Argue to Explain, Not to Win

Our first contact was in a letter he wrote. He said I’d never make any converts using my system. “You have to be tough. You have to make them see they’re wrong. You have to hammer the facts into them. Never give any quarter. All of them—especially the former Catholics—are acting in bad faith anyway. They remain non-Catholics because they’re sinners, and they have to be told that.”

Later we met at a social gathering in Connecticut. He was easy to spot: tall, loud, fingers stabbing the air, a knot of people around him. I heard him say, “Just leave me alone with any Protestant minister, and I’ll have him admitting in an hour that he’s a heretic.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought. Anyone would admit anything to weasel out of a conversation with this guy.

Later on, when he discovered I was there and made a beeline to me, I tried to reason with him, saying you can’t browbeat someone into conversion. He said I was wrong and just kept talking. He didn’t shut up for a moment until someone asked, “Okay, just how many people have you converted with your method? Name just one.” He couldn’t.

More zeal than prudence

I appreciate this man’s zeal. He loves his Catholic Faith, and he wants to see it spread. He prays that all people may one day enter Christ’s Church. But his zeal has undermined his prudence, and he has been reduced to seeing non-Catholics—whether lifetime Protestants or former Catholics—as having no redeeming social value.

They are what they are out of wickedness. Psychological factors and unclear thinking play no part. Anyone leaving the Church must be operating in bad faith; there is no role for confusion or misinformation. I told him I had met hundreds of ex-Catholics, and it was difficult to find any who left the Church knowing it was the institution Christ established. Moral questions sometimes played a part, I admitted, but usually the problem was intellectual. He disagreed. The only approach that would work with former Catholics was the stick.

Some people might say this fellow’s problem is that he likes to argue, but that’s incorrect. I’m a great fan of arguing and advocate it strongly, but you need to keep in mind what real argumentation is. It isn’t raising your voice, gesticulating wildly, and picking up the other fellow by the lapels when he doesn’t agree with you. Real argumentation is the calm, rational, reasonable discussion of differences. And differences there are.

In Rerum Novarum (1891) Pope Leo XIII said there is nothing so valuable as viewing the world as it really is, and that includes a frank acknowledgement of differences. Only if differences are acknowledged can they be overcome or, if not overcome, at least put into perspective.

Truth takes care of itself

As I said, this fellow’s problem isn’t that he likes to argue. His problem is that he argues to win. You can argue to win and drive someone further from the Faith. Thus Rule No. 1: Never argue to win. Instead, argue to explain. All you need to do is explain what the Catholic Thing is—what our doctrines are, how they developed, how the Bible supports them, what our history has been—and, if you do that, you’ve done enough. Truth has a wonderful way of taking care of itself. Truth, once implanted in a mind, will germinate and grow, and the mind won’t be able to get rid of it.

But someone has to convey the truth. That’s the task of the Catholic apologist, which is to say it’s the task of every Catholic, clerical and lay, because we’re all called on to tell the truth about our Faith.

Keep in mind that apologetics has nothing to do with apologizing (we aren’t sorry for being Catholics). Apologetics is the use of reason to explain and defend the Faith, and it has an honorable history. Perhaps the first saint to have the title Martyr attached to his name was Justin Martyr (died A.D. 165), who is generally termed the first Christian apologist.

Nowadays apologetics is frowned upon in some quarters. I think it is fair to say apologetics has a worse reputation among priests and religious than among lay people. The folks in the pews want to learn about their Faith and want to see it defended. They’d love to do the defending themselves, if only someone would teach them how. Church “professionals” shy away from apologetics. They say it’s uncharitable or divisive or unecumenical—and it can be, if done wrongly.

Apologetics done right

When done the right way, apologetics can do more than anything else to bring us closer to “Bible Christians,” who have been almost untouched by the endless committee meetings of mainline ecumenism. Those committees often seem to do their best to avoid any of the issues that people actually are interested in, and they often give outsiders the impression we have no grounds for our beliefs. After all, if we shy away from discussing our Faith, why shouldn’t other people think we have little reason for believing in it?

One example: A friend of mine, himself a former Protestant minister, represented the Catholic side in a public debate about justification and salvation. His opponent was a prominent theologian at one of the top Evangelical seminaries. During the question period a Protestant stood up and said to my friend, “You have given the best explanation and defense of Christianity I’ve ever heard.”

That praise was from a man who came to the debate predisposed to dislike anything the Catholic said. He was predisposed that way because he had been brought up thinking we believe things we really don’t believe. He went home that night with a new respect for Catholicism. I’d call that an ecumenical success by any standard.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.


Karl Keating is founder and senior fellow at Catholic Answers. He is the author of seven books, including the recently published The New Geocentrists and the forthcoming The Ultimate Catholic Quiz. His books Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe have been national best sellers.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage