Apologetics and American Culture: Q&A with Ignatius Press CEO Mark Brumley

Mark Brumley (Ignatius Press)

Mark Brumley is a California-based writer and CEO of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, one of the biggest U.S. Catholic publishers and multimedia distributors.  He was also an apologist with Catholic Answers and was director of Communications and of the Office for Social Ministries of the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of several books, including The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics, and executive producer of several religious documentaries. He worked with the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., to publish an updated edition of his History of Apologetics.

He holds a Masters degree in theology from the University of Dallas, is a Trustee of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, and lives with his wife and some of his children in Napa, California. On Oct. 6, I interviewed Mr. Brumley by email about his work with Catholic apologetics in today's culture.

Advertisement

People consider you to be a Catholic apologist. What do apologetics mean to you in the context of American culture today?

America is both religious and secularized. As a result, people often mistakenly think they know what Christians or Catholics believe. Apologetics today must first clarify for Americans what Catholicism is and then show how faith fulfills the deep aspirations of the human soul, even in 21st century America! Concretely, apologetics must address such things as the “I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious” outlook, the idea that faith means believing things you know aren’t true, why this “Jesus guy” is so important, why the Catholic Church, and what makes life about more than pleasure and building your 401k. 

You’ve worked many years for Catholic Answers and Ignatius Press. How have Catholic apologetics changed or evolved in the course of your work?

I would note three changes: broader subject matter, more resources, and more sophisticated, evangelical apologists. When I started at Catholic Answers, in the late 1980s, we focused on Protestant Fundamentalism. Nowadays, social and cultural issues are important, too: human sexuality (including marriage as a civil institution), the human person, pro-life concerns, religion’s place in the public square, etc. And of course basic questions such as the existence of God, the historicity of Jesus, and the claims of the Catholic Church remain essential. Meanwhile, the resources are plentiful—books, videos, audio CDs, websites, phone apps, Catholic radio and TV, etc.  What’s more, many apologists—Jimmy Akin and Trent Horn of Catholic Answers come to mind among others—are first-rate thinkers and don’t simply present other people’s arguments. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Finally, people increasingly see apologetics as evangelization’s "flipside."  The goal can’t be simply to win an argument, as I say in my book, to dispose people to the work of the Holy Spirit. The New Evangelization is “highway and byway” evangelization—taking Christ to people instead of waiting for them to knock at the rectory. The new evangelists see apologetics’ value and apologists see they must be new evangelists. That’s a significant change.

The media has given a lot of attention to how the collapse of families is altering the cultural landscape in America. What challenge does this reality pose for Catholic apologetics?

In some ways, we’ve been here before. The church dealt with collapsing families in pagan Rome. But, as Chesterton and Lewis noted, a post-Christian paganism differs from pre-Christian paganism, as a bitter divorcee differs from an unmarried virgin. The full impact of familial collapse we have yet to experience. The redefinition of marriage and family will have further disastrous consequences. In the meantime, we speak with hurting people who think they know all about Christianity. They know not everything is relative but they often talk and act otherwise. They’re subjects of the dictatorship of moral relativism, at least when it comes to certain areas of their lives. We talk with people who think science has disproved Christianity or that multiculturalism has discredited it. We’re surrounded by children of the sexual revolution, with whom we must speak a language they can understand. Theology of the body helps here. In all of this, we must “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk” (make arguments). Yes, we’ll fall short. Experiencing mercy can help. Paul VI’s statement about people listening to witnesses more than to teachers is key. If we witness to mercy because we have experienced it, we’ll get “street cred.” People will be more apt to listen. People need mercy—love’s response to suffering. Pope Francis has underscored this in his unique way. But then we have to be prepared to say something worth hearing, too.  We’ll need to be ready to make our case.

Studies have shown that U.S. religious practices continue to decline across the board. How can Catholic apologetics change this situation?

By helping all Catholics to be evangelists and helping evangelists to be apologists. By posing questions and responding to objections. By assisting ordinary Catholics to be ready to give a reason for their faith. And we can’t wait for people to come to us. We must go to them, as servants, not conquerors. We must listen as well as speak; good apologetics does both. Every parish must become a school for conversion, formation, evangelization, and apologetics, as well as be a community of prayer, divine worship, and pastoral and social ministry. Indeed, we can’t really pray, worship correctly, or serve others rightly, if we don’t want to share Christ with them, any more than a parish can worship correctly and disregard the poor. We aren’t really sharing Christ with people if we ignore their serious questions.

As religious practices decline, the “new atheism” of popular writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins seems to be attracting many adherents. How can Catholics respond to this situation?

