May 2014 Print

The St. Pius X Catechism for the 21st Century


Fr. Pierre Duverger, SSPX

The Council of Trent provided a catechism for priests. It was, however, also the desire of the Council Fathers to give a catechism for the children. They wanted something different that the Catechism of St. Peter Canisius available at the time. The Pope asked St. Charles Borromeo to lead the effort. Finished in 1566, St. Pius V published it and had it translated. We know it as usually as the Roman Catechism.

Unfortunately, it was not implemented everywhere as the Fathers of Trent had wanted. Pope Clement VIII then asked Cardinal Bellarmine to write a catechism. Named Dottrina Cristiana Breve, this catechism was published in 1598 and was imposed on all the dioceses of the Papal States. Urban VIII further recommended its use in the missions.

In 1742, Benedict XIV expressed the same wish of his predecessors: one unique catechism. Over time, other catechisms were published and many dioceses used unique versions. In 1761, Clement XIII lamented such a reality. He recommended coming back to and limiting the presentation of the doctrine to what is universal, traditional, and unanimous.

Vatican Council I Tries Again

The project was therefore discussed again during the First Vatican Council: one catechism, published by the council in Latin for the whole Church. The bishops would be in charge of the translations to be submitted to Rome. But the plan was never finished!

The Beginnings of This Catechism

St. Pius X was parish priest in Salzano during the First Vatican Council. At that time, he wrote a catechism. This work was the draft of the catechism he would publish in 1912 at the end of his life.

As bishop of Mantua, he wrote a proposal for a unique catechism on the occasion of the Catechistic Congress of Piacenza in 1889. Then, in 1891, he sent a letter with the same idea to Pope Leon XIII. As Rome gave a universal catechism for the priests, he argued that the same should be done for children in order to have only one and the same catechism in all the schools. In his own words:

“It is the Holy See which established the Catechism for Parish Priests for the universal Church. Similarly, we would like there to be a popular catechism, historical, dogmatic, moral, written in very short questions and answers, which would be taught in all schools of Christian doctrine and published in every language so that even in this area, everyone might be of the same tongue. This catechism would be the foundation of all other larger instructions to be made by the pastor and catechist according to the age, intelligence, and condition of the educated” (Proposal on the occasion of the Catechistic Congress of Piacenza, August 29, 1889).

Once elected Pope, he worked to accomplish this very project. In 1905 he wrote the Encyclical Acerbo Nimis denouncing the ignorance of doctrine as the main cause of the problems of the day: “If faith languishes in our days, if among large numbers it has almost vanished, the reason is that the duty of catechetical teaching is either fulfilled very superficially or altogether neglected” (p. 16). He encourages the teaching of doctrine, demands it from the parish priest, and describes the function of the catechist:

“The task of the catechist is to take up one or other of the truths of faith or of Christian morality and then explain it in all its parts; and since amendment of life is the chief aim of his instruction, the catechist must needs make a comparison between what God commands us to do and what is our actual conduct. After this, he will use examples appropriately taken from the Holy Scriptures, Church history, and the lives of the saints—thus moving his hearers and clearly pointing out to them how they are to regulate their own conduct. He should, in conclusion, earnestly exhort all present to dread and avoid vice and to practice virtue” (p. 13).

The Compendium

The same year he published the Compendium of Christian Doctrine and ordered it to be used in the diocese and province of Rome. It is a remake of a compendium published in 1756 for the diocese of Piedmont. Pius X hoped that this catechism would at least be spread throughout Italy. It is also commonly called the Catechism of St. Pius X, though this is something of a misnomer.

In 1910 the pope published the Decree Quam Singulari, clarifying the time for first Holy Communion: “...the age of discretion for Confession is the time when one can distinguish between right and wrong, that is, when one arrives at a certain use of reason, and so simi­larly, for Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread—again, the age at which a child attains the use of reason.”

If very young children were again to be admitted to Communion, which catechism should be used? The pope recognized that the Compendium published five years before had to be further shortened.

In 1909, Pius X had already named a commission directly answering to himself in order to prepare a catechism. After two years and five different drafts, the first text was ready for review. It was sent for correction and criticism to sixty-five experts, including the anti-modernist commission. The pope reviewed each and every comment. He asked a professor to insure the best and easiest style. Again, five different versions were needed to provide the definitive text. On November 30, 1912, the catechism was published in two different books: a complete edition (433 questions and prayers) and an abridged one for children (179 questions and prayers).

St. Pius X imposed it on the Province of Rome and expressed his wishes that it be adopted by the other dioceses of Italy as well. He believed that the quality of the catechism would assure its success. It would be translated, and indeed adopted in many dioceses. Here is his own presentation of the Catechism to Cardinal Respighi, then vicar of Rome:

“We consented to reducing the Old Catechism into a new one, significantly condensed, which We Ourselves examined and wished also to be examined…it seems to Us…that we must not delay any further in a substitution of the text, recognized as opportune, trusting that…it will be more convenient and as much as, if not more, profitable than the old one, since the volume of the book and the things to be learned having been quite reduced, it will not discourage the youth, already seriously overburdened by scholastic programs, and will thus permit teachers and catechists to make them learn it all. Here they will find, despite its brevity, the truths better explained and accentuated, those that nowadays are the most hardly fought, misunderstood, or forgotten, and which result in immense harm done to souls and society.

