Time for a New Catholic Apologetics Movement? Four Ideas for Renewal

Time for a New Catholic Apologetics Movement? Four Ideas for Renewal April 21, 2018

“Do you think it’s time for a New Catholic Apologetics Movement?” asked Scott Eric Alt via Facebook messenger. The question is one I had been mulling for the past few months. Yet I was retired from Catholic apologetics for nearly a decade, whereas Scott is still active and blogging at To Give a Defence. (This and Dave Armstrong’s Biblical Evidence for Catholicism are two sources of Catholic apologetics I still follow regularly as a retired apologist.)

“Maybe,” I replied. “At least within the English-speaking world I feel Catholic apologetics has become too wrapped up in non-essentials.”

One example is a recent book defending capital punishment as irreformable doctrine. This is contrary to the worldwide consensus for abolition that has grown among the last three popes, recent patriarchs, college of bishops, and majority of laity outside of the author’s particular country. In fact, outside the author’s particular country there is no appetite among Catholics for capital punishment

Another example is increased hostility toward Pope Francis and the Church’s social teaching, as chronicled by Mike Lewis and others like myself at Where Peter Is.

But back to the Facebook conversation with Scott Eric Alt. He then popped the obvious followup question: “What would you recommend we do differently in a New Catholic Apologetics Movement?”

In pondering this question, I discerned four areas where I believe Scott and other new Catholic apologists could improve the present state of Catholic apologetics. These four areas are:

1 – Centred Around the Liturgy and the Sacraments

The first area where I believe new Catholic apologists  can improve the current state of Catholic apologetics is with refocusing around the Eucharist and Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass). Quoting from the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Catechism of the Catholic Church‘s article 1323 states:

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”136 “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our spiritual life as Catholics. By source, every grace we receive as Catholics comes through the Eucharist. And by summit, every act of worship or of service that we perform as Christians is directed toward the Eucharist.

This should not surprise us as Christians who believe in the Mystery of Transubstantiation. All areas of theology and Christian practice converge in the Eucharistic liturgy. Remember Christ’s Real Presence is not only that of His body, blood, soul and divinity. It is that of Jesus Christ post-death, post-resurrection and post-ascension into Heaven. It is that of Jesus Christ who sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. Thus every Divine Liturgy or Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes present Heaven itself here on earth.

Think of the impact this has on all areas of our understanding as Catholics. Our goal as Christians–Eternity in communion with the Holy Trinity–begins here on earth with our participation in the Eucharistic liturgy. For it is through Jesus Christ that we are invited into communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

There is much more I could write on this topic (and will in future blogs). However, in light of CCC 1323, should the Eucharist not be the source and summit of a New Catholic Apologetics Movement? Certainly it makes a much more universal and spiritually compelling argument for the Catholic faith than does the legal right of America, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia to sentence its own citizens to death.

2 – Drop the Term “Protestant”

Nothing causes me to tune out faster from an apologetics argument or essay than the word “Protestant” or its plural “Protestants”. Today we are 500 years removed from the various Protestant reformations. I know many Lutherans, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Anglicans. In fact my mother is Presbyterian. Very few of these spiritual descendents of the Reformation still protest Catholicism or the Catholic Church. Certainly for the most part they do not hate Catholics. Nor do most Catholics outside of online apologetics take issue with most Protestants. Most Christians simply practice a form of Christianity in which we were raised and/or discovered spiritual comfort.

As a Catholic who transitioned from apologetics into ecumenism and pastoral theology, I find that current use of the word “Protestant” within Catholic apologetics is often lazy or incorrect. That is, the term “Protestant” is often an attempt to impose a false uniformity. We do not wish to recognize among our Reformation brothers and sisters a wide spectrum of belief. Or it represents refusal on our part to forgive and move on from past controversy or polemic.  What is even worse is when one purporting to be a Catholic apologist insists upon coupling “Protestant” with “heretic” (or “Orthodox” with “schismatic”).

Using the term correctly, Protestantism represents a wide spectrum of practice and belief. I know a Presbyterian minister who prays the rosary daily. A Baptist minister once invited me to teach his congregation how to properly interpret Byzantine icons. I have delivered lectures on Eucharist ecclesiology to a respected Evangelical graduate seminary. A group of respected Pentecostal ministers once invited me out to discuss theology over craft beer special coffee. Because there is no Anglican or Missouri Synod Lutheran church nearby, it is not unusual for Christians from these two denominations (including ordained ministers) to worship in our Catholic parish when visiting our community. One of our local Evangelical chaplains enjoys dropping by at the charismatic prayer group as well as the Latin Tridentine Mass hosted at the local Roman Catholic parish.

Thus the idea that our Protestant brothers and sisters todays still “protest” the Catholic Church is simply holding on to old stereotypes. A New Catholic Apologistics Movement

3 – Explanation vs Debate

“Apologetics has earned such a bad reputation that I now feel forced to make an apologetic for apologetics before any pastor will allow me into their church,” said my friend Michael over coffee. Mike is an Evangelical Baptist finishing his Master Degree in Christian apologetics. Locally he enjoys a well-earned reputation as one of the most skilled Christian apologists from a Protestant tradition.

