The Science of Salvation: French Diocesan Catechisms and Catholic Reform (1650-1800)

By Carter, Karen E. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Science of Salvation: French Diocesan Catechisms and Catholic Reform (1650-1800)


Carter, Karen E., The Catholic Historical Review


In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, catechism played a vital role in the Catholic Reformation. During this period bishops issued new catechisms for their dioceses to ensure that the truths of the Catholic religion would be taught with exactness. This essay examines these catechisms and analyzes the bishops' measures to establish the catechism as a set of step-by-step instructions designed to teach children correct Catholic behavior and basic Catholic principles. Bishops believed the material in their catechisms, which they termed the "science of salvation," would ensure orthodoxy and orthopraxy in each new generation of Catholic believers.

Keywords: bishop; catechism; children; education; reform

Of all the sciences that should be the object of your application, this is the most useful. It alone teaches us what is the true happiness of man, with what ardor he should desire it, and what he should do to attain it.... All these forms of knowledge to which the world has attached beautiful names and grand ideas, do they merit to be compared to this? Alas! What does it serve to know all the rest if one is ignorant of the one thing necessary?1

Bishop Bégon of Toul was just one of several early-modern French bishops to refer to a knowledge of Christian truths as a science. A bishop of Saint-Claude described his newly revised catechism as "la science du salut" and emphasized that children who neglected to learn this science would find themselves on the path of ignorance, superstition, and vice rather than virtue and obethence. A bishop of Laon urged parents to use his 1698 catechism to teach their children "la science de la Religion," while the bishop of Soissons argued that his catechism contained "la science des saints, la science du salut."2

What did these bishops mean by "science"? During the early-modern period, the word science evolved from being synonymous with "knowledge," to its more modern définition of a systematically organized body of knowledge on a given subject.3 For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century bishops, the "science of salvation" was a science in the latter sense. Just as the philosophers and scientists of the period claimed that a knowledge of the science of physics would enable one to understand the movement of the planets or the laws governing motion in the physical world, bishops claimed that a knowledge of the science of salvation - conveniently found in the catechisms they issued for their dioceses - would lead to an understanding of God's involvement in the world and put them on the path to salvation in the next life.

The bishops' emphasis on catechism and the science of salvation was part of the larger Catholic Reformation movement taking place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.4 Catholic efforts to reform both clergy and laity began with the Council of Trent (1545-63), but it took several decades for French clergymen to effect significant change. By the end of the seventeenth century, bishops had taken a number of important steps toward reform: They established seminaries to train their parish priests, issued dozens of ordinances and regulations governing clerical behavior, and held regular synods to establish and maintain clerical discipline and order.5

The bishops' next major task in the reform process was to educate the laity in orthodox Catholic doctrines and practices, and for this they needed a standardized method of instruction- the catechism. To ensure orthodoxy and orthopraxy in their dioceses, bishops issued catechisms and required their parish priests to teach them on Sundays and feast days. Bishops used their catechisms as a way to outline, clarify, and teach their science, the "science of salvation," to the children in their dioceses. The clergymen and theologians who wrote these catechisms meant them to be comprehensive, step-by-step instructions for children to follow in their daily lives: what to believe and what to do to live as true Catholics. …

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