Many years ago, I had an immensely valuable opportunity to develop my teaching skills and philosophy: I had to teach probably the stupidest person I’ve ever known – myself.
In 1990, after returning to the Catholic Church, I found myself thoroughly convinced of the veracity of Catholic teaching, but equally ignorant of it. No, that’s not a contradiction. One can come to a biblical and historical conviction beyond all doubt that the Catholic Church is the one true Church directly founded by Jesus Christ, and yet be substantially ignorant of the specifics of her many teachings. Such was the case.
At the time, I had great admiration for certain well-known Catholic organizations that specialized in apologetics and evangelization. Their advice to those who wanted to engage in this sort of work was the same: study individual subjects one at a time; become proficient with one particular teaching of the Church, and then move on to the next. If you’re speaking to someone about a topic on which you’re confident, stick to it and do not wander off to another topic, even if you’re asked questions about it. For example, become adept at speaking about the Holy Eucharist. But if someone asks you about the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, humbly withdraw.
For a short while, I followed this council against my instincts. But I soon enough concluded that it was not for me, and possibly, that it was not good advice in general.
Pardon the tangent, but this metaphor offers a little light on the subject. If one is hiking a new area – be it a mountain or a flat wooded expanse – one can erratically and randomly take one path after another, in the hope that an accumulation of many hikes will eventually familiarize one with the area. Or else, one can be much more methodical, deliberate, and patient. One can take the main trail and stick with it to the end, and repeat this several times, on several different hikes. Becoming well-grounded in the perimeter of the area on the most important trail of all establishes a sense of the place as a whole. After this, one can hike the first side-trail off the main trail, then the second side-trail, then the third side-trail, and so on. In the end, after many hikes, one will have built up both a general knowledge of the area, as well as an organized knowledge of the smaller less-important trails. This takes much more time and patience than the erratic method, but in the end, one’s familiarity with the area will be far superior. And one will be confident when hiking it.
I have found this second method to be the correct one, both in hiking and in studying the faith. While preparing for my reversion to the ancient faith, I read many books at random, many excellent apologetical works by superb Catholic authors, but without a plan. This was the erratic method of self-instruction, and it produced very little knowledge or understanding because it neglected to educate me in the fundamentals of the faith – the “main trail” of Catholicism. It was interesting and enjoyable, but it wasn’t effective. So, in struggling to effectively educate the stupidest person I’ve ever known, I changed the method of education. I decided instead to start at the very beginning and build up. This meant children’s catechisms. In my early thirties, I read the Penny Catechism. Then I read the Baltimore Catechism, numbers one and two. Then I read several of Father John Hardon’s catechisms. Meanwhile, I repeatedly read the Bible cover to cover, as well as some fairly simple apologetical works. With this approach of starting at the bottom and studying very clear, simple, and yet thorough explanations of Catholicism, my dull mind began to grasp the faith, not as an assortment of religious propositions, but as a unified body of doctrines and morals that formed a beautiful and purposeful whole: the Holy Gospel, the faith of the saints.
There are countless Catholics today who have a fine education in various sophisticated fields, who have earned advanced degrees of impressive sorts, but who possess only the crudest religious education. Parallel to this, catechesis has reached a catastrophic low in the modern Church, even in this age that is obsessed with formal education. The instruction that we constantly hear from our preachers and teachers, from those whose solemn duty it is to form the faithful in the truth, is often banal, confused, inaccurate, and even shrewdly laced with errors that can deceive even the vigilant. I dare say, this is true even at the highest levels of the modern Church. To survive and acquire a sound Catholic formation today demands constant watchfulness, courage, and often independence from one’s immediate “Catholic” environment. If you wish to gain a truly Catholic formation of mind and heart, prepare to go it alone. That is the sad reality of our present situation.
In the midst of this chaos, there is quite predictably a constant berating of traditional authentically Catholic catechesis. Both clergy and laity commonly speak of the Penny, Baltimore, and other similar catechisms as if they were a means by which, through memorization, the pre-Vatican II Church brainwashed the young with pious-sounding lies. If anything is a brainwashing, it is this reckless claim that takes from Catholics the means of effective formation in the essentials of revealed Truth and leaves them both ignorant of the treasures God wishes them to possess and vulnerable to the spirit of the times, to the destructive nihilistic ideologies of liberalism, relativism, and agnosticism which corrupt the soul through the intellect.
Ask one such critic of traditional catechesis to define the Church, a sacrament, the nature of the Mass, the two-fold nature of Christ, or the purpose of life itself. They will fumble and mutter a mouthful of nonsense as they try to invent their own definitions, until they finally declare, as if uttering the last divine revelation, “The Church doesn’t engage in religious definitions any longer. Catechisms are passé. We’ve moved beyond them!”
If such persons were to take themselves seriously and assess the actual meaning of their message, they would realize that the emptying of our churches of souls is the only logical consequence. For if there is nothing to teach because nothing is true, and if catechisms contain a mass of outdated nonsensical propaganda, then the Church has no mission, and only a fool would continue to attend her services and listen to her homilies. And this is what the dedicated Catholic must be courageous enough to admit, reject, and denounce – all alone, without the help or support of clergy or laity. It is a weight almost too heavy to bear, but it is precisely what God is presently requiring of those who love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
My point is simply to offer some prudent advice, in light of the current crisis. If you would like to learn the Catholic faith, first patiently follow the main trail, and then gradually and systematically add the side trails. Work at it from the ground up. Study the Church’s classic catechisms cover to cover. Learn the long-established vocabulary of the faith. Read, re-read, and through the tedious wonders of repetition, memorize the answers and definitions. Humble yourself and follow the way that Catholic children once followed. This will be only a beginning, but a good and right beginning. Later, you can build up a more mature grasp of the faith with more advanced manuals. But first, establish a basic and thorough understanding of the faith through an assiduous study of fundamental catechesis of the clearest type. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. And at all times, Holy Scripture.