Paradigm, No. 26 (October, 1998)

 The Penny Catechism: a long lasting text

 J. P. Marmion

 A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, the text under consideration, has roots going back to the sixteenth century. It was drafted by English Catholic Recusants in exile in Northern France, eventually became the subject of a synodal decree in 1859, and has recently come out in a millennium edition. It was long known to generations of school children as the Penny Catechism. The current edition costs one pound fifty. It has possibly run to more than fifteen million copies, and may claim the attention of those interested in school text books.

I propose to look at the sixteenth century background, and the variations which led to Bishop Challoner's catechism, and developed from that to the present edition. It is not proposed to consider all the variations in these texts, which would call for a major study.

The sixteenth century was a major age for the growth of catechetical texts. In April 1529 Luther published his Deutsche Catechismus (called his larger catechism) and in May his Enchiridion: Der kleine Catechismus (the smaller versions), a text eventually illustrated by twenty woodcuts by Cranach. Calvin produced his Geneva Catechism in 1541, which with the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 provided the three doctrinal standards for the Reformed Churches.1

Peter Canisius was one of the first to provide a major text for Catholics in Latin in 1555, and in German the following year. The Summa doctrinae christianae, per quaestiones tradita et in usum christianae pueritiae nunc primunt edita began with 211 questions, but by the Cologne edition (1566) this had grown to 222, with about 2000 biblical citations and 1,200 references to the Fathers of the Church. So it is clearly a study book; while the questions are short, some of the answers run to two or three pages.2

The order in which Canisius deals with his subject is significant. He takes the three theological virtues -- Faith means the creed; Hope, prayer; Charity, the decalogue and precepts of the Church -- and then he treats of the sacraments. A second part of the work goes into the seven capital sins; and a third into good works, beatitudes, evangelical counsels and the four last things.

At the same time the Council of Trent was working on a catechism for the clergy, which was published in 1566. It adopted a different order, namely creed, sacraments, decalogue, and finally prayer. Normally a council would carry considerable influence, but in this matter of order the Penny Catechism follows Canisius.3

There were other texts, popular at the time, such as that of the Jesuit Edmund Auger whose Catechism et sommaire de la doctrine chretienne of 1563 was a direct response to Calvin's work. It went through more than twenty editions and was translated into Spanish, Dutch and ItaIian. But it was eventually to be eclipsed by those of Canisius and Bellarmine.4

 The Bellarmine text

Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a major theologian, best remembered in England because of his controversy with James I.5 Among his many works there is a small catechism, Doctrina Christiana breve of 1597. Quite unlike Canisius or Trent it is a mere 96 questions, briefly dealt with, and this may have helped it to become the most widely used text in the Catholic world. It soon came to the attention of the English Recusants. It was not their first effort, as Laurence Vaux (1519-1585), once warden of the Collegiate Church in Manchester, had kept a school in Louvain for the children of the English Recusant exiles and written a catechism for them, published in 1583. This was republished in the Chetham Society series in 1885.6

But in 1614 the Recusants brought out a splendid edition of the short Bellarmine catechism with an illustration on almost every page. It would be good to know who financed this, as the Rheims New Testament of Gregory Martin was published without the Old Testament because of cost, and it was only in 1609 that the Bible was completed. It would certainly be used in the colleges abroad, of the English Jesuits and Benedictines, and the orders of nuns such as those founded by Mary Ward. To what extent it was smuggled into England for use by the Recusant community here is hard to establish.7

If it was used in the English college at Douay, which is likely in the earlier days, then it would have contributed to the work of another Recusant, Henry Turberville (1677-1677) who in 1649 printed his Abridgement of Christian Doctrine at Douay. It was reprinted through the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, and right up to a revision by Doyle in Dublin in 1828.8 It gained the short title of the Douay Catechism. Some time about 1680 an unidentified writer edited a shorter version, An Abstract of the Douay Catechism. Though it claims to be shorter there are over four hundred questions. And there was yet another version A Short Abridgement of Christian Doctrine: For the Instruction of Beginners. There is a copy of this rare work at Douai Abbey in Berkshire. With one hundred questions is represents a move back to the scale of the Bellarmine catechism.

