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The Catechism of Trent: Its Lasting Importance

We need to build a solid foundation on the traditional teaching of the Church

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As we grow more conscious, we naturally desire to learn about who or what we love. As Catholics, we love God above all else. So it is only natural for us to want to learn more about Him. Despite this desire, there can be setbacks.

If you have been paying attention you might notice a problem right away: It can be quite difficult to come across good resources. Anyone with an internet connection and enough (often unwarranted) confidence can just say anything they want about God. In some cases, the presenter can be a skilled orator. As a result, it can be difficult to know exactly why what we are hearing is wrong. At face value, this problem may not appear as much of a problem to us Catholics. After all, we know that the sources of revelation are Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. If we want to know about God, those are the quickest and best ways to learn about him. The problem only becomes totally clear when we try to actually read from these sources. Scripture has multiple layers of meaning operating at once, the Fathers are often dealing with theological concepts way over our heads and sometimes make errors when doing so, and magisterial documents are often written in very stilted language many of us are not used to reading.

In this article, I’m going to make the case that the answer to all of these problems is the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Throughout this article, I will refer to said catechism as the “Roman Catechism” and provide some general notes on how to approach other texts like it. God willing, this will be beneficial for you.

Firstly, I want to answer an important question before moving forward: Why are we studying the Roman Catechism? We have the CCC promulgated by Pope Saint John Paul II which is currently the official Catechism of The Church. Not to mention, we have Sacred Scripture. What need is there to study a catechism at all when God already told us everything we need to know? We will begin with the second objection and then respond to the first.

Historical Context

The second objection may come up if one (explicitly or implicitly) accepts the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. This doctrine states that Scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith for the Christian and that it's sufficiently clear in itself that any reasonably intelligent person could read it and come to certain knowledge of what he or she has to do to be saved. You may be aware that this was one of the major rallying cries of the Protestant "reformation" (arguably the most fundamental). As Catholics, we whole-heartedly agree that Sacred Scripture is where God told us everything He meant to say to us and that it outranks all catechisms in authority. Where we disagree is the implication that because Sacred Scripture contains everything God meant to say, we have no need for the teaching authority of The Church to tell us what He meant. As Catholics, we believe that Tradition and the magisterium are infallible authorities along with Scripture. This is not just a personal preference either. Many verses could be brought up to support this point but the most direct is John 16:13: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself; but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak; and the things that are to come, he shall shew you". So while it is true that Scripture contains everything God meant to say, God gave us The Church, guided by the Holy Ghost to teach truth without error, to infallibly explain to us what He meant in every age. For more on this point I encourage you to read the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. It is a document that comes from the Second Vatican Council and is likely, though not always, at the beginning of your Bible.

The Council of Trent was the Catholic response to the so-called "reformers". We stated the problem of untrained readers reading magisterial documents above. Namely, that they’re often hard to understand. Saint Charles Borromeo gave the Roman Catechism to the Church so that priests would have a resource to bring the teaching of the council to their congregations in a way that would foster their spiritual growth.

For the other objection, I want to clarify that we should not oppose the new catechism. We love all the teachings of the Church and believe that the catechism Pope Saint John Paul II gave us is an incredibly important document to form a Catholic worldview. However, the Roman Catechism presents the teaching of the Catholic Church in more simple, straightforward language than the CCC. For this reason, it is more accessible to readers and nullifies any confusion or doubt on doctrinal questions. This is crucial in all ages, however most especially in our own. As previously mentioned, anyone with an internet connection and enough confidence can just say anything they want. While this undoubtedly disappointing, it is not surprising. Confusion on every point of Catholic doctrine from sexual ethics to the nature of Christ has increased over the past couple of years. Many of us have heard of the studies showing this to be a major problem and some of us may have even personally encountered individuals struggling with doctrinal confusion.

Having said that, I am convinced that this confusion is only partly due to poor catechesis on the mysteries of our Faith. The root of the problem can be found in the idea that liberalism, not Catholicism, is the "rational standard" to which we Catholics must adhere to. In response to this, building a bridge with liberalism is out of the question. We must denounce it wholeheartedly. We combat this by reorienting our worldview according to the traditional teachings of the Church. Before we analyze the text itself, it is important to talk about how we ought to approach Sacred Doctrine. This applies not only to the Roman Catechism but any text containing revelation from God (Scripture, Tradition, magisterium).

