Doctrine, Please

Pope Pius X is often criticized because in 1910 he demanded that all priests take an anti-modernist oath. It’s hardly known that in 1905 he ordered all priests around the world to do something else, perhaps even more challenging.  Did he call for greater commitment to the glory of Eucharist? Did he demand more emphasis on missions? Or did he rebuke them for their lack of holiness? Although he could have done any of these things, what he actually did was to call them to focus their attention on one simple task: he ordered them to spend an hour every Sunday catechizing the children of their parishes.

He also asked them to offer at least an hour of catechesis for adults on every holy day of obligation and during Lent. Over the course of four or five years they should cover the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Precepts of the Church.

“If faith languishes in our days,” he said, “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.” The great task for priests, therefore, was not complex sermons or new academic books. It was solid teaching of the basic truths of the faith. Children – all Catholics, in fact – needed, and still need, to learn the simple but essential aspects of faith and morals so that they can live Christian lives.

Pius X: “Faith languishes” if catehcesis is neglected.

If they didn’t learn what was right and true there was almost no possibility that they could live as they should. Christian doctrine, Pius stated, “reveals God and His infinite perfection with far greater clarity than is possible by the human faculties alone.” In other words, human beings might imagine that they could figure out what God was like and how they should live simply by thinking or by some sort of intellectual osmosis. But the fact was that they needed to be taught.

Good Christian doctrine was about the best thing a priest could give to his people because, “there is always some hope for a reform of perverse conduct so long as the light of faith is not entirely extinguished; but if lack of faith is added to a depraved morality because of ignorance, the evil hardly admits of remedy, and the road to ruin lies open.” Priests who would rather write books and deliver lectures to intellectual audiences than teach the basic truths of the faith had their priorities backwards. It was more worthwhile and more difficult to bring Christian doctrine to the young and uneducated than to the wise and knowledgeable; it took more preparation and more subtlety.

Priests also might be tempted to think that, busy as they were, someone else should take on the duty of catechesis. The Holy Father seems to have envisioned some aid by lay teachers, but he could not have been more clear about who had the main responsibility: “There can be no doubt that this most important duty rests upon all who are pastors of souls.” In fact, “For a priest there is no duty more grave or obligation more binding than this.”

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Obviously, priests are no longer spending an hour every Sunday catechizing the children of their parishes and they are not devoting time on every holy day to adult catechesis. With the priest shortage, they are preaching homilies and celebrating the Mass, often several times, and hearing confessions. It’s not as if they’re sitting around watching television all day. My pastor, for instance, celebrates Mass five times in three different churches between Saturday evening and Sunday evening. It probably never occurs to him or to most of his brother priests around the world that adding a children’s class to this kind of schedule would be a good use of time. Throw in the abuse crisis, which makes priests wary about spending time with children, and the contemporary understanding of the priest’s role could hardly be farther from that envisaged by Pius X.

Now, Pius’s command to catechize was a matter of discipline that is no longer operative and priests are no longer obliged to teach doctrine every Sunday. The doctrinal part of his encyclical is still applicable, however. At the heart of the priesthood is teaching and preaching. As Vatican II says, priests are “strenuous assertors of the truth, lest the faithful be carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Priests today face a difficult and demanding situation, with many worthy claims on their time. Still, Pius X makes clear that the bottom line is this: “It is indeed vain to expect a fulfillment of the duties of a Christian by one who does not even know them.” Catholics today, even more than in the day of Pius X, need priests to teach them doctrine.

Finally, some will complain that teaching doctrine, especially to children, would be a waste of time for a priest faced by a world full of poverty and brokenness, but the pope anticipates this objection: “If, assuredly, the alms with which we relieve the needs of the poor are highly praised by the Lord, how much more precious in His eyes, then, will be the zeal and labor expended in teaching and admonishing, by which we provide not for the passing needs of the body but for the eternal profit of the soul! Nothing, surely is more desirable, nothing more acceptable to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of souls, Who testifies of Himself through Isaias: ‘To bring good news to the poor he has sent me.’”

Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University. He specializes in World Christianity, missions, and the religious history of Mexico.