 Bishop Challoner

Richard Challoner (1691-1781) had been student, professor and vice-president of Douay College, and did not return to England until 1730. He was author of many works, both controversial and devotional. Among them is his version of the catechism. He used the Short Abridgement as his basis, and the earliest known copy of his revision is in the Bodleian Library, An Abridgement of Chriftian Doctrine: Revised and enlarged by R. C. and published for the use of the L...n district. MDCCLIX. By 1759 Challoner, bishop of the London District for over eighteen years, had continued to show an interest in education. But even in the late eighteenth century it was not always wise for Catholics to indicate authorship, hence his modest " R.C." He was later to suffer from the Gordon Riots. His version of the catechism remained popular long after his death, and some of the phrasing passed direct into the Penny Catechism.9

With all these antecedents in focus, the whole background to the work in question is in place. Challoner's catechism was recommended in 1826 by Authority for the use of the faithful in all four apostolic districts in England. But in little over thirty years it was to be replaced at the Third Westminster Synod of 1859 by A Catechism of Christian Doctrine carrying the same authority.

 A Catechism of Christian Doctrine.

I do not know who was responsible for this text, and whether it was merely a revision of Challoner. The two are certainly related. What is dear is that the newly re-established hierarchy was taking control of the situation; Cardinal Wiseman wrote, "We hereby approve of this edition of the Catechism, in our name and that of the other bishops, and prescribe its exclusive use". Cardinal Wiseman was not entirely successful in this, as there have been plenty of other catechisms published since 1859, which suggests that some of the clergy were looking for another approach. So Joseph De Harbe's A full catechism of the Christian Religion was translated by John Fander in 1863,10 and the Oblate Fathers brought out a translation of Frassinetti's Dogmatic Catechism in 1872. And The Catechism of Mechlin was translated by a priest, who remained anonymous and published in Washington, County Durham in 1895. Doubtless there were others.11

But in spite of Wiseman's failure totally to command the use of the chosen text, it did unquestionably remain the one most used in schools. It was revised after the First Vatican Council in 1870, and again in 1883, and certainly there were further revisions in 1936, 1958 and 1971. This is not a full list of revised editions, but a good indication that it has remained not just in print, but in the mind of authority for over one hundred and fifty years. And for much of that time it has been in constant use in the classroom.

One of the effects of revision would seem to be growth. The Short Abridgement which Challoner used had only one hundred and nine questions. Challoner nearly trebled that to 290, and various revisions have increased the number to 370. Mercifully there has long been an extract for Infants and Standard One with just sixty-five questions.12

Some indication of the number of copies made be gained by comparison with A Simple Prayerbook, which was almost a companion volume and which between 1886 and 1994 had sold over 16m. copies. Or by taking Charles Hart's Students' Catholic Doctrine, which is an expanding commentary for secondary pupils, as a yardstick. Between 1916 and 1938 this ran to fourteen editions. It follows the order of the catechism, and included much of the actual wording.13

 A critique of The Penny Catechism as a school text.

The question and answer method had long been regarded as a sure way of imparting a sound knowledge of a subject. It was used for a while to provide a basic introduction in geography or chemistry, with Richmal Mangnall's Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People as an extreme example of this style.14 A nun had written A Catechism of Scripture History in 1854, and the basic texts in mathematics were tables books; and in English, spelling books. Flanagan produced a Short Catechism of English History. While this style of presentation does not seem to have come in for early criticism, it did present a serious temptation to the theological writer15

A correct form of words had long been an issue among theologians, one form being regarded as heretical and another as sound doctrine. This led to a concentration on getting the words right. But it seems to have obscured the question as to what the words meant to people, and especially in the case of a text for pupils, to young children. Challoner shows a good command of language, and an ability to communicate even with the young. But this can not be said of all the revisions. The Penny Catechism is full of good theological terminology, and it was deemed to be the work of the teacher to explain the technical meaning of these words, and expand the pupils understanding. Good teachers often achieved this, but many were content to insist on the next ten questions being learnt by heart for the following day.

