Catechetical and Pastoral Emphasis in the Apologetics of Frank Sheed

Vatican II calls the laity to take a more active role in not just the worshipping life of the Church, but the teaching life, too. While Sheed agrees  … we evangelize best principally through a pastorally oriented and properly formed apologetics.

Despite falling into disfavor in the middle of the 20th century, apologetics has had a long and storied history in the life of the Catholic Church. 1 As an increasingly confident and hostile secularism exerts a massive influence in the daily lives of both the faithful and unbeliever alike, Church leaders have urged a renewal of the apologetic discipline in the life of the Church to cultivate future generations of confident Catholic evangelists and meet the challenges of secularism. Pope John Paul II, in 1999, called for a “new apologetics, geared for the needs of today” while a decade later the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Levada, argued that an urgent new apologetics was “the principle task of (the Church’s) mission at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity.” 2 Implicit in the calls for a new apologetics is not simply a return to doing apologetics, but rather fashioning new and different ways to explain, defend, and make relevant the Catholic Faith. However, in formulating the new apologetics, today’s Catholic apologists would do well to revisit the theories and methods of Frank Sheed, one of the 20th century’s most prolific defenders of the Catholic Faith. An examination of Sheed’s apologetics, and its relevance to today’s new formulation, is especially fruitful because Sheed was a prolific writer who left an extensive corpus of apologetic materials with clear views on methodological best practices. He also worked within the cultural context of both a great Catholic intellectual renaissance (the 1920s and 1930s) and a dark period of religious decline (1960s and 1970s). While specific recommendations for the “new apologetics” is beyond the scope of this paper, I will examine Sheed’s apologetics, and argue that his explanation and defense of Catholicism were never divorced from solid catechesis, and were always tied to an explicit and urgent pastoral mission, two essential aspects of any successful “new apologetics.”

Catechesis is absolutely central to Sheed’s understanding of apologetics, beginning with the apologist’s own relationship with God. 3 While he acknowledges that God desires a loving relationship with us, and that we are saved through love of him, Sheed argues that we cannot love him adequately if we first do not know him well. Sheed understands the relationship of catechesis to apologetics in three stages: knowledge, possession, and saturation. Knowledge of God is important because “knowledge serves love … in one way by removing misunderstandings which are in the way of love (and) because each new thing learned about God is a new reason for loving him.” 4 By knowing more about God, we do not just love him more; we love him better.  God would be a strange God, indeed, if he could be loved better by being known less. 5

Mere knowledge, however, is not enough for successful apologetics. Thus, Sheed emphasizes a robust catechesis wherein the apologist possesses what the Church teaches by its doctrines and dogmas. Central to this catechesis is the development of certain catechetical habits: “We must live with the idea, make it our own, learn to handle it comfortably.” 6 But proper apologetic formation does not end with possession of the great dogmas and doctrine, nor even when we have made them our own. Sheed complains that most Catholics of his day knew the Catechism answers, but fell into deep trouble when asked the meaning of the answers. Sadly, the foundation of most Catholics’ catechesis is, in Sheed’s words, “chaos.” 7 He sees the criticality of the apologist knowing not just the content of Catholicism, but its meaning, too. Apologetics needs not only to be orthodox, but must make orthodoxy relevant to the problems of the day. An apologist who does not know the meaning of the faith might be able to explain it (this is precisely what Sheed complains the Baltimore Catechism allows Catholics to do), 8 but he cannot make the faith relevant without immersing himself in what the faith means.

The final stage of a proper apologetics-oriented catechesis is saturation, in both doctrine and its foundation, sacred scripture. The apologist “should be absolutely soaked in the New Testament, so that she knows what every key chapter in it is about, knows the line of every thought of every book … should be soaked also in the Church’s dogmas, soaked in them in the sense that she knows them in so far as the Church has expounded them. …” 9 Possession of the Church’s doctrines and dogmas depends on the formation of new catechetical habits, but saturation requires a radical transformation of the apologist’s worldview. The apologist must not simply keep intellectual custody of a doctrine; to do the work of apologetics, it is not enough to simply consume doctrine like one consumes a meal. The apologist must master the content of the Faith, for sure, but the content must also be lived. And while living a Christian life of simple charity is important, what Sheed has in mind when he argues that the content of Christianity must be lived is that the “shape” of Christian reality, its creeds, doctrines, and dogmas:

…must become a permanent mental possession … if this is achieved, then the student will never be able to see anything without at the same time seeing God, and man, and Christ, and the union of men with God in Christ, will never be able to judge any problem that arises in his life without seeing it in relationship to God’s will and the supernatural life and the Beatific Vision. 10

One of the most important problems that the Catholic thus transformed will not be able to judge, without seeing it in relation to God’s will, is his own apologetic vocation and the need to share the truth with those who do not know it or accept it.

