The True Grit of Early U.S. Catholicism

Before there was the Baltimore Catechism, there was a similar manual called A Short Abridgment of Christian Doctrine, published first in Europe and then “newly revised for the use of the Catholic Church” in the freshly minted USA.

Though it has the same Q-and-A format we all know and enjoy, it wasn’t illustrated, and it wasn’t just for kids: it was a crash course for how to teach and live the faith in the new world.

I got my hands on the 1798 edition (thank you, microfiche!), and reading it made me realize just how serious of a wake-up call the older catechisms were. This edition makes clear that Catholics on the verge of 19th-century America were expected to be spiritual powerhouses — or at least they were exhorted to be.

How so? Here are some samples from the edition that prove that the Catholics of 1798 would wipe the floor with our souls.

Q: How shall we know the things which we are to believe?

A: From the Catholic Church of God, which he has established by innumerable miracles, and illustrated by the lives and deaths of innumerable saints.

When’s the last time you heard a homily about the heroic actions of Christ and the Saints and the miracles God has wrought? How many of us are accustomed to hearing apologies for “secular saints” or worse?

Q: Why is God called Almighty?

A: Because he can do all things, whatever he pleases, and nothing is hard or impossible for him.

Clear message: we are not almighty; things will be hard for us. Embrace the Cross—this is mission territory! (And boy was it — just ask Jean de Brebeuf, or Isaac Jogues.)

Q: Why do Catholics make the sign of the Cross?

A: To put us in mind of the Blessed Trinity, and that the second Person became Man and died on a Cross.

It goes on to specify that “the very making or signing ourselves with the sign of the Cross” puts us in mind of Christ’s Passion. Sacramentals aren’t sentimental distractions; they’re body-and-soul integrations meant to conform us to the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord.

Q: Whither did the soul of our Saviour go after his death?

A: His soul went down into that part of hell called Limbo.

Jesus went to Limbo? Could you, uh, clarify?

Q: What do you mean by Limbo?

A: I mean a place of rest where the souls of the saints were.

Oh, okay—whew. The doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell is alive and well.

Q: How is the church catholic or universal?

A: Because she subsists in all ages; teaches all nations, and maintains all truths.

And you thought the use of “subsists” in Lumen gentium was controversial? How about in late 18th-century America, where Catholics were not only a minority but were in most places outlawed from worshipping or holding public office?

[After specifying that the Hail Mary prayer’s first two parts are Scriptural:]

Q: Who made the third part?

A: The church of God against those who denied the Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God.

In other words, get ready to defend your Hail Mary with your historical Theotokos chops against the predominantly Protestant culture that will denounce your “ridiculously prolix” prayer as superstitious.

Q: Why say you the Hail Mary so often?

A: To put us in mind of the Son of God being made man for us.

Still the best defense today because it’s true: the Hail Mary is about the Incarnation! St. John Paul II put it beautifully: the heartbeat of the Hail Mary is the name of Jesus.

Q: For what other reason?

A: To honour the blessed Virgin Mother of God, and to beg her prayers for us.

And we wonder why during this time and the decades to follow so many tracts, pamphlets, and books decrying “papists” as idolators appeared?

Q: What else [is forbidden by the first commandment]?

A: All charms, spells and heathenish observations of omens, dreams and such like fooleries.

The aforementioned Jesuit martyrs of North America made enormous sacrifices in bringing the Gospel to the Huron nation. Doing so meant debunking the so-called shamans, who were robbing their own people and keeping them in servile fear. The layman in the street was also obligated to call “shenanigans” on such inanity where he might find it.

Q: Does [the fifth commandment] forbid striking?

A: Yes, as also anger, quarrelling, and injurious words.

Apparently fist-fights were an issue. Perhaps an indult was granted for “punch a heretic” day.

Q: And what do you think of immodest plays and comedies?

A: They are also forbidden by [the sixth] commandment; and it is sinful to be present at them.

Don’t tell Benjamin Franklin. Actually, Fr. John Carroll probably did when they traveled together from Canada.

Q: [What are the expectations for fasting?]

A: To keep fast in Lent, the Ember days, the Wednesdays and Fridays in advent, and eves of certain festivals.

You’d be pretty worn out with all that fasting. And then there’d be five weeks of Lent still to go…

Q: [How are the expectations for abstinence?]

A: To abstain from flesh on Fridays and Saturdays, excepting, in this Diocese, the Saturdays, between Christmas and Candlemas; and on other appointed days of abstinence.

Fridays throughout the year—doable. Don’t move out of the diocese, though.

Q: Whence have the Sacraments the power of giving grace?

A: From Christ’s precious blood.

Typical Catholic grittiness. Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t be writing for another century and a half, but American children were already learning the most efficacious power of Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the Cross.

Q: Is it a great happiness to receive the Sacraments worthily?

A: Yes, it is the greatest happiness in this world.

Faith check! When’s the last time you heard anyone say any such thing? Okay, maybe you’ve been reading St. Thérèse lately.

Q: What is confirmation?

A: It is a sacrament…in order to make us strong and perfect Christians, and soldiers of Jesus Christ.

The Church Militant—a phrase not used often enough these days to remind us of our battles in this world.

It would be another hundred years before Catholicism went from a tiny minority to what one historian recently called “America’s most powerful Church.” Look at the spiritual fortitude it took to get there. Could we not learn a few things from our 1798 progenitors?

This originally appeared at EpicPew.

Stephen Mirarchi