One of my favorite features in Reader's Digest is "Secrets Your [insert service provider] Won't Tell You." Whether the service provider is your waiter, plumber, landscape architect, human resource manager, Little League coach, veterinarian, or congressman, this feature offers sometimes helpful, sometimes outrageous glimpses into their jobs. You can learn a lot about how to approach these people in the most effective ways to get the services you either need or desire. Why do they keep these tidbits "secret," to be released only in anonymous fashion to a Reader's Digest writer? Probably because we live in a hypersensitive society in which those who deal with the public on a regular basis fear being frank with the public.
I've been wondering what kind of list apologists might assemble should a magazine feature writer come knocking and ask what secrets of the trade apologists won't tell the public. But then I realized that many apologists often are transparent with the public about our jobs. Here at Catholic Answers, we're trained to provide necessary caveats as part of the service. So I decided to gather together the most common examples.
We don't know everything about the Catholic Faith. When you call Catholic Answers to ask your apologetics question, most of the time you will be asked to leave a voicemail for one of the apologists. One reason for that request is because we probably do not know the answer to your question off the top of our head. We often need time to research and then think about how we are going to discuss the answer with you.
In fact, sometimes we don't know the answer to your question. Many of the questions we receive are not about how many children the Blessed Virgin had, or the scriptural evidence for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or the pope's infallibility. People usually have personal issues—such as a child who declares he is homosexual, or a spouse who demands a divorce, or a doctor who insists a Catholic patient be on contraception. Or they have obscure questions that require specialized research—such as a desire to know exactly how many seminarians there were in the United States in 1937, or when their Catholic ancestor passed through Ellis Island, or the name of the saint depicted in a mystery statue in their church. This is when we must say to inquirers, "I am so sorry, but this is outside our area of expertise. Please allow me to refer you to an apostolate or agency that may be able to assist you."
Nota bene: Both of these facts about apologetics work—that we don't know everything about the Faith and may not know the answer to your question—should be consoling to you. When you receive questions about the Faith from people in your own life that you can't answer right away, you too can ask for time to research or confess your ignorance and help people find others who can answer their question.
You don't need a degree in theology to do our job. No doubt, a degree in theology helps, and some apologists go back to school to obtain one. But it is not strictly necessary. All that is necessary is a willingness to learn the Faith and how to apply it to concerns Catholics have about the Faith.
In my own case, I am a prolific reader. When I became Catholic in 1996, I had little religious education. I was fortunate to live in the same diocese as Catholic Answers, and started volunteering here the same year I entered the Church. Since I worked in the shipping department, I had the opportunity to borrow back issues of This Rock and many other materials about the Catholic Faith. I also made the time to offer to help out other departments. I became the go-to person for customer service and for the apologists in locating an old article in This Rock that they needed for an inquirer. When I offered my ability to proofread to the editorial department, I also made note of apologetics problems I found in manuscripts. Eventually I was offered a job in customer service, and a few years later I was given a chance to apprentice in the apologetics department.
Is it possible for others to take the route I did into apologetics? Certainly. You may not live in San Diego and be able to volunteer for Catholic Answers, but there is likely an apostolate in your area that would appreciate volunteers. Even if it is not directly devoted to apologetics, an apostolate focused on other projects often does need volunteers who know their Faith and can apply it to the work the apostolate does. Ask your pastor for suggestions.
You do need to have or to develop a moderate temperament. In other words, crusaders need not apply. Catholic apologetics is often defined as "explaining and defending the Catholic Faith." Unfortunately, the word in that definition that often gets overemphasized is defending. And there are fellow laborers in the field who like to see themselves as knights-errant heading out on crusade against the infidels.
But that is a misconception of what apologists do. Peter Kreeft, a well-known Catholic philosopher who has authored many apologetics books, once likened apologetics to street sweeping. Street sweepers often do their work in the early hours of the morning, long before the hustle and bustle of the new day. They take out the garbage and remove obstacles from pathways. Once in a while, they may argue with bureaucrats who are making their jobs more difficult, but their work is mostly anonymous.
Which leads us to the final three points. . . .
We tend to shy away from controversy. The Internet brouhahas you hear about are rare occurrences. Most of the time, we anonymize those whose positions we dispute precisely because we don't want controversy or hard feelings. When we occasionally do break our own rule there, we learn why the rule was created. Last year I wrote an article for Catholic Answers Magazine about yoga. For the most part, the article was well-received and many told me it was helpful. But I did not anonymize fellow laborers in the field whose critiques of yoga I needed to critique. At the time, there seemed no way to make the critique without naming names. The result was controversy and hard feelings. If I had it to do over again, I'd find a way to anonymize persons so as to avoid the controversy and hard feelings.
We hate being treated like celebrities. And, all too often, we are treated like celebrities in some Catholic circles—an occupational hazard apologists must try to avoid at all costs. I once wrote a blog post on this issue.
There's also the problem of "celebrity." In a celebrity culture, anyone who has been published, heard on radio, or seen on television runs the risk of being recognized. It's a risk, because the temptation that fits hand-in-glove with recognition is adulation. Adulation runs a spectrum of intensity and is not always deeply felt by the admirer, who may only feel a mild jolt of pleasure at meeting a person whose work he has followed. The greater danger is for the one who is on the receiving end. For the recipient, any adulation at all can go to his head.
So how does the apologist recognize when the praise of an admirer needs to be put into perspective? I think it is precisely when the focus is on the self. The caller who is thrilled to talk to you (as distinguished from being pleased to speak to any apologist), the well-meaning friend who thinks you know "everything," the prestigious person who singles you out of a crowd of people to whom he is being introduced. That's when the apologist must take a deep breath, send up a prayer to the Holy Spirit, and offer tactful demurrals.
We don't often see the fruit of our labor. In my own experience, I've received just one such confirmation that something I said helped someone toward conversion. And I had to smile when I learned of it, because in that instance I had not intended to be helpful.
There once was an atheist who ran a popular blog. He had a habit of visiting theist blogs and leaving snarky comments. At the time, I had my own little blog that was intended more for sharpening my own writing skills than for engaging in debate. When a Hollywood movie legend known for being an avowed atheist died, I wrote a eulogy for this person. This atheist dropped into the post's comment box to ask me to write a eulogy for him before he died. He was being his usual snarky self, and I was annoyed. So I wrote a brief post titled "RIP" with his pseudonym and said, "Here we bury our dearly departed friend, [his pseudonym]. He is now a new man in Christ." On the word here I linked to Colossians 2:12. Then, feeling slightly guilty about my snarkiness, I added, "Please, Lord, may it one day be so."
Years later, I was thrilled to hear that this person had become Christian. I wrote to him, noting that he might not remember me, but that we had exchanged words in the past and I wanted to congratulate him on his conversion. He wrote back, saying, "Of course I remember you!" He went on to explain that while there were many other factors in his conversion, that little post of mine had touched his heart in a way that stayed with him.
I could only shake my head in wonder at how God uses cracked vessels as conduits of grace.