What One Is Supposed to Believe

Cover page of the catechism from 1582. Translation of the title: Catechism by order of the Council of Trent for priests, issued on behalf of Pope Pius V.

Catechismus ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini ad Parochos Pii V. Pont. Max. Ivssu Editvs

Printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1582

The book at hand is quite worn. It is obvious that generations of priests read it often and thoroughly. Annotations and notes in black ink show that many of them studied its content intensively. Therefore, the original binding was so worn out at some point – probably in the 18th century – that it was necessary to renew it. The new binding is simple, indicating that the owner didn’t have the money to have the print, which was created in 1582 in Venice, bound in precious leather. And this even though the booklet was made in the workshop of one of the most famous printers of the time, namely in Aldus Manutius’ workshop in Venice. Why was this book still used frequently so many decades after its publication? What kind of book is it?

Contemporary depiction of a sitting of the Council of Trent, in the foreground an allegorical scene celebrating the victory of the Catholic Church. Painting by Pasquale Cati, today in Santa Maria in Trastevere. Photo: Antony M.

A Turning Point: The Council of Trent

Even though it has fallen into oblivion today: Martin Luther wasn’t the only one demanding that the Catholic Church be renewed. Even the cardinals were aware that something had to change, but nobody liked to voluntarily give up conveniences and sources of income. Therefore, the Fifth Council of the Lateran, which was supposed to reform the Church, had already ended in a grandiose failure eight years before Luther’s posting of his theses. Even saints had failed to do it, but now it was accomplished by the competition of the Protestants and the Reformed church: Cardinals, bishops, generals of orders and abbots gathered in 1545 in Trent to reform the Catholic Church.

Of course, this needed a lot of time. The talks were held from 13 December 1545 to 4 December 1563 – for almost 18 years! However, what was achieved back then offered actual answers to the questions asked by Martin Luther. And already during the first sessions, the Doctors of the Church thought about how they could spread these messages among Catholics.

The Roman Catechism – A Lesson for the Entire Roman Catholic Church

In this process, the Catholics benefited from their organisational structure. Whereas Protestants, Reformed, Anabaptists, Adventists, Calvinists – or whatever they were all called – were able to argue brilliantly about every letter of the Bible, the Catholic Church was focused on a leader, the Pope. The church members considered him the legitimate successor of St. Peter and therefore he was the only one able to dictate a mandatory doctrine. What dozens of brilliant theologians had elaborated during the Council of Trent was distributed all over the world after the end of the Council on behalf of the Pope as the “Roman Catechism” in order to offer all priests in their communities a practical help on how to explain the faith to their flocks.

The preamble of issuer Aldus Manutius addressed to the readers.

An Actual Competition for the Bible

Whereas the faithful Protestants eagerly read the Bible and fiercely argued about which interpretation of the Bible might be the right one, the Catholic Church believed that the words of the Gospel were far too complex and too contradictory to understand them without help. It was the Pope’s task to provide the people with the final interpretation. And this interpretation was recorded in the Roman Catechism.

The latter became one of the most printed and read books available at book fairs. Its first issue was published in 1566 in Rome. In 1567, Venice – back then probably the most active centre of book trade – re-printed it. In the same year, the Latin version was published in Cologne and Paris. As early as in 1568, the catechism was translated into German, French, Flemish and Polish. In 1590, a Portuguese edition was published. And for those who like the exotic: A Mexican edition was published in 1723 and an Arabic version in 1786/7. In 1966, the catechism was still object to translation – it was translated into Japanese for the first time.

This edition was made in Venice in 1582. It is not elaborately made, but for that time it is richly illustrated. Every single chapter has a vignette, which provides us with insight into the life of faith of the time.

This depiction is nothing but an illustrated table of contents. It features the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

About the Catechism’s Content

And what did this catechism say? Well, simply what was considered the foundations of faith in the 16th century: The essential elements of faith were presented in 13 chapters on the basis of the Apostles’ Creed. Next there are 8 chapters about the seven sacraments. The book dedicates 10 chapters to the Ten Commandments and 17 chapters to the Lord’s Prayer. The extensive index was of crucial importance because it made it easier for priests to find what they were looking for. For specific questions they didn’t have to go through the entire book.

Illustration of the catechism for the chapter on the Sacrament of Penance: The confessor holds a rod in his hand.

He Who Withholds His Rod Hates His Son: Confessing in the 16th Century

To attentive readers of our time, the book offers a wealth of insights into the religious practice of the 16th century. We want to illustrate this by means of a particularly impressive example, namely by how the Sacrament of Penance was practised in the 16th century:

Whereas it happens nowadays secretly in a confessional, it was practised publicly in the 16th century. Whereas the church itself is not furnished with benches or other sitting accommodations, the confessor in this depiction – not only a priest but a monk as we can tell by his tonsure – sits on a stone bench opposite the altar. The penitent kneels in front of him on the stone floor without allowing himself the luxury of a cushion. The penitent is clearly a noble and accomplished man, as his elaborate clothing and his beard show. Pay attention to the item the confessor holds in his right hand! It is a rod! The pious man won’t hesitate to use it to punish the penitent in a way that is no longer comprehensible to us today. King Philip II of Spain probably kneeled just like this in front of his confessor. Emperors, kings, dukes, noblemen – all of them humbled themselves during the Sacrament of Penance and accepted to be beaten for their sins by a man of a much lower social rank.

This picture puts early modern absolutism in a different light.

It is a big mistake to think one might be able understand the past without examining the foundation of the Christian perception of the world and the religious practice. That’s why this little worn booklet is irreplaceable for the understanding of the early modern man and his actions.


This catechism isn’t available online yet, but you can find an earlier version, which was also made in Venice in 1567.

We bought this book on 30 November 2019 at the flea market in Basel.

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