Everything you always wanted to know about Catholicism—but were afraid to ask
Catholics today face a barrage of puzzling questions about their faith and their Church. This bracingly funny, achingly honest look at what the Church really teaches—and what it doesn’t—takes on the toughest objections moderns raise to Catholic faith.
Presented in the guise of the old-fashioned Catechism that generations of Catholic school kids in plaid skirts or clip-on ties had to memorize, this candid handbook provides a witty take on the teachings of the Catholic faith. Objections from relativists, New Atheists, dissenting Catholics, and other points of view are featured, with intellectually sound questions and entertaining answers.
Penned by a Yale-educated author who writes for mainstream, secular media as well as for Catholic outlets, Zmirak's book reveals the whole range of contemporary criticisms aimed at the Church—and how to answer them in kind. Using both a rapier wit and the strong left hook of a blue-collar kid from Queens, this guide defends its faith with good humor and sincere respect at every turn while illustrating the difficulties modern believers face.
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I fear that John Zmirak’s The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism will be a failure. This is not because the book is bad, but because it is too good. Too good, for the dull religious reader.
The problem is that Zmirak has done the unthinkable and made theology fun. Not only has he made theology fun he has made it funny. Furthermore, not only has he made theology fun and funny, but he has made orthodox Catholic theology fun and funny.
This stands things on their head. We are used to the theology of the modernists being funny. Modernist theology is funny because it is ridiculous, and even more funny because while it is ridiculous the modernists take it so seriously. The theology of the modernists is funny as the naked emperor is funny.
On the other hand, Zmirak’s theology is funny because Zmirak is funny. His book on the catechism should be taken very seriously because Zmirak does not take himself seriously. He has discovered not only that true words are spoken in jest, but that jest is the best way to speak true words. This is because a joke makes connections that no one has seen before, and that is also the essence of good theology: it makes connections that no one would ever have thought of, but which, once seen make one say, 'Aha!'
Zmirak’s book is very good but I fear it will fail because too many Christians are suspicious of humor. They expect their theology to be glum or even gloomy. These are the dour and sour Christians of whom C.S.Lewis said, 'You can tell they are the pillars of the church because their faces look like stone.' They don’t want their theology to be fun or funny, and may turn away in bewilderment or disgust at Zmirak’s zany jesting.
While the religious people don’t want a book on the catechism to be funny, the rest of the world don’t want their funny books to be about religion. They don’t really want to read a book about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They want the comics not the catechism.
However, for those readers who have both humility and a sense of humor, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism provides a rollicking roller coaster ride through the complexities of the Catholic faith. Zmirak uses the old question and answer method to draw the reader into a running dialogue with a pretend enquirer who is sometimes smart and more often [a] smart aleck. The author, in a kind of disguise, then replies to the wise guy’s questions with answers that are witty and wise.
Zmirak’s learning is prodigious. His roller coaster takes unexpected turns as he zooms off into delightful tangents—launching the reader into explanations of Christological heresies, gutsy rants on women’s ordination or corrupt hierarchs, paeans of praise for the love of beagles or the evils of fast food and strip malls along with reverent passages on the sanctity of saints, the beautiful complexities of theology and the exquisite eternal verities of the Mass. Like that old wooden roller coaster, Zmirak’s book lurches, rattles and rolls—rocketing you through the catechism at a breathtaking rate, and like that roller coaster, when you catch your breath and step off onto the platform and put down the book, the first thing you do is cry, “Let’s do it again!”
The problem with the book is the shadow side of it’s strength. Zmirak is so smart and so fast-talking and so full of energy and ideas and wisdom that it is hard to keep up. Because the pace is fast you are tempted to speed read the book, but this is precisely what you should not do. Because there is so much crammed into so small a space the reader must slow down and enjoy the show. The book is like an old fashioned country antique store—so many fascinating and unexpected treasure that you need to slow down and snoop slowly.
The other problem is that Zmirak’s vast learning and intellect sometimes overwhelms you. It’s nice that he assumes you know as much as he does and is as smart as he is, but at times he leaves you with your head spinning—a bit like talking to that zany professor with a pocket protector who is enthusiastically explaining quantum physics and calculus to you.
However, this is no reason to abandon the book. Indeed, this is every reason to persevere. Too many books are dumbed down or dumbed up. That is to say, they dumb down a complex and beautiful subject or they dumb up and make complicated what is essentially rather mundane and shallow. Zmirak makes no apologies for his apologetics. He offers a detailed explanation that makes you work, but he also offers a delightful entertainment that makes you laugh.
