Rediscovering the stark power of the Penny Catechism

CTS have released a new edition of the Penny Catechism

The Catholic Truth Society (CTS) has recently reproduced the old Penny Catechism in red cloth with gold lettering on the cover. It is now a handsome and durable copy of the little manual beloved of the Church before Vatican II. I have just read it straight through, bringing back memories of a convent education in the 1950s, when we reeled out the answers to Mother St Hilda.

For some reason the Penny Catechism seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with the pre-Vatican II Church in the eyes of its critics: too dour, too difficult and too conducive to parrot-learning. Reading it again, and recalling those brief and elegant answers, was actually like the experience of Proust when he tasted a madeleine and was spurred to start his great novel. This was the faith, compressed and systematised for a child’s comprehension, containing everything you needed to know to stay on the path to heaven, along with stern warnings of what would happen if you turned aside. The difference between mortal and venial sin was quite obvious to someone who had attained the use of reason (aged seven, according to the Penny Catechism), as was the difference between presumption and despair, as were also the only two destinations at the end of life on earth: heaven or hell. The first two questions and answers said it all: “Who made you” And “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” Simple enough for a child to grasp yet profound enough to be perennial subject matter for adult sermons.

Far from parrot-learning, the beauty and precision of these definitions came effortlessly back into my mind as I turned the pages. Number 9, “What is faith?” and the answer “Faith is a supernatural gift of God which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed” has nothing to do with blind faith; even a child can see that a “supernatural gift” implies an intelligent reciprocity. There was something so certain – and thus comforting – in the statement (the answer to question 11): “I am to know what God has revealed by the testimony, teaching and authority of the Catholic Church.” Well, despite all the good efforts and often confusing effects of ecumenism (a word not in the lexicon of the Penny Catechism), this answer still stands; it is, after all, what those on the road to conversion are forced to conclude.

More precision here: the answer to question 93, “When I say that the Pope is infallible, I mean that the Pope cannot err when, as Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” If the Church is what she claims to be, it follows that her head, the Pope, also has to be what he claims to be. When people say, as they do, that for example, Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, is not an “infallible document”, I never know what they mean. You may not like what it says, you may disobey it, but it certainly falls within the definition of papal teaching authority.

The answer to question 98 will alienate those who think we are all on the same journey, just travelling by different routes: “The Church is Catholic or universal because she subsists in all ages, teaches all nations and is the one Ark of Salvation for all.” It is the very inflexibility of these answers which give the book its stark power; the Penny Catechism doesn’t do nuance.

I read in the Telegraph last Friday that the C of E has decided, for baptismal purposes, that “Satan [is] being quietly designated as an optional extra.” It seems that the Anglican Church fears it might upset young people because, in the words of the Bishop of Truro, “references to the Devil are likely to be misunderstood in today’s culture.” The Penny Catechism has no truck with this kind of accommodating outlook. Number 260 tells us firmly that “We promise in Baptism to renounce the devil and all his works and pomps” (as a child I sensed the word “pomps” had a hollow and shallow ring to it.) Number 349 also stands firm against today’s culture: “By the devil I mean Satan and all his wicked angels, who are every seeking to draw us into sin, that we may be damned with them.”

The Penny Catechism basically has an answer for everything. Should you go and see the film 50 Shades of Grey? Answer: “The sixth Commandment forbids immodest songs, books and pictures, because they are most dangerous to the soul, and lead to mortal sin.” That’s that then.

Fergal Martin, who runs the CTS, tells me that “since 1992, the little paperback booklet edition has sold over 230,000 copies. It sells constantly.” He explains that the new edition “is part of a rolling programme of classic CTS texts we are about to begin over the next three years leading up to our 150th anniversary in 2018, to celebrate the Catholic Church’s work in the UK and our small part in it.” He believes that “for all its shortcomings, it has remained popular and useful”.

I can’t resist one last quotation – especially as Lent starts this Wednesday: “Why are we bound to deny ourselves?” Answer: “…because our natural inclinations are prone to evil from our very childhood; and if not corrected by self-denial, they will certainly carry us to hell.” As I said, the Penny Catechism doesn’t do nuance.