. In fact, the Catechism would be unthinkable and would not exist without Vatican II. In fact the CCC has been described by Cardinal Gerhard Müller as “the Council’s primary fruit”.3

One basic point which can be stated at the outset: A glance at the history, writing, content and style of the Catechism shows it to be an expression of the fundamental evangelizing aim of the council as proposed by St. John XXIII in the homily with which he opened Vatican II. Indeed, as is well known, “the principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine, in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will”.4

2. The Genesis of the CCC
(a.) The “pre-history” of the CCC

In the years following the Council, the thrust of Vatican II towards evangelization has been the driving force of the Church’s magisterium. One only has to think of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (2013), and his continual emphasis on the Church as “mission.” Throughout his pontificate, Benedict XVI stressed the universal call of all the faithful to evangelize, and the “Doctrinal Note on some aspects of Evangelization, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 3, 2007 by his approval, is worthy of note. The apostolic dynamism of St. John Paul II was reflected in his outstanding zeal as “pilgrim Pope,” as well as in his teachings, notably the encyclical, Redmptoris Missio (1990).

Recent decades have also seen the emergence of various “projects” for evangelization, such as the World Youth Day, and the World Meeting of Families, as well as structures to forward the spread of the Gospel, such as the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization established by Benedict XVI in 2010. The Catechism of the Catholic Church belongs to this great movement of positive proclamation of the Faith in the contemporary world. As St. John Paul II put it, “Christianity reveals the source and the ‘secret’ of all those realities for which the human heart constantly longs … The Catechism, too, is destined for the proclamation of this exalting ‘secret.’”5

The years immediately after the close of the Council are also important as the prehistory of the Catechism. The third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1974 was devoted to evangelization, and gave rise to Blessed Paul VI’s outstanding document on the subject, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975).

The Synod of Bishops of 1977 dealt with catechesis. The Apostolic Exhortation, which was its fruit, was significant not only because it was worked on by three Popes, but also because of its marked Christological focus. Catechesi Tradendae was issued by St. John Paul II on October 16, 1979, the first anniversary of his election as Pope. There we read that “in catechesis, it is Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God, who is taught—everything else is taught with reference to Him—and it is Christ alone who teaches—anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ’s spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips” (n. 6).

In the years following the Council, there was a great level of experimentation with methodologies of catechesis. This is a complex issue which cannot be dealt with adequately here. While incorporating some useful pedagogical advances, new catechetical methods also began to show themselves as insufficient, particularly in the fact that the faithful knew less and less about the content of their faith. The idea even emerged that the genre of “catechism” was no longer desirable or possible, that the Faith was predominantly a matter of lived experience. The very words “dogma” and “doctrine” became quite disparaged in some quarters.

In this context, the 1983 two-day symposium, entitled “Handing on the Faith Today,” and organized by the Archbishops of Paris and Lyons, was very significant. This congress was addressed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Dermot Ryan of Dublin, among others. Archbishop Dermot Ryan expressed concern about the inability of many Irish children, who had completed primary school, but were unable to recite fundamental Catholic prayers. While they were able to master the complex terminology of say, information technology, they were not being presented with the basic, and much less technical, terminology of the faith. Cardinal Ratzinger went further in pointing out that some had given up, not just on catechisms, but on the whole idea of catechesis. In some quarters, people were no longer “daring” to present the teaching of Christ as an organic whole. This symposium was quite influential.6

In 1985, St. John Paul II convoked an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the 2oth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. “The purpose of this assembly” in John Paul’s words, “was to celebrate the graces and spiritual fruits of Vatican II, to study its teaching in greater depth in order that all the Christian faithful might better adhere to it, and to promote knowledge and application of it.”7

At this Extraordinary Synod, which Cardinal Ratzinger subsequently described as a “balance sheet for the twenty years of the Council,”8 the Synod Fathers called for a universal catechism, saying:

Very many have expressed the desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions. The presentation of doctrine must be biblical and liturgical. It must be sound doctrine suited to the present life of Christians.9

Pope John Paul made this desire his own, considering it as “fully responding to a real need of the universal Church, and of the particular Churches.”10

In Last Testament, published in 2016, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gives an interesting insight on the origins of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]. When asked: “Did the idea to produce the CCC come from you?” he replied:

