I still know the Catechism by heart, having learned it at the age of five. The fundamentals of Christian doctrine were instilled into our impressionable young minds, to be repeated until they were as familiar as the alphabet. Its 370 injunctions are now branded into my very bones, like letters through a stick of rock.
Katechesis, meaning instruction by word of mouth, especially through questions and answers, goes back to the beginnings of Christianity; some have even compared it with the Socratic Method. Socrates, however, who championed discussion, exploration and speculation, would turn in his grave at such blatant thought-control.
Speculation has no place in the Catechism, which lays down absolute truths. However baffling the concepts – the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, three Persons in one God – they must be accepted without question. Doubts were interpreted as sinfulness, and sin was a constant scourge, since "our natural inclinations are prone to evil from our very childhood, and, if not corrected by self-denial, will... carry us to Hell". (Injunction 344)
The Catechism is very hot on Hell. Mortal sin kills the soul and cuts one off from God; even venial sin is perilous, weakening our defences against more execrable transgression. Our opportunities for sin of any nature were, in truth, extremely limited, cloistered within a convent boarding-school and supervised 24/7. "Immodest" plays, songs, books and pictures might all be forbidden by the Catechism, but our only songs were hymns; our only pictures of Popes and Saints; our only books the 'Lives of the Martyrs' and 'The Imitation of Christ'. Yet that didn't stop us obsessing about sin. Beyond the convent, lay a tangle of temptations, some way beyond our comprehension. The Ninth Commandment forbade "all wilful pleasure in the irregular motions of the flesh" (Injunction 224). "Irregular motions" clearly meant constipation - an ailment I suffered due to the stodgy diet. But how could anyone take "wilful pleasure" in it, when the remedy was a dose of castor oil?
However, the Catechism gave us children an extensive vocabulary and honed our spelling skills, familiar as we were with words like longanimity, benignity, calumny, infallibility. The whole drama of salvation and damnation nurtured our imaginations, expanding our horizons. And who can argue with the Catechism's admonition to comfort the sorrowful, feed the hungry and harbour the harbourless, or its ever apt reminder to forgive those who trespass against us?
Nonetheless, I still condemn my 'Book of a Lifetime' as an abusive system of indoctrination, denying basic freedom of thought. Focusing on the world to come, it lambasts the pleasures of this world as sordid and profane. No wonder Catholic guilt is legendary.
Wendy Perriam's new novel is 'Broken Places' (Robert Hale)