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"I’m sorry. I’m 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 in.

"There you have it," he said, moving to the microphone, "a demonstration of what so many people think a Catholic apologist does."

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 one’s 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 Christ.

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 Peter’s 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 Peter 3:15).

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 Don’ts 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 truth.

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 Church’s 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 in Fundamentals 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 Christ’s 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 souls–that 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 God’s grace. Which is yet another reason that constant prayer and reflection are keys to healthy apologetic activities.

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 God’s 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. Augustine’s 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." Aquinas’s 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. Aquinas’s 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 Catholic Controversy.

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, Pascal’s 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 Pascal’s 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 was John 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 Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Arnold Lunn and priests Ronald Knox and Martin D’Arcy. 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 and Sanity.

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.

In a 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 Apologetics:

Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating

What Catholics Really Believe by Karl Keating

Controversies: High-Level Catholic Apologetics by Karl Keating

Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard

Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome by Thomas Howard

Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed

The Fundamentals of the Faith by Peter Kreeft

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

The Belief of Catholics by Ronald Knox

How Not To Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization by Mark Brumley

Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, S.J.

Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie

Upon This Rock by Stephen K. Ray

The Da Vinci Hoax by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel



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