In the first centuries of the church, the term “catechism” referred to the process or method of instruction for catechumens on their way to baptism;* later it was extended to encompass religious instruction in general, making the term largely co-extensive with “catechesis”.* In the 16th century, however, “catechism” became identified almost exclusively with manuals of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. In book form, the catechism became the primary instrument of religious education. Short catechetical summaries of faith are as old as the church, and some manuals were certainly used for catechizing in the middle ages, but not until the time of the Reformation (and the invention of the printing press) did catechisms proper flourish.

History, nature, use

Attempts at manuals for instruction prior to Luther include the Children’s Questions of the Bohemian Brethren (1502) and the Catechismus of Andreas Althamer (1528), the first book actually to carry the title “Catechism”. But it was the two classic catechisms of Luther (small catechism, 1529; large catechism, 1530) which opened the floodgates for the proliferation of these catechetical manuals. The context of Luther’s catechisms was clearly homiletical: they grew out of his preaching and were supposed to be used for and in connection with the sermon. These two catechisms themselves became the basis of many others. Reformed catechisms followed soon after, among them those of Martin Bucer (1537), John Calvin (1537, 1541-42), and Heinrich Bullinger (1561).

As the number of catechisms grew, their subject matter also expanded. The traditional core material of the catechisms consists of the creed, the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer and teachings on the sacraments (and, for the Roman Catholic tradition, the Hail Mary) – core elements of the church’s doctrine, worship and life. Catechisms, however, rapidly became more and more detailed: Bullinger’s Reformed catechism of 1561 contained nearly 300 questions, Joseph Deharbe’s famous Catholic Catechism of 1847 had 750. Catechisms typically presented their material in question-and-answer form, with the student expected to memorize the answers.

Catechisms could thus serve both as a book of instruction for the catechized and as a manual for the catechist. Some Reformation catechisms were also clearly designed as confessions of faith and doctrinal statements and as such became part of the confessional documents (Bekenntnisschriften) of a particular tradition, as is the case with the Heidelberg catechism of 1563, Luther’s two catechisms, which were included in the Book of Concord (1580), and the two catechisms compiled by the Westminster assembly (1643-53) (the shorter has been in regular use among Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist churches). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer included a catechism before the confirmation service; it was used in the preparation for confirmation.

Roman Catholic catechisms flourished in the 16th century in response to the challenges of the Reformation. Those of Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine enjoyed a wide reception; and in 1566 the Catechismus Romanus , written under order from the council of Trent,* was published as a teaching instrument for parish priests.

As the number of catechisms grew and their subject matter expanded, apologetics began to play an increasingly important part. Catechisms became more and more consciously confessional, spelling out in detail the particular identity of one ecclesial tradition over against others. Often, catechisms came to be simplified compendia of scholastic theology. The emphasis lay clearly on intellectual adherence to a set of doctrinal propositions. (That catechisms were used not only for religious instruction can be seen by the fact that some of them contained alphabet primers or Latin grammars.) Yet despite the “confessionalism” of most catechisms, some ecumenical borrowing did take place: the Jesuit Edmond Auger, for example, consciously modelled his 1563 catechism on Calvin’s catechetical work.

With Christianity’s entry into non-Western countries, European catechisms were often simply transplanted directly. In some cases, translations into indigenous languages came within the first generation of mission work: in 1582-83 the third council of Lima provided for the translation of a catechism into the indigenous languages of Quechua and Aymara. In the early period of Jesuit missionary outreach in Japan, adaptations in content and language style to the Japanese culture were attempted – while at the same time a Latin guidebook for catechists was published under the title Catechismus Christianae Fidei in Quo Secta Japonenses Confutantur . Catechisms were never without culturally conditioned presuppositions (and weaknesses): in the USA, the Anglican “catechism to be used by the teachers in the religious instruction of persons of colour” from 1837 taught slaves very clearly that their state was ordained by God and that they should be content in it.

Both in Europe and the New World, catechisms were the prime instrument of religious education for nearly 400 years. With the introduction of compulsory education in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main use of catechisms came to be for religious education in schools; the method of learning remained that of memorizing and reciting the text. The Eastern churches generally remained without catechisms, except under Western influence (see e.g. the catechism of Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, d.1812).

