Catechetical Methodology: Content v. Method?

teaching methods

Recently, a debate on Joe Paprocki’s blog got me thinking how important it is that catechists understand the underlying principles of the methodology they use. I don’t want to get into the debate on Joe’s blog – the concept of divine pedagogy needs to be explored more profoundly, I think, to get at the heart of what the universal Church is asking us and whether methodologies such as Groome’s fit with that (which, in my view, it does not… but more on that anon – perhaps…!) What struck me after following this debate (slightly belatedly) is that we, as catechists, must be aware that there is no ‘neutral’ methodology – the methods we use either serve revelation (cf. GDC 149) or they do not. This is why it is so important that catechists are trained in methodology.

First of all, let’s get down to basics. Everyone uses a methodology of some kind, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they have put much thought into it or not. Many parish priests will asks school teachers to be catechists because they believe they know ‘how to teach’. Which they do, of course – that is their profession. But what methodology are they using? And does it correspond to the divine pedagogy?

Remember – catechesis is not about teaching facts (although content is one important aspect). It is first and foremost about putting people in touch with Jesus Christ, so they may have union with him (cf. CT 5).

A catechist’s proficiency at allowing the Holy Spirit to do this can be the only measure of their success – not how much information those being catechised have successfully retained.

So – that’s the starting point. There is no ‘neutral’ method – it either serves revelation or it does not.

Why is this such an important point? As with just about every topic in the Church, there are extreme standpoints on this. There are those who emphasise the priority of content and seem to associate a concern for ‘method’ with something ‘experiential’ and fluffy. They fear that too much talk about ‘method’ leads to participants pooling their opinions (by which I mean their ignorance) and sharing their personal stories. Perhaps they forget than even they, who value content so highly, use a method – people are ‘experiencing’ their catechesis – either as something inspirational and life-changing, or as something dry and static.

On the other end of the spectrum are the ‘method’-banner-wavers. Sometimes they are successful in (apparently) eliminating all ‘content’ altogether. I remember once attending a workshop at a conference for representatives of national youth organisations. The workshop demonstrated a method of discussing important topics with young people. It involved people suggesting topics or questions they would like to discuss. Each topic was allocated a different area of the conference centre. The method involved going to the area that interested you, listening, contributing, and leaving whenever you wanted to go onto the next, but any conclusions or answers on the topics discussed were not permitted. Needless to say, it allowed the less-than-orthodox believers among us to air their views unheeded for several hours (I managed to sneak off for a nap). This was an example of ‘method’ being prized over content. But, undeniably, ‘content’ was being taught – just completely at odds in most cases with the teaching of the Church.

Methods such as these (which seem completely mad to those of my generation who want to escape the post-modern mentality of ‘there-are-no-answers-only-questions’) are responding to what they see as an overly didactic approach to catechesis – but in doing so, they are equally didactic, just imparting dubious content.

What we find in these examples, ultimately, is a false polemic between content and method. When we read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis closely, we discover that the whole Word to be handed on is the Person of Jesus Christ himself, who is, summed up in a Person, the entire content and the entire method. 

How deeply we need to ponder and study this to form ourselves as more effective catechists!

About transformedinchrist

I live in Southsea and work for the Diocese of Portsmouth. My first love is for catechesis and evangelisation: until January 2013, I worked for a busy, thriving parish in south London coordinating the catechesis - sacramental programmes and adult formation. In November 2013, I completed my MA in catechetics at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham. View all posts by transformedinchrist

10 responses to “Catechetical Methodology: Content v. Method?

  • Tonia

    I tend to be content focused but I always tell the children I teach that Catechesis is like cookery. It’s a practical subject. If you don’t put what you learn into action you’re wasting your time (just as you can’t become a cook by reading recipe books).

    A lot of other Catechists tell me it doesn’t really matter what you say, the fact that you show up and you talk about God is the main thing “faith is caught not taught” but in my experience this can leave young people confused and angry about what it is they’re being taught.

    • Paul Rodden

      I like your cooking analogy! Also, I can attest to your last paragraph. Most catechesis is cringe-making and I think the frustration and anger is what they term, ‘Boring!’ as they have no other language to articulate what they suffer – and that’s a tragedy in itself.

  • Paul Rodden

    I agree!

    However, to add my two penn’orth, do we have to ask who actually wants to escape the post-modern mentality, or even knows what it is?
    Surely, the ‘post-modern mentality’ is the water our catechumens swim in? Isn’t it the Zeitgeist? So, that ‘which seem[s] completely mad to those of my generation…’, might be only ‘mad’ to a tiny subset of a (Catholic) generation which understands the Dictatorship of Relativism? (And so can articulate why ‘Values Clarification’ and the work of Thomas Groome is so wrong-headed, whilst the uninitiated will assume they’re a godsend to catechetical ‘models’).

    In other words, could it be argued that sound catechesis is taking people out of their comfort zone?

    One of the things I feel gives strong evidence for your conclusion is our continuity of Jewish notion of ‘Avodah, Torah, and Gemilut Chasadim’ – which we’d recognise as – Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi. 🙂 As goes worship, prayer, and one’s relationship with God, so goes commitment and faithfulness to his Church, and so goes behaviour and action. Each relies on its predecessor.

    So, it seems to me, if we follow that principle in catechesis, then we can, ‘Love God, and do what you will’, as Augustine put it, as right content is servant of right worship, and method is simply formed by right content, and so is free to be adapted for pastoral situations because it’s conditioned by content as a symphony is by its score.

    So, get the ‘Lex’ order wrong, and it seems to me you get the dog’s dinner you outline…

    (If you haven’t read it already (but you probably have), I’d recommend, The Pedagogy of God: It’s Centrality in Catechesis and Catechist Formation, Caroline Farey, Waltraud Linning, M Johannah Paruch, (Eds.). It was one of those books I found myself ‘giving up the pencil’ as I found myself underlining nearly every line…)

  • transformedinchrist

    Tonia – I totally agree about the practical application to life… I sometimes think, with each doctrine we teach, we have to ask ourselves ‘how can we show this is relevant to their daily lives – today?’ Thanks for your comment.

    Paul – Thanks for article link on values clarification! Really useful. I agree with you regarding lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi – in other words, the ‘four dimensions’ of the Christian life (currently my dissertation topic). And I know the The Pedagogy of God book well 🙂 Love it. Thanks for your comment.

  • 1catholicsalmon

    Very interesting. I do think that Catechises requires an understanding of humility, reliance on the Holy Spirit and sound knowledge of the Truth as put forth by the universal Church.

  • mikegalang08

    @transformedinchrist I am a seminarian from the Philippines and may I ask if you have some sources about the concept of experiential catechism, for i am currently doing my thesis about catechism in relation with the concept of John Dewey’s experiential education. thank you and hope for your generous response.

  • transformedinchrist

    Hi! I’m not familiar with John Dewey, but on experiential catechesis, the best article I would recommend is by Ratzinger, entitled, ‘Sources and Transmission of the Faith’ Communio 10(1), Spring 1983, pp.17-34. This is the best theological critique of experience-based catechesis I know. If you would like other articles let me know – my dissertation at the moment has a big focus on this.

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