Someone once asked me to explain the difference between an apologist and a theologian. This person was considering a career as one or the other and needed a distinction to be made:
I am graduate student of theology and I was reading some of your posts and articles about professional apologists. I was wondering if you could give me some exact details about the differences between apologists and theologians. I ask this because while in your various articles you mention that while a degree is theology can be helpful for being an apologist it is not necessary.
As a somewhat rough analogy, the difference between an apologist and a theologian is like the difference between a science teacher and a scientist: Just as a science teacher explains science and a scientist develops our understanding of science, an apologist explains and defends what is known about the Faith while a theologian explores the Faith and seeks to expand upon what is known about the Faith. What that can mean in practical terms is that while a theologian should be prepared to act as an apologist, an apologist need not be a theologian.
I was eager to dispel what I saw as a common misconception: Many Catholics, perhaps because they are not familiar with the term apologist, tend to confuse apologists with theologians. Unless someone who acts as an apologist also happens to have professional training in theology, usually at the doctoral level (Scott Hahn would be one example of an apologist-theologian), an apologist emphatically is not a theologian.
Nonetheless, that does not mean that apologists do not explore the faith, at least on an amateur level. We can also mature in how we present the Faith to others.
As an example, let’s look at two answers to similar questions that I have written over the last nine years of answering questions on the Ask an Apologist forum at the Catholic Answers Forums. In 2005, I was asked about “luxurious living” and responded:
Luxurious living can be an occasion of sin, but it is not necessarily sinful in and of itself. For example, if one was so preoccupied with accumulating material goods that one neglected to meet responsibilities or to share one’s largesse with those in need, such a situation could be sinful. But if, as another example, having five homes allowed one to share one’s property with those in need of lovely surroundings, such as converting the home into a hostel for church youth groups or into a retreat center for consecrated religious and laity, it wouldn’t be wrong to own more than one home. Even if one used all of the homes oneself—such as when business in the particular location was necessary—it isn’t inherently sinful to own more than one needs.This doesn’t mean that someone blessed with so much wealth shouldn’t share it with those in poverty. Indeed, St. Basil liked to say that the extra, unused clothes a person owns “belong” to the poor (in the sense that they should be given to those in need). But the mere fact of owning a lot of wealth is not sinful, and we should charitably presume that those blessed with such riches are privately sharing their bounty with the needy.
Years later, the question surfaced again, this time with the inquirer citing the earlier answer I had given:
I have referred my friend to Catholic apologist Michelle Arnold’s question-and-answer on how luxurious living is not sinful in and of itself, but my friend does not feel this adequately explains away the above quote from St. Basil. She is driving herself crazy with her fear. She has now begun to worry that having any excess food in the fridge at all is sinful, because as St. Basil says, “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man.”
This time I responded:
It sounds to me like your friend might be suffering from scrupulosity and really should consult with a spiritual director or confessor experienced in dealing with scrupulosity. Since the root of scrupulosity for many people often can be obsessive-compulsive disorder, she may also want to get a referral from her doctor to a therapist. That is the answer for her, and I do not recommend talking with her further about her fears until she is evaluated and receives from spiritual experts and medical professionals any assistance she needs from them.To you, though, I would say that these days I would revise that answer I wrote years ago. While it is not incorrect, I believe today that the emphasis was too strong on the idea that there is nothing wrong with owning a lot of material goods. I would still say today that material goods are not themselves sinful, and certainly your friend’s idea that she should empty her bank account and her refrigerator or she’ll go to hell is overwrought. But the emphasis I believe should be on evaluating whether or not material goods are truly needed and, if not, where they might be better put to use.St. Basil was not saying that someone should deprive himself of necessities. But he was also strongly warning Christians that they must take care not to deprive others of necessities. Many a saint was formed in the school of material and spiritual poverty. Not one saint was formed in the school of laissez-faire capitalism and conspicuous consumption.
Which answer was correct? In a certain sense, they both were correct. But the second answer reflects more thought on the subject over the succeeding years.
One danger in apologetics is assuming there is only one answer to every question of faith and morals, and once that answer is learned to repeat it without variation to all comers. In reality, we have to leave room for growth in the Faith; we have to be willing to admit that a previous answer might not be the best possible answer that could have been given; sometimes we might have to admit we made a mistake. In a blog post I once wrote on Benedict XVI for Jimmy Akin’s blog (yes, it is my post; the byline is incorrect):
[To] be at the service of the Truth is to admit the possibility of being wrong. Without an ability to acknowledge when we are in error—or that it is even possible that we might err—we will never grow in Truth. We’ll have only that Truth about which we are sure that we’re right and no more.
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