The first criticism of The Penny Catechism must be that it is sound doctrine in the language of theologians with little or no concessions made to the age of the pupils. There is a basic failure to communicate. All the big words of theology are there: incarnation, redemption, grace, sacrament, sacrifice, satisfaction, nature, infallibility, guilt, penance, and merit. Eventually there were editions of the catechism which included some explanation of these technical terms. But basically it was a text for children in the language of adults or even professional theologians.

This problem is further compounded by a lack of illustrations. The Recusant edition of the short Bellarmine catechism had a splendid series of wood cuts. But this excellent start was ignored. Very few of the English catechisms ever included illustrations. They seem to have been reserved for the Bible Histories. The only illustrated catechism I have found was published in 1861: A Pictorial Catechism after the original designs by G. R. Elster. It was the work of M. B. Couissinier, published first in Paris and then in London.16

With the work of Piaget, Kolberg and Fowler much more insight has been gained into the way in which the young mind develops. This is a comparatively recent development. With this knowledge ideas as to how best material should be presented in a text books has grown considerably. Criticism of the catechism for its question and answer format, and the terms used may be legitimate, but it is hardly relevant to the text in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. What is remarkable is that a text with these flaws should continue to be in print in a Millennium edition. Few textbooks can have had such a lasting history.17







1. For an overall view see: The New Catholic Encyclopedia and the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique; Jean-Claude Dhotel, Les Origines du catechisme moderne (Paris, 1977); Berard L.Marthaler, The Catechism Yesterday and Today: The Evolution of a Genre (Collegeville Minnesota, 1995). In addition two theses are recommended; P. Wallace, Irish Catechesis : the Heritage from James Butler II, Archbishop of Cashel 1774-1791 (unpublished doctoral thesis, Catholic University of America, 1975. University Microfilms Int. 7606025); Michael Anthony Lundy, Adult Catechesis in the R.C. Church in Britain since the Second Vatican Council (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Manchester. 1990). Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 has an interesting chapter "How the Ploughman learned his Paternoster" pp. 53-87.

2. Marthaler, pp.48-50. Details are also easily available in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross. For Canisius see J. Broderick S.J. Saint Peter Canisius, SJ 1521-1597 (1939) especially pages 234-252.

3. For the Council of Trent and catechisms see Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, vol 2 (tr. Ernest Graf), (1961), pp. 88, 99, 103, 109 cover the demand for a catechism in the earlier sessions, and further volumes of Jedin for the execution of the work. See also The New Catholic Encyclopedia, both the article on catechisms and that on the Council of Trent.

4. Auger is treated in Marthaler, p. 50.

 5. For Bellarmine see The Word Dictionary of the Christian Church, and the detailed treatment in J. Broderick. The Life and Works of Blessed Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (2 vols, 1928). For the text in question see A Shorte Catechisme of Card Bellarmine illuftrated with the Images. In Augufta 1614. (Scholar Press reprint, 1973).

6. For Laurence Vanx, see J. Gillow. A Biographical Dictionary of English Catholics (1898) Vol. 5.

 7. For the colleges abroad A. C. F. Beales, Education Under Penalty (1963), and Peter Guilday, The English Catholic Refugees on the Continent 1558-1795, (1914), (Gregg Press, 1969).

