+St. Gabriel Possenti+

The topic of the “catechism only” as a source of instruction for Catholic adults is one that has prevailed for several months now and certain points need to be resolved in order to understand this issue properly. It has been stated that without learning the catechism you cannot save your soul, and while this is true, it needs to be pointed out that the truths found in the catechism come from a common source, and that without obedience to that entity, above and beyond anything found in the catechism, authored under the direction of the bishops, salvation cannot be had. For as Pope Pius IX taught in Tuas Libentur: “Even when it is only a question of the submission owed to divine faith, this cannot be limited merely to points defined by the express decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See; this submission must also be extended to all that has been handed down as divinely revealed by the ordinary teaching authority of the entire Church spread over the whole world, and which, for this reason, Catholic theologians, with a universal and constant consent, regard as being of the faith.” And among these truths are the following.

Pope Boniface VIII: “We declare, say, define and proclaim to every human creature that they, by necessity for salvation, are entirely subject to the Roman Pontiff.

The Vatican Council: “Further, by divine and Catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition and those which are proposed by the Church, either in a solemn pronouncement or in her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed.”

Humani generis: “History teaches that many matters that formerly were open to discussion, no longer now admit of discussion… Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me,” and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians” (Pope Pius XII, 1950).

Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton: Those documents “…sent to the episcopate of one country or region, [and] promptly entered into the Acta of the Holy Father, are thus indirectly sent, as normative documents, to the faithful of the entire world… We must not lose sight of the fact that, in the encyclical Humani generis, the Holy Father made it clear that any doctrinal decision printed in the pontifical Acta [Apostolica Sedis] must be accepted as normative by all theologians. This would apply to all decisions made in the course of the Sovereign Pontiff’s ordinary magisterium… the Holy Father is empowered, not only to obligate the disciples of Jesus Christ to accept, on faith or as certain, statements within the sphere of the Church’s doctrinal competence, but also to impose the duty of accepting other propositions within the same sphere as opinions…Humani Generis reasserts the right of the Roman Pontiff to demand an opinionative assent. When, in his encyclicals or in any other documents or utterances of his doctrinal office, he imposes a teaching upon the members of the universal Church militant with anything less than his suprema magisterii potestas, he is calling for such an opinionative judgment…The theologians of the Catholic Church have always recognized the fact that an intention on the part of the Holy Father is requisite if the faithful are to be bound by the teaching contained in his official Acta. Hitherto, however, there has been too much of a tendency to consider that such an intention would have to be manifested by some sort of formula, as for instance, the use of such terms as ‘define’ or ‘declare.’ The Humani Generishas put an end to this dangerous minimism.” (American Ecclesiastical Review, “Infallibility in the Encyclicals”).

And now we will see how the above is applied to the catechism issue.

The Catechism Controversy

The actual teaching method used and structure of the catechism itself was a much-disputed topic beginning in the late 19th century. This can be gleaned from reading the Catholic Encyclopedia article on catechesis. This heated discussion continued up to the death of Pope Pius XII. It even continued after his death, when the old catechisms were gutted and Vatican 2 versions substituted. One of the last approved directives written on catechetical teaching was authored by the esteemed theologian, Canadian Bp. Emile Yelle, who Msgr. Fenton praised as “…one of the outstanding theologians of our time.”  Bp. Yelle’s little work, The Teaching of Catechism, was written in September 1958. In this gem of a work he emphasizes the fact that rote catechetics had long been a failure because the authors of the catechisms themselves and those teaching from them were not properly disposed, either in their writing of the catechism or their teaching.

He advises those writing catechisms to better illustrate and explain the text, to use “language understood by the child… [for] without preliminary explanation the child understands little or nothing of the text of the catechism. Nevertheless, he is obliged to memorize these formulas and to remember them so as to be able to recite them as a prayer: a tiresome task, the purpose of which he cannot understand, in which he is not interested; an effort which disgusts him with religious instruction and which perhaps without his being aware of it, and the teacher too, all unconscious of it, is fostering in the soul of the child religious indifference for the years to come… We taught mere words without explaining anything. We simply touched the surface without every reaching the life-giving spirit. We merely grazed the child’s faculties, never touching the intelligence and the heart. We taught a verbally correct doctrine, but its vivifying force has remained merely on the surface of the soul. Word for word method without explanation is certainly not the correct method of teaching catechism. It is simply the tyranny of the memory over the intelligence