First, we read the text in light of the teachings of the Holy Apostles. This is because they received the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (Acts 2), they traveled everywhere with Our Lord for His entire ministry, and one of them, St John, was entrusted to look after the Blessed Mother after He ascended into Heaven. A common skeptic response to what we read about Our Lord in Scripture is that The Apostles must have just made everything up. However, this position fails to take into account the incredible suffering the apostles willingly suffered for the Gospel. And this was not unexpected. Not long after Pentecost, the Church saw Her first martyr, Saint Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews for preaching the Gospel of Our Lord. The Apostles met similar ends. 10 out of the 11 (not including Judas Iscariot) original apostles all died as martyrs for the Church. Their deaths were horrific and directly connected to their refusal to stop preaching the Gospel. It could have stopped at any point but they would have rather accepted death. Tradition tells us that Saint Andrew didn’t stop preaching even as he hung on his own cross. May God embolden us to love Him and His word like Saint Andrew did. The only reasonable explanation for why the Apostles were so willing to suffer for the Gospel is that they were being honest. Who would go through all of that when they know they are lying? More importantly, if the skeptics are correct that the Apostles were mistaken about what they saw, they will have to explain why all of The Apostles had the same Gospel.

Are we really to believe all the miracles, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Our Lord were hallucinations that everyone had at the same time? Or that this was all sentimental, as when a family member remembers a loved one? May God protect us from such nonsense! The testimony of The Apostles in Scripture bears witness that God revealed through Scripture and Tradition and that He created the Church, headed by Saint Peter and protected from error by the Holy Ghost, to authoritatively and infallibly preserve and pass on all that God has revealed until the end of the world (Matthew 16:18-20, John 16:13, John 21:17, Acts 1:15-26, 1 Timothy 3:15 etc). Because Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium all have their origin in the Holy Ghost they are all infallible. Second, we read the text, whether it be from Scripture, Tradition or magisterium, mindful of the fact that God has revealed it. They are therefore not subject to rational criticism in the same way a text on natural science, philosophy, or even treatises written by individual Church Fathers or Doctors are. God cannot lie to us and He cannot be made to believe a lie.

When He reveals something through these channels we can be certain, by faith, that it is True. This is not to say that faith and reason are opposed to one another but we have to acknowledge that the two are not equal and that our reason does not override the truths of revelation received by faith, lest we become like the reprobate who "[profess] themselves to be wise [and become] fools" (Romans 1:22). Reason serves faith. The certainty we have through faith overrides the certainty we have through natural knowledge (sense perception, reason, or some mixture of the two). This is because as Catholics our faith is in the true God and in His Church which is protected by the Holy Ghost against error.

This certainty by faith overrides natural certainty to such an extent that if the Lord blessed us to perform a Eucharistic miracle in our midst (say by causing the transubstantiated host to visibly become flesh and blood) and we became convinced that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ based on that miracle, our conviction would not be nearly as warranted as it is by the testimony of Our Lord when He says "this is my Body... this is my Blood". (Luke 1:18-20 if more explanation is needed). As a consequence of the above points, we cannot relegate the truths of faith only to discussions of faith. The truths of faith are not only more certain than any truth obtained through natural reason, they are the absolutely certain, unchanging truths that serve as the foundation of all other truth. Finally, I want to address another important question: What should be the goal of our study of the Roman Catechism (or anything else for that matter)? Saint James tells us (James 2:19-20):“Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

True learning, at least as far as theology goes, is not simply a matter of the intellect. Our study ought to direct us to God. This means that prayer, repentance, and taking the sacraments are just as important in the process of undoing the influence of liberalism in our minds and building a solid foundation on the teaching of the Church as is studying the Roman Catechism, or any other text. It all works together. Do you find yourself “plowing through” texts just to say you’ve read them? Do you find yourself engaged in study often but rarely attend adoration? How often throughout the week are you looking over the Mass readings? Are you contributing as a member of the body of Christ?

These questions and others like them are important for you to consider on your own. A consequence of the above points is that study should take a while. We’re on God’s time, not ours. I encourage you to ask your priest about the practice of lectio divina if you aren’t already familiar. They should be able to give you practical tips appropriate for your level of understanding. In conclusion, what can we take away from all of this? As Catholics living under liberalism, it is crucial for us to know what we believe and why so we are not swept up into the doctrinal confusion we, unfortunately, see so much in our beloved Church. We need to build a solid foundation on the traditional teaching of the Church so that we can be protected from the influence of liberalism. Building that foundation begins with studying the Roman Catechism. However, above all, we should take that the proper goal of studying the faith is not intellectual growth but spiritual growth.


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