The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the primary reference guide for the Catholic faith (after the Bible, of course). The current version dates from 1985 through 1997 and is the first major update in 400 years. It is the first book I read when I became seriously interested in joining the Church. I read it daily for hours, over a period of 2 weeks, until I was done. At over 750 pages it is not a “quick read.”
Not everybody reads the Catechism from cover to cover, preferring instead to use it only as a reference text. It is certainly great for that, but I found it to be highly instructive as a book. I would get situated in my favorite reading chair, open it up and continue where I left off. Usually it was hard to “get into it,” at least for the first 15 minutes or so. After that it was increasingly engrossing and hard to put down! The Catechism not only presents Catholic beliefs but also explains why and gives generous biblical and other references. There is a summary In Brief recap after each topic.
As a reference guide, the Catechism is extremely well organized. It is divided into four parts:
- The Profession of Faith – Revelation and a detailed examination of the Nicene Creed
- The Celebration of the Christian Mystery – the liturgy and sacraments
- Life in Christ – Christian morality, with emphasis on the Ten Commandments
- Christian Prayer – communicating with God
Every paragraph is numbered (from 1 to 2865) and linked to related paragraphs elsewhere in the book by liberal references in the margin. External references to the Catechism are conventionally via these paragraph numbers (e.g. “CCC 1234”). There is a 16 page table of contents and a comprehensive 66 page subject index. The Catechism is translated into many languages and is widely available for under $10 in paperback.
The Catholic Church is quite large with over a billion members. To engage people across the world, the Church permits their inclusion of local traditions and customs that are consistent with the faith. For this and other reasons, local catechisms are permitted as long as they are fully consistent with the CCC. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults is ours.
I purchased the US Catechism after I had already started the CCC. My plan was to read it also before I am received into the Church. Alas, I have run out of time. My new plan is to read it at a slower, more thoughtful pace throughout the year. It is organized similarly to the CCC and covers most of the same material but sometimes from a different perspective. Glancing through it I can see it is less suited as a reference (I have never seen it externally referred to), but it looks to be easier to read. I highly recommend that you read either the CCC or the US Catechism.
While not a replacement for the catechisms, the book Catholicism for Dummies is highly regarded. It is “only” 432 pages – easy to read and covers the faith well. One warning: do not confuse this book with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism that is not highly regarded and may be misleading.