Kill the Cat Apologetics

Kill the Cat Apologetics April 29, 2021

I like to say that I became a professional Catholic apologist by “on the job training.” In addition to continuing education in the faith, I also started out working under the supervision of a manager at Catholic Answers.

For the first six months or so after I was promoted to staff apologist, my manager double-checked the answers I wrote in response to clients on Catholic Answers’ platforms and reviewed everything I submitted for publication. For the most part, I learned a great deal from my manager and many of the lessons she taught me in those early days shaped my entire career at Catholic Answers. But we did have occasional disagreements.

On one memorable occasion, my manager called me into her office to talk with me about an answer I’d posted on the discussion forums site. A client had submitted a question in which she detailed how frustrated she was with her cat, who was presenting significant behavioral problems that were disrupting the client’s life. Would it be a sin, the client wanted to know, if she just took the cat to a veterinarian and had it euthanized? In my answer, I addressed the issue of what the Church teaches about euthanasia for animals (it’s permitted), but I also urged the client to try to resolve her pet’s behavioral problems in a less drastic way (e.g., first consulting with the vet about behavior modification) before resorting to killing the cat.

No, this wasn’t an acceptable response, I was told. I needed to revise my answer immediately and edit out everything except the Church’s teaching on animal euthanasia. “Am I supposed to tell this woman she can just kill her cat?” I asked incredulously. Indeed, that was what I was supposed to do. I went back to my office and cried as I edited that response, knowing that my words were giving someone permission to give into her frustration with an innocent animal and snuff out its life, rather than take the time and effort to find a more humane solution.

A couple of weeks later, once that Q&A was no longer on my manager’s radar, I quietly dumped the post into a hidden archive on the site. I didn’t want it in a public forum anymore, where it could potentially be pulled up in Google searches and give other pet owners permission to euthanize their animals without due regard for the animal’s life.

After that, whenever I’d see an article or Q&A in which an apologist gave the bare teaching of the Church—stripped of any concern for individual circumstances, larger context, or consequences in the lives of others—I thought of it as Kill the Cat Apologetics.

I was reminded of Kill the Cat Apologetics when I read through a recent online brouhaha over Catholic Answers’ decision to publish an article on justifications for divorce and abortion by Leila Miller. According to Miller, a Catholic pundit on family issues, “the arguments for divorce are the same as the arguments for abortion.” She then ticked off seven arguments given to justify abortion that she claimed are also used to justify divorce.

Now, to be absolutely fair, her article isn’t entirely without merit. It’s true, for example, that “hard cases” often arise in discussions of both abortion and divorce. People do want to know if abortion is acceptable in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother. And, yes, they also want to know if a person has to stay married to an abusive spouse. Rather than acknowledging that both abortion and divorce often arise in difficult circumstances, leading to hard cases, Miller assumes that anyone who is unconvinced by “excellent responses” to those concerns is merely “trying to shut down debate on these issues to promote the status quo.”

This gives you some idea of Miller’s rhetorical style. In another point, Miller claims “I heard an abortionist once explain that she felt as if she was giving women their ‘freedom’ when she killed their unborn children.” I wasn’t privy to the conversation, but I’d be willing to lay down serious money on a bet that the doctor Miller encountered never said “she killed … unborn children.” I have little doubt the intemperate reference to killing unborn children is Miller’s gloss on what was said.

Naturally, the article sparked outrage on social media. On Catholic Answers’ Facebook page, commenters took issue with the claims made in the article, with Miller’s apologetics style, and with Catholic Answers’ choice to publish the article. The discussion was long and wide-ranging, with Miller joining the conversation to respond to commenters. One exchange caught my eye, which captured well not only the disconnect between Miller and her readers but Kill the Cat Apologetics in a nutshell.

A commenter wrote, “What kind of message are we sending to Christ’s flock who have been divorced? What’s the author’s intention behind this article?” Miller responded, “The intention is to tell the truth (the Church’s job), not to make people feel good. Can you tell me what part of the article is in error? Specifically?”

Is the message of this article helpful or harmful to those most affected by the arguments made? What does the author intend here? That’s what the reader wanted to know. She noted that she’s a happily married woman, but she’s concerned for those who have been through divorce. Miller dismisses the reader’s concern, equating concern for the welfare of others with “mak[ing] people feel good.” For good measure, she suggests that she’s doing “the Church’s job” (which, in my professional experience, I can say would be an inappropriate presumption for an apologist). Then Miller asks her reader, “Can you tell me what part of the article is in error?” with the implication being that an absence of error would prove Miller right and her critics wrong.

A few days later, Miller wrote a follow-up article for her personal blog, in which she ruminated over the question of “Do Catholics still want to know the truth?” Catholic Answers was deemed to be “courageous” in publishing her essay. No explanation was forthcoming as to why publishing the article was particularly brave. Trust me, in my two decades there, I saw CA publish far more controversial articles, one of which triggered enough of a backlash that I was assigned to write a rebuttal on the apostolate’s own site.

All that seemed to matter to Miller was that “no one disputed my thesis or even tried. However, many people disliked a strawman subtext of my first point, and the outrage about the piece started and ended right there, thus perfectly proving my point.” Many commenters disputed Miller’s tone, her choice to equate divorce with abortion, the apparent lack of concern for people affected by her message. But Miller’s entire focus was that she is “careful to use official sources from the universal Church, and I’ve had canon lawyers/tribunal judges vet the most controversial things.”

Although I haven’t called it out by name before now, I’ve written extensively about the dangers of Kill the Cat Apologetics. In fact, the last essay I wrote for Catholic Answers’ online magazine was about the necessity to keep truth and love in constant balance, and in fact to give priority to love. In that essay, I wrote, “If someone was vulnerable, or in danger, or hurting, or repentant, or ill, or humble, Jesus didn’t pull out the rhetorical hammer and bash him over the head with his sins.” I also said:

Even in cases where Jesus knew ahead of time that he was going to take away the cause of suffering for someone, he first entered into the suffering with the afflicted persons. The very word compassion is taken from Latin roots that mean to “suffer with,” and Jesus suffered with those who suffered.

Kill the Cat Apologetics strips away love, it eradicates the necessity for compassion. To the extent it presents truth, it makes that truth both unlovable and unlivable. And, in so doing, it pushes people away from Christ and his Church, which is the very opposite of what an apologist is supposed to be doing.

(Image: Cat, Pixabay.)

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