The More You Know, the More You Love: Reflections on the "Catechism"

Apr 13, 2021

Anthony Coleman, Ph.D.

I can’t recall how I came across this story – which is a poor attestation to my capacities as a scholar – but there is a tale I enjoy telling regarding the Catechism of the Catholic Church that involves its principal architect, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. Now, I know that even prior to relating the story that I’ve already lost a few people. “What do you mean? The Pope didn’t write the Catechism?” While the Catechism was issued under the authority of Pope St. John Paul II – who did, in fact, make his own amendments here and there – no, he did not write the Catechism. A very busy man is the Pope. Instead, he formed a commission of twelve cardinals and bishops and entrusted them with the task of composing, compiling, and arranging the Catechism - among whom Cardinal Schönborn served as editorial secretary.

To get back to the story, after the publication of the Catechism in 1992, Cardinal Schönborn was asked by an interviewer if he thought that anyone would read the Catechism. After all, suggested the reporter, the Catechism is quite long and dense and, for the average layperson, full of unfamiliar concepts and references. The good Cardinal answered a question with a question: “Have you ever seen a secondary school chemistry textbook?”

I thoroughly appreciated the Cardinal’s comment for two reasons. Firstly, I generally enjoy quick-witted responses to disparaging questions. That’s my kind of humor. Secondly, and more to the point, the Cardinal’s response contains within it a presupposition. The presupposition is that if we value a particular field of knowledge, then we teach it to others. Because of the emergence of employment opportunities to be found in STEM-related occupations, we value the transmission of knowledge in those fields. Chemistry is difficult to master. But because we value the good that can come from teaching this subject to young people, we teach it. In relation to the Catechism, therefore, the question is: to what degree do we value the knowledge contained in it?

Unlike chemistry or engineering or economics, the knowledge contained in the Catechism will not help you find employment – not lucrative employment, anyway. It will not help you lose weight and it will not help you earn the esteem of your peers. It may, however, help you fall in love.

It would be odd to say that one loves a stranger. Of course, one might have a love for humanity, and a stranger is a particular example of that humanity. But, in that case, what one loves is not the person but his human nature. In order to love a person, one must know that person.

In the Christian tradition we believe that God revealed Himself definitively through the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Through Him, and by the sending of His Spirit, the Father calls us into a loving and eternal communion with Himself. That is our eternal destiny and reason for which Jesus, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14), suffered in the flesh and rose to new life. We can all say, with St. Paul, that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

The knowledge contained in the Catechism represents what Catholics refer to as the “Deposit of Faith.” It is, in contemporary language, an articulation of what God has revealed of Himself to humanity, and the implications of that revelation. The value of this knowledge is immeasurable, for how can we love someone we do not know? As St. Augustine famously asked: “how can people call upon someone in whom they do not believe? And how can they believe without a preacher?” (Conf. I.1.1). All Christian teaching and preaching – especially as it relates to the Catechism – aims at this end: to know God so that we might love God.

This summer I have the privilege of teaching the first two parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the course, The Revelation of God: Doctrine, Liturgy, and Sacraments (CT 671). Please come and register. Maybe you’ll fall in love?

Anthony P. Coleman is delighted to be able to serve St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Director of the Albany Campus. Anthony earned his M.A. in Theology and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology (with a minor in Historical Theology) at Boston College and is a native of Braintree, Massachusetts. He has taught theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Anna Maria College, St. Gregory's University, and has previously served as an Associate Program Director for St. Joseph's College of Maine. He is the author of Lactantius the Theologian (2017) and editor of Leisure and Labor: the Liberal Arts in Catholic Higher Education (2020). He happily lives in Mechanicville, NY, with his wife and three children.