Catholics can respond by understanding better their own faith and learning how to talk intelligently about it with others. We have the most highly educated generation of Catholics in history and yet so many of us have only an elementary-school level understanding of faith—if that. It takes thoughtful, well-informed Catholics to rebut even silly criticisms of religion by Dawkins and others. Our bishops, priests, deacons, and lay leaders must relentlessly encourage the intellectual enrichment of their people’s faith. On the one hand, we must meet people where they are. On the other hand, we can’t leave them there.  We also need to be better at telling faith’s story—of creatively giving an account of the faith within us. We need imaginative apologetics. Some of Jesus’s best apologetical arguments, so to speak, he cast in parables. The Christian story has more explanatory power, points to a better way of living, and is more beautiful than an account of a cosmos with billions and billions of stars but which, ultimately, means nothing. We need art, as well as arguments; fiction and film, as well as philosophy; theater, as well as theology. These are part of telling the true, good, and beautiful story of faith.

Is the secularization of society a cause of concern to you?

Sure. Especially when it relegates faith to the purely private sphere or requires believers to conform to the demands of the secular community. But secularism is also an opportunity. While not good in itself, secularism forces us to count the cost of discipleship. Shall we follow Christ and identify with the Church? Or shall we go with the secular world?  

Recent issues like the Hobby Lobby ruling continue to give religious concerns a certain prominence in the public square. Is there a positive way that people of faith can contribute to policy debates?

Yes. But I think a distinction is in order. As citizens, Catholics should participate in political discourse, including in the so-called culture wars. Apologetics can contribute but our Catholic evangelizing and apologetical mission transcend politics. There’s a danger of reducing faith to politics, both on the left and on the right. Catholics can contribute to policy debates by embracing Catholic social teaching, knowing the pertinent facts, and by making good arguments in the public arena. Of course, we must be charitable and thoughtful. We must be willing to learn as well as to teach. But we must not be bashful nor may we sell out the faith, either. What does it say about lay formation in the last fifty years if the political arena lacks so few consistently Catholic voices? Finally, we must do our best to promote solid clerical and religious vocations as well as to promote good Catholic families. Catholic families are deeply important in themselves and for future “contributions” to “policy debates.” The future, as John Paul II put it, goes by way of the family. In many ways, so does the church.

What should we be doing in the Catholic Church to be better apologists for the faith in today’s American culture, in a way that is credible to non-believers?

Church leaders should promote apologetics in their respective areas of responsibility. Everybody should study, read about, ponder, and discuss the faith, while listening to others’ questions and observing the culture. We have to know what we’re talking about and then talk about it. Have a Catholic reading plan. Engage others. Help them to think about and discuss their faith. My parish has a weekly men’s book discussion group. Of course we must live what we believe so people will be more apt to listen to us. We must learn to testify thoughtfully about God’s presence in our lives. We must make movies and write novels. Become a poet or a musician. Be a compelling witness on the job. Be politically engaged without becoming captive to a party or ideology. Know something of the cultural trends without the culture converting us. We should understand the concerns of non-believers and communicate the gospel based on those concerns. We mustn’t oversell and act as if issues of Catholic credibility are all the world’s problem, never ours. But we shouldn’t sell the church short, either. People will sometimes disagree with us. So? That shouldn’t shut us down. We can disagree without being disagreeable. In all of this we mustn’t confuse credibility with likability. We strive to be at peace with everybody but sometimes we’re going to provoke. The gospel challenges. It’s even going to challenge us, as well as some of our fellow Catholics, who want to go along to get along. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you,” the Lord said. If we never upset anyone, we’re probably being unfaithful. (Although just because we upset people doesn’t mean we’re being faithful.)

What's the role of various media outlets in the New Evangelization?

Media outlets are crucial today. We must present the gospel of God’s love in ways that slip through people’s anti-gospel filters. Most fundamentally, media exist to provide an ever-present witness to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Ultimately, to Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh. The Medium is the Message. The church should be everywhere in media because the church is to be like Jesus, the medium that embodies the message, and modern media reaches people. She should be expressing herself everywhere in media, pointing to Christ in various ways.  

Your work with Catholic Answers consisted basically of religious tracts, but your media platforms at Ignatius Press include books and videos in addition to web publications. What more can we be doing or using nowadays to share the best of the Catholic faith with people?

