Intellectual Fisticuffs: Some Thoughts on the Apologetics Subculture

In 1998, I was asked to give a talk at my parish on my conversion to the Catholic Faith. The local Catholic bookstore set up a table of various materials on the Catholic faith and as I perused them, I was struck by the fact that virtually none of these materials had existed when I came into the Church in 1987. Today, if I were to walk into that bookstore, I would find, not only the materials under which that table groaned in 1998, but a still greater torrent of books, videos, DVDs and CDs, a vast number of them created by converts. Clearly there have been some big changes in the past twenty years. But before I discuss them, let me digress a bit.

On the whole, I’m glad of the boomlet in apologetics that has happened since the 80s. It began, almost single-handedly at first, through the efforts of Karl Keating and the good people at Catholic Answers. For some reason, apologetics had become a dirty word after the Council, with the predictable effect that Catholics soon lost the ability to articulate what the hell they believed and why. When I was coming into the Church, it was like pulling teeth to find an RCIA group that would, like, tell me what Church taught instead of reflexively obeying the impulse to just affirm me in my okayness. Karl Keating, more than any other figure in the 80s, is the guy who took action to turn that trend around. And (I strongly suspect) no small reason for the resulting resurgence of apologetics was due to the relief Catholics felt after years of hearing what fools they were for believing the Faith and having few tools other than a gut feeling to counter these charges.
Part of what fed (and feeds) the interest in apologetics is simply the thrill of learning and articulating the Faith. That’s certainly what motivates me. People call me an apologist. I generally don’t call myself one, because I primarily think of myself as an amateur teacher. I think the Faith is fascinating and just like telling other people about it, because I love to watch the lights come on and I love to watch the Faith liberate other people as it’s liberated me. Sometimes that involves “defending the Faith”. But many more of times it involves proclaiming the Faith.

The two, by the way, are different and those who love apologetics would do well to remember that. The first and primary task of the believer is not to defend the Faith, but to proclaim it. In other words, evangelization comes first, and apologetics is, at best, its handmaid. You don’t need to “defend the Faith” unless the Faith is being attacked or feared as contrary to Reason. Indeed, if we enter into a conversation with a defensive mentality, we shouldn’t be surprised if the result is to ignite a hostile mentality in the person to whom we are talking. Not a few times have I seen hot-headed, testosterone-driven young single guys (that is, the sort of person who is typically drawn to apologetics) forget this and come on strong with a pugilistic attitude that radiates “You probably think there’s something wrong with my Faith, don’t you? Don’t you? Come on, try me buddy. Just try me!” Such folk mean well usually. They are typically young bucks full of piss and vinegar. A thousand years ago, all that masculine energy would have been spent on something like a healthy Crusade where they could wade into the foe and smite him hip and thigh. But today, there are very few pressure valves through which the Valiant Knight hormones can be released, so they go into apologetics, often without anybody to instruct these guys that the medieval ideal also included the model of the verray, parfit gentil knyght who comes in peace before he comes in war.

Most of the apologists I know who have wound up becoming (for want of a better word) “known” apologists seem to get this. Most of them do what they do, first and foremost because they love the Faith, not because they are spoiling for a fight. The goal is to generate light, not defeat somebody in combat. And more than that, the goal is to learn about everything, not simply to learn about apologetics. Jimmy Akin, for instance, who is staff apologist for Catholic Answers, seems to me to typify this very Catholic mindset. His blog certainly deals with apologetics. But it also reflects his interest in everything from weird fiction to science to what have you. Similarly, Dr. Scott Hahn, who’s certainly done his share of apologetics, isn’t really about apologetics: he’s about scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the family, and the subjects of the (literally) 50,000 other books that are wedged into the rabbit warren he calls his library, stuffed into the basement of his house.

The first post-conciliar wave of Evangelical-to-Catholic convert apologists started in the late 80s and early 90s with almost no human coordination–just the Holy Spirit watching the wave roll in. I was, without realizing it at the time, part of that First Wave. Big influences on me included Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Lewis, Chesterton, and Sayers. I also read Karl Keating’s work. There was a rising flood of Evangelical converts and, as Evangelicals do, they started trying to articulate what they had done and why for the benefit of those they had left behind. Evangelicals have a bred-in-the-bone sense that, “If you can’t verbalize your faith, then there’s some doubt as to whether you really know what it is.” So we started writing the books and making the tapes that filled that Catholic book table by 1998. And, as we were doing this, we slowly started looking around and realizing to our surprise that we weren’t alone–usually well after our entry into communion with Rome. In fact, it was not until the early 90s, that I discovered people like Hahn, David Currie, Akin, Rosalind Moss and the whole current crop of Evangelical converts existed. The experience was similar for a lot of First Wavers. We thought we’d pretty much stepped out of Evangelicalism into the Incalculable Catholic Abyss, and to our astonishment there were all these other Evangelical converts! Result: The First Wave started “networking” just as a Second Wave (who read our books and listened to our tapes) were persuaded and started to convert too.

