What Are the 4 Parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
We are so blessed as Catholics to have a resource like the Catechism of Catholic Church. It’s a resource for clergy, laity, teachers, and anyone who wants to know what the Church believes. Catholicism is an intelligible faith that can satisfy even the most demanding of intellects and hearts.
What the Catechism contains is the result of the Church reflecting on and protecting the deposit of faith for two millennia. In its pages are the stories of dogmatic battles waged, council definitions, the witness of heroic saints, and the teachings of spiritual masters. The Catechism is worth picking up for the footnotes alone: it quotes Saints, Scripture, council documents, and papal encyclicals. I hope these reflections help you consider the Catechism as more of a spiritual director on a shelf than something that collects dust. It’s available online at the Vatican website and searchable on the USCCB website.
A Brief History of Catechisms
Many efforts have been made to condense the Catholic faith into a single resource, whether as an official document from the Church or as a work from a theologian. The oldest “catechism”, the Didache, dates back to the Apostles themselves. The Roman Catechism was one of the fruits of the Council of Trent (PDF here), published by Pope Pius V in 1566. Skipping forward to the modern era, the most well-known form of this was the 1885 Baltimore Catechism. After the Second Vatican Council, more catechisms were published to communicate the faith in the wake of the council. The best among them is a lesser-known volume by Fr. John Hardon, SJ, published in 1975.
The modern Catechism that we know started as a 1994 English translation of a French initial version. The official Latin edition typica—the “text of reference”—was promulgated in 1997. After some updates from the Latin translation, the second edition with the green cover was released in 2000. The Catechism remained unchanged until 2018, when Pope Francis altered paragraph #2267 on capital punishment.
Four parts comprise this great work, and here is an introduction to each.
Part One: The Profession of Faith
This first part could also be titled, ‘how do we know what we know about the faith, and what exactly do we know?’ The first section lays the foundation of revelation: that God took the first step in revealing Himself to us and gave us multiple ways for us to come to know Him. In the inner depths of every person, God the Father placed a yearning to return to Him. “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself” (CCC 27). This portion includes treatment on dogmas and Sacred Scripture. Finally, the end of the first section concludes with the response of humanity to all that God has done: faith.
The rest of this first part of the Catechism takes the creed and analyzes it, sentence by sentence. In terms of the major tenets of the faith—a mini course in fundamental theology—this section covers everything. The Holy Trinity, the Paschal Mystery, the nature and mission of the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell) are all included in this section. As a nod to her divine Son, the passages on the dogmas of the Blessed Virgin Mary (CCC 487-511) fit neatly within the chapter on Jesus Christ.
Part Two: Celebration of the Christian Mystery
In Part Two, the seven sacraments are considered with everything that goes with it. Although most would associate “liturgy” with the celebration of the Mass, that term covers a ton of theological ground. Where Part One left off—the mystery of God—Part Two picks up. Now that humanity is confronted with the great mystery of God, it elicits our response. What do we do? How do we enter into communion with the Holy Trinity? The sacraments!
Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, called the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life” in an oft-cited quote. The Catechism cites this very quote (1324) and the principle applies to all the sacraments. Each of them springs out of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and strives toward further communion with the Holy Trinity.
As spring approaches, so does the season for Confirmation (CCC 1285-1321). This is great background reading, for confirmation—like with so many things in the Church—has a foundation of thousands of years of scriptural roots. The Catechism explores those, considers its fulfillment in the New Testament, and reminds the reader of the effects of the sacrament.
In western culture today, marriage has shifted from a predominantly Christian understanding of marriage to a relativistic one. This isn’t terribly surprising, observing the trajectory of society since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It was also prophesied by Sr. Lucia, one of the shepherd children from Fatima. In a letter before her death in 2005, she wrote that the final conflict between Satan and the Kingdom of God would be over marriage and the family. Would anyone deny that the battle over marriage and the family rages through our society? The authentic Catholic position is very unpopular, but it is clear, biblical, and rests on divinely-revealed truth. To get clarity on Church teaching in this area, check out paragraphs 1601-1666.
Part Three: Life in Christ
This part undertakes the task of living as Christ did. The first words in the section sets the tone for the moral life:
“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.” -CCC 1691, St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21
Morality can be presented as a caricature of itself: a list of negative, stuffy condemnations. And yes, there are moral dangers that absolutely merit condemnation! But St. Leo the Great’s quote sets the perfect tone, taking a step back from the checklist. For moral teachings to have any substance, they need reasons behind them. Our reason? It starts with the God-given dignity of every human person, including our vocation to heaven and free will (1700-1748). With those principles as a foundation, moral directives have their proper context: divine love and human dignity. The commandments prohibiting murder and idolatry make sense on a level of natural law, but it takes on even greater meaning in light of the dignity of and the love that God has for every person.
It’s easier to talk about the foundations of morality than to get into the details. Before diving into the Ten Commandments, the Catechism takes up what makes up human actions, the role of conscience, the virtues, and a person’s role in society. However difficult it is to talk about morality, it is nevertheless important to proclaim truth. Jesus called us to holiness, to taking up our cross, and to a perfect charity, and every Catholic needs to strive after those things. The Catechism serves as a good guide and resource for living lives of authentic Christian charity.
Part Four: Christian Prayer
The final part on prayer cites some of the greatest teachers on prayer in the Catholic mystical tradition: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. John of the Cross. Various aspects of prayer are considered, as well as meditation (CCC 2705-2708) and contemplative prayer (2709-2719). If you have never considered those things within your reach, I really encourage you to read those sections of the Catechism and give them a try.
Part Four concludes with a treatment of the Lord’s Prayer, which Tertullian called “the summary of the whole gospel” (cited in paragraph 2761). Just like the creed and the Ten Commandments, the Our Father is explained line by line. It’s common to get used to saying a memorized prayer like the Our Father, and repeat it by rote. After reading this exposition, however, the prayer takes on a new vibrancy. Try it!
The whole work flows from one part to the next, from beginning to end and back to the beginning. God revealed Himself to us, Jesus became incarnate, and handed on the deposit of faith to His Church (Part One). Once we examine the deposit of faith and unite our hearts and wills to profess faith, that naturally flows into worship of God (Part Two). Having become partakers in the life of the Holy Trinity (2 Peter 1:4), what results is a desire to live and love as Christ did (Part Three). All of these find their meaning and carry their weight only in light of a relationship with God (Part Four). Our life of prayer is in one sense a culmination of divine revelation, participation in the sacraments, and living a moral life. All of those things should propel us to deeper prayer. Yet a living prayer life by its nature flows back into a deeper consideration of revelation, greater zeal for communion with Our Lord in the sacraments, and a stronger commitment to the moral life.
Grow in knowledge, in faith, and in prayer by picking up the Catechism of the Catholic Church today!