Some people mistakenly believe that Catholics elevate the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the status of the Bible. Others believe the Catechism is meant to explain the supposedly unbiblical teachings of the Church. Both views hold that the Catechism is essentially unnecessary “extra stuff.” In their view, all one needs is the Bible itself to know and understand the word of God. How can we Catholics respond to this?
The Catechism is not elevated to the level of Scripture.
The Catechism is a teaching tool. Its aim and intended readership are clearly explained in its prologue:
This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church’s Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium. It is intended to serve “as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries.”
This work is intended primarily for those responsible for catechesis: first of all the bishops, as teachers of the faith and pastors of the Church. It is offered to them as an instrument in fulfilling their responsibility of teaching the People of God. Through the bishops, it is addressed to redactors of catechisms, to priests, and to catechists. It will also be useful reading for all other Christian faithful (11-12).
In short, the Catechism intends to summarize 2,000 years of Catholic teaching in one reference guide for those who have been entrusted with handing on the Faith. It can help us better understand the fundamental truths of Christianity contained in Scripture, but it is not elevated to the same level.
Why not just use the Bible?
People from an ancient culture foreign to our own wrote the books that make up the Bible. Because of this, the untrained reader can easily misunderstand the texts. The necessity of a teacher is best illustrated in Phillip’s meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch recorded in the Book of Acts:
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him (8:27-32).
Certainly the position of teacher was not meant to end with the apostolic age. In fact, the further we get from that time, the more necessary an authoritative interpreter becomes. One example of interpretation and application would be the Church’s teaching on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).
We know from the Bible and the writings of the early Christians that the killing of a preborn child has always been believed to be contrary to the will of God. ESCR requires the termination of a living human embryo to harvest its stem cells. There is nothing in the Bible that speaks directly about ESCR, so the Church, applying its consistent life ethic, teaches that the willful destruction of human embryos for the purpose of medical research is contrary to God’s will.
In the same way, the Catechism summarizes and applies the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith to contemporary issues. This is a large part of why Jesus instituted an authoritative Church, telling his apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).
Does the Catechism teach doctrines not found in the Bible?
It is claimed on many Fundamentalist Christian websites that the Catechism teaches things that are not found anywhere in the Bible. These sites typically list doctrines like purgatory or Mary as “Mother of God,” claiming the Catechism attempts to explain them away in the absence of any scriptural support.
Catholic apologists have always responded to these objections by pointing out that certain universally accepted doctrines like the Trinity are not expressly stated in the Bible but taught implicitly. The same can be argued for those doctrines that non-Catholic Christians commonly object to because they do not comport with their own theology.
From cover to cover, the Catechism includes copious references to the Bible supporting Catholic doctrines, including those not taught explicitly therein. In addition to this, it cites popes, early Christian writers, and Church councils to demonstrate a continuity of doctrine that stretches all the way back to the apostles and ultimately to Christ himself.