The Apologists’ Rule

In his autobiography, The Church and I, Frank Sheed explained how the London-based Catholic Evidence Guild trained its members to explain the faith with clarity and patience in the face of often hostile crowds that gathered weekly at Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner.
“Our lectures usually took about 15 minutes,” he wrote,

and in the rest of the hour the crowd questioned us. Upon the papacy and Church history generally we had week after week, year after year, as unsparing a viva voce examination as has been known in the world—every charge ever brought against a pope was leered at us, sneered at us. And from the beginning we were bound to the strictest honesty—there must be no bluffing or sidestepping. If we did not know the facts we must say so. We must find them out and tell them to the questioner at the next meeting.

Here Sheed gives what I consider the apologist’s primary rule. It also is his primary strength. The apologist must be transparent and relentlessly honest. The most effective apologist is the one who can say, with unfeigned alacrity, “I don’t know”—provided he adds, “but I will find out and get back to you with the answer.”
No questioner, no matter how antagonistic to the faith, expects omniscience on the part of a Catholic apologist, and no apologist will lose points by admitting ignorance on this matter or that. (If he is ignorant about too many matters, though, listeners will turn away.) A freshman apologist might worry that by saying “I don’t know” he undercuts his persuasiveness. Perhaps, to a small degree, but that is more than compensated for by promising to “look it up” and then—of utmost importance—actually getting back to the questioner.
The non-Catholic will be impressed not so much by the answer as by the fact that the apologist took the time to do some homework for him. This small charity will induce the questioner to think, “There must be more to the Catholic faith than I suspected, if this fellow went out of his way to find an answer for a stranger.” The apologist might lose a little public face, but the Church stands to gain a convert. It’s a more-than-fair trade.
Sheed noted that

the crowds forced a general intellectual and specifically theological development not to be had elsewhere. One had to examine every doctrine—not only to answer the questioners, but to relate Christ’s revelation to their appallingly various natures, in order that they might discover unrealized needs in themselves and find those needs met in Christ. Very early we learned that we could not meet their depths with our shallows.

That last sentence should be engraved on a plaque found on each apologist’s desk, whether he engages in public speaking or works exclusively at the keyboard. An apologist without depth is an apologist who will be tempted to talk for victory, to show himself right and the other fellow wrong. “If you talk for victory,” said Sheed, “sooner or later you will cheat. You may not actually lie, but you will be tempted to shade such facts as might seem to weaken your case, soft-pedal them, divert the discussion away from them.”
Over the years I have known apologists who thought winning was the key. In terms of raw facts, they knew their stuff, but to them every fact was a hammer and every questioner a nail. I am reminded of one such apologist who, in an unguarded moment, admitted that he never had made a convert. Small wonder. The facts, no matter how true, will not settle in minds that have been bludgeoned. No matter how hostile the non-Catholic questioner, he needs to be seen as someone with depths of his own, and his depths need to be addressed by our depths—and by our charity.

Karl Keating is founder and senior fellow at Catholic Answers. He is the author of seven books, including his most recent, The New Geocentrists and The Ultimate Catholic Quiz. His books Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe have been...

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 1.