By God’s grace, resources for apologists abound today. Thanks to the remote efforts of people like Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Frank Sheed, and G. K. Chesterton—and the more proximate efforts of people like Karl Keating, Michael Coren, and Patrick Madrid—Catholics can no longer complain that there’s a shortage of materials. On the contrary, the available information is an embarrassment of riches.
That’s on the information side. What about formation? It’s one thing to know that the Bible points toward the papacy (and away from sola scriptura) and quite another to grow in virtue as you share your faith with people who are less than interested or who are openly hostile.
Who are these difficult people? I suggest there are two basic types: family members and close friends who may be open to hearing about the Faith, and ideologues who are dead set against the whole idea. The former are too close, the latter too far, so to speak. This latter group would include atheists, Calvinists (or fundamentalists of another stripe), and lapsed Catholics.
Catholic Answers has done more than any other apostolate to help Catholics explain and defend the Faith. And there are no shortcuts: You simply must be committed to growing in knowledge and apologetics “chops.”
All well and good. But orthodoxy is not enough.
Did he just say orthodoxy is not enough? Yes, and here’s what I mean: right belief (the root origin of the word) is necessary but not sufficient. So you assent to the historic creeds and you accept the whole of magisterial teaching. Congratulations. But are you also a bit of a jerk? As the King James renders it, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”
In addition to belief is behavior, better known as giving good witness.
When dealing with difficult people, I recommend keeping the following three tips in mind. Trust me when I tell you these are mainly the fruit of my own many mistakes and missteps in my (scandalously slow) growth as an apologist.
1. People love good people more than good arguments. I know this sticks in the craw of many intellectually minded Catholics, because they think it implies some kind of pietism or emotionalism. It doesn’t. When you’re trying to connect with someone who’s essentially resistant to the message, you have to find ammunition that has more going for it than logic and doctrinal accuracy. Not to dismiss the role of logic or of doctrinal accuracy—they are vital to any work of apologetics. But people crave living witnesses of the message we’re trying to get across to them. You can reject the theology of Mother Teresa if you want. But it’s kind of hard to reject Mother Teresa.
In October, 1974, Venerable Paul VI gave an address to the members of a group called the Consilium de Laicis that included the following statement: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” This line appeared a year later in his masterful Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (No. 41). In fact, that exhortation returns again and again to the theme of personal witness. When a pope uses a word thirty-six times in one document, as Paul VI does with witness, we should listen up.
The Holy Father is emphasing something both philosophically and psychologically true; namely, that the human heart is moved by what moves, not merely by what informs. Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “The medium is the message” shines with added brightness here. Just like in Spousal Communication 101, when evangelizing, it’s not the what, it’s the way. And, in this context, the who. Of course, you need the theological foundation and a modicum of apologetics skill. But this is the beginning, not the end.
2. We’re all bruised reeds. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Is. 42:3). This is hugely important for the budding evangelist to keep in mind. For there is such a thing as being annoyingly Catholic, i.e., unable to read the room coupled with a proneness to catechism-thumping and ill-timed preaching. Ian Maclaren (the pseudonym of Rev. John Watson) once wrote, “Be kind to everyone you meet because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Sometimes, a kind word in the face of an angry correspondant has more legs than witty repartee drawn from the Summa. “A gentle answer turns away wrath,” as Proverbs 15:1 puts it.
When St. Paul begins his famous catalogue of the qualities of love in 1 Corinthians, the Holy Spirit inspired him to put “patient” at the head of the list. Does anyone think this was an accident?
3. To someone else, we’re difficult. I know, this is not good news. I include it because it’s true. ‘Nuff said.