“The child can easily repeat wise sayings and yet for all that be not more learned, nor better educated. A great and needless fatigue has been imposed on him if indeed we have not contributed to create in him a secret desire to rid himself as soon as possible of this unassimilated burden. This first tedious contact with truth is a very poor introduction for any explanation. One might fancy that his work is done when the child has answered correctly that he has attained his goal and that the child ‘knows his catechism.’ No. It is no proof whatsoever that the child knows his catechism because he easily repeats stereotyped formulas… Instead of enlightening the mind of the child by some rays of light adapted to its capacity we have plunged it into darkness — vague ideas scarcely intelligible because insufficiently suitable — and the little that has been understood has left the impression of a world that is unreal and that has no connection with that in which the child lives and moves and sees. No attraction to religious acts, no invitation to the practice of Christian life: ideas suspended in mid-air like soap bubbles that break when they come in contact with the least speck of dust or explode under the slightest breeze. Terrible danger! And it may well be the explanation for that disheartening gap between the theoretical faith of our people and their actual way of life.”

And as for teachers, Bp. Yelle quotes from Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on education: “’That they be thoroughly prepared and well-grounded in the matter they have to teach [and] possess the intelligence and moral qualifications required by their important office; who cherish a pure and holy love for the truths confided to them, because they love Jesus Christ and His Church, of which these are the children of predilection; and who have therefore sincerely at heart the true good of family and country… It is necessary that the teacher understand the meaning of the text and the knowledge of the profound ‘truth’ that the words express to be able to distinguish the central point of the doctrines in order to revert to them in his explanations and in order to captivate the minds of the children by these beacons: Our Lord, the state of grace, prayer, faith Divine Providence, the Holy Eucharist and the spirit of sacrifice. It is evident that to do this requires more than a mere knowledge of words.”

“The teacher must know what the doctrine is and be able at the same time to express it in other words than those of the text. He must know the doctrine before teaching it; he must learn the Gospel by meditating upon it thus entering into all the details of the life of Our Lord in such a way [as to] be able to teach catechism in a truly Catholic way.” Please tell me who is it who will train us as catechists? Who has offered the means for such training from approved works? Where would we find these things? And even if we possessed them, how could we adapt it successfully to what Bp. Yelle so wisely suggests, when the rote method is all that anyone knows today? The little children’s catechism by Fr. Heeg, (my first catechism), posted on this site thanks to the tireless work of a kind benefactor, was chosen precisely to comply with Bp. Yelle’s suggestions. For it tells a story as well as offers questions to be answered and provides memory aids to help children better remember the lessons.

If those adults teaching and quoting the catechisms do not know or accept the doctrines on which they are based, and those doctrines that flow from what the popes later teach, how can they possibly impart the full scope of truths to their children or adult converts? How can they possibly claim to be obedient to the Roman Pontiffs or to love Our Lord when they are not accepting or teaching the whole truth, integral and entire?? For only from Christ’s Vicars themselves, not the bishops or the theologians, many of whom had long abandoned the true faith even before Vatican 2, can we be assured of infallible truth. Below we will rely on those yet faithful to the truth to explain the importance of what is known as doctrinal development.

How doctrine develops

As Pietro Parente, Antonio Piolante and Salvatore Garofalo write in their Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology (1951): “According to Catholic doctrine, a dogma cannot undergo intrinsic and substantial changes. There is an evolution, however, on the part of the faithful as to understanding and expressing a dogma (extrinsic and subjective evolution). This legitimate progress appears in the history of the dogmatic formulas defined by the Church as gradually the meaning of the truths contained in the sources of divine revelation came to be more profoundly and clearly understood.”

And this is also stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia under dogma: “The full meaning of certain revealed truths has been only gradually brought out; the truths will always remain. Language may change or may receive a new meaning; but we can always learn what meaning was attached to particular words in the past.” The full meaning here under discussion is the binding nature of the pope’s encyclical letters and other documents entered into the Acta Apostolica Sedis.

Dom Prosper Gueranger, the intrepid Abbot of Solesmes in his book, Pontifical Monarchy, explained authentic doctrinal development in these words: “It is a fundamental principle of theology, that all revealed truths were confided to the Church at the beginning; that some were explicitly proposed for our belief from the start, whereas others, although contained implicitly in the first set of truths, only emerged from them with the passage of timeby means of formal definitions rendered by the Church with the assistance of the Holy Ghost, through Whom she is infallible.”

