Are You a Question and Answer Catholic?

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by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Catechisms and religious primers have offered Catholics answers to their questions about the Church. United States Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century often discussed the merits of the Baltimore Catechism. During the last decade the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) has received equal scrutiny.

United States Passionists have been participants in the question-answer catechetical tradition. The work of Father Xavier Sutton (1852-1926) offers an example from the early twentieth century. Father Mark Moeslein (1854-1946) used a similar style in the 1930s. Finally, former Passionist Father Cronan Regan, and brother to Passionist Cyprian Regan (1927-1973) and present-day Passionist Columkille Regan, answered a wide range of questions posed by readers of The Sign magazine, a Passionist national Catholic monthly. Born John Regan in 1925, Cronan left the Passionists in 1970s. He died in 2003 from Alzheimers.

Reading the following historical sketches might cause Passionists and all those associated with them in diversified contemporary ministries to ponder how much importance is given to the topic of catechesis. Likewise, one might wonder today if the era of the question and answer Catholic has really come to an end?

Father Sutton wrote Clearing the Way. Published in 1901 by The Catholic Book Exchange 120 West 60th Street New York, the preface stated in part: “This little book is not a learned work upon the doctrines of the Catholic Church; but a modest effort to ‘Clear the Way,’ in order that their truth and beauty may be seen.” Sutton went on to explain that he wrote the book based on his experience as preacher of parish missions in the United States to Catholics and non-Catholics. “In these days of unbelief and irreligion, not only should every Catholic be able to give reason for his faith, but he should also be prepared to repel attacks made upon it. In the pages of this little book he will find the Catholic doctrine explained and objections to it answered.” In all the one hundred and eighty page book (with twelve additional pages of advertisements) was divided into twenty-four topical headings. Among the topics covered were: The True Church of Christ, On The Latin Liturgy, The Infallibility of the Pope, On Holy Pictures and Images.

Father Moeslein wrote Another Catechism. Published in 1935 by the Pamlico Printing Company, Washington, North Carolina, the aim was to “present the unchanging doctrines of the Church in ways more easily understood by constantly changing human mentality. Often enough, what is clear to people of one age, is not so for people of another age and environment.” In the end Moeslein wrote “for adult inquirers who are interested enough in Catholicism, to wish for more information than is within the easy mental reach of average grammar school pupils.” It was one hundred and thirty-four pages. The eleven chapters (some of which were further divided into parts and sections for easier study) covered broad themes such as: Religion, The Blessed Trinity, Sin, and Prayer.

Father Regan wrote Signpost. Published by Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago in 1972, the dust jacket told that the book of three hundred and forty total pages provided “answers to 226 important questions of our times” that had been previously published in Sign. Editor Father Augustine P. Hennessy praised Regan’s style which included a “passion for clearness.” Moreover, Regan, wrote Hennessy “does not attempt to do more than a believer can promise to do when confronting the mysteries of faith. He is not a simplistic answer man.” Hennessy was proud of the fact that Regan used his theological expertise in the context of “humane compassion that enables him to feel the anguish of unanswered questions, whether they are prompted by the doubts of the troubled, the anger of the belligerent, or the disappointment of people who are just hurting.” Every indication is that Hennessy hoped the publication of Signpost would be a bridge over the troubled waters churned up by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

For illustrative purposes we might look at how each author dealt with the Bible. Sutton, in a seven page section entitled “The Bible Alone Not Our Guide,” posed five questions with answers. One question was: “Are not the Scriptures a sufficient guide in religion” The answer: “No; they are not, without authentic interpreter.” Also: Q: “Do not all Protestants profess to build their faith on the Scriptures?” Answer: “They do indeed, but none of them in fact build upon it. What a delusion is this! Protestants fancy they follow the word of God when indeed they follow their own private interpretation of it.”

Moeslein in his sixty page chapter: The Church and Her Business set aside eight pages and forty four questions in Part 1. Preaching the Gospel, to cover the Bible. Question 252 was: “Is it certain that the writers of the New Testament were Catholics.” Answer: “What else could they have been? There was only one Church at the time.” Question 262 hints that Moeslein may have been following the debate on Scripture in the twentieth century. Question: “Why this difference in the number of books in the Protestant and Catholic Bibles?” Answer: “The difference is due to two lists of books of the Old Testament, used by the Jews. Those who lived in the homeland, Palestine, used only the shorter list; but the Jews who lived in foreign lands, where the Greek language was spoken, used the longer list, as found in the Septuagint Greek translation. Protestants prefer the shorter list of the Jewish homeland. Catholics hold to the longer list of books of the Greek translation.”

Regan’s second of eight sections was Understanding the Bible. Twelve pages long, readers were given answers to thirteen questions. Unlike the previous two authors, Regan answers questions in a longer essay format. One example is Question on True Authors: “I just read in your monthly column your statement that ‘the authors of the Gospels do color what Jesus actually said and did.’ This is certainly contrary to what I learned in Catholic schools and colleges. To what extent and in what regard are the Gospels so colored, in your opinion? What is your evidence for this statement?” Answer: “I think you are misunderstanding what I wrote.” Regan in seven concise paragraphs unpacks the question in the wider issue as to how the Gospels were “actually written.” He backs his point by citing the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Council. At the end, he offers the reader the challenge of further reading: the 1964 Instruction of the Biblical Commission approved by Pope Paul VI. This was published in The Historical Truth of Gospels by Paulist Press and had a commentary by Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. On the other hand Regan could be blunt and to the point as if he could write for catechisms of the past. Question: “Is it true that there is a command in the Bible opposing Negro-white marriages? I cannot find it anywhere, but I have only an abridged version of the Bible.” Answer: “The reason you can’t find such a prohibition is that it isn’t there.”

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