“…we hope that even adults, those who wish, as at times they should, in order to live better and for the education of their family, to revive in their soul the fundamental knowledge on which the spiritual and moral life of a Christian is based, that they are to find this brief account useful and pleasing, very accurate even in its form, where they will encounter, set forth with great simplicity, the most important Divine truths and the most efficacious Christian reflections” (Letter of St. Pius X to Cardinal Pietro Respighi by which the Catechism is given for the diocese and the ecclesiastical Province of Rome, October 18, 1912).

A New Presentation

In 1913 Pius X approved the work of Fathers Pavanelli, Vigna, and Isengard. These priests wanted to divide his catechism into six different booklets using a progressive method: the four parts of the Catechism are studied every year, but new questions are progressively added and completed from one year to another. Sacred Scripture, Liturgy, and Church History are included in these 52 lessons that compose each booklet. On June 3, 1914, Father Pavanelli offered his booklets to the pope, who encouraged and blessed his work. On August 10, 1914, St. Pius X died.

Because of the two World Wars of the first half of the 20th century, the Catechism of St. Pius X did not spread as widely as originally expected. Then came World War III with the opening of the Council...

The Catechism Reborn

As some priests of the Society of St. Pius X were working to gather and publish the complete works of St. Pius X, our patron, they came across this last work, almost forgotten, although so important to St. Pius X.

The District of France worked hard on resuscitating this catechism. They compared the three existing French translations, chose the closest expressions to the Italian original and produced the best translation possible with the necessary adaptations. The two original books of St. Pius X and the five booklets of the progressive method for children of Fathers Pavanelli and Vigna were published there in 2010 after five years of intense work.

In the United States, we have been working on the same project for four years already, trying to take into account the experience of our French colleagues. We found one English translation adapted to orientations of Vatican II by Msgr. Kevane, an Irish prelate. A second one was found from a retired American priest who had taught for several decades in Rome. Between the Italian original, these two English versions, the French one, three American-speaking Italian scholars have been asked for their comments. We have been working on the English expression, insisting on the style and rhythm of the sentences, trying to remain as close as possible to the Italian original. The project is still a work in progress. Our plan is to test it in classrooms before the definitive text is published.

The challenge is huge. The text of St. Pius X is an excellent Italian. It is a true theological summa, written to be put in the memory of the child but only to receive its complete understanding in the mind of the adult. The order is definitely Thomistic, the modern errors clearly targeted, but only the common doctrine is retained.

Some Examples from the Catechism

“The Church is holy because Jesus Christ, her invisible head, and the Holy Ghost, who vivifies her, are both holy; because in her, the doctrine, the sacrifice, and the sacraments are holy, and all are called to become holy; and because in reality many were, are, and will be holy.”

“Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, can another be the Church of Jesus Christ, or at least a part of it?”

“The Pope and the Bishops united to him constitute the teaching Church, so called because she has the mission from Jesus Christ to teach the divine truths and laws to all men, who receive from her alone the full and sure knowledge [of them] which is necessary to live in a Christian manner.”

“The faithful who are in the Church are called saints because they are consecrated to God, justified or sanctified by the sacraments, and obliged to live as saints.

“Original sin is the sin which mankind committed in Adam, its head, and which everyone contracts through natural descent from Adam.”

“After death, Jesus Christ descended with His soul to Limbo, where dwelt the souls of the just who were then dead, to lead them with Him into paradise; then He rose from the dead, taking back up His body which had been buried.

“Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders are received only once because they impress a permanent character upon the soul, working a perpetual consecration of the man to Jesus Christ, which distinguishes him from those who do not have it. Baptism impresses on the soul the character of the Christian; Confirmation, that of the soldier of Jesus Christ; Holy Orders, that of His minister.”

“Why is the Most Holy Eucharist reserved in churches?”

“The Holy Mass is the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which, under the species of bread and of wine, is offered by the priest to God on the altar in memory and in renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross.”

What Could Have Been

If this catechism had been widely adopted by Catholic schools, loved by the teachers (including in high school and college), and properly taught, can we imagine the reforms of Vatican II penetrating Catholic minds so easily? “I am intimately convinced that the triumph of the Faith depends on the catechism” (Letter of Bp. Sarto to Bp. Sclabrini on occasion of the Catechistic Congress of Piacenza, August 29, 1889).

The authority of the Baltimore Catechism brought unity to the United States, but the text is insufficient for students after confirmation. The 1912 Catechism of St. Pius X comes with the pontifical authority of the Anti-modernist Pope, also called the Pope of the Catechism, a saint, and apostle of children. It not only clearly express the divine truths, it also feeds piety and gives a safe reference in the storm we are in.

It is the desire of the District Office, as we are working to implement unity and coherence in our religion curriculum, to adopt this text in all SSPX schools. If all goes well, it will be available from Angelus Press next year. Please remember this project in your prayers!