Periodically, somebody will ask me if I had some grand strategy for evangelism when I started writing about the Faith. This is of a piece with the curious notion I sometimes encounter among some readers, who seem to have this notion that Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, Tim Staples, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Jeff Cavins, Jimmy Akin and various other apologist types like me get together on a monthly basis to knock back a few cold ones, compare notes so as to make sure we are all saying the same thing, and then fan out to promulgate our identical versions of the Christian faith.

My only response to such thinking is, “I don’t believe in organized religion. I’m a Catholic.” The fact is, I started writing about the Faith for the only reason anybody should write about stuff: because I found it very interesting. I had and have no Grand Plan except to learn the Faith and its fascinating implications and try to articulate these things because the Faith gives me joy and fulfillment and I like to see that happen for others. That said, I will note that I do think the Holy Spirit has grand plans that I occasionally get to play a part in, as do you. And so, because the Faith He inspires is a coherent thing, I soon found, to my surprise, that this entire subculture existed, not only of Catholic apologists (many more than the handful I’ve named), but of their various opponents–as well as a sort of growing cheer section for both. And I discovered (by experience) some of the problems that go with that.

Probably the most dangerous thing that goes with it is a curious sort of idolatry that can arise. The other day, for example, I got a letter from somebody which read, in part:

Recently I came across a protestant web site of a Mr. X. He is extremely well educated regarding the writings of Martin Luther. He has convincingly shown how our Catholic Apologists have taken quotes of Martin Luther out of context to try to show that he was a nutcase. It has really opened my eyes and it has got me wondering where else our Catholic Apologists have erred. Today on his blog, he posted an article which refutes your assertion that St Jerome, before he died, accepted the apocrypha as canonical. I am posting it below to give you a chance to respond. I hope you can. This blog site has deeply disturbed me because Mr. X has shown many times where the Catholic Apologists that I have come to admire and learn from have been making serious errors in scholarship resulting in faulty conclusions. I have written Robert Sungenis, Scott Hahn, Art Sippo et al to visit this blog and form some refutations if possible. I do not know if they have done so and it is really bugging me. Would you please take a look at Mr. X’s blog because Catholic Apologists will be hearing from this guy soon and you had better be ready for him.

A number of things concern me about this note. But the first and foremost is that somebody’s faith could be disturbed by the fact that a Catholic apologist has erred. Sadly, it’s not the first time I’ve encountered the tendency to anoint me or some other apologist as a sort of Alternative Magisterium to the real Magisterium by a “fan base” that is somewhere between a school of disciples and a cheer squad. Indeed, I have found that, in an era where laity have been taught to mistrust their bishops–not only by the media and the culture, but by the shocking incompetence and perfidy of the bishops in the abuse scandal–it’s very easy for laity to hive off and anoint new ersatz Magisteria in the form of whatever faction they happen to fancy. For some, the New Magisterium is the advocates for women priests. For others, it’s Catholics for a Free Choice. For still others, it’s whatever Richard McBrien says is the consensus of Thinking Catholics in the Academy. For some, it’s Dan Brown.

But for not a few in the apologetics subculture, it’s what I or Scott Hahn or [insert favorite apologist] think about X, Y and Z. And that’s a very dangerous thing to do, because we apologists are not protected by the charism of infallibility in the slightest. In the case cited by my correspondent above, for instance, the crisis of faith was precipitated by the fact that I misread St. Jerome in an article I wrote years ago for Envoy. (I thought Jerome was defending the Septuagint and the inclusion of deuterocanonical books like Tobit, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees in the canon of Scripture.) I did not misread Jerome wilfully, as Mr. X suggested on his blog, but I nonetheless did make a blunder. That’s the breaks. I make mistakes.

Such blunders can be instructive, if we are not blinded by idolatry and the attendant backlash which often happens when the idol is inevitably shattered. For instance, if one gets past the fact that I erred in reading Jerome, one can discover that the Church’s authority is not thereby toppled. Mr. X’s argument, which threw my correspondent into such a tailspin, was that it somehow mattered that Jerome rejected the deuterocanon. In fact, it does not matter in the slightest. Because Jerome is not who decides what goes in the Bible any more than Mr. X is. Indeed, on that score, Jerome is on the same page as every Catholic. That is, though Jerome only grudgingly included the deuterocanon in his Vulgate, he nonetheless did so in obedience to the Church because he took it as axiomatic that there was no sin in submitting to “the judgment of the Churches”. Basically then, in this dispute, I blew a battle but the Church still won the war, because the central thesis of my article was that the Church–not mere individuals but the Church–is the final arbiter of the Faith. So at the end of the day, it’s kind of a teapot tempest to spend massive amounts of electrons pinning down precisely what Jerome thought about the deuterocanonical books, because deciding what goes in the Bible wasn’t Jerome’s call, as he himself well knew.

The moral of the story is not “Trust everything I say because I’m never wrong.” It is also not “Distrust everything I say because I make mistakes.” Rather it is that St. Paul is emphatically right when he urges us to “test everything and hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). My counsel to anybody tempted to anoint apologists as an alternative Magisterium is to do like Jerome and trust in the judgment of the Church, not in mortals.

