Apologetics has enjoyed renewed interest among Catholics of North America in the past 25 years. One sign of this is the burgeoning popularity of the so-called new apologists, figures like Scott Hahn, Gerry Matatics, Karl Keating, Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Peter Kreeft and Patrick Madrid. Their distinctive approach to Catholic apologetics lies in its determination to address the contemporary challenges of Protestant fundamentalism on the one hand, and what they see as the false irenicism and intellectual anemia of liberal Catholic theology on the other.
I offer here an assessment of this new development in the church, noting what I believe are strengths and weaknesses of the new apologetics. I then propose five characteristics of an alternative apologetics that would be more consonant with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the needs of the church.
Strengths of the New Apologetics
A distinguishing feature of the approach of the new apologists is their obvious enthusiasm and passion for their faith. These are individuals who find Catholicism not a stifling, burdensome or irrelevant religion but a vital faith capable of transforming lives. Moreover, they effectively communicate that love and passion in their presentations. Indeed, many who purchase their books and tapes or attend their many speaking events seem unaware that the material presented represents a particular ideological perspective. I recall one graduate student who was genuinely surprised when I positioned Hahn’s theology on the far right of the contemporary Catholic theological continuum. I am convinced that for many it is the passion and conviction that attracts as much as the substance of what is being shared.
Second, the new apologists are not afraid to talk of doctrine. And when they do so, it is not defensively but out of a deep-seated conviction that Catholic Christian doctrine is meaningful, relevant and communicates the truth of God’s loving plan for humankind. There is a hunger among active Catholics for a reappropriation of their Catholic doctrinal heritage; yet in some circles of contemporary pastoral ministry, it is no longer fashionable to talk about church doctrine. Sometimes this reluctance reflects a certain embarrassment regarding one or other church doctrine. At other times, however, I fear it is the result of the still inadequate theological formation of many pastoral ministers. Too often, their ministerial formation has given them only the barest of surveys of the history and development of Catholic teaching.
Third, the new apologists have responded effectively to Protestant fundamentalist attacks on the Catholic faith. They recognize that many Catholics are not well catechized and therefore are often vulnerable to attacks on the biblical foundations of the Catholic faith. These apologists are often quite successful in exposing Protestant fundamentalist caricatures of Catholic belief and offering demonstrations of the biblical foundations of central Catholic beliefsabout the Eucharist, for example, or infant baptism.
Finally, one cannot help but be impressed with the new apologists’ sophisticated use of modern communications technology and the Internet. They have been remarkably successful in making their reading of Roman Catholicism accessible to millions of people today.
But in spite of these real strengths, there are a number of reasons why the growing popularity of the new apologetics ought to be a matter of concern for those who care about the future of our church.
The apologetical refutations of fundamentalist assaults on Catholicism often mirror the very methodology they condemn in their opponents. Many of the new apologists enter too willingly into Bible wars, in which Protestant biblical proof-texts are simply parried with a Catholic proof-text in support of a particular Catholic teaching or practice. Moreover, their theological methodology often assumes an overly propositional view of revelation, that is, a tendency to locate divine revelation in a particular text or propositional formula. There is little sense that while divine revelation is encountered in a set of propositional truths, it is ultimately more than this.
By contrast, the Second Vatican Council presented divine revelation as nothing less than the self-communication of God. It taught that divine revelation takes its primary form not as information, facts or even doctrines, but as a person, Jesus Christ. Vatican II taught that revelation, in its primary mode, is not the transmission of information but the sharing of divine life. God addresses us as friends and invites us into relationship (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, No. 2). Of course, Catholicism holds that this divine revelation is symbolically mediated through doctrinal statements; dogmas are indeed truthful statements about the mystery of Godbut not in such a way that there is nothing more that could be said of that holy mystery.
This propositional view of revelation often encourages a leveling of the authoritative status of Catholic teaching. One finds in the writings and lectures of the new apologists little consideration of the council’s teaching that among the dogmatic affirmations of the Catholic faith there exists a real hierarchy of truths (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 11). Even less does one find any acknowledgment of a gradation in the authority of non-dogmatic church teaching.
