The Baltimore Catechism

Last year I wrote about Doctrina Christiana, St. Robert Bellarmine’s catechism for adults. Though excellent, it’s also rather short. Not that a catechism should go into great detail on every point, since it’s intended as a brief introduction to Christian doctrine, primarily stating what the Church’s main doctrines are and not a full explanation, but one can easily think of enough additional questions after reading it that many readers would benefit from something longer. Of course, one could look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but this is long enough to be intimidating and, in some cases, doctrines aren’t spelled out as clearly as in Bellarmine’s catechism. I’d still highly recommend keeping a copy of the CCC on hand, but the ideal would be a catechism somewhere in between.

Fortunately, we do have such a book in the Baltimore Catechism. This was written by a committee of bishops following the third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and from its publication in 1885 it quickly became the standard textbook for religious education classes in the United States up until the late 1960s, when it was replaced by, well, nothing at all, really. Just youth ministers trying with little success to hold children’s attention while having no expectations whatever of their maturity or intelligence, thus encouraging the students to live down to those expectations.

In any case, though people often refer to “the” Baltimore Catechism, there are actually a few different versions of it, generally referred to by numbers. No. 1 is intended for children preparing for First Communion, No. 2 for older children preparing for Confirmation, and No. 3 for high schools. Later, in 1921, came An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism, often referred to as No. 4, written by Fr. Thomas Kinkead. This contains the text of Baltimore No. 3, but adds further explanations to many of the questions and is intended for teachers, so that they can expand on Baltimore’s straightforward but minimalist questions and answers, and answer additional questions that students may have. The language is still simple and the explanations and examples clearly assume a young audience, but for those wanting an introduction to what the Church teaches, with brief explanations of why, Fr. Kinkead’s book is the best that I’m aware of.

A few questions should suffice to give an idea of the level and structure of the whole book. Question 52 below comes from Lesson 6, “On Sin and its Kinds.” The previous question had asked and answered “Is Original Sin the only kind of sin?” The answer that “there is another kind of sin which we commit ourselves, called actual sin,” naturally raises this as a follow-up:

Q. What is actual sin?

A. Actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the law of God.

Three ways we may sin, by “thought“–allowing our minds to dwell on sinful things; “word“–by cursing, telling lies, etc.; “deed“–by any kind of bad action. But to be sins, these thoughts, words and deeds must be willful; that is, we must fully know what we are doing, and be free in doing it. Then they must be “contrary to the law of God“; that is, violate some law He commands us to obey, whether it be a law He gave directly Himself, or through His Church. We can also violate God’s law by neglecting to observe it, and thus sin, provided the neglect be willful, and the thing neglected commanded by God or by His Church.

The next few questions cover mortal and venial sin, what they are, and related questions. Again, Baltimore Catechism No. 4‘s great strength is that it sets out all the basic doctrines that a young adult or new convert will need to know, gives a brief but clear explanation, and anticipates the first follow-up questions that one is likely to have without going into so much detail that one gets intimidated just looking at the book. A great deal more can be said about any one of these questions, but it makes for a good starting point and ensures that the student will at least know what he believes. Reading more advanced works of theology after building this foundation is, of course, prudent and laudable, but we shouldn’t look down on these initial stepping-stones. Bl. John Henry Newman, in the introduction to The Idea of a University, noted that in his experience Catholics are able to do good work in defending the Faith and even in evangelising to those we meet simply through a solid knowledge of the basics taught in a good catechism. I think that Cardinal Newman is right, and would add that poorly catechised Catholics frequently embarrass themselves and make the Faith appear contemptible even to otherwise sympathetic audiences by an inability even to state what the Church teaches. Furthermore, their own souls are often endangered because they are more easily lead astray by the arguments of heretics and atheists. It’s quite unsettling to the poorly catechised to come across a non-Catholic who appears to know the Faith better than he does, regardless of whether that appearance is accurate or not.

