Why Catechesis and Apologetics are not Evangelization

We have all heard the statistics that for every convert we make to the Catholic faith, seven people leave. Perhaps you have also heard that somewhere around 70% of those that enter the Church at the Easter vigil do not consistently attend Mass a year later.

Why is that?

The reasons are numerous, but not committing enough attention to the ministry of evangelization is probably at the top of the list.  We need to make a clear distinction between evangelization and catechesis, even while they are integrally related. Evangelization is the work of reaching people’s hearts through personal encounters. Catechesis is primarily the work of helping converts understand what they have come to believe.

Evangelization requires a personal and narrative witness to the saving message of the Gospel—the proclamation of the Kerygma and a spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ.  Put simply, a person evangelizes by being a bridge for people to Jesus Christ and a deeper relationship with him. Think of how Andrew brought Peter to Jesus or the Samaritan woman brought Jesus to her village. This distinction is at the heart of the Church’s understanding of the RCIA process, but it is often ignored at great cost.

Catechesis is the work of teaching what the Church believes. What exactly is the body of truth into which we are to live? This is the object of catechetical instruction and can only happen effectively after a person has come to faith in Jesus. This is how it works developmentally in a person’s life. Arguments and logic are not operative in evangelization. When the time is right, we instruct people in the content of the faith and elevate their understanding of the sacred mysteries. Catholics are good at this and have been for centuries. Education has always been a strength for us.

However—and this is what has become so terribly obvious—catechesis does not generally impact people if the person being catechized has not been evangelized first and come to faith in Jesus Christ. Why explain the “what” if one has not first encountered and come to believe in the “who”? This distinction explains why we need a “new” evangelization. Over centuries, Catholics have catechized a culturally conditioned population but without adequately evangelizing those baptized mostly as infants. Now Christian culture is gone. Today, our children can go through twelve years of Catholic school and leave the faith within weeks of going to college. 

Evangelization is also not apologetics. Most commonly today, apologetics is the work of arguing in defense of the doctrine of the Catholic faith against the critique of naysayers. A first type of apologetics is the attempt to demonstrate the basis of our Catholics beliefs in relationship to other non-Catholic Christians. This form of apologetics requires people to accept Christ and assume the authority of Scripture if we are to engage them at this level of discourse.

The other form of apologetics is when we intellectually defend the content of the Catholic faith against non-believers. In this case, we are not trying to “prove” or demonstrate by logic the content of our faith, or even convert the other. Rather, we are trying to demonstrate that nothing in the datum of faith is contrary to reason. The latter form of apologetics does not presume faith, but neither is it the work of evangelization or catechesis.

I have laid out these distinctions because well-meaning and motivated Catholics typically attempt to bring others to the faith at the wrong level of engagement from a developmental perspective. By developmental I am referring to the fact that discipleship is a gradual growth process, much like the natural human process of maturation. When we consider what Sherry Weddell calls the “thresholds” of conversion, which are reflected beautifully in the catechumenal model (RCIA), we have to acknowledge that we are dealing with a spiritual process of maturation that we cannot handle in a perfunctory way. 

Most current pastoral efforts to present the faith happen on a catechetical, apologetic or even theological level. All of these engage the other on a rational level of discourse through expository explanations, argument and reason. Those who do seek to evangelize, and the numbers are not great here, tend to presume far too much in those they do engage, and often fail to build relationships and establish real trust. These approaches have not worked well because rational engagement and ‘strategies to convince’ miss several crucial steps in the growth process of a disciple. The pithy way to say this is that we must reach the heart through love and mercy before we can reach the head with truth.

This is the first part of a two-part series by Mr. Therrien. Check back on Catholic Exchange for part two, coming out this week.

To explore this and other themes of evangelization and Catechesis, check out Mr. Therrien’s latest book, The Catholic Faith Explained. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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Michel Therrien is the President and CEO of Preambula Group, a nonprofit lay apostolate dedicated to the work of the new evangelization. He has taught at Saint Vincent Seminary and the Augustine Institute and served as president of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He holds a B.A. in theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington; an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville; a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria; and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He resides in the Pittsburgh area with his wife, Lynn, and their four children.

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