Doctrina Christiana

I don’t read as much theology as I perhaps should, but every Catholic should have some familiarity with the Church’s teachings, and work constantly to deepen our understanding of the Faith. I was fortunate to be better catechised than most in high school, but revisiting the basics once in a while doesn’t hurt, so I decided to pick up Doctrina Christiana, a catechism written by St. Robert Bellarmine, whose work is becoming a staple of my reading habits after the excellent De Laicis and the extraordinarily in-depth De Romano Pontifice.

Of course, Doctrina Christiana isn’t nearly as detailed as those two other works. Though this is intended for adults, as opposed to a shorter catechism he wrote for children, it’s still intended for those new to the Faith and so covers the basic doctrines, giving a brief explanation of what they are why they’re believed. So, among other things, he covers what doctrine is, the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the meaning of the Our Father and Hail Mary, virtues, the capital sins, and the Ten Commandments. It’s set in the form of a dialogue between a student and teacher, though perhaps calling it a “dialogue” is a little misleading since that makes one expect something like Plato’s dialogues, when in practice it differs little from the question-and-answer format of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. That may be unavoidable, since it must remain as straightforward as possible, but it is a little less dry than Baltimore.

Fortunately, Bellarmine isn’t content simply to define points of doctrine, but adds further explanation as needed. For example, in this part of his discussion of the Ninth Commandment (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”), after explaining the bare meaning of the commandment, he adds some detail:

S. Please, tell me whether every desire for someone else’s wife is a sin, even if the consent of the will is not present.

T. Pope Gregory taught there are three degrees in an evil desire of this sort: 1) Suggestion; 2) Delight; 3) Consent. Suggestion is when the devil puts a foul thought in the soul, to which he applies himself to the certain beginning of the sudden desire; if one resists this sudden suggestion, so that no delight arises then the man does not sin and instead increases his merit with God. But if he should add carnal delight to the suggestion, but still he would not consent to it with reason or the will, then the man would have committed venial sin. Lastly, if he were to join the consent of reason and the will with thought and delight, to the extent that the man notices what he thinks and desires it, and it adheres in him by voluntary desire of this sort, then he commits a mortal sin. And this is what is particularly forbidden in this Commandment.

Now, though Doctrina Christiana primarily exists to explain what the Church’s doctrines are, one must still have some knowledge of how to actually follow and practice these things, and Bellarmine includes some advice on living a Christian life along the way. For each of the capital sins, for example, he not only states what it is, but how to avoid it:

S. What is lust? What sins does it beget and what is its remedy?

T. Lust is a disordered passion for carnal desires and delights. The sins proceeding from it are blindness of the mind, rashness, and weakness, as well as adultery, fornication, obscene words and every other sort of uncleanliness. Its remedy is to engage oneself in fasting and prayer as well as to avoid bad company, for these are the means discovered to preserve chastity and apart from these neither to trust too much to one’s self nor to his own virtue and sanctity, but to stay very far away from dangers and to guard his senses, by considering the great strength of Samson, the great holiness of David and the great wisdom of Solomon and yet how they were deceived by this vice and incurred a great blindness of the mind, and especially Solomon, who conducted the worship of idols with his concubines.

I especially appreciate his urging us to avoid bad company and guarding our senses since, though these are eternally relevant, the internet has given us a seemingly infinite number of pitfalls and temptations to fall into exactly this snare. Pornography is the obvious example, but impure music and movies and the like, are seemingly omnipresent. Even people who do avoid these sometimes get caught up in feasting on outrage porn, as I’ve written about before (and no, by no means am I saying I’m entirely innocent of this). Also relevant to those of us who spend a lot of time on Twitter is his advice on the sin of detraction, “the best counsel is to always speak well about others when it can be done with the truth, or if not then to be silent.”

There are a few other points I found particularly interesting. When discussing the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), he notes that “Virtue always consists in the mean, and therefore it has two contrary vices which are its extremes.” This is the position Aristotle famously put forward in the Nicomachean Ethics, and though I’ve seen Christians borrow from this before, I don’t think I’ve seen it presented explicitly as a Christian position. It should be noted, though, that he’s specifically talking about natural virtues, not the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Some readers will also appreciate Bellarmine listing usury as a violation of the seventh commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”), “[A]ll usury which is exercised in money, with an agreement that one should receive something more than the capital itself, which is reduced to robbery. For one who charges interest clearly demands more than he gave.” This is a hot topic in some circles, and I won’t wade into the issue here, except to say that for something so rarely talked about today, it’s striking how pre-modern theologians considered usury as clearly sinful. In Inferno, Dante Alighieri even places usurers in the same circle of hell as sodomites.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Bellarmine’s explanation of the Tridentine Mass as “a compendium of the whole life of Christ,” which is especially valuable to those fortunate enough to be able to attend the Latin Mass regularly:

The Introit of the Mass signifies the desire which the Holy Fathers had for the coming of Christ. The Kyrie eleison signifies the words of these Patriarchs and Prophets who sought from God the desired coming of the Messiah at such a time. The Gloria in excelsis means the Lord’s Birth. The subsequent Oratio or Collect signifies His presentation and offering in the Temple. The Epistle, customarily said at the left side of the altar (right to us) signifies the preaching of St. John the Baptist, inviting men to Christ. The Gradual, or response to the Epistle, signifies the life arising from the preaching of St. John. The Gospel, customarily read at the right side of the altar (our left), signifies the preaching of Our Lord whereby we move from the left to the right, i.e. from temporal things to eternal ones, and from sin to grace, where the lights are carried and the incense is enkindled and the Holy Gospel illumines the whole world, and it was filled with the sweet odor of Divine glory. The Creed signifies the conversion of the Holy Apostles and of the other disciples of Christ. The Secret, which immediately follows the Creed, signifies the secret plots of the Jews against Christ. The Preface, sung in a high voice, customarily ends with the Hosanna in excelsis, and it signifies the solemn entry of Christ into Jerusalem which He made on Palm Sunday. The Canon which comes after the Preface, represents the Passion of our Lord. The Elevation of the host teaches that Christ was lifted up on the Cross. The Pater noster, the prayer of Christ hanging on the cross. The fraction of the Host shows the wound that was made upon Him by the lance. The Agnus Dei signifies the weeping of Mary when Christ was taken down from the cross. The Communion of the priest signifies the burial of Christ. The chant which follows with great joy shows the Lord’s Resurrection. The Ite Missa est, signifies the Ascension. The Final Blessing of the priest relates the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Last Gospel that is read at the end of Mass, signifies the preaching of the Holy Apostles when, filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to preach the Gospel through the whole world, and began the conversion of the nations.

Finally, I should note that my edition was translated by Ryan Grant and published by Mediatrix Press, the same translator and publisher as De Romano Pontifice. Again, I can’t vouch for accuracy but it reads naturally. Since that was one of only two books I’ve ever reviewed where the copy-editing was bad enough to merit pointing out, I’ll add that this book doesn’t suffer that problem.

So, who should read Doctrina Christiana? The easy answer is “everyone,” since even the well-catechised can use an occasional reminder of these doctrines, and Bellarmine’s advice and insights are all valuable. However, it’s most useful either to those new to the Faith, who weren’t well-catechised as children, or those teaching a religious education class.

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