In Defense of Apologetics
This article first appeared in "This Rock" Magazine
"Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to
account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and
reverence, and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are
abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put
to shame." (1 Peter 3:15-16, RSV)
Apologetics isn't an apology for our faith. Apologetics is taken from
the Greek word apologia, itself derived from apo-, meaning "from," and lego,
meaning "to speak."Apologists "speak from" or defend a particular position.
Some Catholics and other Christians are uncomfortable with apologetics.
Critics consider it contrary to the spirit of ecumenism, and adopt
a "go-along to get-along" attitude. Shouldn't we just live
and let live?
This discomfort results from a misunderstanding of ecumenism. Ecumenism
isn't a policy of intellectual appeasement. Nor does it demand that
we overlook real differences. Most of us would agree that repressing
disagreement isn't healthy in our personal relationships. Nor is it
healthy for our relationships with other faiths. Recognizing and addressing
conflict is a necessary precursor to understanding.
Ecumenism is about sharing and respecting faith. Ecumenism promotes
understanding, tolerance and cooperation among religions in general
and Christians in particular. Ecumenism isn't about ignoring the chasms
that separate us or pretending differences don't exist.
Apologetics can help bridge the chasms. Often the differences between
Catholicism and Protestantism aren't as vast as they appear. Some of
the criticisms of Catholicism are based on misinformation or in some
So yes, the church is calling us to unite with fellow Christians whenever
possible. But she is also calling us to evangelize as well. This requires
prayerful preparation, study and mature faith. You can't help someone
understand your faith or doctrine if you yourself don't understand
Unless we are able to discuss our faith rationally, we will be severely
limited in our ability to share that faith with others, be they fellow
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or agnostics.
As an institution, the Church also needs to be realistic. While Catholics
are discouraged from recruiting from the ranks of the churched, fundamentalist
Protestants feel no such constraints nor do many in the New Age movement.
Unprepared Catholics are susceptible to the arguments of well meaning
Protestant evangelists or more rarely, new age religionists. Ex-Catholics
account for 60 to 70 per cent of many fundamentalist congregations.
Catholic converts are rare by comparison. Why the disparity?
Its because many fundamentalists recognize that many Catholics are
uninformed and are ripe for the picking. Fundamentalists are on average
much more familiar with scripture than are Catholics. They are trained
to deconstruct the faith of wavering or casual Catholics.
With some time and effort, Pastors can inoculate their Catholic congregations
against blatant poaching. Most fundamentalists rely on canned presentations,
similar to those of an Amway salesman.
Their knowledge of the bible may at first impression appear impressive
to the casual listener but a little probing will usually reveal that
their grasp of scripture lacks depth and their understanding of biblical
themes won't stand even a cursory challenge.
The problem is that Catholics on average know even less about scripture
than our fundamentalist brethren. Catholics need to know that their
faith is grounded in scripture. With a little training and the application
of common sense, Catholics can hold their on against Protestant evangelists
- and increase their own faith in the process.
This brings up one of the often overlooked benefits of apologetics.
The value of apologetics is not restricted to evangelizing the unchurched
or even defending our faith. The study of apologetics can shore up
Cradle Catholics are especially prone to accepting dogma, doctrines
and tradition not because we understand, but out of habit ingrained
in us as children. We vaguely recall discussing the "Immaculate
Conception" and the "Virgin Birth" in our catechism
classes but the precise meaning has been lost in the distant past.
We become comfortable with the familiar phrases, and since we were
raised in the faith, we accept the Church's teaching at face value
with little thought.
We have little time to refresh ourselves on the teachings of the Church.
After all, we're very busy raising our family and advancing in our
careers. Besides, don't we pay our Pope and the Bishops to do the thinking
The problem is that if we don't understand our faith, how can we live
it, let alone share it with others in need? If we starve our souls
through neglect and sin, we may find that our strength is lacking when,
as is inevitable, the time comes to face the dark nights of life's
trials and tribulations.
Like the body, the soul needs to be nourished and exercised, lest
we become weak. We need to feed our soul with prayer, the sacraments,
worship and scriptural study. We need to exercise our souls with study,
devotion, and penance.