“May understanding, knowledge and wisdom progress as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.” — St. Vincent of Lerin. Msgr. Joseph. C. Fenton, commenting on this statement by St. Vincent points out:

“The Vatican Council has used the words of Saint Vincent of Lerin to declare as a matter of faith that the understanding of one man as well as that of the Church as a whole can progress and grow in its grasp of the revealed truth and that this growth always takes place in one and the same sense and meaning (DZ 1800). There can be no question, of course, of new doctrines or propositions which the ancient Church did not recognize as revealed but which the same Church in later years accepted as having been communicated by God. Neither can there be a question of some statement which God added to the deposit of faith after the death of the last apostle. As a matter of fact, there has been no addition whatever to the content of public revelation since the death of Saint John the Evangelist.

“The Church is, and has been since Her inception, perfectly infallible in Her teaching of the revealed truth. Since She first came into being, She has taught the entire doctrine which God gave to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord without error. Then the definite progress in dogma and in sacred theology has come in the process of resolving problems and questions in such a way that the true and objective meaning which was contained in the divine teaching is set forth continually in answer to attacks against Catholic doctrine and for the enlightenment of the piety of the faithful throughout the ages” (The Concept of Sacred Theology, 1941).

And in another essay, “The Church and Catholic Dogma,” written for the American Ecclesiastical Review in February 1949, Msgr. Fenton comments further:

“When he began his preparation for the definition of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX made it completely clear that he relied upon the assistance of divine grace to enlighten his mind on the project he was about to undertake. In an encyclical letter, dated Feb. 2, 1849, the great pontiff begged the bishops of the Catholic world to have the faithful entrusted to their care pray publicly for him. Yet Pope Pius IX certainly did not consider that this divine help in any way exempted him from examining the properly theological evidence about this doctrine. In this same encyclical he announced the appointment of a pontifical commission to study this evidence and to report to him.

“The commission appointed at that time by Pope Pius IX applied itself first of all to a consideration of the characteristics in function of which a truth or a proposition is said to be definable as Catholic dogma. It indicated no less than nine principles which must be employed in evaluating a proposition as definable. The first four among these principles dealt with the type of evidence not absolutely necessary in order that a proposition should properly be judged as definable.

“(1) The fact that, in the past, there have been conflicting teachings on this subject within the Catholic Church, or the fact that all have not hitherto agreed on this teaching, does not render a doctrine incapable of definition.

(2) The fact that even authoritative writers can be quoted in opposition to a teaching does not render that teaching incapable of being defined.

(3) In order that a doctrine be definable, it is not necessary that there should be explicit, or even implicit, testimony to this doctrine in Sacred Scripture, since it is certain and manifest that the scope of revelation is wider than that of Scripture.

(4) In order to show that the doctrine to be defined belongs to Tradition, it is not necessary to adduce a series of Fathers and of other witnesses reaching back to apostolic times.

“All of these negative principles imply the commission’s conviction that, in order that a doctrine should be considered as definable, there must be real evidence that this teaching is actually to be found in the apostolic deposit of divine public revelation. The commission manifested not the slightest trace of willingness to content itself with a conviction about the definability of a doctrine based upon some corporate religious sense within the Church or upon any other so-called “non-intellectual” factor. This concern of the commission shows itself even more clearly in the positive principles it delineates.

“(1) In order that a statement may be considered as definable, there must be a certain number of solemn testimonies directly pertinent to it.

(2) A proposition is capable of being defined if there can be found one or more revealed principles containing it.)

(3) A proposition is capable of being defined if it shows a necessary connection with dogmas. In other words, a proposition ought to be accepted as revealed when, from the denial of this proposition, there follows by logical and immediate necessity the denial of one or more revealed principles.

(4) A proposition may be defined as Catholic dogma if it is preached as a part of divine public revelation in the concordant teaching of the actual episcopate. (T. Benns commentFound in all Catholic Catechismsduly authorized by diocesan bishops, beginning with the Catechism of the Council of Trent.)

(5) A proposition is capable of definition when it is shown to be a part of divine public revelation by the practice of the Church.

“In calling for a theological examination of the question he considered defining and for a study of the conditions that rendered a truth capable of definition, Pope Pius IX stated clearly that he was following the precedent established by his predecessors on the pontifical throne.” Msgr. Fenton references another article he terms as excellent, Opinions Concerning Doctrinal Development, by Rev. Charles Sheedy, C.S.C., published in the January 1949 edition of The American Ecclesiastical Review,  that places what is said above in perfect perspective. Rev. Sheedy wrote: “Thus it is clear that there has been progress, development in the dogmatic teaching of the Church, not merely in precision of terms but in actual content and subject matter. Doctrines are taught today as divinely revealed which were not explicitly taught 100 years ago and after the Council of Trent, a whole galaxy of truths entered into the dogmatic teaching of the Church, proposed to the faith of Catholics, not as new dogmas, BUT AS CONTAINED IN THE ANCIENT DEPOSIT.

