10 November 2015

Resource Guide for Catholic Autodidacts –
The Best Catechisms

One of the biggest impediments to self-education is the inability to find the right resources at the right time.  It's not that resources are difficult to find: to some extent, resources are extremely easy to find.  Nor is it that excellent resources are unavailable: many of the best are freely available online.  But the resources that are easy to find are often not useful, and the resources that are most useful are often not easy to find.

Obviously what in particular will be most conducive to the learning or development of any particular person depends on the context and background of that particular person, which tend to be more or less unique.  But I would like to present some resources which have been helpful to me, over the past five years, as a rough guide for people trying to educate themselves.


Catechesis should be the first stage of study for any Catholic, and it should be an activity which is continuously renewed and repeated.  One of the most devastating mistakes any Christian can make is to pass through the "basics" of the faith, and assume that they have been mastered after the first time through.  They have not been mastered after the first time.  They cannot be mastered after one round of study, or after ten.  The self-assurance (or arrogance) which looks at a children's catechism and waves it off as simplistic or trivial is, in reality, abject stupidity.

Because of the need to regularly return to basic catechesis, it is important for Catholics to have a few good catechisms on hand which they can read, reread, peruse, and memorize.  The first Catechism everyone thinks of nowadays is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was written under the direction of Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II.  Because this is the book people simply refer to as "The Catechism" today, it merits discussion before any of the others.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Online in numerous places, and in most major bookstores.

STRENGTHS: It's a very long text.  It follows the four pillars model of the Roman Catechism (Creed, Commandments, Sacraments, Prayer).  It isn't afraid of using big words and complex phraseology.  It has short summaries of key points at the end of each chapter, which are designed to be memorized.

WEAKNESSES: The phraseology is verbose, and sometimes manages to achieve the worst of both worlds, by being both extremely vague and overly technical.  The focus on symbolism and imagery seems to outweigh the focus on dogmatic facts.  Citations point back to the decrees of Vatican II to such a disproportionate extent that one wonders whether the tradition before 1962 had anything to say about many subjects discussed in the Catechism.

RECOMMENDATION: You should probably own a copy, and at least be conversant with this text, not primarily because of its merits (though it has merits!), but because this is the catechism most Catholics today are familiar with.  If one wants a clear, simply stated, doctrinally precise, or memorizable explanation of doctrine, however, this text is often not the best place to go.

("Catechism of the Council of Trent")

WHERE TO FIND IT: Online in numerous places, sometimes in Catholic bookstores, otherwise on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This text is long (though perhaps not as long as the CCC), extremely thorough, clear, and dogmatically precise.  The treatments of the Sacraments and the Commandments are especially excellent, each being broken up into numerous small sub-topics, which make these aspects of Christian life come alive and offer good practical advice.  This is the Ur-text.  This is The Catechism upon which all other catechisms were based, for most of the past five centuries, including all of the other Catechisms discussed here.  And it's still the best.

WEAKNESSES: The widely available version of the text is in an old and rather wooden translation, which makes reading it a little bit of a slog.  There is a dearth of citations from the tradition.  Most citations point directly to scripture or to the ecumenical councils (especially Trent).  Its expository format does not encourage memorization.  No "highlights" or "key points".

RECOMMENDATION: If you want a really thorough, in depth discussion of the basics of the Catholic Faith, this is one of the first places to go.  Fr. Thomas Joseph White used to recommend it to Dominican seminarians as an excellent sourcebook for spiritual conferences and retreats.  It's one of the foundational reference works in any Catholic book collection.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Many Catholic bookstores, online, on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This is the classic American children's catechism.  It consists of a series of a few hundred questions and answers, designed to be committed to memory, organized into themed lessons. The answers are simple, easy to understand, and doctrinally precise.  Aside from the Q&As (which are, to an impressive extent, real questions that a normal, inquisitive person would actually ask) the glory of the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism is its illustrations: little cartoons which visually re-enforce the contents of each lesson.  It also includes simple exercises for the student.

WEAKNESSES: The St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism looks like a relic of the 1950s.  The art can feel kitschy at times.  Also, loath though I am to admit it, the approach to doctrine in the catechism is not as nuanced in some cases as it should be.  It can leave things feeling a little too "cut and dry" than is theologically appropriate. (Though, it must be emphasized, this fault is greatly preferable to the opposite fault of ethereal, obfuscatory vagueness, which is more common today.)

RECOMMENDATION: You ought to own a copy of this book.  It's worth reading because you will learn from it: not just from the text, which is very well-composed and often worthy of memorization, but from the images as well, which capture certain aspects of the faith and Catholic life very strikingly, and leave their mark on one's memory.  During my first few months as a Catholic, there were several practical questions I had about the Sacraments which I could not find answered in the JPII Catechism of the Catholic Church, but which were all answered directly and precisely by the Baltimore Catechism.  One of these books is more in touch with "lived Catholicism" than the other.

(Note: "Baltimore Catechism No. 1" is a much shorter version of the Catechism for younger children.)


WHERE TO FIND IT: Perhaps some Catholic bookstores sell it, though I cannot remember having seen it in one.  Available cheaply on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This is the British version of the American Baltimore Catechism.  In essence it's the same text, but simple and more compact, and with more scripture cited.  The normal edition is pocket sized, and makes for wonderful occasional reading (on commutes, for example).  It is also small and cheap enough to keep several copies on hand to distribute to friends at need.  No illustrations, just a very solid, well-constructed series of about 360 questions and answers on the basics of the Catholic Faith.

WEAKNESSES: None, to my knowledge.  It lacks the bells and whistles of the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism (the illustrations and activities), and is not (obviously) as thorough as the Roman Catechism.  It is just a Catechism, and an excellent one.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy half a dozen copies.  Read one (you'll learn things, guaranteed), and keep the others around to give to relatives or friends.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Online, through EWTN's website.

STRENGTHS: This is like the Penny Catechism, but with considerably greater theological depth and precision.

WEAKNESSES: While in theory a children's catechism, it cannot be used as one without a lot of difficulty (I say this from experience).  The text is good for independent learners and adults.  The questions are really well-chosen, but sometimes the coverage of material feels imbalanced.

RECOMMENDATION: Read through it once for your own benefit, and keep it up your sleeve as a resource to be aware of.