Before our schedules took us in different directions, the two of us would gather monthly for coffee. We seldom discussed theological differences between our respective Christian traditions. More often than not, the conversation revolved around how best to carry out Christian apologetics in today’s secular culture. We did not always agree, and often theological differences entered the discussion as well, but our conversations always proved fruitful.

Why?

Because Mike and I recognized in each other a fellow brother in Christ. Our default stance toward each other was discussion and explanation. It was never one party attempting to dominate the other through difference and debate.  We both realized that infighting and disrespect among Christians will often cause others–especially young people–to turn away Christianity completely.

Too often we as Christians think of heated debate, online flame wars, and heresy hunts when the word “apologetics” is raised within a Christian context. For many, apologetics has become the online theological equivalent of professional wrestling. Now I disagree personally. As a retired Catholic apologist moonlighting as a professional wrestling referee, I find professional wrestling much more disciplined and cooperative.

The original definition of the word apologetics is as follows: “A reasoned defence of the Christian faith.” Defence here does not mean to argue one’s opponent into submission, or to intentionally cause offence. (Two apologetics sins of which I am often guilty myself). Rather it means to explain the faith as reasonable in both practice and belief. If one has given a reasonable explanation and the other still does not accept it, then it is time to move on.

4 – Active Within the Local Church, Subject to the Bishop

Canonist, catechist, lay parish administrator, pastoral associate, ecumenist, reader, Catholic apologist–these are all functions and responsibilities I have carried out within the Catholic Church, both Eastern and Latin. With one exception, each required a Church mandate from the bishop or pastor upon completion of formal education and a period of supervised training. With one exception, each required that I fulfill my duties within the local parish or diocese.

The one exception for both is Catholic apologist. Without any formal training or mandate from a lawful Church authority, I became known as a Catholic apologist. How? By calling myself a Catholic apologist both online and in print. (Ironically, it was years after I retired from Catholic apologetics that my new bishop surprised me with a mandate for Catholic apologetics.)

Catholicism is a living expression of the Catholic faith. This is why we are subject to living pastors in the form of our local bishop as successor to the apostles. Like catechist, reader, and other offices or apostolates filled by laypeople, I believe apologist should be a calling by one’s bishop in cooperation with the local pastor. Similarly, I believe each parish and diocese should have apologists who are subject to the local pastor and to the diocesan bishop.

While apologetics is an important apostolate within the Church, it should be subject to the Church, and it should be carried out in cooperation with other local ministry and apostolate.

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  • said she

    These are great! My only question: what term should we use in place of “Protestants”? Because “separated brothers and sisters” is both a mouthful and not always well-understood.

  • Dave Armstrong

    I could potentially make a long response to this but I’d like to point out just one thing:

    The opposition to Pope Francis is not so much coming from the apologetics world, as from the world of Catholic journalism. There are the three anti-Francis books out now. Two are written by journalists, not apologists (Lawler and Douthat). The most extreme of the three (Sire) is written by a professional historian.

    Others most known for bashing the pope are Raymond Arroyo (journalist and TV host), Chris Ferrara (lawyer), Steve Skojec (BA in Communications and Theology), but has functioned more as a journalist than apologist, as far as I know, Hilary White (journalist), and Edward Pentin (journalist).

    We apologists (the real ones, not in name only) have written relatively little negative stuff about Pope Francis. Karl Keating simply endorsed Lawler’s book, and has written a few criticisms of the pope, but it is in no way a major emphasis of his. He’s at least actually an apologist.

    So to say that “Catholic apologetics has become too wrapped up in non-essentials” and to give as one example of that, opposition to Pope Francis, makes no sense to me, because the main violators ain’t comin’ from the apologetics community. Even those among us who don’t like the pope mostly shut up about it (I know of a few examples). I know apologists who are strong supporters of the pope who also don’t write about it much, but they’re not out there bashing him.

  • DeirdreMundy

    I’m not sure it IS time for a new Catholic Apologetics movement. In the 90s, the Catechism was new., For the first time in a generation,. Catholics had easy access to Church teachings, and they had questions. Things like “This Rock” were a God send in that environment.

    Now, 30-ish years later….there’s no longer really the problem that Catholics who want to learn more about the faith have a lack of access to answers. The bigger problem is that MOST CATHOLICS DON”T CARE ABOUT THE FAITH. They don’t really believe that there ARE correct answers, or that it matters if there are. Moral Therapeutic Deism really is the norm.

    So…. apologetics are… almost jumping the gun? We need straight up evangelization first, before we even get to a new age of apologetics….

  • I struggle with this same question. As did my professors and the Canadian Evangelical graduate seminary where I obtained my Master of Divinity in Pastoral Theology. One suggestion by three of my professors — one Wesleyan, one Baptist, and the third Presbyterian — was “Reformation Christian”.