Arguments make the faith reasonable and clear to those who do not share it, but living the faith bears out its meaning, demonstrating its relevancy to life. Sheed himself laments his early days as an apologist, when he defeated atheist arguments with the sword of Catholic doctrine, but never convinced anyone of God’s existence. 11 Similarly, many of the Catholic apologists of Sheed’s day “have learnt the proofs of all sorts of Catholic doctrines, but they do not know, and seem to have no desire to know, what the doctrines themselves mean.” 12 The apologist, rather, must be consumed by the doctrine. In Theology for Beginners, Sheed gives the example of spirit.  Before the apologist can explain anything of the Catholic faith, he must first be able to explain what spirit is. To do this, however, is no small feat: “It is not enough to have learned what spirit is,” Sheed notes. “We must build the knowledge into the very structure of our minds. Seeing spiritual reality must become one of the mind’s habits.” 13

Why is proper catechesis so important for effective apologetics? In fact, apologetics simply cannot be operative without a concurrent deep immersion in the Faith that yields relevancy. 14  Apologetics is not simply about explanation and defense, but conversion as well—a too oft neglected aspect of the discipline. The catechesis and apologetics the Church constructed in response to the Protestant Reformation for 300 years was geared toward “defense of the city walls, not to the development of the very life of the City of God.” 15 But it was this very life of the City of God that the audiences to which Sheed preached on street corners needed and, in many cases, craved. They had little use for facts—what they needed was the significance in order to change their lives. Sheed and his fellow apologists at the Catholic Evidence Guild could use the content of the Faith as a bludgeon, but it would be more a pillow than a hammer—irritating, yes, and some cases, stinging, but leaving no lasting change—for the most cogent arguments are useless if the hearer does not attach enough meaning to God, the soul, or salvation in Christ. In fact, Sheed cautions against actualizing a common charge leveled at apologetics: that it is too intellectual, too cold, and useless for a living faith. The Catholic Intellectual Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, in which he was so instrumental, ultimately wilted by the 1960s, he laments, because too much emphasis was “confined to the intellectuals,” leaving ordinary Catholics to, at best, memorize the words of the Catechism. 16

The mission of the catechist, and the mission of the apologist, is a joint, rather than mutually exclusive, one: the catechist is not simply to teach one thing after another, but to give the learner “the shape of reality,” while the apologist, in his explanation and defense, supplies the meaning and confidence necessary for the hearer to make an intellectual and willful assent. 17 In The Church and I, Sheed comes close to anticipating John Paul II’s “new evangelization” when he writes of Catholic converts that they “have studied the faith as grownups … whereas the cradle Catholic of the 20th century maintains contact with the worshipping Church when he leaves school, but he loses contact with the teaching Church.” 18 The new apologetics that is so urgently needed is inextricably linked to the new evangelization, but both will fail if the evangelized are not catechized by a “new catechesis.” 19

Sheed’s apologetics, therefore, is always tied to a pastoral, evangelical mission. He sees apologetics as the pastoral bridge between catechesis and evangelization. It is not simply about knowing God or the doctrines of the Church, or about winning arguments with unbelievers.  Rather, apologetics is about sharing God with others. To that extent, apologetics is offensive without being offensive. As Sheed remarks in Theology for Beginners, his apologetic zeal is the result of “a feeling of the strangeness of having to make a case for anything so exciting and so joy-giving.” 20 But it is also born of anguish. St. Peter enjoins us to engage in apologetics to account for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15 RSV), but as Sheed observes, we should account for this hope because we anguish at the thought that there may be people who know nothing of the Catholic gifts. The most effective apologetic work, therefore, is done by those who feel both joy and anguish: the joy of being soaked in doctrine and the anguish that others are not similarly saturated. 21

