Catechisms Essay

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An instructional tool for teachers and students of religious education, a catechism is a textbook whose primary goal is to provide clear, precise, and brief answers to fundamental questions. Typically structured in the question-and-answer format, a catechism proposes a basic question, and then proceeds to answer it immediately. Catechisms thus provide a quick but exact summary of religious doctrine in a highly accessible and easy-to-understand layout.

The word catechism, and its cognates, catechesis and catechetical, have their origin in the Greek verb katechein, which is often associated with the theater and the ancient agora or marketplace; it means, “to make resound or echo.” Thus, oral instruction is suggested in the etymology of the verb. While Christianity popularized the common use of catechisms, the pedagogical technique is rooted in both the Greek Socratic method and the manner of instruction found in rabbinical schools and synagogues. The question-answer format invites the participation of two, a master and a follower, a teacher and a student, a parent and a child. The use of catechisms was popular in the early days of Christianity, especially in the education of children and converts.

Catechisms tend to merit greater attention and receive wider distribution during difficult and challenging times. Martin Luther authored a famous catechism called the Small Catechism (1529), followed by his Large Catechism (1530), both of which figured prominently in the Reformation and are still available and widely used today.

Peter Canisius wrote a popular catechism in the Roman Catholic tradition in 1555. However, the Council of Trent published the most authoritative catechism of this era in 1566. Intended as a tool to combat the influences of the Protestant Reformation, the Catechism of the Council of Trent served as a reference work for clergy preparation for over 400 years.

The Baltimore Catechism was a popular presentation of Roman Catholicism that served as a classroom text in many Catholic schools from its publication in 1885 through the 1960s. The catechism took its name from the council or meeting of bishops which produced it—the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore.

Other Christian denominations have produced catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) originated as a work of Calvinism and is the most widely used catechism in the Reformed churches. A catechism for the Anglican Communion can be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The most popular Catholic catechism in the United Kingdom for many years was the Penny Catechism.

Modern-day catechisms have tended to serve as major reference works and compendia of doctrine rather than as pedagogical instruments. The first new universal catechism of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), is not structured in the traditional question-and-answer format. It contains mostly highly annotated essays of theological depth, serving as a primary reference for educated, sophisticated readers. More recently, abbreviated versions of this catechism have been produced to provide easier access for more readers.


  1. Catholic Church. (1885). A catechism of Christian doctrine: Prepared and enjoined by order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. New York: Benziger.
  2. Catholic Church. (1994). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ligouri, MO: Ligouri.

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