Finally, amidst all the fun and frolic—amidst all the intellectual fireworks, the roller coaster arguments, the jalapeno hot opinions and the delicious rants, Zmirak unfolds his faith with conviction, poignancy and a nice touch of genuine emotion.
This is not just a catechism learned by heart, but a catechism written from the heart, and this is what makes Zmirak’s book really good: that it comes not only from a head full of the knowledge of God, but also from a heart that is full of the love of God.
In his introduction the author describes his book as 'both a loving parody of, and a tribute to, the classic Q&A catechisms of the past.' The work is indeed both of these things, but it is also a catechism sui generis, one of a kind, in which the questions posed are not arranged in the manner of a teacher or authority formally addressing beginners or docile students with standard questions. The person with the questions is a skeptical, sarcastic, witty, urbane, educated agnostic with a post-modern sensibility for whom faith is a matter of opinion, speculation, or nonsense. One question is 'So is the Holy Spirit something like a demon that possesses you—except in a really good way?' Another question is 'And he feeds you his body and blood—just like he did the apostles, even though he was sitting with them apparently intact?' and 'Why do we need to tell our sins, if that’s what they are, to a priest in a wooden box through a screen?' He makes sardonic remarks like 'You Catholics make marriage sound almost impossible to do well and 'Compared to Protestants and Mormons, I’ve always thought of Catholics as being in kind of a sleepy religion. They don’t try to get new members . . . .' The skeptic, assuming that thinking is doubting, seems hardly open to the truth.
The responses to these questions and comments create a lively informal dialogue that abounds in honest questions, straightforward answers, hard truths, references to biblical events, a review of church history, explanations of heresies, and the Church’s authentic teaching. These conversations are punctuated with laughter, erudition, and illumination as the cynical modern discovers more about the treasury of the Church’s teaching than he ever imagined existed. Indeed, to quote Hamlet, 'There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' For example, conceding that a personal God exists, the skeptic bluntly asks 'why would I need an organized religion, much less a Church with a long and historically spotty record?' He receives a startling answer he never entertained before: God’s plan requires that a relationship to Him involves 'accommodating ourselves to each other, submitting to authority, and accepting inequality.' The Israelites as a whole, a body, and as a nation—not as a collection of individualists—received the protection of Divine Providence. God does not 'customize' religion according to each person’s taste but demands man’s surrender to eternal truth.
As the cynic receives answers on the subject of the Holy Spirit, he bluntly interjects, 'So the Spirit’s gifts work something like psychiatric meds?' The answer he receives instructs him in the fruits of the Holy Spirit: joy ('something distinct from cheerfulness or even the happiness the philosophers tell us is the proper goal of every human man'); peace ('we don’t mean the peace the hippies and yippies were seeking at Woodstock'); patience ('a placidity of soul that will allow a man of action like St. Maximilian Kolbe . . . to keep his cool in a prison camp'); kindness, not to be confused with 'namby-pamby niceness' but the sensitive thoughtfulness of the Blessed Mother who graciously visited Elizabeth and interceded at the wedding at Cana on behalf of the host; goodness ('a single-minded focus on pursuing the highest and the best, despite temptation, frustration, and bunions'). The blasé modern inclined to debunk religion finds religion more reasonable than he ever imagined and himself more interested than he thought possible. The truth is not just intelligible to reason but also attractive to the heart.
The modern finds confession to a priest silly when a person can easily acknowledge sin directly before God in private. When he understands the rationale and wisdom that govern this practice, the truth about human nature is all too self-evident. The catechist explains, 'It’s all too easy, when you’re staying inside your head . . . to shade the truth, sugarcoat, bloviate, make excuses, and at length decide that your ex-landlord’s rose garden deserved to be sprayed with Roundup.' The mystery of the Virgin Mother also makes no sense to the skeptic who finds the virginity of the Mother of God insignificant: 'Can you tell me why on earth it matters whether Mary remained a virgin, instead of having subsequent children with Joseph?' He has never entertained the idea that God’s union with Mary has no counterpart in Greek mythology because God’s relationship with the Holy Mother was an intimate union: 'it was sacramental and indissoluble . . . . Her single minded devotion to Him, and to her Son, is the model for every Christian life.' Unlike the pagan gods who lord it over mortals, Mary’s example testifies to man’s free will that can say 'yes' or 'no' to God and either receive or reject God’s grace. Religion is not as simplistic as it seems.
