"Im sorry. Im really very sorry. I
wish I could convey to you how deeply sorry I truly am."
The speaker was a poker-faced Karl Keating, founder and president of Catholic
Answers, an apostolate dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Faith.
Addressing a crowd of several hundred in central California, he stepped
back and paused for a few moments, letting his introductory words settle
"There you have it," he said, moving to the microphone,
"a demonstration of what so many people think a Catholic apologist
The well-received joke played on the fact that "apologetics"
is not a common word in the vocabulary of many Catholics. When introduced
to the term, more than a few people wonder if it means apologizing for
something. As Keating noted, "Some people think that an apologist
is someone who travels the country apologizing for being a Catholic."
The Meaning of Apologetics
"Apologetics" is derived from the Greek root
word apologia. In ancient Greece it referred to a formal defense
of a belief, an explanation or argument for ones philosophy or religion.
The word occurs several times in the New Testament, including sections
of the Gospels, seeking to persuade unbelievers of the truth claims of
the Church, especially the unique nature of the person and work of Jesus
Standing before a tribunal in Jerusalem, the imprisoned
Paul states, "Brethren and fathers, hear my defense [apologia]
which I now offer to you" (Acts 22:1). In his epistle to the Philippians
the Apostle to the Gentiles states that one of his tasks was to make a
"defense of the Gospel." Perhaps the best-known appearance of
the word in the Bible is in Peters first epistle: "Always be
prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the
hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1
Catholic apologetics is the defense and explanation of
the teachings, beliefs, and practices of the Catholic Church. Its goal
is to remove objections, shed light on difficult or misunderstood matters,
and ultimately help win minds and souls for Jesus Christ. Apologetics
is the activity of helping people answer the question: "Why should
I be Catholic?" It does so by engaging the mind to reach the heart.
Unfortunately, apologetics has a negative connotation for
some Christians, including more than a few Catholics. For these people,
Avery Cardinal Dulles notes in A History of Apologetics, "the
apologist is regarded as an aggressive, opportunistic person who tries,
by fair means or by foul, to argue people into joining the Church."
As Cardinal Dulles notes, there have undoubtedly been some bad apologists
for the Catholic Faith. Apologists can be unduly argumentative, contentious,
mean-spirited, triumphalistic, and arrogant. They can offend unbelievers
just as easily as they defend Christian beliefs.
The Dos and Donts of Apologetics
However, apologetics should not be dismissed because of
misuse or misunderstandings. The value and place of apologetics is best
judged by looking to the finest defenders of Catholicism: Paul and Peter,
Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, de Sales, Pascal, Newman,
Chesterton, and even Pope John Paul II. These men dealt with pagans, Jews,
Muslims, Protestants, agnostics, and atheists, adapting their methods
and styles according to their audience while never deviating from the
Most importantly, they are saints first, apologists second.
They are men of holiness and prayer. A consistent and vital life of prayer
is imperative for the apologist, especially since he is often under attack,
verbally, spiritually, and, on occasion, physically. Prayer leads to a
deeper knowledge of God and truth. "The closer the apologists grows
to God in prayer," writes apologist (and president of Ignatius Press)
Mark Brumley in How
Not To Share Your Faith, "the more intense his hatred of
error and his desire that all men know the truth; the more intense his
desire to use apologetics to help bring people to the truth."
Knowledge of the Faith is necessary, of course, since the
Churchs teaching about Jesus Christ, or the Eucharist, or the communion
of saints cannot be defended without knowing something of substance about
them. There is much to comprehend about the Catholic Church and her teachings,
but the most basic study materials should include the Bible and the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, augmented by solid works of biblical and theological
scholarship. The good news is that publishers such as Ignatius
Press, Sophia Institute Press, Our Sunday Visitor and others have
been publishing quality works of popular and scholarly apologetics for
several decades. Classic texts by John Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton,
Ronald Knox, Frank Sheed, and other leading apologists of the nineteenth-
and twentieth-century are in print and readily available. Contemporary
authors Thomas Howard, Karl Keating, Peter Kreeft, Patrick Madrid, Mark
Shea, Rev. Peter Stravinskas, and many others have produced an impressive
array of books addressing modern challenges to the Catholic Faith, including
fundamentalist Protestantism, secularism, feminism, and relativism.
All Catholics should have some basic knowledge of apologetics
since they will all undoubtedly encounter questions and challenges about
what they believe. When challenged to explain why and what they believe,
Catholics should keep in mind what apologetics can and cannot do.