This view, in turn, tends to encourage a neo-triumphalism that can undermine ecumenical endeavors. Dialogue with other Christian traditions is reduced to comparing various sets of truth claims. This is evident in the stories of how many of the new apologists journeyed from a Protestant faith to Catholicism. These accounts testify to an intellectual and spiritual journey that ends in the conviction that other Christian traditions are fundamentally erroneous when compared to the truth claims of Catholicism (see Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home; David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic; Patrick Madrid, ed., Surprised by Truth).
A third weakness lies in the ahistorical presentation of the Catholic faith. In defense of papal primacy and infallibility, for exampledogmatic teachings that I firmly acceptKarl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism is far too reluctant to acknowledge the historical difficulties with some traditional Catholic claims regarding the origins of the papacy (e.g., that Peter functioned as a residential bishop of Rome). This ahistoricism is reflected in the failure to apply accepted hermeneutical principles in the interpretation of conciliar and papal decrees. An example of this can be found in a series of audiotapes by Scott Hahn, in which he insists that Vatican II’s Dei Verbum virtually reiterates the teaching on biblical inerrancy of Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893). One could arrive at such a conclusion only if one avoided studying the textual history of Dei Verbum and focused exclusively on the final text.
Finally, the new apologists evince a peculiar kind of Catholic romanticism that speaks easily of the transcendent truth and beauty of the Catholic Church and its teachings but fails to acknowledge its pilgrim status as a human community. Belief in the indefectible holiness of the church does not preclude one from also holding that the church itself, understood as the whole people of God, the congregatio fidelium, is always only more or less faithful to its call to holiness. Especially in the wake of the recent clerical abuse scandal, does it make any sense to continue to hold that one may speak of the sinfulness of individual Christians but not, in any sense, of the sinfulness of the church itself? To insist on this is to overlook the way in which the sins of the church’s members are never strictly private failings, but acts and omissions with communal ramifications that can weaken the sacramentality of the church as a sign and instrument of salvation before the world.
Perhaps we can garner some insight into the shortcomings of this Catholic romanticism by considering recent discussion in our country on the difference between authentic patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a genuine virtue concerned with love of one’s country and pride in its highest ideals. But patriotism also involves a clear-eyed recognition of the country’s failings and a determination to address those failings, precisely out of love of country. Nationalism, on the other hand, presents itself as a blind loyalty to one’s country and a determination that our country must always be on the side of truth and light. The Catholic romanticism with which I am concerned might be viewed as an ecclesiastical nationalisma manifestation of an obvious love of the church that is, however, blind to its weaknesses and failings and therefore incapable of acknowledging the loyalty of any who would criticize the church.
Authentic Contemporary Catholic Apologetics
There is much that the effectiveness of the new apologists can teach us. But the significant flaws in their overall approach demand that the church move ahead to develop a newer form of apologetics more faithful to the spirit of the council. Such an apologetics ought to possess five features.
1. Passionate and Positive. As noted above, Catholic romanticism can be harmful to the extent that it allows love of the Catholic faith to blind one to the church’s failings and the legitimate disagreements that may emerge within the community of faith. Nonetheless, presentations of the Catholic faith ought to be offered with genuine passion and a desire to give a positive and constructive rendering of the Catholic faith.
One obvious reason for the success of the new apologists is their manifest love for their faith and evident enthusiasm for the message they are offering. If the substance of what they offer is often narrow and neo-triumphalist, the sad truth is that much of what I consider more mainstream theology can get stuck in a critical mode that seems more intent on debunking traditional expressions of the faith than on offering credible alternatives. It is one thing, for example, to criticize a crassly physicalist account of transubstantiation. It is quite another thing to go beyond this critique to offer a theological account, accessible and compelling for ordinary believers, of how it is that we encounter Christ in the Eucharist.
