Review: New Online Catechism of the Catholic Church

In case you missed it last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has released a new online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). This is something that has been a desperate need — while there have been work-arounds for making a robust online catechism available, having an official version from the bishops is a very positive step forward in the USCCB’s social media and technology initiatives. Is this version everything we could have hoped? No, but it’s pretty good. Here’s some specifics.

Layout

The online Catechism has a simple layout: a table of contents on the left, hyper-linked to the headings. It’s a pretty long list; a collapsible menu structure may have been preferable, but also would have made it harder to browse to find the section you’re looking for. A nice touch includes alphabetical links to sections in the Glossary and Index.

On the right side of the screen is the text of the Catechism itself. It’s wide enough to be readable without onerous amounts of scrolling. The headers and paragraph numbers are set off from the text and in bold type, so they are easy to scan. All in all it’s a very readable presentation of the text.

Of course there is room for improvement. I know it would have added work, but I would have loved to have seen the footnotes hyper-linked to their respective texts. At the very least the biblical citations should link to appropriate section of the USCCB’s online New American Bible — this would go a long way towards making a true online reference.

Another major drawback is that, from what I can tell, there is no easy way to link to specific sections of the Catechism. Browsing through the Table of Contents doesn’t change the URL. You can right-click and copy the URL from the links in the Table of Contents, but that only takes you to the text of that particular section without the search bar or Table of Contents. Bloggers and other online evangelists will find it difficult to point people to specific citations; hopefully this feature will be added in a future update.

Search

The most important aspect of the online Catechism is its search capability. How does it work? Remarkably well! The search bar is always accessible at the top of the page and returns searches quickly. Ten search results are returned on the right, with two lines from the revelant  paragraph  displayed. Clicking on the title of the paragraph brings a popup with the whole paragraph and a “read more” link to the paragraph within the Catechism.

The one drawback is that the search only recognizes whole words; “episco” won’t find any matches, but “episcopal” will. I hope this will be updated in a future version so that we can search for word roots as well as whole words. But that’s a pretty minor quibble.

Mobile

Of course, in today’s day and age, you have to develop for mobile. I checked out the online Catechism on my Motorola Droid Pro and my office’s iPad. The phone worked better than I expected. I oriented the phone in landscape and had to zoom into the right side in order to read the text comfortably, but not so much that it cropped the text on the left or right. The book looks great on the iPad in portrait but especially in landscape. I suspect that this will become my favorite way to access the site.

That having been said, the fact that the Catechism  still isn’t available as a standalone app is maddeningly frustrating,  especially  for those of us who live and minister in rural dioceses. When I’m in Quincy — one of the major population centers of our diocese — I have no 3G connection (thanks to Verizon’s less than stellar coverage) and so I have no way to access the Catechism in a parish unless they have wi-fi (which very few parishes do). There is a  huge need for a completely downloadable Catechism app for iOS and Android that contains the layout and search capability of the online version. The new online Catechism can only be viewed as a stop-gap  measure  until such an app is available and I hope that the USCCB is working diligently and swiftly to make that happen.

Bottom Line

When I heard last month that the USCCB would be launching a new online Catechism of the Catholic Church (and has plans to launch the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults) I was skeptical. I intentionally kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. Thankfully the USCCB has given a great resource that, while not perfect, goes a long way towards making the Catechism more accessible and user-friendly. A Catechism and New American Bible app — or better yet, making those texts available to app developers — must be the next step to truly make these foundational documents available to a 21st century audience.