Apologetics should remove objections or false ideas
about Catholicism. For example, when asked why Catholics worship Mary,
the apologist should be able to explain that Catholics do not, in fact,
worship Mary, but worship God alone, clarifying the nature of "worship"
and the role of Mary in the life of her Son and in the Church. Much good
can come of simply breaking down stereotypical ideas and misunderstandings
that are far more prevalent in American culture than some Catholics appreciate.
Apologetics presents reasoned evidence for Catholic
doctrine. Doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the
Real Presence of the Eucharist cannot be proven through logic or scientific
method, but good arguments can be made that they are reasonable and not
contrary to logic, even though they transcend the limits of human understanding.
A good example of this are the evidences offered by Thomas Aquinas for
the existence of God: they logically show that it is more reasonable to
believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and Designer than to believe
that the universe is the result of blind chance.
Apologetics should prepare the heart
for conversion through an appeal to the intellect. Peter Kreeft writes
of the Faith, "Remember that the purpose of apologetics is
not just to win the head but to win the heart through the head."
The goal of apologetics is never to demonstrate the intelligence and wit
of the apologist, but to invite others into a saving relationship with
God through Jesus Christ. In the case of apologists who deal with anti-Catholic
Protestants, the goal is an invitation into the fullness of Christs
Church. Even in the midst of conflict, focus on conversion; while addressing
the head, aim for the heart.
Apologetics cannot demonstrate
the truth of the Catholic Faith. There are limits to apologetics arguments,
no matter how sound and good they are. The hypostatic union and transubstantiation
cannot be proven in the way that the existence of gravity or the chemical
makeup of water can be proven. Put another way, the apologist has to respect
both the reach and the limits of argument and reason while bearing
in mind the nature of faith, which is a gift from God.
Likewise, the apologist cannot force,
by sheer reason, people to believe. Humans are not calculating machines
who crisply process information and then make perfect, understandable
decisions. Good apologetics respects the dignity and free will of each
person, even when challenging persons to consider serious reasons to believe
the claims made by the Catholic Church. Defending the Faith should not
be about winning arguments, but presenting truth. As the old saying goes,
"Win an argument, lose a convert."
The apologist does not win soulsthat is the work
of the Holy Spirit. The knowledge of an accomplished apologist can
potentially tempt him to lose the humility necessary to clearly understand
his work. That work is always dependent on Gods grace. Which is
yet another reason that constant prayer and reflection are keys to healthy
Telling Your Story
One of best apologetic methods is personal testimony. In
a recent article in First Things magazine titled
"The Rebirth of Apologetics" (May 2004), Cardinal Dulles
writes, "The apologetics of personal testimony is particularly suited
to the genius of Catholicism. In the act of Catholic faith, reliance on
testimony goes out indivisibly to Christ and to the Church through which
he continues his mission in the world. Such testimony invites us not only
to individual conversion but to communion with the whole body of believers."
This thought echoes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which
explains that the sacrament of confirmation gives Catholics "the
special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by
word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ
boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross" (CCC 1303).
The new evangelization promoted and articulated by Pope
John Paul II emphasizes the importance of ordinary Catholics sharing their
testimonies of faith with others. Dry facts and logical arguments may
leave many people cold, but few cannot resist the story of a soul transformed
and made anew by Gods grace. In this way the exhortation of the
first pope can be realized in the life of every Catholic: "Always
be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for
the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence."
No apologies necessary.
A Short History of Apologetics
The first apologists were the apostles, who defended the
faith while evangelizing, preaching, and establishing the Church in Palestine
and throughout the Roman Empire. The two most famous apologists of the
second century were Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), a former pagan philosopher,
and Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200), bishop of Lyons. Justin wrote defenses of
Christianity for Roman readers, relying on his background and skill in
philosophy and rhetoric. Irenaeus was one of the first great theologians
of the Church and he used his skills to combat the various strains of
gnosticism that threatened the Church in the late second century. His
major work, Against Heresies, is a significant apologetic landmark.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is a Doctor of the Church
and is, along with Thomas Aquinas, one of the most brilliant theologians
and apologists of the Western Church. A convert from Manichaeism, the
African bishop wrote apologetic works aimed at the Manichees, pagans,
and the Donatists. His masterpiece, The City of God, is heavily
apologetic in nature, defending the Church against attacks from pagans
prior to the fall of Rome. Augustines Confessions is one
of the most famous works of early medieval literature and an example of
the power of personal testimony as it continues to touch lives many centuries
after it was written.
The Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), produced
timeless works of scholastic apologetics, including the Summa Contra
Gentiles, written to answer objections raised by Muslim theologians.
