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Remember When We Used to Memorize Things?

A warning you can't afford to forget from the grand old man of Catholic catechisms

by Robert Holton

If Jesuit Father John A.Hardon has his way, Catholic children and adults will return to learning the basics of their faith by memorizing catechism questions and answers word for word, as they did until the 1950s, when the Baltimore Catechism was the standard instructional tool.

At 80, Father Hardon is the grand old man of Catholic catechisms. In addition to writing the respected "The Catholic Catechism" (Doubleday, 1975), he played a major role in the seven years of writing and rewriting that went into preparation of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1992.

"We have, in many ways, defaulted the use of our memories over the years," Father Hardon complained in a recent interview. "And this includes all types of teaching – not just in the teaching of religion." Modern educators, he contends, have "sold out the practice of memorizing in learning at a great cost to students at all levels of schooling." The result of this modern reluctance to memorize, as Father Hardon sees it, is that "the minds of many of our young people today are literally empty.”

Catholics should commit the basic teachings and the reasons behind those teachings to memory, Father Hardon believes. But he blames, at least partly, the development of technology.

“With so many different ways we now have to save things for future reference – things like duplicators, fax machines and other devices – why bother memorizing anything today?” he explained. “All you have to do is feed it into some device and store it in a memory bank and call it back up on a screen when you need it with the press of a button.”

For many years, Father Hardon has been warning people about the dangers of wasting the memory process in learning.

“What is memorized becomes part of the mind,” he pointed out. “And, unless something is memorized – and I really mean this – it does not become part of the mind.”

Without sound memories, “people are at the mercy of accepting the latest idea or concept that comes to mind – no matter how faulty or silly it might be – because there is no memorized, solid truth to fall back on.”

Anything a person commits to memory, he said, will remain with the person for the rest of his or her life – not as part of the mind's comprehension process, but actually part of what Father Hardon calls "the mind's material."

"Whatever thoughts I have for the rest of my life are somehow fed by, dependent on and nurtured by what it is I have memorized,” he said.

“Indispensable” teaching

In the introduction to his latest work, "The Faith: A Popular Guide Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church" (Servant publications, 1994, see below), Father Hardon cautions against considering the new Catechism as a mere reference work to be "consulted occasionally." It should instead be looked upon "as an indispensable arm of instruction on every level of the teaching apostolate.

Father Hardon disagrees with those who say the new Catechism is designed for use only by the bishops and top catechists in the Church.

"On the contrary, it is designed to be used by anyone who can read," he said. He did concede, however, that it "is not an easy book to read." He admitted that one needs "a pretty good background in the faith" to read and appreciate the Catechism. And individuals also need "an openness" to being taught by the Church.

"Many Catholics these days are quite innocent of what the Church really teaches because they have not been fed the full truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about our Catholic teaching for many years.”

Father Hardon even admits that not everyone is happy with the Catechism.

“There are critics who say it is too loose and too open – for example, not mentioning limbo at all,” he said.

“On the other side, there are those who call it uncompromising on essentials both in doctrine and in morals because it states that Christ is divine, the pope is head of the Church and homosexual acts are sinful.”

He likens his own recent catechism to the early Baltimore Catechism.

“The Baltimore Catechism was mandated in 1885 by the Baltimore Council of Bishops [Third Plenary Council of bishops, meeting in that city] as a synthesis of basic Catholic doctrine based on the Roman Catechism that came out of the Council of Trent,” he said. “So, I did about the same thing with the present new Catechism by writing a compendium catechism of questions and answers.”

During his travels throughout the world, he finds “a lot of Catholics who go to church and all the rest, but when I ask them a few things about the basics of their faith, they can’t give me a proper answer.”

He blamed that condition on what he called a preoccupation with secular issues, in which religion has been given a back seat in the classroom.

“The religious dimension of education has been in large measure neglected, even in our Catholic institutions,” he charged.

The Catechetical Man: Father John Hardon

A Catechism compendium

Jesuit Father John Hardon’s latest catechism, “The Faith” (Servant Publications, P.O.Box 8617, Ann Arbor, MI 48107, $10.99) is, as the subhead states, a popular guide based on the official Catechism of the Catholic Church – the first such universally approved work since the Roman Catechism that came out of the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

Father Hardon describes his latest work as “a compendium of the new Catechism, which concentrates all the essentials of the new Catechism’s 700 pages in clear and concise question-and-answer form.”

In the book, as in his three earlier catechisms (“The Catholic Catechism,” 1975; “A Question & Answer Catechism,” 1981; and “Pocket Catholic Catechism,” 1989; all published by Doubleday), the reader finds many questions and answers reminiscent of those in the old Baltimore Catechism, such as:

”Q: Why did God create us?

“A: God Created us to know and love Him with our whole heart and thus come to share in His own divine happiness for all eternity.

“Q: Can we know God by reason alone?

“A: Yes, we can. In fact, we must know Him by reason. Otherwise we would lack the necessary foundation for a credible faith in His revealed Word.

“Q: How did Christ ‘become sin’ for us?

“A: He did so by freely assuming the penalty of death for the original sin of our first parents. That is why the Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature, in order to expiate the sins of the human race.: - Robert Holton

March 5, 1995  (Catechesis)  Our Sunday Visitor

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