It is in the pastoral mission, that we see the true urgency of apologetics to which Sheed calls us.  For Sheed, it is personal. People, not doctrines, explain and defend the Catholic Faith, and they do this for the benefit of other people. Sheed believes Catholics to be in a war, fought for the benefit of those it is fought against, including the apologist himself. Doctrine and dogmas make fine weapons, but the principal warrior is the Catholic layman who, in joy and anguish, takes the cross of apologetics to the street. “There is only one voice that can be heard,” Sheed notes. “The voice of one person speaking to another—speaking to the people next door, the people he works with, travels with … the daily, hourly fighting of the war is only possible if each Catholic is equipped to lead towards the truth the people he personally meets.” 22

We cannot truly evangelize, nor can we truly fulfill the charity Christ calls us to, if we cannot first explain and defend the Faith through a total transformation in which our entire being is soaked in Catholicism. Vatican II calls the laity to take a more active role in not just the worshipping life of the Church, but the teaching life, too. While Sheed agrees that evangelization is the work of the laity, we evangelize best principally through a pastorally oriented and properly formed apologetics. Ironically, the type of apologetic formation that Vatican II calls for is precisely the kind that Sheed feels neither the laity, nor the Church, have shown the stomach for: the kind of study necessary for the laity to undertake this apologetic calling requires not only the total transformation in the budding apologist, but a total change in the habits of the Church. “It cannot be done in spare moments,” Sheed writes, “when we happen, say, to feel in the mood for a little ‘apostolizing.’” 23

Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to advocate for the specifics of the “new apologetics,” we can make some general observations based on Frank Sheed’s work. Church leaders have recognized that, if the new evangelization is to succeed, its needs to be coupled with a new apologetics. But as Sheed shows us, both apologetics, and the evangelization it seeks to serve, will fail if they are not joined by a deep, profound catechesis that does not just seek to impart knowledge, but infuses the apologist with life transforming meaning and relevancy.  Apologetics is always tied to the Church’s pastoral mission, and any new apologetics must be cognizant that it is engaged for the ultimate benefit of people, not doctrines, dogmas, or creeds.  As Sheed shows, it is easy for the Catholic to win arguments, despite the overwhelmingly hostile cultural environment in which the apologist finds himself. But that is not why we engage in apologetics. “We were on the platform,” as Sheed says, “to offer the Faith as help and healing.” 24

  1. See, for example, Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).
  2. Address of His Holiness John Paul II to the Bishops of Western Canada on their “Ad Limina” Visit, 30 October 1999, accessed at; The Urgency of a New Apologetics for the Church in the 21st Century, 29 April 2010, accessed at
  3. Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners 3rd ed.(Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 1981), 1.
  4. Ibid, 5.
  5. Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 28.
  6. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 9
  7. Frank Sheed,  Are We Really Teaching Religion?, accessed at Hereafter AWRTR.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Frank Sheed, The Church and I (Garden City, NY: Doubleday& Company, 1974), 55.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 46.
  14. Sheed saw piety and apologetics as having a symbiotic relationship.  Not only must apologetics be well-versed in the Faith, but, as he states in Are We Really Teaching Religion?, the Faith is buttressed by apologetics, as Faith “will react best to truths seen truly… .”
  15. Sheed, The Church and I, 94.
  16. Sheed, The Church and I, 103.  Sheed elsewhere warns that “The Catechism makes it possible for people to teach doctrine without knowing doctrine.”  One gets the sense that Sheed saw value in the Catechism, but condemned the usual way in which it was employed.  There is a need, according to Sheed, to go beyond the Catechism: “But the teacher who is soaked in dogma, really afire with it, is not the least likely to confine herself merely to a repetition of Catechism words.”  See Sheed, AWRTR?
  17. Sheed, AWRTR.
  18. Sheed, The Church and I, 97.
  19. Sheed does not make explicit exactly what the “new catechesis” (the term is mine) should be, but whatever form it takes, it certainly should leave the dogmas and doctrines of the Church as a “permanent mental possession” of the student.  Catechesis has been a point of contention among Catholic since at least Vatican II; I would argue that a “new catechesis” really should be a return to true, classical catechesis—not merely memorization, but certainly relying on memorization as a proper foundation for deeper, mystagogical study.
  20. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 3.
  21. Sheed, AWRTR; Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 6.
  22. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, 6.
  23. Sheed, The Church and I, 284.
  24. Ibid, 56.
James Iovino About James Iovino

James Iovino is working on an MA in theology with a concentration in apologetics at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, in Cromwell, Connecticut. He has Masters degrees in medieval history from the University of Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews. He and his wife Trina have two daughters.


  1. Avatar Thomist says:

    Frank Sheed was a giant who helped me enormously to know the faith and to help others to know the faith.


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