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December 13, 2010

Catholic Catechesis & Apologetics

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Home > My Research > Christianity > Theology > Catechesis & Apologetics

The faith can be explained in a variety of ways. The notes on this page focus on two: catechesis and apologetics. These terms are first defined, then some correlations are drawn between them. Conclusions are tested by the literary study of Catholic texts that follows.


One may find oneself explaining aspects of the Catholic faith for a variety of reasons in any number of settings. In order to determine which approach to use to do so effectively, it is useful to recognize the nature of scenario at hand. These definitions help clarify.

Catechesis. Catechesis literally means oral instruction. It is derived from the Greek verb katekhein: kata- meaning “thoroughly” and -ekhein meaning “to sound”.

Apologetics. An apology is a defense given orally. It is derived from the Greek apologia: apo- meaning “from” and -logos meaning “speech” or “lecture”. The use of this word to mean an expression of regret is much more modern – the mission of a Christian apologist is not to express regret for being Christian!

There is an important distinction to note between these words. Both refer to the conveyance of information using an oral medium, but notice how the purpose of that conveyance differs: to instruct vs. to defend. Undoubtedly, the tone with which this information is delivered will be necessarily different, even if the information is substantively the same.


It seems that works of Catholic literature in this genre tend to gravitate toward one of two basic approaches, each with its own uses. This is fortunate, as I’ve found that no single form is suitable for all catechetical and apologetic efforts. The way in which information should be delivered can depend so much on what the recipient needs to know to understand the faith, to “fill in the gaps” if you will. The most effective approach for answering questions about the faith depends heavily on where you start.

Top-Down Approach. The top-down approach begins with a high-level view of the faith and then works down through logical constructs to arrive at the specific topics particular to Catholicism. This approach is based on the premise that when the more fundamental concepts of the Catholic faith are understood and appreciated then the rejection of the contested beliefs becomes illogical.

Bottom-Up Approach. The bottom-up approach involves addressing the specific “hot topics” directly, including the most common objections to the Church and other familiar talking points. This approach is based on the perception that both parties share some common understanding of the faith, and that an adequate explanation involves the simple elimination of errors and misconceptions.

Based on my observations, the first is generally used by catechists and the second by apologists. It also seems logical that the most fruitful opportunity for an apologist is to not merely defend, but to rouse the natural curiosity of his antagonist and thereby open the door to actual catechesis. This may require a shift in perspective.

Literature Survey

To illustrate the differences between the approaches described above, I have listed here various texts that I have read or that are available to me, each assessed according to content as being closer to one approach or another, either top-down or bottom-up. The purpose of the text is also considered. By no means should this be considered a very scientific study, but just a collection of empirical observations.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. The (current) Catechism of the universal Church is very much a top-down treatment of the faith. It discusses first what it means to believe, then examines the details of the creeds, God’s gifts to his people in the Sacraments, and finally, the life and prayer of the Christian. The language is explanatory, expressive but not defensive. Some general misconceptions are addressed, but no counterpoints are levied against specific objections. A person with no religious knowledge whatsoever could read this book and understand its messages.

Catholicism and Fundamentalism. Keating’s book is a hallmark work in apologetics literature. It takes a very strong bottom-up approach, explaining over eight chapters the objections of anti-Catholics, and then addressing specific topics over another fifteen chapters. In every chapter, Keating takes a defensive stance – which is the whole point of the book.

Catholic and Christian. More to come…



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