    But for me the concern is not so much the term “Protestant” as the lazy use of the term of Protestant. That is, I know 99 Protestant ministers who hold Pope Francis and Catholics in the highest esteem as fellow Christians, and one fundamentalist who considers the Holy Father the antichrist. There is a temptation sometimes to state “Protestants since Luther consider the pope to be the Antichrist.”

    Why not just say “Fundamentalist preacher John Smith” rather than “Protestants”? As Catholics we wouldn’t think it fair if all Catholics were equated with antisemitic views of Bishop Williamson–especially when such views contributed to his expulsion from the SSPX. I feel we need to stop generalizing when it comes to our Protestant brothers and sisters.

  • Ric Ballard

    Good point about the term protestant. I also hate the term “separated brethren” or the use of “coming home”. The use of these terms sets people up as Gods’ step kids. I also hate the miss use of the term “convert”, as if protestant are coming from another religion. In the official language of the Catholic Church the proper language is “coming into full communion”. In fact, the use ““coming into full communion” sometime implies a mutual effort, as it with Catholics and Orthodox.

  • Shawn McElhinney

    We discussed this very subject a while back ago if memory serves and much of what you write above looks familiar. Though dropping terms like “Protestant” and “Protestants” was not specifically discussed, I nonetheless agree with what you wrote on this. (Its also why I think as a rule all generalized terminology should be avoided.)

    One important idea to add to your list of four is addressing a serious defect of no small magnitude in almost all apologetics circles I have observed over the years; namely, the actual study and conscious inculcation of the principles outlined in the Catholic spiritual tradition. I concluded a long time ago that if Catholic spirituality principles were studied prior to anything else, it would fix so much of what is wrong with not only the apologetics movement but with general online communication as well. (Not to mention the adversarial predisposition towards conflict so inherent in almost all who involve themselves to any degree in apologetics would be significantly reduced!)

  • Todd Voss

    Bingo!

  • a sinner

    Not sure it is good idea to conflate Divine Liturgy and Holy Mass. same, but different?

  • LM

    Re: “I also hate the miss use of the term “convert”, as if protestant are coming from another religion.” They are. Protestantism is another religion, thus a Protestant if he/she chooses, converts to Catholicism. Regarding the objection to the word “Protestant”, no, most are not hating the Catholic Church, but neither are they joining it, as they don’t believe in some, most, or all of its teachings. Thus, they are “separated brethren” from the one, true church Christ instituted, the Catholic Church. (what used to be taught)

    The language that the Church uses, “coming into full communion” can not apply to those who are already Catholic. It applies to separated brethern. The aversion to the phrases “separated brethren” and “coming home” indicates that all religions are equal and the church Christ founded is just another denomination, as though Luther, Calvin, and Wesley are on a par with our Lord. So, what point evangelization to the Catholic faith? We can’t have it both ways: Evangelize (which means to convert) people to the Catholic faith, or believe that the Catholic faith is not the one, true church Christ founded and let everyone to each their own. We can’t then bemoan the decrease in conversions and that Catholic attendance at Mass is in decline. If one religion is as good as another why bother becoming Catholic? Ecumenism indicates no one has to or should.

  • You are free to have your opinion. However, I would encourage you to use official Catholic sources. The Catholic Church in the official language that she uses never uses your terminology. The Catholic Church does not look at protestants as other religions. The proper term is “ecclesial communities” who in fact can derive their power from Christ (CCC 819). The eversion to the phrases is merely being faithful to official Catholic teaching. “All those justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church”(Decree on Ecumenism15)”. We can’t convert people that are already brothers or sisters in the Lord. What we can do is to encourage them to seek out the “gift of unity” that the Christ gave the Church (CCC 820). This takes mutual collaboration, which steps can be seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (821).

  • LM

    I did not write an opinion. An ecclesial community is a Christian religious group, but one that does not meet the Catholic definition of a Church. Because these religious groups do not have the Eucharist and the Apostolic succession of the holy priesthood, they are religious groups adhering to a different religion. Semantics.

  • It is an opinion. Just as mine is an opinion. My opinion, however, is informed by current catholic teaching. There are no official Catholic positions that speak or use the “semantics” that you are putting forward. If there is I will happily adjust my opinion. I just want to be a faithful son of the Church.

  • LM

    I was not saying that there were official Catholic positions that speak or use “the semantics”. Semantics is a branch of linguistics concerned with meaning, the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text. So to say that Protestantism is not another religion but an ecclesial community is contradictory, as religion and ecclesial communities are essentially synonymous. An ecclesial community is a religious group, i.e. a religion which adheres to a different system of faith and worship than Catholicism.

  • I know exactly what the word means and how the Catholic Church uses the term in its official documents that describe protestants. Again, I want to encourage you to be in harmony with the official teachings of the Catholic Church. If you continue to put forth your own application of how Catholics should relate to protestant you are in essence being a “protestant”. As I said, your welcome to have your own opinion on this but your opinion is in no way a reflection of official Catholic positions.