Our church desperately needs more theologians who are informed by the best insights in contemporary theology and can present those insights with passion and enthusiasm in ways that affirm and enrich ordinary believers. I regard the remarkable popularity of Michael Himes, a frequent presenter at pastoral conferences, as a confirmation of the hunger of many ordinary Catholics for solid Catholic theology. Himes draws thousands of Catholics wherever he speaks because his presentations are broadly informed by our Catholic tradition and delivered with humor and passion, and they exhibit a generosity of spirit that reflects the best of the Catholic theological heritage. I think of some accessible books on Catholic theology by Monika Hellwig, Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., and Richard P. McBrien. These are works by capable and respected systematic theologians who are not afraid to engage in what might be disparaged as haute vulgarisation in service of the needs of the church today. We need to encourage theologians not to forsake the church in their legitimate desire to direct the fruits of their scholarship to the academy and society at large. As long as theologians are content to lecture only in university classrooms and limit their publications to scholarly pieces in academic journals, the theological community will continue to cede the stage to those who offer a narrower and more rigid appropriation of the Catholic tradition but are willing to bring the Catholic theological heritage to the people and provide them with the substantive meat for which they yearn.
2. Dialogical. Too many examples of apologetics today seem to favor persuasion and proclamation over dialogue. This attitude reflects an inadequate understanding of the nature of authentic dialogue. Dialogue means neither demonizing opposing views nor granting the equal truth of all possible positions. In his book Plurality and Ambiguity, David Tracy describes the character of true dialogue, or what he refers to as disciplined conversation, in this way:
Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.
Tracy believes that disciplined conversation does not mean compromising one’s convictions; it presumes that one will give an impassioned account of one’s convictions, of what one holds to be true. But authentic dialogue also means having the courage genuinely to hear the other and to be open to the possibility that one’s conversation partner may bring new insight and perhaps even expose flaws in one’s own position. The work of the Georgetown University theologian John Haught comes readily to mind as an example of a sophisticated, dialogical apologetics that engages modern science in critical conversation. His writing reflects a willingness to accept the scientific critique that theology often proceeds based on ill-informed scientific and cosmological assumptions, even as he criticizes advocates of a scientific materialism for their hopelessly reductive view of modern theism.
A dialogical apologetics will not shy away from enthusiastically presenting an account of the Catholic faith, but it will do so with an openness to genuine dialogue and an eschatological modesty that acknowledges that the church does not so much possess the truth in its doctrinal formulations as it is possessed by it. With Vatican II, a dialogical apologetics will remain mindful that the pilgrim church is ever journeying toward the plenitude of truth (Dei Verbum, No. 8).
3. Ecumenical. Forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, we should expect contemporary Catholic apologetics to be genuinely ecumenical. One of the advances of Vatican II was its repudiation of the ecumenism of return, as articulated in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928). The bishops of the council admitted that, in considering the historical events that led to the sad divisions within Christianity today, errors were made on both sides (UR, No. 3). They affirmed the many gifts and insights present in other Christian traditions, even as they held that the primary ecumenical responsibility of Catholics was to get their own household in order (UR, No. 4). This self-critical approach to ecumenical dialogue left behind preconciliar triumphalism and challenges the neo-triumphalism that has re-emerged today in some Catholic circles.
The work of all Catholic apologetics must be motivated by love of and commitment to the enduring value and significance of the Catholic faith. Yet this does not preclude an ecumenical sensibility. If Catholic apologetics must acknowledge the real doctrinal conflicts that still remain in ecumenical conversation, it must also acknowledge the ways in which Catholic insights and convictions can be enriched and illuminated by theological perspectives and pastoral practices found in other Christian traditions.
4. Historically Responsible. A contemporary Catholic apologetics must be historically responsible in its appeal to tradition. Apologetics must resist the temptation to treat the Catholic tradition as if it constituted a perfectly seamless whole, an always unanimous testimony to the steady and organic development of Catholic truths. Catholics rightly hold that within the tradition one can identify both enduring faith commitments of apostolic origin and faith insights that developed organically over time from more primitive Christian commitments.
