The Biggest Mistake in Teaching Doctrine


“But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” 1 Corinthians 3:1-3

What’s the biggest mistake you can make when teaching Catholic doctrine?

Well, first let’s talk about what you should do.

In my post about keeping faith real, I talked about how to present the Catholic Faith in a compelling way that moved people to take action on what they learned…to integrate it into their lives.

I contrasted this to presenting the Faith merely as facts to be learned.

Whenever I write about stuff like that, people write in and tell me I’m wrong. They say doctrine is the key. They assume I’m talking about not teaching doctrine and advocating a “feel-good, sing along” kind of fluffy catechesis.

So, why does teaching the Faith in a compelling way automatically mean you’re not teaching doctrine? It’s as if doctrine is by default dry and boring and there’s no way to make it exciting. Just grin and bear it because there’s no way to change it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I also think doctrine is key. I just think you’re making a big mistake if you teach too much too soon and don’t respect the stages of evangelization.

You may think you’re doing more by teaching doctrinal complexities to children and unconverted adults, but really you’re doing less. They won’t remember and they won’t care.

Exciting…but not for everyone

The Catholic Faith is not boring. It’s extremely exciting.

The message is life-changing, and sometimes gives you that vibrate-y feeling in your heart (remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus?). Doctrine is revelation. It’s how we know about God, about ourselves, and how we are to live.

But it’s not exciting for everyone…at least not right away. First, it has to mean something.

It has be translated in such a way that people can take it inside. It needs to be put into a kind of life-language–words that have meaning in people’s lives.

The WIIFM principle

The truth is, most people are only interested in what they immediately need.

When evaluating what to give our time, we all operate on the WIIFM principle–”What’s In It For Me?” We’re all busy. Whatever’s not urgent, doesn’t get our attention. And it seems that, for the majority of Catholics, religion isn’t urgent.

They’re not dying anytime soon (at least, that’s what they think), so why do they need to worry about God?

You say it shouldn’t be that way? You’re probably right…but guess what? It doesn’t matter. That’s the way it is.

We have to make our message compelling and urgent. Students need to see it as something they can’t live without. We have to translate doctrine into a message that is real for their lives.

Following St. Paul’s example, we need to feed the unconverted easily digestible milk before they’re ready for the meat. They’re like spiritual infants.

Translating meat into milk

As a catechist, you need you to take what’s inside your head and heart and, in effect, hand it to them.

Take your desire for God, your understanding of Church teaching, your commitment, your experience of Christ’s love and translate that into a language they can experience as real. Your faith life is digested doctrine…real knowledge.

This doesn’t mean dumbing it down necessarily. It means making it accessible.

And, what’s the goal for any kid when they’re older? They need to eat meat to grow strong. The goal is to teach the newly converted doctrine, but the right amount at the right time. The meaty stuff when they’re ready.

You start with the fundamental building blocks: Christ and the Trinity, the dignity of the human person, the Paschal Mystery, sin, redemption, and the Church. Then you add layers to complete the diet.

Catechetical Takeaway

So yes, by all means, you must teach doctrine. People need to know the facts of the Faith. They need to understand God’s revelation to have a relationship with him. But before you can teach them everything, you have to make it attractive.

This is more than catechesis. It’s formation. It’s not easy, but it’s what we’ll have to do to teach doctrine effectively and bring about a new evangelization.

Photo Credit: Chaval Brasil via Compfight cc


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  1. Sherri Paris says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Marc!! I sure miss those classes! God bless you….:-)

  2. My experience is that if you really believe something, you live life differently than if you did not believe it. So if you include your personal, lived witness when you teach what you believe, it will be attractive to an audience; even if they do not believe it.

    • You have a way of saying things very simply and succinctly. That is right on the money and exactly what I’m talking about. You automatically have a different response from your students when you really believe something. That passion is recognizable and contagious. It’s an essential part of effective catechesis, I think.

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