The cynic, puzzled about the Last Sacrament, the Anointing of the Sick, regards it as an empty ritual, asking 'do you think that the Last Extreme Anointing or whatever it is . . . will do anything for you?' After explaining the significance of the anointing of the five senses and other parts of the body and the words of the priest ('Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight . . . .'), the catechist simply states, 'You really can’t make this stuff up' as he recalls Christ’s healing miracles and the apostles’ anointing of the sick with oil—a revered tradition in both the Western and Eastern Church until Protestants like Calvin rejected the sacrament and called it 'hypocritical horseplay.' Can a universal tradition and custom that has passed the test of time be dismissed as mere form with substance? Can one man’s opinion override the accumulated wisdom of the ages?
The skeptic notices that the catechist is honestly realistic and peaceful about death with no fantasies about immortality in this life or about 'a quiet, painless death whose time we chose ourselves' with a visit to the veterinarian 'so he can seamlessly put us to sleep.' The catechist explains plainly that he receives the sacraments for spiritual health and strength, as 'supernatural antioxidants,' trusting that 'God will decide, in the end, not to waste all the graces He offered me through those means by letting the Tapeworm get me in the end.' The enlightened modern, suspicious of mysteries and miracles, is left at the end of the book speculating about the meaning of life and death on a level that transcends the pabulum of propaganda, ideology, and relativism that post modernism offers to thirsty human beings whose souls long for 'the living water.' The skeptic, no longer doubting, now wants to know the truth: 'How, then should we live?'
These frank conversations that cover the traditional topics of Reason and Revelation, The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit, The Church, and The Sacraments present the orthodox teaching of the Church with an imaginative rhetoric that addresses the modern audience’s apathy and anti-intellectualism. The living quality of the human voice in dialogue, the irrepressible charm of wit and good nature, and the fearlessness of speaking the truth in season and out of season, however, prove to be powerful instruments in Dr. Zmirak’s new evangelization as Mr. Prideful Intellect realizes he is Mr. Ignorant Modern."
The newest addition to John Zmirak’s series of Bad Catholic’s Guides is the most ambitious- if those are the right words to use for a book that combines the Baltimore Catechism with Montry Python- esque zaniness. Humorous romps through Catholic tradition, full of arcana and exhortations to enjoy the goods of the world for the glory of God (one was devoted to Wine, Whiskey, & Song), the first Guides were aimed at traditionally minded Catholic looking for a little fun.
Zmirak, writer in residence at Thomas More College, wants this book to be a tool for evangelization, something one could give to a fallen-away friend or teenage nephew. Neither is likely to appreciate jokes about the validity of holy orders after Vatican II or other bits of inside baseball that crop up from time to time. They might
appreciate the book's serious theological and philosophical arguments, although you might be careful about to whom you offer the book. As the author admits, “I never hint. That’s for people from a higher social class.”
This book does not offer the reader an exhaustive proof for the truth of Catholicism but rather a wild ride through reason and revelation, the nature of God, creation, the sacraments, and the Church. The Summa Contra Gentiles becomes The Complete Goy’s Guide to God. A “sch-moctrine” is “a superstition that well-meaning people have falsely deduced from doctrine.”
Other witticisms have more substance. Zmirak describe the end of public revelation with the completion of the New Testament canon as “when God stopped adding to the great ball of yarn and left it to the Church to untangle and knit into a sweater.” One aphorism should be incorporated into any RCIA program: “Catholicism is a wondrous religion-but a really pathetic hobby.”
The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism might be the only book with “catechism” in the title that can cause you to laugh out loud on public transit.
John Zmirak is easily one of the funniest writers alive . . . He attacks the subject matter with the best of his doctrinally sound depth of knowledge and relays it with maximum humor.
John Zmirak is an editor, college teacher, screenwriter, and political columnist. He is author of the popular Bad Catholic’s Guides, Wilhelm Röpke, and The Grand Inquisitor(graphic novel). He is a former editor at Investor’s Business Daily. His work has appeared in Aleteia.org, The Blaze, National Review, The Weekly Standard, First Things, The American Spectator, USA Today, Commonweal, The American Conservative, and The National Catholic Register; and he has contributed to The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thoughtand American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. He has been a commentator on Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. He edited a number of popular guides to higher education, and served as press secretary to Louisiana Governor Mike Foster.