Not only from me, but I was involved. More and more people asked themselves then: “Does the Church still have a homogenous set of doctrines?” They no longer knew what the Church actually believes. There were some very strong tendencies, with really good people onside, too, saying: “a catechism cannot be produced any more.” I said: “Either we still have something to say, in which case one must be able to describe it—or we have nothing left to say.” In this way, I made myself a champion of the idea, with the conviction that we must be in a position to say what the Church believes and teaches today.11

(b.) The compilation of the CCC
The process by which the CCC was composed bears the marks of universality, collegiality, and ecumenical spirit which was characteristic of the Second Vatican Council. A simplified chronology illustrates this:

  • June 1986: John Paul II entrusted the task of coming up with a project for a universal catechism to a commission composed of 12 cardinals and bishops, presided over by Cardinal Ratzinger. The other members of this commission were: Cardinals Baum, Lourdusamy, Tomko and Innocenti, prefects of the Congregations of Catholic Education, Oriental Churches, Evangelization of Peoples and Clergy, respectively. The other members were diocesan bishops: Law (Boston), Stoba (Poznam, Poland), Edelby (Alepo, Syria, Greco-melchite), D’Souza (Calcutta, India), Isidoro de Souza (Cotonou, Benin), Benítez Avalos (Villarica, Paraguay), and finally Archbishop Schotte, (Belgian, General Secretary of the Synod).
  • November 12, 1986: An editorial committee was established and made up of seven diocesan bishops: Estepa (military ordinariate, Spain), Maggiolini (Como, Italy), Honoré (Tours, France), Medina (Rancagua, Chile), Konstant (Leeds, England), Levada (Portland, USA), and Karlich (Paraná, Argentina). Meanwhile Cardinal Ratzinger had called Professor Christoph Schönborn OP (now Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, then teaching at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland) to be secretary of this team of writers. These were the men who were principally responsible for the writing and numerous revisions of the text which became the Catechism.
  • By 1987: A “preliminary project” had been drawn up. Forty consultors from all over the world were asked for their views on it.
  • November 1989: A “revised project” was sent to all the Catholic bishops in the world, the Episcopal Conferences, and the main Catholic universities and institutes. There were 938 replies, offering over 24,000 suggestions.
  • From June to October 1990: These suggestions were examined, evaluated, and included in the text where possible. One of the most significant changes which resulted from this worldwide consultation was the decision to introduce a fourth part in the text, dealing with Christian prayer.
  • February 1992: The final text was completed by the Commission and presented to the Holy Father. He officially approved it in June 1992.
  • October 11, 1992: The CCC was promulgated with the Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum. November 16: The French edition was presented in Paris. December 1992: It was officially launched in various separate-language ceremonies.
  • May 1994: The English edition was published.
  • August 15, 1997: The editio typica in Latin was promulgated.

What is striking about the composition of the CCC is, of course, the massive collegial collaboration of bishops and experts from every part of the world. St. John Paul II affirmed that “the harmony of so many voices truly expresses what could be called the ‘symphony’ of the faith”.12 Given the many drafts (9 in total), the numerous amendments, and the variety of cultural and spiritual backgrounds of the contributors, the resulting text is uniquely rich and complete. In this sense, also, the Catechism is truly “catholic” and “ecumenical” like the council which inspired it

3. The content of the CCC
The CCC is outstanding for its organic presentation of the Catholic Faith. Indeed, “the Catechism has given us the opportunity to understand the wholeness of the Faith once more”.13 It adopts the four classical catechetical “pillars” which had previously provided the framework for the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the only other major, universal catechism produced in the history of the Church.

The four pillars of the Catechism are its four “Parts,” namely: (1.) The Profession of Faith (Creed), (2.) The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (Liturgy), (3.) Life in Christ (Morality), and (4.) Christian Prayer. It is an organic movement from lex credendi to lex celebrandi, to lex vivendi, to lex orandi. Part One teaches the articles of the Creed; Part Two discusses how we celebrate these mysteries in the liturgy; Part Three, demonstrates how this faith, known and celebrated, is lived in daily life, and Part Four, how we nourish this faith by prayer as individuals, and as members of the communion of the Church. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller has pointed out: “The Catechism essentially represents a statement of Catholic culture expressed in the same structure as the New Testament statement of the culture of the early Church—‘And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42).”14

In the Apostolic Letter, Porta Fidei, with which he indicted the Year of Faith marking the 30th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, Benedict XVI referred to the CCC as “an authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council.”15 The CCC is clearly a fruit of the council in virtue of its content, and the way in which the Faith is presented in the text.

In fact, the Catechism itself explicitly declares its dependence on the council in n. 11: “This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council, and the whole of the Church’s Tradition.”16

As to its substance, the Catechism is clearly the catechism of the Second Vatican Council. After sacred scripture, the most cited source is Vatican II. Moreover, numerous key themes of the council are present: the centrality of Christ, the Church as communion, the universal call to holiness, the liturgy as celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the nature of ecumenism…

It would be impossible to detail all the links to the council, since one would have something to say about every page of the Catechism. However, it may be useful to point out two themes in the CCC which reflect the council in a particular way.

a. Firstly what might be called the “anthropological” orientation of the presentation of doctrine might be noted. Each of the four Parts of the CCC consists of two Sections, and the first Section appeals to human nature, while the second Section is a systematic presentation of doctrine. This approach seems to reflect the council’s desire to dialogue with contemporary man in accessible terms, so as to present the beauty of the Gospel to one and all in a renewed way.

Thus for example Part I on the Creed begins with Section One which deals with the theme of belief itself. The first chapter here is entitled “Man’s capacity for God,” Chapter Two is “God comes to meet man Chapter Three is “Man’s response to God.” This is followed by Section II which systematically presents the articles of the Creed.

Part Three of the Catechism on “Life in Christ” has as its first Section, “Man’s vocation: Life in the Spirit.” The first chapter of this Section is entitled “The Dignity of the Human Person” and deals with human nature, freedom, conscience, the passions, virtues, and sin. Chapter Two of this section on “The Human Community” draws greatly on the teaching of Gaudium et Spes. Having dealt in Section One with the themes of man’s nature and role in society, as well as law and grace, Section Two goes through the Commandments one by one.

b. A second instance of the strong presence of Vatican II in the CCC is the way in which the liturgy is explained. The very title of Part Two, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” already indicates how the CCC takes up the conciliar explanation of the sacraments in the context of salvation history, and hence of the liturgy in terms of the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

It is well known that in the centuries and decades prior to Vatican II, even from medieval theology onwards, there was a gradual separation between the theology of the sacraments, and their liturgical realization. The liturgical movement of the 1920s tried to overcome this separation, and sought to understand the nature of the sacraments based on their liturgical form.

The council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, highlighted this synthesis, and offered to theology and catechesis the mandate of understanding, in a new and deeper way, the liturgy of the Church and her sacraments. This is clearly the approach of the CCC in the first Section of the Part which deals with “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery.”

4. Salient characteristics of the CCC
In looking at the history and compilation of the CCC, as well as its content, the link with the council, an intrinsic link, is already obvious. It may be useful, nonetheless, to indicate a few features which show how the CCC is, as St. John Paul II put it, “the most mature and complete fruit of the conciliar teaching.”17

The Christocentrism of the council is the outstanding feature also of the CCC. The logo of the CCC, taken from a Christian tombstone in the catacombs of Domitilla in Rome, dates from the end of the third century. It depicts Christ, the Good Shepherd, who leads and protects his faithful (the lamb) by his authority (the staff), draws them by the melodious symphony of the truth (the panpipes), and makes them lie down in the shade of the “tree of life,” his redeeming Cross which opens paradise. The guiding principle of the “symphony” presented in the CCC is Christ who is in person Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium. In the words of the general editor of the CCC, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: “Catechesis is not so much an exercise in teaching topics, but rather an orderly and systematic initiation into the revelation that God has given of himself to humanity in Christ.”18

The use of Scripture throughout the CCC is reflective of the council’s wish to open the treasures of the word of God ever more fully, and to emphasize Scripture as “the soul of sacred theology.”19

The many and varied references to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and many holy men and women of all cultures, reflects the desire of going back to the sources which significantly shaped the council (ressourcement).

The frequent reference to the Eastern tradition, for example, in regard to prayer and liturgy, testify to the universality of the Church as experienced and valued at the council.

