Catechetical Methodology: Content v. Method?
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!