 8. Turberville is to be found in Gillow.

9. Chanoner receives only a brief note in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: there is a useful list of his works in Factotum July 1981 by R. K. Browne. Challoner is currently being studied both as a notably holy person. and as a writer of importance for the Recusant community. With regard to his catechetical work see; Bernard Pickering, 'Bishop Challoner and Teaching the Faith', in The Clergy Review (Jan. 1980), lxv, 1. J. D. Crichton, 'Richard Challoner: Catechist and Spiritual Writer', in The Clergy Review (Aug. 1981), lxvi, 8 and also Chrichton, 'Challoner's Catechism,' in The Clergy Review (April 1978), lxiii, 4. Crichton eventually accepted Pickering's conclusions in this journal in March 1980, and agreed with his identification of the copy in the Bodleian Library. The Abbe Migne produced two folio volumes in 1848, which include (in French) both Challoner and Gother together with Feller, Aime, Scheffmacher, Rohrbacher, Pey, Lefrancois, Alletz, Almeyda, Fleury, Pomey, Bellarmine, Meusy, Surin, and Olier. The total pagination of the pages is about 2000 &emdash; Migne works in two columns to a page. These were all adult catechisms, not for children.

10. Marthajer. pp. 104-108 for Joseph Deharbe. He has recently been reprinted. His name is variously spelt, equally often De Harbe.

11. These smaller catechisms are often hard to find, and the best collection I am aware of is in the Talbot Library in Preston. A great deal of work remains to be done in studying the small diocesan catechisms. It is thought that the French ones may give evidence of Jansenism, and it would be interesting to trace this and see if it had any influence on the English texts. The work here would be a doctoral thesis.

12. There is an interesting reference to a short catechism for the very young to be found in The Catholic Miscellany (Jan. 1828), vol. ix, no. 73, pp, 47-49. 1 am grateful to Fr. David Lannon for this reference.

 13. Canon Drinkwater Teaching the Catechism: An Aid-Book for Teachers (1939) and also his Educational Essays (1951). Charles Hart The Student's Catholic Doctrine (1916) and many editions thereafter. A work rather like the Penny Catechism in its long and developing history is A Simple Prayer Book. The present edition which took off from 1886 had by 1971 exceeded sixteen million. Until about twenty years ago the Penny Catechism ran it close in printings, and other presses than the CTS produced editions. The Tablet (10 June 1911) mentions the new catechism for Infants and the copy in my possession is printed by Watson and Co, of Carlisle.

14. Richmall Mangnall a schoolmistress in Yorkshire died in 1820 but her Historical and Miscellaneous Questions of 1800 was in print till the end of the century. It had run to 12 editions by 1815. It met with criticism from those who were seeking to improve education. F. D Maurice writing for The Metropolitan Quarterly in 1826 declared that everything that required intellectual activity had been omitted from this text book for girls. See R. L. Archer Secondary Education in the Nineteenth Century (1921), p. 231/2. Annie Ridley in Frances Mary Buss(1896) p. 55, recalls that Mangnall's Questions were the chief standard school books, and goes on to indicate that the mildest form of gymnastics (such as jumping over a stick held a few inches above the ground) was deemed so unlady like that some girls were withdrawn from the earliest classes. Marion Lochhead, Their First Ten Years, Victorian Childhood (1956) lists some of the more commonly used texts p. 47 ff. including Mangnall. Mrs. Markham History of England (in dialogue form) and Lady Callcott, Little Artheur's History of England.

15. Flanagan is to be found in Gillow, where three works, all on history, and a number of pamphlets are noted.

16. Couissinier may be hard to find. There is a copy in the Talbot Library. Much more recently in the 1950s the Salesians working in Hong Kong published at least five volumes of catechetical text, illustrated and often with pop-up pans on pages. In each volumes there are about twenty themes, and an advert indicates that these texts were available in Chinese, French. Italian and Portuguese in addition to English. As the Salesians are used to publishing, I think these were printed in their mission school in Hong Kong.

17. The location of various small children's catechisms, and some adults' presents problems as they were often not collected by the major libraries. I am grateful to the librarian at Ushaw College, Durham. A. J. MacGregor for his help, to Fr. R. Canavan of the Talbot Library and to Fr. David Lannon, archivist to the Salford Diocese. I would recommend the Talbot Library collection, to be found at Weston Street, Preston (next to St Walburge's church). It might be wise to contact the Librarian. the Rev. R. Canavan on 01772-760186.



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