Aquinas wrote that he set about the task "of making known, as far
as my limited power will allow, the truth that the Catholic faith possesses,
and of setting aside the errors that are opposed to it." Aquinass
greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, carefully and thoroughly answered
objections to the Faith, often articulating opposing arguments more cogently
and persuasively than those who held them. Aquinass general approach
to apologetics was to use the Old Testament in addressing Jews, the New
Testament for Christian heretics, and natural reason for pagans and Muslims.
The sixteenth-century witnessed the dramatic upheaval of
the Protestant Reformation, creating the need for apologetics oriented
towards a host of different non-Catholic Christian communities and perspectives.
In addition to many Jesuit apologists, the theologian and bishop Francis
de Sales (1567-1622) stands out for his tireless efforts in France to
win back Catholics who had embraced the teachings of John Calvin. As a
young priest de Sales was responsible to winning back tens of thousands
of such Catholics through writing pamphlets and handing them out door
to door. Those pamphlets were subsequently published under the title The
One of the most unique Catholic apologists was the French
scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62). A child prodigy,
Pascal underwent a dramatic conversion in his early thirties and dedicated
the rest of his short life to defending the Catholic Faith against Enlightenment-era
secularism and liberalism. He planned to write a thorough work of apologetics
but died before completing it. The fragments and notes for that book were
collected and published as Pensées.
Full of insight into human nature and psychology, Pascals apologetic
method was markedly different from the scholastic approach of Aquinas.
"I can think of no Christian writer," T. S. Eliot wrote, "more
to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt . . ." Essential to
Pascals perspective was his conclusion that there exist three basic
types of people: Those who seek God and find him, those who are seeking
God but have not yet found him, and those who neither seek nor find.
The best-known Catholic apologist of the nineteenth-century
Henry Newman (1801-90), an Anglican priest and scholar who eventually
entered the Catholic Church after much study and personal anguish. Newman
was a patristic scholar and a brilliant stylist; his Essay on the Development
of Christian Doctrine is still considered to be a monumental work
on early Church history, as is The Arians of the Fourth Century.
But his greatest work of apologetics was his autobiographical Apologia
pro vita sua, written in response to accusations that his conversion
to Catholicism was a cynical and self-serving sham.
A blossoming of popular apologetics occurred in the late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, led by English lay men Hilaire
Chesterton, and Arnold Lunn and priests Ronald Knox and Martin DArcy.
Chesterton (1874-1936), a former agnostic, is notable for his prodigious
output, continued popularity, and recognizable style. Frank
Sheed (1897-1982), a former lawyer, founded both the Catholic Evidence
Guild and the publishing house Sheed & Ward and wrote numerous apologetics
works, including the classic Theology
Fr. John Francis Noll (1875-1956) founded Our Sunday Visitor
in 1912 in an effort to fight the socialist, anti-Catholic periodical
The Menace. He soon published a number of popular apologetics and
catechetical texts, including the famous Father Smith Instructs Jackson,
and established OSV as a leading Catholic publisher in the United States.
For several decades in the mid-1900s Bishop
Fulton Sheen very effectively used television and printed media to
defend and explain Catholicism, reaching numerous non-Catholics.
Apologetics were popular in the decades leading up to the
Second Vatican Council, but the 1970s were a low point for both popular
and scholarly defenses of the Faith. The 1980s saw a resurgence of popular
apologetics, often called the "New Apologetics," led by priests
Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Fr. Joseph Fessio,, Fr. Peter Stravinskas, and Fr. William
Most, and lay men Karl Keating, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid,
and others. Publishers including Our Sunday Visitor, Ignatius Press, Emmaus
Road, Sophia Institute Press, and Ascension Press have produced dozens
of apologetics texts in recent years, some of them classic works from
previous eras and others the works of contemporary writers.
recent interview with IgnatiusInsight.com, Karl Keating
reflected on his twenty-plus years in apologetics: "For many years
Catholic Answers was a one-man operation. Today there are dozens of apologetics
groups, some regional and some national. So apologetics is much more widely
done than a quarter century ago, and the stigma that used to be attached
to apologetics has largely been overcome." No need to say, "I'm
sorry"apologetics are alive and well.
Originally published in Our
Sunday Visitor. Reprinted with permission.
Recommended Works of Catholic
and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating
Catholics Really Believe by Karl Keating
High-Level Catholic Apologetics by Karl Keating
Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard
Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome by Thomas Howard
and Sanity by Frank Sheed
Fundamentals of the Faith by Peter Kreeft
by G.K. Chesterton
Belief of Catholics by Ronald Knox
Not To Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics
and Evangelization by Mark Brumley
of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, S.J.
Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie
This Rock by Stephen K. Ray
Da Vinci Hoax by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
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