Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Fruits of Pre-Conciliar Catechesis

Daphne McLeod, the Chairman of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, has been carrying on a lively correspondence in the Catholic Herald, defending her view that the problems of the Church since the Council have been overwhelmingly due to the failure of the 'new catechetics' which followed it. Specifically, in England all Religious Education teachers had to be retrained by an institution called 'Corpus Christi College' which was a hotbed of heresy, and was finally closed down by Cardinal Heenan. By then, Mrs McLeod tells us, its work had sadly already been done.

Tellingly, she explains that the English translation of the Council's document on education, Gravissimum Educationis, did not appear until 1971, when Corpus Christi College was already closed. The claim that 'the Council' had demanded a revolution in the content and method of religious education was revealed to be completely false, but too late.

'By their fruits you shall know them', Mrs McLeod says: because it has led to lapsation, the new catechetical method is shown to be problematic. However, she does not really address the point made by the previous letter, by a certain Martin Elsworth, that if catechesis was so wonderful before the Council, how was it that things collapsed so rapidly after the Council? Why, we might ask, did adults with this old catechesis fall for every absurd theological fad after the Council, or even give up the practice of the Faith? Why were Catholic RE teachers - of all people, surely the vanguard of the 'well-instructed laity' praised by Cardinal Spellman - so easy to brainwash with a lot of nonsense? Why did no-one think to ask any of the Latinists, so plentyful in the 1960s, what Gravissimum Educationis actually said? Why, in short, was the generation educated between the 1930s and the 1950s led to their destruction, like sheep to the slaughter, with so little resistance? A generalisation to which, of course, Daphne McLeod is such an honourable exception.

It is of course quite possible to check for oneself what pre-Conciliar Catholics were taught: many of the most influential texts have been reprinted, and they are indeed far superior in orthodoxy to much of the stuff written since then. I have before me a copy of the Baltimore Catechism Number 4: this is the teacher's manual, with the fullest treatment of each topic. What does it say about Infallibility? Naturally it tells us that it only extends to ex cathedra statements by the Pope on matters of faith and morals, and that on other matters, or in other statements, the Pope can err. But then it adds:

"Nevertheless, whatever the Pope teaches on any subject you can be pretty sure he is right."

Is there a distinction between matters of discipline and policy in which we should follow even wrong-headed commands for the sake of unity and to avoid scandal, and 'unjust commands' which it would be a sin to follow?

Is there a discussion of cases of the Popes treating the saints badly, and how they responded?

Is there a distinction between policies and prudential judgements, in which one Pope may contradict another, or indeed himself, and matters of Church teaching, in which we should adopt a hermeneutic of continuity: i.e., we should understand what Popes and Councils have said as harmonising if at all possible?

Is there a distinction between basic matters of faith, which as St Robert Bellarmine said should be just obvious to the Faithful, and about which they should never tolerate false teaching from anyone, and more complex matters on which the ordinary laity might best be encouraged to follow the teaching of Pope and Bishops even when they are unsure its orthodoxy?

Is there any discussion of the different levels of authority, or the credence due to past Councils and the Ordinary Magisterium, which should take priority over what is reported as being an off-the-cuff remark by the present Pope, since after all such reports are constantly subject to distortion, tendentious reporting, and misunderstanding?

No, no, no, no, and again no. The teaching of the Baltimore Catechism is one-sided and deficient, and it failed. I should be interested to know if any other catechetical handbooks of the era do better than Baltimore Catechism on this topic, but I don't get the impression that they did. What is more, the ultramontanism of the Baltimore Catechism is still the dominant ideology of many neo-conservatives, even as they reject so many other Catholic assumptions of the day, including the trenchant defence of the Temporal Power of the Papacy which can be found in the catechism's very next pages.

See also my blog post on Daphne McLeod's claim that Trads aren't interested in catechesis;
and a series of posts on the notion of obedience.


  1. A very interesting post, Joe. As one of those traditional Catholic home-educators who has opted out of local parish Mass, catechesis and school (as mentioned in your earlier article), I have used the Baltimore Catechism but never been *quite* satisfied with it. I tend to stick with the Penny Catechism: it needs a considerable amount of explaining, but seems safe enough. I have heard very high recommendations of Canon Drinkwater's Abbreviated Catechism (1940's, I believe), and use a copy of Bishop Louis Morrow's 'My Catholic Faith'(1949) to help with detailed questions (the latter has seven pages devoted to the authority, infallibility and indefectibility of the Church). Are you familiar with these? ('My Catholic Faith' is available online here:

    I'd be interested to know what you think of them. I was a tad alarmed to discover that Bishop Morrow had gone on to be a strong voice at Vatican 2 in favour of vernacular liturgy and women priests!

