“What’s it like, being a female Catholic apologist in a field dominated by men?”
*looks around* Oh, you’re asking me? Cool. I’ve always wanted to tackle that question. Let’s get introductions out of the way first.
I worked for 17 years as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics and media apostolate in El Cajon, California (a suburban community in the Diocese of San Diego). Before that, I worked for Catholic Answers as a customer service representative and general jill-of-all-trades, both as a volunteer and staff member, since 1997. (For the record, I was officially hired in April 2000, promoted to staff apologist in October 2003.) I left Catholic Answers at the end of June 2020.
I wrote briefly for Patheos as a Catholic columnist in 2015 and am delighted that they welcomed me back to the fold. I look forward to contributing here again.
What does an “apologist” do, you might be wondering? In addition to engaging clients in conversations about the Catholic faith by phone, email, and online, I wrote for Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, contributed three booklets to their “20 Answers” series (on witchcraft and the occult, Judaism, and the New Age—which gives you some idea of my interests), and I contributed to Catholic Answers’ product development by editing, proofreading, and holding people back from committing inadvertent heresy.
Now I’m a freelance writer and editor. If I commit inadvertent heresy, no one is holding me back.
You may also be wondering how a call center rep rises to the hallowed position of Catholic apologist. It’s a question I’ve received many times over the years, mainly from people suspicious of the orthodoxy of the information I was giving them (at their request) about the Catholic faith. While I usually chose not to answer the question when it was asked for the purpose of impeaching my work, I did share my story when I thought it would encourage Catholics to learn their faith. The “too long, didn’t read” version is that I studied Catholicism on my own; Catholic Answers promoted me to staff apologist when they determined that I had knowledge of the faith equivalent to someone who holds a master’s degree in Catholic theology.
*grumble, grumble* “Are you going to answer my question or not?”
Back to the original question. “What’s it like, being a female Catholic apologist in a field dominated by men?”
For the most part, my job was no different than that of my male colleagues. We all worked together to research and provide information on the Catholic faith for clients of Catholic Answers. Back in the early aughts, when the Internet was still shiny-new, we talked to people on the phone and sent them materials through documents attached to email and through the Postal Service. (Support the USPS!) Later, we connected with clients through online platforms, including discussion forums on Catholic Answers’ web site and through the burgeoning social media. (Fun factoid: I was the one who proposed to Catholic Answers’ webmaster, at the time, that Catholic Answers needed a Facebook page. Catholic Answers’ social media presence grew from there.)
But it’s undoubtedly the case that it was much harder for me to be taken seriously as a Catholic apologist than it was for my male colleagues. First, there were the people demanding my credentials to act as an apologist. Keep in mind that Catholic apologetics is a discipline that many Catholics take up as an avocation, building audiences for their apologetics work through social media and self-constructed hobby sites. Some of them have become well-known and respected in the field, even though they’ve never worked, as I did, in a professional capacity for a Catholic apologetics apostolate.
And then there were the times when my online articles stirred controversy.
In 2013, I answered a question on Catholic Answers’ “Ask an Apologist” forum from a woman who was fighting with her husband over whether her sister, a lesbian in a same-sex marriage, should be allowed into their home. Since the couple didn’t disagree about the morality of homosexuality or the status of same-sex marriage, I focused on the personal issue of marital discord. Since being a professional apologist doesn’t make me an expert in mediating marital strife, I recommended to the woman that she and her husband seek marital counseling.
Months later, I found out that this Q&A had caught the attention of a hobby blogger who uses the pseudonym of Mundabor. He was outraged that I’d suggested a married couple seek counseling, accused me of interfering in this couple’s marriage, called me a “feminist b**ch,” and demanded that his readers “fight against feminism and b**chiness, even when it is in disguise of ‘Catholicism.'” For good measure, he recommended to my employer that I needed “a very good rapping before she is kicked out.” Evidently, I continued to live rent-free in his head because, the following year, he ranted again about another essay of mine. This time, he paused long enough to take a look at my profile photo and then described me as “an overweight hyena” and a “bitchy cat,” creepily likening himself to a “good bitchy-cat chasing fictional Catholic Dobermann [sic].”
*sigh* “Clearly, that dude is a troll, Michelle. Surely you were taken seriously as a Catholic apologist by people who don’t hide behind pseudonyms.”
I’ve had the dubious pleasure of a couple of interactions with Christopher Ferrara and Michael Matt of the Traditionalist Catholic periodical, The Remnant. Ferrara found a couple of old blog posts I wrote on Catholic Traditionalism for my colleague Jimmy Akin’s blog and mistakenly attributed the blog posts to Jimmy in an online article for The Remnant. I contacted Ferrara to let him know that I’d written those posts, assuming he’d correct the attribution. Ferrara refused to change the attribution, directing me to go ask Jimmy to contact him, presumably so the men could work out this snafu between them. He then published his own blog post, referring to me as “someone named Michelle Arnold” and calling into question whether I’d told the truth in claiming the blog posts as my own work.
But I do have to give Ferrara credit for one thing—he recognized me as a human being. The following year, his colleague, Matt, referred to me as “something called Michelle Arnold” in a YouTube webcast.
“That sounds rough. But now that you’re out on your own, trying to build your reputation as a writer and editor on social media, things will change!”
It’s too soon to tell, but I’m not confident that 17 years’ experience as a professional Catholic apologist will make a difference in how I’m perceived as a woman in “a man’s field.”
In preparing to leap back into blogging for Patheos, I created a Twitter account and have started dipping my toes into the ocean of Catholic Twitter. The other day, I pointed out to Steve Skojec, founder of OnePeterFive, that he should read the article he was tweeting about before commenting on a Catholic woman featured in that article, who, as it happened, was deceased.
He responded, “It’s nice to see you’re back in the trolling game, Michelle. You’ll have to forgive me for being disinterested.”
When a man points out to a woman that she has made a mistake, he’s just explaining. When a woman does the same thing for a man, she’s trolling.
Nevertheless, I persist.
(Images: Author headshot, Mae Wolfe Photography. Tweet, screenshot from Twitter.)