Evangelistic Catholics who use the terms catechesis and apologetics, may be assuming people know what they are talking about. There are important differences, not only in the terms and what they mean, but in when they should be used.
Catechesis refers to the handing on of the Catholic faith, often through the use of a catechism. If you look at the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will find a large volume of information on the teachings of the Catholic Church, on virtually every subject imaginable. From Abortion to the Death Penalty, Eucharist to Anointing of the Sick, and Mass attendance to Holy Days of Obligation, much of what we believe is explained within.
Apologetics is a system of well-reasoned arguments in defense of Catholic teachings; using history, practical knowledge, experience, Scripture and even science, apologetics demonstrates how the Church arrives at the conclusions it does.* The Church is believed to be led by the Holy Spirit and to possess the “Full Deposit of Faith,” through its understanding of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The Catholic Faith does not change in the sense of dogma; however, the Church does develop a deeper understanding of that deposit of faith, as it is revealed by the Holy Spirit.
So when should a catechist use straight catechesis and when is apologetics more appropriate? This is a complicated question. I believe we should be aware of both and ready to use them as needed. Scripture tells us that we need to “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) To decide which is most appropriate, we need to ask ourselves a few questions.
What is the purpose of your discussion? If a student (or anyone else) has challenged you on a particular tenet of faith, backing up the teaching with apologetics (in a loving way) can assist your student in understanding why the Church teaches what it does. If, however, you are just providing information on Church teaching, then straightforward catechesis is a good place to start.
Do they need head knowledge or heart knowledge? Sometimes students grasp a concept easily but cannot advance that knowledge without a deeper understanding. This can work either way. Some people can understand that 1 + 1=2 without additional information, while others need to see physical evidence of the concept to internalize it. I find that catechesis provides the initial information, whereas, apologetics provides the concrete evidence that some need.
How old is the student? Younger students (in my experience) are very accepting of information and need little else. Consider how a First Communion class responds to finding out that the Eucharist is truly Jesus. The little ones will often say, “Hi, Jesus,” and wave. They just accept what you have taught them. Their parents, on the other hand, have often long since forgotten that innocence, and they want additional information. Apologetics can come in very handy at that point.
We cannot have too much knowledge, and the study of the Catechism and Catholic apologetics go hand in hand. The two are complementary, as both the head and heart journey to a deeper understanding of the Catholic Faith–and an appreciation for how blessed we are to practice it.
*Some free resources for apologetics online: