How to do apologetics and catechetics: Two classics by a master in his time
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February 9, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — For decades we have been well aware of the crisis of catechesis in the Catholic Church, caused by an abysmal lack of reliable teachers, sound textbooks, committed parents, and supportive pastors. Homeschooling families have done a remarkable job turning this around in their own sphere, almost always by the dogged use of the nuts-and-bolts Baltimore Catechism, which conveys the fundamentals of the Catholic religion with a no-nonsense clarity and conciseness well suited to memorization.
However, older children and especially young adults are sometimes looking for more, and they almost always will benefit from more, than catechetical materials for younger children provide. That is all the more true given the aggressive assault of secularism, hedonism, scientism, and materialism, which surround us on all sides like the annoying pop music from which one can never escape in public places. Moreover, parents — and I would say also schoolteachers and priests — need to work from more comprehensive sources. Enter this rich, wonderful book: Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine. Not only can it be recommended without hesitation, but it can be praised as one of the best of its genre, or more precisely genres, ever composed.
The volume in fact contains two distinct works. The brilliant scholar and zealous pastor Michael Sheehan (1870–1945), born in County Waterford, Ireland, co-adjutor archbishop of Sydney from 1922 to 1937, brought out the first edition of Apologetics in 1918 and the first edition of Catholic Doctrine in 1923. Several further editions came during his lifetime, and one after his death, in 1962 — the last until the indefatigable operators of The Saint Austin Press republished them in 2001. Later, Baronius Press of London picked up the rights and reprinted it in hardcover for US$29.95.
Both of the works in this 686-page volume are masterpieces. Apologetics presents the “case” for the Catholic Faith in 250 pages of breathtaking sweep, beginning with proofs for the existence of God and culminating in the divine mission of the Church. The shape of the overall argument is manifest in the tripartite structure: (1) Natural Apologetics, (2) Christian Apologetics, (3) Catholic Apologetics.
In the first part, he proves that there is one supreme divine being to whom we owe our homage; that man has a spiritual, immortal soul that will survive after death; that a merely “natural” religion would be insufficient; and that there is a probability of revelation. In the second part, Sheehan defends the divinity of Jesus Christ. The third part opens with the Savior’s founding of the Church and proceeds to unfold the characteristics, prerogatives, and marvels of this Church.
Sheehan’s prose is elegant and uncluttered, his logic lucid and irrefutable. The pages are studded with apposite quotations from Scripture and traditional authors, historical details are abundant, and difficult topics are rendered accessible by examples and metaphors.
After the content itself, what is most appealing is Sheehan’s manner of arguing: a combination of friendly tone, obvious intellectual honesty (he is not afraid to talk, for example, about corrupt medieval popes); a high opinion of his reader’s motivations that would win over any person of goodwill; and, underlying everything, a thirst for holiness, a great love of God. The author also possesses the enviable skill, shared with St. Thomas Aquinas, of presenting all the objections one is ever likely to hear — and of responding calmly, point by point, without the slightest hint of condescension or special pleading.
A good example is the section on the Inquisition, where it is shown, with ample documentation, that the ecclesiastical courts were considerably more merciful and fair than secular courts and punished far fewer men, using generally lighter punishments. But one simply has to read this work to be able to appreciate its scrupulous care, unrivaled clarity, and unfailing good sense.
Much the same can be said of the second work, Catholic Doctrine. Here, the goal is not to establish that the Catholic faith is the one true religion, but to investigate reverently the mysteries already held by the baptized faithful.
The order is classic, beginning with the divine essence and attributes (this makes for some thick reading, but the patient reader will be much rewarded), moving into creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church whose mission is to apply the fruits of the redemption; the sanctification carried out through the Church’s sacraments; and finally, as is fitting, the Last Things. The large divisions are thus entitled (1) God in Himself, (2) God the Creator, (3) God the Redeemer, (4) God the Sanctifier, and (5) God the Awarder.
In this work, we benefit once again from Sheehan’s extraordinary gift for explaining the Church’s faith on such exalted mysteries as the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, sanctifying grace, the Holy Eucharist, and the beatific vision. For believers who wish to learn from a wise, rigorous, eloquent master, I cannot think of a superior work of comparable size.
Sheehan’s works were written for high school students back in the day, and I can readily imagine a homeschooled high-schooler using this volume, if the readings were spread out over the course of a year’s instruction. It could also be employed in a private Catholic school enjoying high standards and expectations. I’ll admit that I do not see how it could ever be used as a CCD text, when meetings are so few and time so limited, but there is no reason why the teachers themselves can’t use it for their own ongoing education.
Catholic Doctrine makes an excellent shelfmate to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which it has been helpfully keyed by Father Peter Joseph, vice rector, dean of studies, and lecturer at the diocesan seminary of Wagga Wagga, Australia.
Sheehan was a genuine Old World scholar, proficient in numerous languages (not only the standard Latin and Greek, but Italian, French, Irish, and Sanskrit), a master of philosophy, theology, literature, even botany. But his learning never came between him and the audience, and, from accounts of his life, it did not stand between him and the Lord, as is too often the case in academia. A holy man on fire for the truth of the Faith, which is ultimately the truth of Jesus Christ, Archbishop Sheehan has given us in these two works essential tools for penetrating more deeply the truths and mysteries of our religion; for conveying them more effectively; and, with God’s help, for leading souls to His light, the intense glow of a loving Heart.
Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine. A new edition revised by Father Peter Joseph. London: Baronius Press, 2015.