The positive evangelizing thrust of the council is expressed also in the fact that while the CCC is naturally addressed, in the first place, to the Church’s Pastors, the Bishops, it is “also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the mystery of salvation… [It] is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians… The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us” (1 Pt 3:15)”.20

In a word, the CCC is a reflection and fruit of St. John XXIII’s expressed wish, as he opened the council, to guard and better present the precious deposit of Christian doctrine, in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful, and to all people of good will.21 In a similar vein, Pope Francis has spoken of catechesis in terms of the “memory” of God within the Church, and within the lives of the faithful. “What is the Catechism itself” says the Holy Father, “if not the memory of God, the memory of his works in history, and his drawing near to us in Christ, present in his word, in the sacraments, in the Church, in his love?”22

5. The CCC and the Catechism of the Council of Trent
It has already been noted that the CCC is the second attempt in the Church’s history to provide a universal catechism of major scope (catechismus maior). The Catechism of the Council of Trent, also known as the Catechismus Romanus and the Catechismus ad parochos, was in fact mandated by the Council of Trent itself, and was completed shortly after the council, thanks to the active encouragement of St Charles Borromeo.23 The Catechism of the Council of Trent addressed Church teaching in the light of the Protestant challenges of the time, and the presentation of the doctrine is framed considerably by this context.

The CCC was not mandated directly by the Second Vatican Council, but flowed from it within the process of assimilation and application of the Council, by means of the 1985 Synod of Bishops. Thus, the CCC had the advantage of having a post-conciliar period which gave it a broader perspective. It is worth noting that the CCC was mandated by a Synod of Bishops, an institution introduced as a result of the Second Vatican Council.

As councils of reform, Trent and Vatican II brought into existence fundamental books which were key to the desired pastoral renewal. The Catechism of the Council of Trent appeared in 1566, the Breviary in 1568, and the Missal of St Pius V in 1570. In 1969, the Missal of Blessed Paul VI appeared, in 1971 the Breviary, and the third great book, the CCC, came later after a period of maturation, in 1992.24

It seems clear, even from a short study of the history, content, and style of the CCC, that this Catechism is, indeed, the catechism of the council and, in a sense, a document of Vatican II.

  1. St John Paul II, Homily, 8 December 1992.
  2.  The italics are mine.
  3.  Cardinal G. Müller, “Catholic Education: Its nature, its distinctiveness, its challenges”, Launch of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, University of Glasgow, Scotland, 15 June 2013, in L. Franchi, Shared Mission. Religious Education in the Catholic Tradition, Scepter, London 2016, p. 158.
  4.  St John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 11 October 1992, Introduction.
  5.  St John Paul II, Angelus, 13 December 1992.
  6.  J. Ratzinger, with G. Danneels, F. Macharski and D. Ryan, Handing on the Faith in an Age of Disbelief (Lectures Given at the Church of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyons, and at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris), translated by M. J. Miller, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2006.
  7. St John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 11 October 1992, Introduction.
  8.  J. Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2005, p. 129.
  9.  St John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 11 October 1992, Introduction.
  10.  Ibid.
  11.  Pope Benedict XVI, Last Testament. In his own words, with Peter Sewald, translated by Jacob Philips, Bloomsbury, London 2016, p. 173.
  12.  St John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 11 October 1992, 1.
  13.  Pierre de Cointet, Barbara Morgan and Petroch Willey, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2008, p. 8.
  14.  Cardinal G. Müller, “Catholic Education: Its nature, its distinctiveness, its challenges”, Launch of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, University of Glasgow, Scotland, 15 June 2013, in L. Franchi, Shared Mission. Religious Education in the Catholic Tradition, Scepter, London 2016, p. 158.
  15.  Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter for the Indiction of the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, 11 October, 2011, 4.
  16.  The italics are mine.
  17.  St John Paul II, Homily, 8 December 1992.
  18. Cardinal C. Schönborn, OP, Introduction to, Pierre de Cointet, Barbara Morgan and Petroch Willey, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2008, p. xxxiii. Here the Cardinal refers to St John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis in our time Catechesi Tradendae, 16 October, 1979, 22.
  19. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, 18 November, 1965, 24.
  20.  St John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 11 October, 1992, 3.
  21.  Cf. St John XXIII, Speech at the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October, 1962.
  22. Francis, Homily on the “Day for Catechists” during the Year of Faith, 29 September 2013, 2.
  23.  It is worth noting that at the First Vatican Council, plans were made for a universal elementary catechism but it never came to fruition (cf. Dom Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council 1869-1870, Collins and Harvill Press, London 1962, pp. 197-200).
  24. One could also mention in this context the Codes of Canon Law for the Latin Church (1983), and for the Oriental Churches (1990).
Fr. Donncha O hAodha About Fr. Donncha O hAodha

Fr. Donncha O hAodha is a native of County Galway in Ireland. After studying liberal arts at the National University of Ireland in Galway and Dublin, he worked as a secondary school teacher for a few years, before obtaining a doctorate in theology at Santa Croce University in Rome and being ordained for the Opus Dei Prelature in 2001. He lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.