    Have you seen this quote before?

    Fr. Le Floch, superior of the French Seminary in Rome, announced in 1926:

    "The heresy which is now being born will become the most dangerous of all; the exaggeration of the respect due to the pope and the illegitimate extension of his infallibility."

    Food for thought.

  2. Please would you expand upon the belief that the Baltimore Catechism is 'one-sided and deficient, and it failed'? I have always used it alongside the PC and found it to be sound enough although, as Kathryn mentioned above, having re-discovered the Canon Drinkwater's 'Abbreviated Catechism' has been very enjoyable and insightful.
    His 'Catechism Stories' which compliment the Catechism are also very detailed and the children believe them to be helpful explanations.

    It is a shame 'Abbreviated Catechism' is so rare to find these days!

  3. Hi Kathryn, thanks for the comment. A quick look at the Morrow catechism suggests the same pattern, on infallibility: the basic distinction is there, between what is infallibly taught and what is not, but there is nothing about the difference between matters of prudence or discipline and matters of faith, and there is nothing about real or apparent conflicts between authoritative statements.

    I don't think anyone imagined that such conflicts could happen in practice. But the history of the Church is replete with cases!

    I do like the Baltimore Catechism, for all its limitations, the structure of successive versions is useful, but you are right the Penny Catechism has a wonderful concision. Interestingly the children prefer the Penny Catechism.

  4. I'm only talking about the failure of the Baltimore in this one respect, but it turned out to be the crucial one: if the children are taught that they should accept everything of any level of authority which derives ultimately from the Pope then everything else in the book can be rejected if theologians and bishops simply say 'the Council/ the Pope changed all that'. And that's exactly what happened.

    I don't think that's a danger with trads using the Baltimore today, because we have to teach our children to exercise discernment, to read up the authoritative teachings and take everything else with a grain of salt, and so on.

    1. How far is it true that 'adults with this old catechesis fell for every absurd theological fad after the Council, or even give up the practice of the Faith?' In my experience this is not the rule, at least when it comes to the laity - and even with the clergy it is far from universal. What is more common is failure or refusal to see that other people are rejecting this faith. Thus, Catholic parents would happily hand over their children to schools and priests who would openly destroy their faith, and think nothing of it. I have spoken to people who have done this in the past 10 years; it is not a feature of the 1960s and 1970s.

      On not distinguishing degrees of papal authority; it is not uncritical reception of all papal statements that is the problem, since these statements are almost all at worst vague or male sonans, but partly a refusal to see that the pope is failing to exercise his authority to govern properly, and more importantly a refusal to see the obvious anti-Catholic behaviour of ecclesastical authorities beneath the pope.

      One should also ask what effect even the best catechesis would have had in the situation that existed in the late 1960s and 1970s; a complete takeover of ecclesiastical authority by fanatical and utterly unscrupulous modernists. I think the best criticism of Daphne Mcleod is that she is focusing on the effect - bad catechesis - rather than the cause of this bad catechesis, the aforesaid modernists. This focus is where ultramontanism does its harm - not in an excessive reverence for noninfallible papal statements. Looking at the cause would mean accepting the fact that the aforesaid modernist takeover was promoted to the hilt by Paul VI, and tolerated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and it would mean accepting that this takeover began in the Second Vatican Council. But of course if you start accepting these things and publicly criticising them, you end up being declared 'not in full communion' with the Church by the ecclesiastical authorities you are criticising. And in order to avoid this you focus on the failures of postconciliar catechesis. This does not solve the problem, but I do not see that pointing to the failures of preconciliar catechesis does so either.

    2. John: during the 1970s about half of all Catholics ceased to practice the Faith, an unprecedented apostasy. They didn't become trads, they didn't join PEEP, they just left. Their wonderful pre-conciliar formation left them completely unprepared for the crisis, by sharp contrast with the resistance of English Catholics in the 16th Century.

  5. Isn't the real problem the post-Conciliar popes and their regimes of novelties, which is unprecedented in the previous 2000 years, and has done more damage to the Church than a dozen Borgia popes.

    This has forced traditionalists to re-evaluate their understanding of the papacy.

  6. I find this post quite troubling. There's something that smells fishy about someone telling me that I can't trust the pope if he's not speaking ex cathedra. Who else can I trust, and why should I trust anyone else? Is the pope just a kind of dogma parrot when speaking ex cathedra, but otherwise of not much more worth than Mgr Lefebvre, for instance? I was under the impression that he was the one steering the bark of Peter. I suppose I'm one of those conservative Catholics who isn't able to exercise proper discernment. But on the other hand, maybe the pope's discernment is more trustworthy than my own.