Returning to the text, though, Fr. Kinkead’s explanations vary considerably in length. He offers no comment on some questions, on most he’ll simply offer a slightly clearer or expanded definition of some term or another, and occasionally, like Bellarmine, he will offer some advice in addition to the technical explanation of terms. In the section on the Ten Commandments, for example, we have question 372:

Q. Does the Sixth Commandment forbid the reading of bad and immodest books and newspapers?

A. The Sixth Commandment does forbid the reading of bad and immodest books and newspapers.

Reading brings us into the company of those who wrote the book. Now we should be just as careful to avoid a bad book as a bad man, and even more so; for while we read we can stop to think, and read over again, so that bad words read will often make more impression upon us than bad words spoken to us. You should avoid not only bad, but useless books. You could not waste all your time with an idle man without becoming like him–an idler. So if you waste your time on useless books, your knowledge will be just like the books–useless. Many authors write only for the sake of money, and care little whether their book is good or bad, provided it sells well. How many young people have been ruined by bad books, and how many more by foolish books! Boys, for example, read in some worthless book of desperate deeds of highway robbery or piracy, and are at once filled with the desire to imitate the hero of the tale. Young girls, on the other hand, are equally infatuated by the wonderful fortunes and adventures of some young woman whose life has been so vividly described in a trashy novel. As the result of such reading, young persons lose the true idea of virtue and valor of true, noble manhood and womanhood, and with their hearts and minds corrupted set up vice for their model.

Again, these books are filled with such terrible lies and unlikely things that any sensible boy or girl should see their foolishness at once. Think, for example, of a book relating how two boys defeated and killed or captured several hundred Indians! Is that likely? The truth is, if two Indians shook their tomahawks at as many boys as you could crowd into this building, every single one of them would run for his life.

Let me give you still another reason for not reading trashy books. Your minds can hold just so much good or evil information, and if you fill them full of lies and nonsense you leave no room for true knowledge.

Do not, therefore, get into the habit of reading foolish storypapers and cheap novels. Read good books in which you can find information that will be useful to you all through your life.

If now and then you read story–books for amusement or rest from study, let them be good story–books, written by good authors. Ask someone’s advice about the books you read–someone who is capable of giving such advice: your pastor, your teachers, and frequently your parents and friends. Learn all through your life to ask advice on every important matter. How many mistakes in life would have been prevented if those making them had only asked advice from the proper persons and followed it. Your parents have traveled the road of life before you. Now it is known to them and they can point out its dangers. To you the road is entirely new, and it will be only after you have traveled it and arrived nearly at its end in the latter days of your life that you also will be able to advise others how to pass through it in safety. This road can be traveled only once, so be advised by those who have learned its many dangers by their own experience. You should be very glad that those of experience are willing to teach you, and if you neglect their warnings you will be very sorry for it someday.

Now, this passage illustrates the only two weaknesses to Baltimore Catechism No. 4, both of them minor. One, as I’ve said, is that it is written for a young audience, so the tone is simple and the examples, again, are intended for children, as in the example of novels about cowboys and Indians above. Some adults, then, may feel that it’s beneath them. The other is that some of Fr. Kinkead’s assumptions and terminology are dated; nothing directly concerning doctrine, of course, but things like assuming that every non-Catholic we meet will be a Protestant. This was true when he wrote, I’m sure, but today, we have to deal not only with serious Protestants, but also lukewarm Protestants, Kennedy Catholics, atheists, and in some places Jews, Moslems, and others.

As for terminology, in question 9 he distinguishes between three kinds of worship: “latria, or that supreme worship due to God alone, which cannot be transferred to any creature without committing the sin of idolatry; dulia, or that secondary veneration we give to saints and angels as the special friends of God; hyperdulia, or that higher veneration which we give to the Blessed Virgin as the most exalted of all God’s creatures.” Today, we typically don’t use the term “worship” at all except in the context of latria; for dulia and hyperdulia we use “venerate” or “honour.” Though there’s nothing wrong with the older practice of using “worship” for all three as long as the word is properly understood, the modern usage is, honestly, better, since it lessens the possibility of confusion and of unduly scandalising Protestants.

Finally, who should read the Baltimore Catechism? For its intended purpose of religious education, it’s hard to beat, so those putting together a curriculum for, say, home schooling or Sunday school should certainly buy a copy of No. 4 for themselves and Nos. 1, 2, or 3 for the students, depending on their grade level. New converts and even those Catholics who think that their religious education has failed them will also profit from it, No. 4 in particular. Is it better for this purpose than Doctrina Christiana or Catechism of the Catholic Church? That’s a tough call, and really comes down to how much detail you’re looking for and how much Baltimore’s relatively low reading level bothers you. I would say it hits a happy medium between those two, and though I’m glad to have all three, if I could only have one catechism I’d go with this one.

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