The study of apologetics helps us become informed and conversant about
our faith. We become familiar with scripture, history, theology and
philosophy. We grow to understand our Catholic roots and our culture
As we gain knowledge, our doubts and reservations are replaced by
a confident understanding. Our devotion become grounded in both knowledge
and faith. The depth of our examinations will occasionally challenge
us but the process will also strengthen us. Be not afraid.
Another criticism of apologetics is that it emphasizes rationality
at the expense of faith lead by the Spirit. It is true that apologetics,
like social activism, can lead to an overemphasis of the mind if it
is not tempered with prayer.
Without a strong prayer life, apologists can become moral legalists.
Without prayer, an emphasis on intellectual comprehension leads to
a barren spiritual life. Universities are full of agnostic or atheistic
theology and scripture professors. Faith in Christ Jesus cannot be
achieved without the gift of grace.
The contrary is also true. Faith based solely on private revelation
and religious experiences leads to unconstricted emotionalism or even
heresy. Practitioners of this approach not infrequently confuse emotional
experiences with divine inspiration.
They begin a quest for eve evermore spiritual experiences. They try
out religions as if they were shopping for a pair of shoes that have
to fit just right. If the shoes begin to feel the least bit uncomfortable,
off they go looking for a better fit.
The key is to balance apologetics with prayer, worship and the sacraments.
Relying on the intellect alone leads to small "c" christianity:
aggressive, combative, non-fruitful. Prayerful Christianity, with a
capital "C", is gentle but persuasive and non-compromising
Reason and faith need not conflict, indeed, cannot according to St.
Thomas Aquinas. Rational inquiry reinforces our faith rather than weakens
Another reason to study apologetics is often overlooked. While men
may dominate the clergy, women dominate the congregations - at least
At the risk of sounding sexist, we must be able to approach faith
rationally if we expect to attract western men to our faith.
Many women seem more able to accept a supernatural explanation for
a life-changing transformation experience than are men. Women in general
are comfortable with "feeling" the truth, whereas most men
must have the truth demonstrated to them rationally.
Men aren't as likely to accept and act on subjective accounts of conversion
experiences, private revelations and mystical models. Our tendency
is to dismiss these accounts unless accompanied by objective proofs.
If we can't have measurable, scientifically verifiable facts of God's
existence and love, we must at least have some rational explanation,
some logical understanding of creation. Many men have a need to deal
with the objective before they can approach God for a personal relationship.
The emphasis in today's Church is rightly on the changing power of
God's love. While this aspect of Christianity is important, perhaps
even the defining message of Christ, the message is too often presented
in a maudlin manner with a distinct lack of intellectual vigor and
completeness. Perhaps that is one reason men are outnumbered by women
in Christian congregations worldwide with the exception of our Eastern
Finally, some rebellious souls are adverse to apologetics because
they know that the Truth that the Church defends conflicts with the
worldly values and ideas that they hold dear. They lack the courage
or the intellectual honesty to examine their faith against their modern
cultural, sociological and political beliefs. In short, it is more
important to them that they be politically correct than doctrinally
correct. This is as true of liberals as of conservatives, of traditionalists
as of progressives.
It isn't unusual to hear Catholics make statements that are, well,
uh... heretical. It is a strong word but what other adjective is possible
when a "Catholic" questions the real presence in the Eucharist,
the infallibility of the Pope or the validity of original sin?
As Catholics, we mustn't forsake our pursuit of God's truth nor compromise
our faith for the sake of inclusiveness, ecumenism, liberalism, conservatism,
socialism, feminism,or any other "ism" or political polemic.
The breadth and depth of apologetics can be overwhelming. Where should
With your own questions and doubts. Of course you have questions.
Of course you have doubts. If you aren't questioning some aspect of
your faith, chances are you aren't thinking about your faith. But since
you are reading this page, you are obviously thinking about your beliefs.
So what are your reservations? What unanswered questions do you have
about your faith? What are the gray areas, those that trouble you?
Face your questions head-on and you'll grow stronger for the effort.
Lastly a word of caution. Apologetics and evangelism must be practiced
gently, with love and sensitivity. An aggressive approach is counterproductive
and can easily drive souls away from Christ and his church.
We need to produce good fruits. Pray before sharing, pray before
studying, and and pray for God's will. Then give God the glory.
When, therefore, since we have such proofs, it is not necessary
to seek among others the truth which is easily obtained from the
Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with
her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone
who wishes draws from her the drink of life" (St. Iranaeus 190 A.D.)