Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Simple but Not Simplistic (Profound, Really) Baltimore Catechism

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[A recent article for The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national Catholic weekly publication].

By Thomas F. Roeser

DALLAS— Asked to speak last week to “Legatus,” a group of Catholic CEOs, on “The Catholic Church and the Media” I expected my presentation would be accepted as many others are concerning the topic—with stifled yawns, furtive glancing at watches and with some heads bobbing down and jerking upright, as their owners fought drowsiness.

Not so—and while I would like to say their rapt attention was due to my charismatic delivery, this I cannot do. The topic that stirred enthusiastic discussion was a document produced by a group of clergymen. Not meeting in Rome but in Baltimore; not concocted by a group of theologians the other day, but in 1884. It dealt with the famed, now long discarded, Baltimore Catechism, that was the staple of every American Catholic parochial school child’s education for 75 years. The issue of the catechism drew fire from one source and enthusiastic rejoinders from the room until the convener of the meeting said, “folks, it’s really time to go.” Then the animated discussion continued out into the corridor, into the elevator and outside. It was, in short, the best received talk I ever gave but whatever eloquence I may have supplied had nothing to do with it.

To fill you in on the discussion, I have to give the gist of my talk and what led up to the controversy.


I began: There is no better way to begin a talk on how the media deal with the Catholic Church than to say this: The news makes us dumb. The constant flow of information on events can be very confusing. For instance: ask someone who has to watch the news unfolding hour-by-hour—someone who works in a television or radio newsroom (as I have done for the past decade and a half) he will tell you that after the first couple of years on the job, the unfolding pageant is a collection of events that only seem to be real. There’s much more happening out there—many more important things—than the media will cover. That’s because the news business is, by its very nature, dedicated to change, conflict, and a skeptical questioning of everything that we earlier had considered settled and stable and so when you put down the paper or snap off the television, you’re more unsettled than ever.

If the news business is like a kaleidoscope, ever-changing, the truth about our Faith is unchanging and settled. That means an imperfect instrument like the media is guaranteed to mess up reporting on a Faith that is ever-constant. What is the bedrock of our Faith? We base our Faith on the sacraments first and then the scriptures. If there is any mystery of Faith about which the entire liturgy revolves, it is the Eucharist—the consecration of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ while their physical appearance don’t change: a consecration only a priest can do.

Try to communicate that great constant via the shifting mores of the news business and you’re bound to have difficulty. Then add these facts: only a priest can mediate between God and man to ask forgiveness of sin…all priests can trace their authority to the apostles, the first priests…but all the Christian faithful share in the priesthood by their baptismal character.

Weaknesses of human vessels—unfaithful priests, corrupt popes, lying, deceptive and cowardly bishops—do not invalidate a Church which authentic Catholics believe is the mystical body of Christ. Nor do these weaknesses diminish a papal infallibility which certifies not all papal statements but ex cathedra ones (literally “from the chair”) pertaining to faith and morals are free from all error.

Thus there is a fundamental distinction that makes Catholicism different from other groups seeking to communicate to the media: eternal verities, timeless concepts that we seek to transmit over ever-shifting, ever-transitory media. Part of the trouble—a good part—can be laid to the media. But not all of it. Part of the trouble—a good part—can be laid to us.

Here’s where the audience sat bolt upright—the part that spurred energetic discussion:

Our older generations had an advantage over the present one in understanding the Faith and transmitting it because from 1884 and for seventy-five years in the future, roughly 1954, the work product that James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and his group compiled became for generations the conveyance belt of timeless truths of our Faith. They distilled the learning that had surrounded Catholicism from ages past into powerful nuggets of fact…printed them in booklet form…disseminated these paper-bound booklets to every parochial school in the United States…and through the nuns and diligent parents, insisted that children learn the nuggets of fact by rote. They called their product The Baltimore Catechism.

That Catechism read simply but was not simplistic. It radiated an historic link with the golden age of philosophy—beginning with Aristotle and Christianized through the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas. The gist of the teaching was this: There are absolute standards of goodness, truth and beauty…humans must strive to improve themselves so as to conform closely to these standards…God established natural laws governing the world’s operation…moral laws must be followed to discourage over-indulgence. And this directly from Aristotelian ethics: humans cannot be courageous unless they are just, cannot be just unless they are temperate, cannot be temperate, just and courageous unless they are prudent.

Armed with that rich intellectual background, the Baltimore Catechism asked simple questions and formulated simple answers that children recited from memory, answers that even if they didn’t fully comprehend the full significance, allowed them to carry throughout their lives the formulations. The answers were simple, but not simplistic. And after all these years and with no brushing up, I can recite them today. Here goes:

Who is God? God is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things.

What is man? Philosophers, sophists, skeptics, realists and existentialists have vied for the answer. But here is that answer that children learned in my youth: Man is a creature composed of body and soul and made to the image and likeness of God.

Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

These are the timeless truths that intellectuals can ponder as they contemplate, that incipient saints can reflect upon while on their knees, that scrub-women and janitors can understand as they work on their knees. It is a genius document and I regret that it has fallen into disuse.

Armed with this understanding of the Faith, generations of Catholics from the 19th century through the middle of the 20th—and in some families at home continuing into the 21st—have won the battle with adversaries who have challenged our Faith. The Baltimore Catechism has been the foundation-stone, the beginning of Catholic learning, by which our predecessors, our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, postulate the answers to the blandishments of Marx who insisted that man is enslaved by economic impulses…Freud who argued that man is controlled by sexual desires…and to followers of Einstein who have insisted that man is living in a sea of relativistic values. And it exists today to be used by those who wish to join our Pope is combating what he has called the disease of contemporary intellectuals—a disease that permeates the liberal arts in the universities and ultimately their product—the news media: relativism, which insists there are no absolutes except the contradiction that there are no absolutes…and what may be good for you may not be good for me.

That relativistic concept has caused our universities—including many Catholic ones—to tumble and overwhelmingly so, into nihilism and the chase for whatever can satisfy one’s whims for the moment.

Therefore you see the contrast between the Faith we espouse and the media which turn upon skepticism, cynicism and the un-mooring of convention—all convention, regardless of its nature. But most media and intellectuals flee from absolutes and God—who typifies certainty—in much the same way as Francis Thompson’s great poem The Hound of Heaven dramatizes. Thompson brings home the terror of man fleeing from God…today, essentially Man the Skeptic: I fled Him down the nights and down the days/ I fled Him down the arches of the years/ I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind—and in the midst of tears I hid from Him…with the words of God, the Hound of Heaven, echoing in the flee’ers ears All things betray thee who betrayest Me.

The fostering of certainty starts with the young. So this is our strength if we can be reclaim it for our children. They must learn early that we have absolutes, we have certainty and carry it throughout their lives.

We know the world and how to overcome it. We may fall, we may fail but we know when we do wrong—and by the light of our Faith we can pick ourselves up. That is what the secular media do not have with very few exceptions. They are always running, as Thompson does in the Hound of Heaven—always fleeing, always thinking they have found the newest, brightest answer—the person, the secret. These short-term answer God-substitutes will always fail in the long-run. Those who cherish them will ultimately find they have been deceived and will always be disappointed.

So the first rule is: our older generations came to this battle armed with what the media for all their cocksuredness don’t have: certainty. And we can reclaim it again—for us and our children. I looked at the Baltimore Catechism before I left Chicago for this meeting tonight: and I find it brilliant in every way.


That portion of the speech spurred dissent—but from only one person in the room: and I thank God for him, because as the audience sat there reflecting, he struck a spark that set the entire room churning.

He said, “I wholeheartedly disagree with you! You are looking backward to a Church that is long past. We have to remove the last vestiges of the past and strive to meet our critics with arguments that are new!”

I could have hugged him.

The room erupted—not in anger but in a demonstration that told me, even among people who are too young to have learned from Baltimore, how important it is to have a simple but eloquent formulation of basic truths.

He tried again. He said, “I tell you we have a Catechism formulated under John Paul II and it is a brilliant catechism! What you are doing is forsaking that and going to the past!”

Bless him. His objection stirred the pot again.

“Yes!” said a man. “It’s marvelous. It answers all questions for us but it is 800 pages long! I remember when we had to memorize. It stayed with me all my life! What Roeser is talking about is--.”

“Everyone loves the Catechism formulated under John Paul II,” interrupted a woman. “It supplies the intellectual grounding. But that is not the point. I’m a former teacher. You begin with the Baltimore and when you get older and more advanced you dip into the larger work!”

He fumed but people stood up and expressed agreement, in terms more eloquent than mine. The room was energized at that moment with the feeling that the certainty and verities simply expressed but eloquently phrased, are needed today. In fact, as one woman said: “I tell you the Baltimore Catechism is needed today!”

His dissent incited fulsome discussion. And he would not give up.

He said, “What? You people are urging that our children learn by rote, like little magpies? What kind of intellectual preparation is that?”

That produced an intellectual explosion. A woman who had spent a lifetime teaching, insisted that learning by memorization is the most important element of cognition. Another man, a lawyer, cited how memorization is essential to learning his craft.

As the meeting broke up, the dissenter disappeared. People were gathered in small conversational knots rehashing the value of learning by rote and the oldsters the impressive sweep of the Baltimore when to my exultant joy he re-appeared and walked into the room. There was silence because he had something to say.

He said, “Well—I’ll accept learning by rote for things written in the 20th century—but in the 19th? Never!”


“No, never!”

Then, one woman said softly, you’d have trouble with the Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863?

He looked at her, then at the crowd and left.


