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The Children’s Catechism

The Catholic Church and Philosophy by Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP
London, Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, Ltd. Publishers to the Holy See, 1927

But indeed it is not the priest only who received a grounding in philosophy as a preparation for life. Even the Catholic child—I had almost said, especially the Catholic child—in the poor schools is supposed to have an implicit knowledge of philosophy which is a high compliment to its intelligence. The Catholic Church speaks nobly of children reaching the age of reason. Moreover, with profound insight into human nature, she puts this age not at forty or twenty-one years, but at seven years, when she teaches children their first lesson in freedom by helping them to see and say out (confess) their sins.

Before these little ones are thought fit to make their first declaration of their free-will by acknowledging their faults, and therefore their power, they are prepared by a noble handbook of philosophy, fitly called The Children’s Catechism. As every country has its own method of writing and arranging this catechism, we take for our present purpose the catechism which, within a stone’s throw of where I am now writing, is being taught to children of perhaps the most crowded slumland in the world. In sheer philosophic gratitude let me set down the first eight questions of this appeal made by Alma Mater Ecclesia, Dear Mother Church, to the philosophic intelligence of her children of seven!

Q1 Who made you? Ans. God made me.

Q2 Why did God make you? Ans. God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

Q3 To whose image and likeness did God make you? Ans. God made me to His own image and likeness.

Q4 Is this likeness to God in your body, or in your soul? Ans. This likeness is chiefly in my soul.

Q5 How is your soul like to God? Ans. My soul is like to God because it is a spirit and is immortal.

Q6 What do you mean when you say that your soul is immortal? Ans. When I say that my soul is immortal I mean that it can never die.

Q7 Of which must you take most care, of your body or your soul? Ans. I must take most care of my soul; for Christ has said, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Mt 16:26)

Q8 What must you do to save your soul? Ans. To save my soul I must worship God by Faith.

This fragment of literature torn from the front page of a catechism for the seven-year-old children of the poor is, for the present writer, a priceless gem-book of literature and philosophy.

In the realm of letters, is there any masterpiece in any language that opens so dramatically as this, with its almost fierce accosting question, “Who made you?”

If, since the time of Genesis and Plato, dialogue has been looked upon as a supreme form of literature, is there any more dramatic dialogue than this traffic of question and answer between the wisest institution in the world—and a child of seven?

But even the literary value of this page is less than its value in philosophy. So much sound Greek thought has been assimilated in this Catholic “milk for babes” that these schools of Catholic children, and especially of Catholic poor children, are becoming the last homes of a liberal education. … Especially remarkable is the acceptance of that great Greek generalisation—the Four Causes.

Who made you? (Efficient Cause.)

Why did God make you? (Final Cause.)

To whose image and likeness did God make you? (Formal Exemplar Cause.)

Is this likeness to God in your body (Material Cause) or in your soul (Formal Internal Cause)?

Now the present writer, who has taught not only children but university students for some thirty-two years, bears psychological witness to the fact that little children even from the poorest classes usually give not a notional, but a real assent to these questions. The men who ask for a simpler creed not infrequently are ignorant of the child-mind, and in their ignorance, for something, like a primrose or a toy, which the child can understand but cannot explain, they substitute something like progress or evolution or ether, which the child-mind can neither explain nor understand!

Notice how deftly that part of philosophy called ethics (Q7) is based upon that part of philosophy called metaphysics (Q1, Q2, Q3) and psychology (Q4, Q5, Q6). Notice again how Descartes’ discovery that truth should be investigated sectionally is here made to build up, stone upon stone, an unshakable fortress of truth. Hardly a spear-point of attack could find a fissure between the perfectly fitting courses of the structure. As a synthesis of thought it is masterly. Or again notice that the great truths underlying these questions are all within the discovery of human reason, yet human reason is not merely patient but expectant of faith (Q8).

It will or should be conceded that an institution which offers even its children such solid philosophical food is doing its duty by philosophy.

Photo credit: By William Hoiles from Basking Ridge, NJ, USA (Old books  Uploaded by guillom) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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