In a genuine development, a doctrine is presented by the Church as pertaining to faith which did not enter into the explicit faith of Christians of earlier times, perhaps a truth which did not even occur to them. Or again, a truth which was not universally accepted but which was thought to lie in the area of free theological disputation is later taken out of that area and formally recognized as part of the original deposit.” This is true regarding the “implicit desire” of the Suprema haec sacra, for example, which inspires so much venom from Feeneyites, and was first contradicted by Leonard Feeney. That contradiction was definitively condemned by Pope Pius XII.

Errors in the catechisms

Can the ignorance of later developments of dogma, decisions of the Roman Pontiffs entered into the Acta, contribute to actual errors or inaccuracies in the catechisms many are using today? They can and they have. Two examples are listed below:

Bishop Louis Morrow, My Catholic Faith, 1958, 1961: In his section on The Sphere of Infallibility, Morrow writes: “The Pope… must speak as the Vicar of Christ in his office as Pope and to the whole Church; to all the faithful throughout the world. In his capacity as private teacher, for example in his encyclical letters, he is as any other teacher of the Church. We accept what he teaches not on faith but in obedience to his authority, out of respect for his experience and wisdom.” Morrow states that Rev. Francis J. Connell “painstakingly reviewed” his work, and yet Connell’s own statement in a previous article and later in his catechism on this subject does not read the same.

Fr. Francis J. Connell’s 1949 Baltimore Catechism: “

In an article for The American Ecclesiastical Review, (November 1947) Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.S.S.R. wrote: “Besides the infallible teachings of the Church on matters contained in Revelation or connected with it, there also are pronouncements of Her official teachers which are authoritative though not infallible. . Such are decisions of the Roman Congregations or Commissions, and also doctrines taught by the pope officially, but without the intention of using the fullness of his authority and of giving a definitive decision. The statements of the Sovereign Pontiff are usually in this category. The faithful are obliged in conscience to accept such decisions internally, for even though their correctness is not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, those who formulate and promulgate them are undoubtedly aided by the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, every natural precaution is taken before such declarations are published, particularly the meticulous supervision of men who are specialists in the matters involved, [see also DZ 2008]. The acceptance of these decisions is not an act of Divine faith, but is rather an act of obedience, known as religious assent…The general rule is that all Catholics, learned and unlearned, clergy and laity, must acquiesce wholeheartedly to these authoritative (though not infallible) decisions of the Church…”

Bishop Morrow cannot be excused for his statement since it was written 10 years after Humani generis was released in 1950. He went on to accept Vatican 2, while Connell did not. Rev. Connell’s remarks, however, were written prior to 1950 and doubtlessly were adjusted once Humani generis was released, (although one wonders why he would have passed over Bp. Morrow’s statements, given what he says above.) So those using the 1949 Connell and Morrow catechisms are misinformed on this topic because they trust what a priest and a bishop say over what the pope has taught. So how could these catechisms be considered infallible? Msgr. Fenton shows how some tried to pretend that Pius XII never intended to admit that encyclicals could be infallible in the first place by mistranslating one word in Humani generis(Msgr. Fenton’s article on this is available on request). And clearly this belief dichotomy continued into Vatican 2 as Fenton further notes and I have explained from an historical perspective HERE.


It is true that catechisms contain infallible truths; they simply do not generally contain ALL the truths we as Catholics today must know and understand to make sense out of the nightmare we have endured for the past 65 years. Fr. Connell’s 1949 catechism was written for ninth graders. If anyone thinks we were intended to remain at the level of a ninth-grade education to accomplish anything else in life, far less save our souls in these troubled times, they must be mad. As Bp. Yelle pointed out, it is a lack of understanding the catechism and putting it into practice that destroyed the faith of young Catholics and led to Vatican 2. Those believing the catechism is enough to know about their faith obviously have not read the many papal allocutions on Catholic Action or catechesis, and they certainly should heed the words of Peter Michaels, who wrote: “If all Catholics have a moral duty to understand their faith at their level of secular education few of us are going to be saved. A college graduate for instance ought to have a pretty good understanding of Saint Thomas and of the natural law. He ought to see the major issues involved in restoring society to God. Do you by any chance think he does? Pope Pius XI said in another connection: ‘In our day and age, an unenlightened heroism is not enough’” (This Perverse Generation, 1949).

Those advocating “the catechism only” theory have not been honest in pointing out the dangers of their thesis. It is our responsibility to see that those they are misinforming know the truth.

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