An honest historical presentation of the Christian faith must be willing to admit as well that the Catholic tradition also manifests dramatic discontinuities and even reversals. John Thiel makes this point well in his book Senses of Tradition. Some beliefs and practices simply lost their authority over time. Slavery was long viewed as an institution fully in accord with both natural law and divine revelation. The grudging rejection of this viewpoint in the consciousness of the church can only be viewed as a communal recognition of dramatic discontinuity with its past. In a similar way, the Catholic Christian community has found it necessary to repudiate longstanding beliefs about the immorality of charging interest when lending money, the inherent inferiority of women in the natural order and the denial of religious liberty to non-Catholics. Any appeal to the authority of Christian tradition in contemporary apologetics must acknowledge these various senses of tradition, if it is not to leave itself open to charges of historical dishonesty.
The responsible Christian apologist will always be mindful, in the presentation of Catholic dogmatic teaching, that no church teaching ever emerged in a vacuum. All doctrinal statements come into existence in response to a particular question, issue or crisis and can best be grasped with an awareness of the historical contexts in which they emerged. Church teachings that finally emerged in papal or conciliar decrees often reflect, for those who care to learn their history, significant theological battles and important compromises. These are also part of the story to be told when offering these teachings as decisive for Catholic identity.
For a Catholic apologist willing to engage in serious historical study, the Catholic heritage offers an embarrassment of riches in the areas of theology, spirituality, liturgy and daily Christian living that can be effectively retrieved and presented in ways that will surely enrich the lives of Christians today.
5. Culturally Engaged. Catholic teaching must not be reduced to a set of museum pieces, with the apologist or catechist as curator. Any truly effective presentation of Catholic teaching must be culturally engaged. There must be a firm conviction that, as James Bacik puts it, human experience and Christian doctrines are connected not simply logically and externally but organically and intrinsically (Apologetics and the Eclipse of Mystery, p. 13). If church teaching is true, as we believe it to be, it will illuminate daily living. If an apologetics is to make a difference in people’s lives, it must be attuned to ordinary human experience. Effective apologetics must try, at least in part, to draw from the riches of the Christian heritage in order to name what people have, in some hidden and confused way, already experienced. When we teach of sin and the reconciling love of God made manifest in Christ, these cannot be left as abstractions. They are terms, doctrines and concepts that will speak to people only to the extent that they help interpret the gentle melodies and jolting dissonances already playing in their life stories. We must be convinced that God’s revelation gives meaning not just to the few precious hours of religious time we fight to preserve for going to church, reading the Bible or for formal prayer, but to the most mundane of our human engagements.
What would such a culturally engaged apologetics look like in North America today? It would have to begin with a discerning reflection on the diverse expressions of the human spirit found in modern culture. It would have to engage human culture as the setting in which humanity’s glory and banality, sin and grace, despair and hope are all given expression. The effective apologist would look to political events, the visual arts, music, fiction, theater and film with an expectation that they will encounter there the drama of human salvation and, for those with eyes to see, intimations of the divine.
Examples of this kind of cultural engagement abound, even if they are not generally viewed as exercises in apologetics. I am an admirer of the often penetrating and perceptive meditations on art and literature offered by Thomas O’Meara and Robert Barron, meditations put in the service of a richly satisfying presentation of the Catholic faith. From a quite different perspective, though I have not always agreed with his analysis, Tom Beaudoin’s attempts to engage the pop culture so influential with the younger generations of today offers yet another example. I think of perceptive columnists in leading Catholic journals, like Sidney Callahan, who help readers go to the heart of contemporary issues and questions with confidence that the Catholic faith, if it does not provide simple answers, might at least shed some light on matters of moment for ordinary believers. These are but a few examples of how a broader, more penetrating and more generous Catholic apologetics might look.
We can conclude by recalling the biblical passage that is most frequently cited in reference to apologetics, 1 Pt 3: 15-6:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.
To give an account of our faith with gentleness suggests that we disavow any arrogant triumphalism and adopt the humble posture of pilgrims who know that they have not yet arrived at their destination but who believe that they are following the right path and wish to share the path with others. To give an account of our faith with reverence means to have reverence for the faith we share, but also to have reverence for our conversation partners, to honor their questions and insights.
In the end, we come to the question of how to envision the effective apologists of tomorrow. Are they to be museum curators proudly displaying some precious treasures from antiquity? Are they to be master debaters cleverly overcoming the arguments of their opponents? Or are they to be humble pilgrims eager for some company on the long journey ahead?