In a related vein, I think it would be well for the apologetics subculture (particularly the one in cyberspace) to simply get some air and remember that it really is just a subculture (at least in the Catholic Church). To be sure, there are some Protestant sects out there that are pretty much about nothing but apologetics (and often, anti-Catholic apologetics). So, for instance, when a Protestant anti-Catholic “apologist” adopts the handle “prosApologian”, you pretty much know where this guy’s sense of identity is invested. He knows Greek and you don’t. He has a degree from Wilbur Weed Unaccredited Boxtop Diploma Mill and is fond of calling himself “doctor” and listing his credentials. He eats and sleeps apologetics. He will fill your screen with enough gaseous ASCII to inflate the Hindenburg in pursuit of the exact parsing and declension of some Greek conjunction (all while asking if your credentials are as big as his credentials). He’s ready to rumble. Right. Got it.

And then Catholics respond. Some of the responses are from Catholics who are interested in light. So, for instance, Akin, with a groan and a sigh, undertakes the task of replying yet again to whatever it is prosApologian is gassing on about as this week’s proof that Romanism is a false religion. Akin does so out of interest in clarity, and because he’s been called dishonest by name, not out of testosterone-driven need to prove his manhood. The difference between the two is that there is, for Akin, a healthy awareness that the Faith, like life, is more than apologetics. So while the anti-Catholic zealot is filling the air with nothing but his arguments against the Faith and the glories of his spotless record of zero defeats in conflict with absolutely everybody who has ever disagreed with him, Akin is stopping to smell the roses, chat about Max Headroom, speculate on apostolic succession on other planets, comment on the X Men, post curious photos of Indian Mounds that figured in H.P. Lovecraft stories and, in short, be a normal human being.

Not all Catholics, however, have this sense of perspective and it’s easy for some to get sucked into the cramped little world of endless hairsplitting that the apologetics subculture can sometimes become. And so we find volleys of 19,000 word essays fired back and forth across the web, filled with more detail than any normal person could want about the precise meaning of the word “until” in Matthew 1:25. But the fact is, the Faith and the world are larger than mere theological abstractions, grammar spats, and nitnoid quibbles and we Catholics don’t have to live in that hothouse. Indeed, if we do, we can often communicate a radically different vision of the Faith than you actually find in the world of incarnate, flesh and blood Catholics, who do not rest their entire faith on what Jerome thought of the Septuagint, who do not obsess over the meaning of heos hou, and who could not, for the life of them, articulate a detailed analysis of the Aristotelian roots of Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation. All these things matter in their proper place. But none of these things matter much for 99.999999999999999% of Catholics in the world–or for Protestants for that matter. If we give people the impression such things do matter, don’t be surprised when they react with disappointment, anger and/or bemusement when they discover that actual Catholic Faith (that is, the Faith as it actually incarnate in the Church of flesh and blood people) is very different from the diagrams found in the hothouse of the apologetics subculture.

Don’t get me wrong. Diagrams are important. But they aren’t the whole story. If you only think in terms of diagrams, you will not only overlook, but sometimes even oppose the teaching of John Paul II, who said that each man and each woman are the way the Church must walk, not the other way around. If you tend to conceive of the Faith as a mere body of abstractions that must be programmed into each human brain until it is in right working order, you will (as some readers of my blog did) respond to, say, suggestions that the Church needs to understand the attraction of Pentecostalism to millions in Latin America by asking, “Why? What does Pentecostalism have to teach the Church?” Note how the person is entirely absent from such a question. In this diagrammatic approach to life, Pentecostalism is simply a body of doctrines which are either derivations from or corruptions of the Catholic Faith. As such, it has nothing to add and can simply be dismissed. The persons who believe it–their loves, hopes, fears, yearnings, hates, and idiosyncracies–none of these enter the equation at all. The goal is to defeat Pentecostals in open combat with the True Faith by logic and argument, not to proclaim Good News, nor to hear the possibility that the Spirit who blows where He wills might have been doing something good in these human beings without our approval.

Pointing out the folly of this approach is not to deny that the fullness of revelation subsists in the Catholic faith. Nor is it to undercut all that I have said about the good the apologetics subculture is doing in the Church and in the world. After all, I do that job myself because I think it’s a vital job. Rather it is to deny that the fullness of revelation subsists in the apologetics subculture. The gospel speaks to this mentality rather directly:

John answered, “Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).

Those who forget the duty of evangelism in their zeal for Open Apologetic Combat would do well to memorize this passage. Likewise, those who turn their Fave Rave Apologists into Alternate Magisteria would do well to smash their idols and allow their heroes to be the faithful–and fallible–human beings they are. The biblical commands to forsake idols, to test everything and hold on to the good, to worship the Lord your God alone and to love your neighbor as yourself–these few guidelines constitute the basic toolkit necessary for anybody who wants to do the work of proclaiming and, where necessary, defending the Catholic faith.

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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