One of Catholic Answers' many outreach projects is the Catholic Answers Forums (CAF), started in 2004 as a discussion forums site. As a staff apologist, I have helped to answer questions in the staff's Ask an Apologist forum, so I'm on CAF regularly. Recently, the forums have been hosting a fundraising drive to raise necessary funds to keep the forums going. In glancing through an appeal letter sent to members, I noticed this testimonial from a satisfied participant:
I'm an atheist, and at first I expected this whole website to be filled with bigoted opinions or ignorant "facts," but you guys here obviously have PhDs in something. Instead of ignoring facts like typical "Christian" debaters, you guys actually answered the questions. Wow! I'm impressed with your intelligence, and I've gained insights here.
When this quote was brought to the attention of CAF's administrator, she noted that favorable reactions like this from non-Catholics and non-Christians are not uncommon. Since the site's beginning, CAF has seen vigorous participation from non-Catholics, non-Christians, non-theists, even polytheists and pagans, and from people across the spectrum of political and cultural thought. Some remain where they are but leave with a heightened respect for having been treated hospitably, but with others it has not been uncommon to see minds and hearts changed. There have been conversions and reversions, including by Catholics within the Church who have been in disagreement with the Church on points of doctrine or morals.
After learning about these successes, I was surprised to find out that they may in part be explained by a guiding principle of the forums' staff that has been somewhat controversial. CAF is run like a community, in which all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are welcome to participate and share their opinions, whether or not they agree with the Church's doctrinal or moral teaching. All that is required is civility and a willingness to cooperate with the staff when friction arises. CAF's Statement of Purpose says:
The Catholic Answers Forums (CAF) exists to provide a community for Catholics and non-Catholics of all levels of interest in and/or commitment to the Catholic Church where they may gather on the Internet for discussion in a safe and charitable environment. We do not require that members agree with the Catholic Church in order to participate; only that they remain charitable in their postings.
We provide forums for discussion of various viewpoints within and outside of Christianity; some of the forums that reflect such wide points of view are Traditional Catholicism, Eastern Catholicism, and Non-Catholic Religions. While many who gather in these forums are faithful Catholics, CAF members (Catholic or otherwise) are free to discuss issues of interest to them, even though some of those issues are not entirely in line with the Church's understanding of Christianity.
We feel that by allowing discussion of issues of concern for Catholics and non-Catholics, CAF is not endorsing those issues that are contrary to Church teachings but allowing members to discuss those issues amongst themselves. Any member confused on a point of Church doctrine is welcome to submit a question to the Ask an Apologist forum (AAA forum protocol information) or to contact Catholic Answers directly.
If an individual member or guest finds that the reading of and/or participation in a particular forum is disturbing to his spiritual peace, we encourage you to visit one of the many other forums we offer, each of which has its own character and ambience. Topics as diverse as the people who post here appear on our boards, and we hope that you will find one suited to your interests and needs.
CAF's staff has fielded numerous emails over the years from Catholics concerned about this policy. They want to know why apologists do not comment on threads in which contrary opinions are expressed to state the Church's teaching on the subject. They worry that readers will be misled about what the Church's position is. They want their own questions about the Faith answered without having to sift through the opinions of non-Catholics who disagree with the Church or of Catholics who are not well-catechized in their faith. They wonder why the Catholic Answers Forums are not just for Catholics wholly orthodox and obedient to the Church.
These are not insignificant concerns, and there is certainly a need for more places on and off the Internet where Catholics can learn their Faith. A case can be made for the creation of some websites that can cater exclusively to the Catholic community. But that is not the purpose of the Catholic Answers Forums. CAF's purpose is to welcome people wherever they are on their journey of faith and provide them companionship for that journey. In doing so, Catholic Answers is taking to heart the exhortations of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, who recently said:
Your fidelity to the Church still needs you to stand strong against the hypocrisies that result from a closed and sick heart. But your main task isn't to build walls but bridges. It is to establish a dialogue with all persons, even those who don't share the Christian faith but who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit [and even with] those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. . . . Through dialogue it is always possible to get closer to the truth, which is a gift of God, and to enrich one another.
Our pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, often speculated that the Church might have to become smaller and purer in the years ahead, no longer holding on to institutions that have parted ways with the Church on matters of doctrine and morals. Despite the misinterpretations of many—on both left and right—who thought Benedict meant that this purification would mean sacrificing people for orthodoxy, I think his vision of what might lay ahead is in line with Pope Francis's call to send the Church out into the world.
Think of the Twelve, the little band of men strengthened and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News. They were few in number and uncompromising in their faith, to the point of martyrdom for that faith, but they preached the gospel, cared for the needy, and took Jesus Christ to the ends of the known world. They started out in an upper room, fearful of those who would oppose them, but they eventually found their way to outposts in Europe, Asia, and Africa, where they built new churches to carry forward their work.
Please, be men of the frontier, with that qualification that comes from God. In today's world, which is subject to quick changes and is shaken by questions of great importance for the life of faith, it is urgent to have a courageous commitment to educating a convinced and mature faith that is capable of giving meaning to life and of giving convincing answers to those in search of God. This means sustaining the Church's activity in all the areas of her mission. ... Be strong! I'm sure I can count on you (Pope Francis).