First, a little history. Tracts were only a small part of what we did at Catholic Answers. Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, and I published This Rock magazine, held public debates, and spoke in thousands of parishes. We distributed books and audio tapes. We trained others. All that was really before the internet. Ignatius Press, too, was publishing books and distributing videos long before the internet. Now, of course, Ignatius Press has a tremendous web presence. We feature books (print, e-books, and audio books), films, music, websites, Catholic Truth Society booklets, Lighthouse Catholic Media audio CDs, Augustine Institute faith formation programs, and so on. We promote film in theaters and in parishes. Our friends at Catholic Answers, too, have an array of resources and activities in addition to their outstanding daily national radio show, which Ignatius Press co-sponsors. Plus, there are any number of other apologetics organizations—Lighthouse Catholic Media, the Napa Institute, the Magis Institute, and Word on Fire, for example. There is also the big kid on the block, EWTN and its related projects, as well as Catholic TV and the various Catholic radio networks and programs, which feature a lot of apologetics. There’s a healthy supply of Catholic podcasts and a zillion websites. What more can we do? Well, making these things better known is a start. Still, nothing is better than person-to-person contact. Give a book, booklet, a tract, or Lighthouse CD to someone you meet at Starbucks. Invite people to parish presentations. Show a film to friends or other inquirers. Point people via social media to web and other resources. Take it to the streets, as St. Paul Street Evangelization does. Ultimately, parishes and schools need to organize to do more. When that happens on a large scale, it will be revolutionary. In short, there are plenty of “best ways” to share the faith today.

Ignatius Press is publishing three books on marriage and family issues during the Synod on the Family this month. Why did you decide to publish these books?

Remaining in the Truth of Christis at least in part a response to Cardinal Kasper's call for a discussion of admitting civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. The tone is charitable and engaging of Cardinal Kasper's proposal. It was edited by Robert Dodaro, OSA, with various contributors, including five Cardinals (Walter Brandmüller; Raymond Burke; Carlo Caffarra; Velasio De Paolis, C.S. and Gerhard Müller) and an Archbishop (Cyril Vasil, S.J.) This book focuses on the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, while touching on other themes as they bear on the subject.

The second book is The Gospel of the Family by Juan Jose Perez-Soba and Stephan Kampowski, with a foreword by Cardinal Pell. This work, as the subtitle indicates, goes beyond the Kasper proposal and the debate about Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to talk more broadly about marriage, divorce, and family life.

The Hope of the Family, an interview with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is broader still, treating the question of divorce and civil remarriage in a key section but mostly speaking about other issues regarding family life, such as the large number of cohabitating couples, Catholics who only marry civilly, and marriage and family life as forms of Christian discipleship.

A fourth related work will be released in conjunction with the beatification of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Synod: On Human Life, a special edition of Humanae Vitae, with accompanying articles by Mary Eberstadt, James Hitchcock and Jennifer Fulwiler.

Divorce and civil remarriage, of course, is an important subject. But, as Cardinal Müller notes, it's only one among many important concerns. There are underlying issues of marriage and family having to do with evangelization, faith formation, and discipleship, as well as how "true mercy" and "merciful truth" are involved when people fall short of the universal call to holiness.

As to the timing of the publications, we anticipated that there would be heightened media and church attention in connection with the Synod. It makes sense to try to communicate a message during a time when people are paying attention rather than doing so when you have to do a lot to generate the same level of interest.

Do you have any hopes for the future?

Of course. My hope in Jesus Christ includes hope we Catholics will ourselves be more deeply evangelized so we can in turn evangelize others. Vatican II sought to renew the church’s inner life so she would be more faithful in her mission to the world. The inner renewal has started but there’s much more to be done, as Pope Benedict XVI noted and Pope Francis has also affirmed. Deeper communion with Christ leads to more dynamic mission. Apologetics can help foster both deeper communion in Christ and greater commitment to mission.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We face grave challenges today but we also have great opportunities. Let’s be evangelized and then evangelize: hear God’s Word and share it. Let’s know the faith, celebrate the faith, live the faith, and thoughtfully, beautifully, and compellingly present the faith. In this way we will become, in Christ, a better “sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the human race,” as "Lumen Gentium" put it. This is a truly blessed time to be a Catholic.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Venezuelan migrants walk across the border from Venezuela into the Brazilian city of Pacaraima. (CNS photo/Nacho Doce)
About 5,000 people leave Venezuela every day. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015, fleeing from the economic and political crisis that the country is experiencing under President Nicolás Maduro.
Filipe DominguesOctober 22, 2018
Sexual orientation by itself is irrelevant to child sexual abuse. The risk factors include impulse control problems and substance abuse, and offenders take advantage of situations in which they are trusted.
Thomas G. PlanteOctober 22, 2018
“Jesus finds people where they are, but he never leaves them where they are.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 22, 2018
Paddy Considine in ‘The Ferryman’ (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the fallen world of “The Ferryman,” conflict and compromise poison everything.
Rob Weinert-KendtOctober 22, 2018