Now several points have to be made. First, there is, as The Wanderer reported last week, an official compendium to the 800-page Catechism. Second, I am not a theologian. I have reviewed the Baltimore—my dog-eared copy from which I learned by rote at St. Juliana’s grade school in the thirties—and I find nothing out-of-date with it. But if there were portions that since have become archaic, it didn’t hurt us to use the ammunition through the decades—the thirties, racked by skepticism prompted by the Great Depression and the forties, troubled by the greatest World War in history—and today’s kids learning the fundamentals could do much worse in an age of relativism. There’s something about the cadence of the language that is majestic. What is the Mass? The Mass is the unbloody sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. How many things are necessary to make a sin mortal? To make a sin mortal, three things are necessary: grievous matter; sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.

Can any contemporary theologian top that? I think not.

Third, there may be a good reason to begin training new generations with the Compedium which I haven’t read but which is reportedly quite technical—but unless the language is memorable, it would be difficult to retain. There’s a good example. A revised edition of the Baltimore was distributed in place of the original version in 1941, a year before I graduated from eighth grade. I still have the copy; it is 400 pages long. We looked at it and sort of gave up: also the nun who taught us that year wasn’t very enthused about the longer version. One answer to Question 352 in the revised edition, had to do with how Christ changes water into wine and bread into His body. Here is only part of the answer: “God, who created all things from nothing, who fed five thousand with five loaves, who changed water into wine instantaneously, who raised the dead to life, can change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Although the Holy Eucharist is a great mystery and consequently beyond human understanding, the principles of sound reason can show that this gift is not impossible by the power of God.”

Compare the following memorable words kids used to memorize from the 1884 edition:

What happened when Our Lord said, This is My body; this is My blood? When the Lord said, This is My body, the substance of the bread was changed into the substance of His body; when He said, This is My blood, the substance of the wine was changed into the substance of His blood.

Is Jesus Christ whole and entire both under the form of bread and under the form of wine? Jesus Christ is whole and entire both under the form of bread and under the form of wine.

A friend of mine who is an officer of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, Dan Cheely, a lawyer and educator who is one of the most persuasive apologists of Church history I have ever met, is the father of nine children. It turns out he used the Baltimore at the dinner hour when the children were growing up. Hearing this makes me wish I had been smart enough to do that with our kids.

In any event, when one talks of catechesis and the power to get children to learn the fundamentals of the Faith, one comes back to the Baltimore. It is a marvelous stimulant to certify certainty in the next generation. With it, the odds will be greatly in their favor to defend themselves against a secular generation. One thing we don’t have in abundance today that we had in the past are legions of dedicated nuns. But we can insist that parochial school teachers drill their charges as the nuns did. And we can continue the drilling at home. I was not afraid I’d disappoint the nun when we all stood up and did our Baltimore orals because the night before I had passed the supreme test: getting through them the night before when my mother did the grilling—and not being allowed to go to bed until the answers were letter-perfect.

I closed the talk like this: Looking at it realistically, secular liberals have within their relativism the seeds of their own downfall. No one said it better than Dr. David Stolinsky, professor of medicine at the University of Southern California in an article in the New Oxford Review.

“They removed the Ten Commandments from the schoolrooms and saw their kids become amoral egotists. They gave their kids no transcendent meaning and were baffled when the kids sought it in cults and violence. They took awsay religion and patriotism and were bewildered when their kids turned to Satanism.

“They taught their kids not to identify as Christians or Americans—and became depressed when their kids sought identity in black trench coats, gang colors, tattoos and body piercing. They taught their kids self-esteem instead of self-control and were perplexed when their kids demanded entitlement. They gave their kids things instead of love, then were aghast when their kids became unloving materialists. They tried to be pals instead of parents and were sickened to find they had become afraid of their own kids. They dosed their kids with anti-depressants and were stunned when the kids turned to drugs when they experienced problems.

“They prevented smoke from entering their kids’ lungs but allowed sewerage to enter their souls through their eyes and ears—then were surprised when their kids got in trouble. They shunned examples of courage as too macho and then were appalled when their kids did not think it cowardly to shoot unarmed people. They disdained Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays but were fearful when their kids honored Hitler’s birthday.

“They endorsed abortion, euthanasia first for what they saw as extreme cases but became concerned when these measures were advocated also for the fatally ill, then the chronically ill, then the disabled—and soon for the economically unproductive, the depressed and ultimately for the annoying.”

In short, the liberal secularists can’t win. And if we stick to the fundamentals—especially with the young—we cannot lose.

1 comment:

  1. I write as a longtime English professor, a "Jesuit product": Do you know why the old Baltimore Catechism was so powerful? Because it had the force of the Holy Ghost operative between its lines. The Baltimore Catechism was nothing less than the full content of the Word of God, the Bible--plus the truths contained in the whole body of Sacred Tradition-- distilled into propositions that could be memorized by children. Unlike most priests today, the men who composed the Baltimore's texts and adapted the language to various grade levels believed firmly in the inerrancy of the scriptures and in the absolute value, metaphysically spreaking, of Catholic Truth. Sad to say, we shall not see their like again any time soon.