Apologists and Catechists, Debate and Dialectic

The role of Catholics online has evolved in interesting  ways, with social media tools allowing all members of Christ’s Church to explore and share the faith, from the pope right down to the average layperson with a mobile phone and a Twitter account. A vast range of topics and approaches falls within that spectrum, but the two most notable roles are apologist and catechist, and there are important distinctions between the two.

An apologist (from the Greek apologia, meaning to speak or teach in defense of something), is a person who makes the case for Christianity. More and more, the apologist is called upon to make the case for simple theism in the face of a vocal and active fundamentalist atheism, which rose to prominence in the wake of several really bad bestselling books. In short, the apologist is arguing a point and a making a case. It is debate.

A catechist, on the other hand, is a teacher of the faith. We convey the established truths of the faith to people who are predisposed to believe them. They have already made that first step, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, towards accepting Christianity, and need to be taught what the faith means and how to live it. It is not a debate. Although intelligent and involved converts will always want to engage points in order to better understand them, this is more akin to a dialectic approach. People are asking questions in order to deepen knowledge, not to strike down a core point of the faith.

Debate involves people with fixed opinions arguing their own points, while the dialectic approach (best embodied by Socrates) involves people asking and answering questions in order to better explore the truth.

The apologist’s approach is persuasive, while the catechist’s is pedagogic. An apologist needs to accept that all questions are on the table, and be willing to answer them. A catechist assumes several basic facts (God exists, Jesus is Lord, the Church is his body), and then helps the student to better learn and live those facts.

One leads the horse to water, and the other teaches him to drink.

These aren’t rigidly defined categories. The apologist is often a catechist and the catechist often engages in apologetics. But the roles are different, and that distinction is important because everyone approaches “online Catholics” as though we’re apologists willing to hash out all the arguments for and against our faith at the drop of a dime. While all Christians are called to “give the reason for our hope,” not all are equipped or inclined to engage in internet apologetics, which is a kind of verbal trench warfare in which both sides remained fixed in place, sniping from their locations and rarely moving the front line either direction.

I am not an apologist: I am a catechist. I’m trained and certified as a catechist, I work as a catechist, and I’m getting a masters degree in order to be a better catechist and teach at a higher level. I’m willing to explain the core points of the faith to those who do not accept them, but I have very little interest in hashing out settled truths about the basic existence of God with unyielding and unreasonable people. I studied grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and did all that debate bosh starting in junior high, complete with note cards, points of information, propositions, scoring, and all the rest. Debate-as-sport is something I’ll leave to better men, since I find it unbearably tedious. Internet debates rarely go anywhere at all. At least a formal debate ends and is scored. An online debate just goes round and round and round until someone calls you a Nazi.

When I wrote my post on Augustine asking hard questions atheists don’t like to ask, I got a lot of atheist comments from the usual range of people, from reasonable to obnoxious to psychopathic. I really wasn’t trying to engage atheists in debate, because debating the existence of a creator in a created universe is like debating existence of the sun. Also, for reasons pointed out by Frank Weathers, I’d probably suck at it. I don’t think atheists are stupid at all: I think they simply can’t see and, not being God, I can’t open their eyes. The most useful thing I can do for them is shut up and pray that the one “who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” will open their eyes. I was a blind beggar when I was an agnostic, and was given the totally unmerited gift of faith. I could never debate someone into believing about God, and I’d probably make a poor witness in the attempt, so I’ll leave that to cooler heads.

Which is why I’m not an apologist. I have no problem at all discussing the claims of Christianity, the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic Church, and the meaning of scripture. That’s all part of a catechist’s job. We pick up where the apologist leaves off.

I’m about to begin a new year of teaching and see last year’s class across the finish line to Confirmation. Conveying the faith to the next generation is enough work for me. I’ll let others handle the combox battles over the existence of God.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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