Current situation

The 20th-century rethinking of catechesis and renewal in catechetical methods led to a new approach and orientation in the nature and use of catechisms. The traditional scholastic compendium gave way to a veritable flood of new catechisms which take account of the anthropological foundations and cultural context of faith as well as the biblical-narrative core of the depositum fidei and the liturgical life of the church. Most have moved away from the standard question-and-answer format to a more narratival, participatory and situation-oriented approach. Current catechisms typically adapt their structure, content and pedagogical techniques to the age group they are addressing and its psychological make-up. Catechisms for children, for example, generally use very simple language and a variety of images, stories and songs.

A clear innovation was the publication of the so-called Dutch catechism in 1966. This Roman Catholic catechism for adults is structured around two foci: the concrete situations and questions of life, and the witness of faith. This dialogical approach of relating human experience and the good news seems to have found acceptance in many catechisms over a broad range of ecclesial traditions. The German Evangelischer Gemeindekatechismus (1979; US ed., Evangelical Catechism, 1982) begins with human experience, then moves to information, reflection, discussion and personal appropriation. It includes pictures, meditative texts, prayers and songs from a variety of ecclesial, geographical and cultural backgrounds. Vamos Caminando (the English sub-title calls it “A Peruvian Catechism”) is even more situation-oriented. With a clear view towards liberating conscientization, it starts with reflections on the daily life of campesinos in the northern Andes and evidences great appreciation for the local cultural context and its importance in the growth of faith. In this respect, it is typical of new catechisms in non-Western contexts, which are more often governed by basic life themes than by doctrinal concerns. There are, however, also catechisms which move in a more conservative direction: the 1986 catechism of the British Methodist church, for example, maintains the traditional question-and-answer format. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) takes its structure from the traditional division into doctrine, sacraments and commandments; it is intended as a reference book for national and diocesan catechisms.

An ecumenical Protestant-Catholic catechetical venture, edited by J. Feiner and L. Vischer, was published in 1973 under the title Neues Glaubensbuch , but catechisms on the whole have not been an area of extensive ecumenical initiative. With the growth of ecumenical commitment, however, polemics against other churches have been eliminated from most catechisms. Apologetic emphases have also given way to a renewed concentration on the basics of Christian doctrine, worship and life. (There are, of course, exceptions; e.g. the recent edition of A. Makrakis’s The Sacred and Holy Catechesis of the Orthodox Church as Taught by the Holy Spirit and His Solemn Instruments from the Day of Pentecost to the Last Ecumenical Council , 1885, 2nd ed. 1969.)

Future directions

A concrete outcome of the Faith and Order convergence document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry * and the study “Towards the Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today” could perhaps be something like a “Basic Ecumenical Catechism”, which could serve as a model and reference book for denominational catechisms. A number of fundamental questions related to the very nature of catechisms would need to be faced in undertaking such a venture, however. Catechisms are instruments for the transmission and explication of the faith. For most ecclesial traditions, they do not belong to the symbols of faith themselves. Moreover, they clearly presuppose a book culture. Thus in primarily oral cultures, with clearly established patterns of oral teaching, they may not be the most helpful tool for the faithful transmission of the gospel. Furthermore, in a post -book culture, as is beginning to appear in certain sub-cultures of the West, a catechism may not be a helpful tool either – for very different reasons. The fundamental question facing the churches is: What will best serve the transmission of the faith in the diversity of the one-church-to-be in the ages to come?


n Catechismus Ecclesiae Catholicae , Città del Vaticano, Editrice Vaticana, 1993 n J. Feiner & L. Vischer eds, Neues Glaubensbuch: Der gemeinsame christliche Glaube (ET The Common Catechism: A Christian Book of Faith , London, Search, 1975) n H.-G. Link ed., Apostolic Faith Today: A Handbook for Study , WCC, 1985 n H.-G. Link ed., One God, One Lord, One Spirit: On the Explication of the Apostolic Faith Today , WCC, 1988 n B.L. Marthaler, The Catechism Yesterday and Today: The Evolution of a Genre , Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1995 n P.C. Phan, Mission and Catechesis: Alexandre de Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam , Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1998.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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