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The Apologetics of 1915

This year marks the centenary of a rethinking of Catholic apologetics that most Catholic apologists have never heard of.

Some Thoughts on Catholic Apologetics was published in London in 1915. The author was E. I. Watkin. Born in 1888, he converted in 1908 and died in 1981. He was a long-time friend of historian Christopher Dawson and wrote and translated many books.

I first came across Watkin’s name when I got an abridged version of the book for which he is best known, The Catholic Center (1932). Written for Anglicans and others who were searching for the elusive via media, the book informed them that what they were looking for actually was the Catholic Church. Watkin invited non-Catholic readers to make the same discovery he had made.

If The Catholic Center is not well known today (and it isn’t), Some Thoughts on Catholic Apologetics might be classified as entirely forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

It is the earliest book I know of that tries to re-think the art of apologetics to make it more accessible to the modern man. To Watkin, dry, abstract approaches used during the Victorian era no longer were serviceable. They not only weren’t winning hearts—they weren’t even winning minds. The world had changed too much for the old methods to persuade a wide enough swath of people.

Watkin’s critique of the world in which his fellow apologists found themselves could have been written today: “Instead of a Christian civilization, and a political and social fabric essentially bound up with, and resting upon, Christian belief, we find a civilization as pagan as it was in Rome.”

That is how he saw the England of a century ago, as World War I began its inexorable grind. But Watkin was no pessimist: “Yet we need not despair for the future, nor confine our hopes (as many Catholics do, either explicitly or implicitly) to the saving of a small remnant”—counsel against a tendency that is as prevalent in the Church today as it was then. The Church will prevail, even if we may not be around to exult in the victory.

In recent months I have been giving a lecture about the coming end of our civilization and what we ought to do in preparation, particularly in terms of passing along our intellectual and spiritual patrimony. Watkin had similar thoughts, saying, “However great may be the growth of infidelity, the Catholic can watch it without fear for the future. . . . He must be prepared to offer to humanity, when once again the religious need, the hunger for the infinite God, is fully awakened within it, that truth which God has himself provided, that food which alone can really satisfy the hunger.”

The West’s problem in Watkin’s time, as in our time, came largely from a failure of thought. “This is not an age of first-rate men in any department of intellectual life. Rather it is an age rich in second-rate men, like the Roman Empire in the second century.”

The Roman Empire was able to stagger along for three more centuries, finally expiring, in the West, in 476. You can last a long time with second-rate thinkers, but you miss the advantages that come to a society that is blessed with many first-rate thinkers. What happens, though, when even the second-rate thinkers become scarce and you end up, for example, with Congress? (This is a tangent that I will leave for another time.)

Watkin argued that, in the modern world, “our part is surely not so much controversy with error as interpretation of our own beliefs.” He noted that “St. Paul on the Areopagus lost no time in an attack on the polytheism of the Greeks; he merely made known to the people the God they ignorantly worshipped as the almighty and all-bountiful Father who revealed himself in Jesus and raised him from the dead.”

This is not to say that in Paul’s time or Watkin’s or ours that responding to error isn’t important, but it is not of primary importance. More important is the proclamation of the faith to a world that hasn’t heard it in any comprehensible or convincing way. Watkin calls this “interpretation,” by which he means application of the faith “to the speculations of modern thought—an explanation of its bearing on modern problems, ideas, philosophies, and scientific hypotheses—its use as the standard or rule by which the results of modern thought are to be judged, and the true elements in modern speculation distinguished from the false.”  

Watkin thought the Catholic argument was put poorly in his own time. “Any candid man must admit that the writings of unbelievers often possess an earnestness, a depth, a reality which is lacking in very many Catholic writings and sermons.”

Surveying what the average Englishman had served up to him with breakfast in 1915, Watkin said, “You will scarcely read a single number of The Times or Morning Post without finding some article or letter on matters theological which is simply an outrage to the rationality supposed to be the distinctive attribute of the human species.” Drop out the names of the two London newspapers and put “Internet” and “blogs” in their places, and you have the same situation today. Whatever progress apologetics has made, we have a long way to go.

The challenges facing apologetics in 1915 are remarkably like those facing it in 2015. Is the faith being attacked by the New Atheists? The Old Atheists of a century ago used nearly identical language. The New Atheists seem new only because everyone who knew the Old Atheists has died off. Does religion seem useless in a world of random terrorism and growing political hatreds? It seemed that way to many who found themselves living in trenches in 1915 and the years following.

Some Thoughts on Catholic Apologetics is proof of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It is also a reminder that apologists must not become complacent, thinking that arguments that worked yesterday will work as well tomorrow. Even if problems recur from one generation to the next, or from one century to the next, answers to them need to be refreshed to take into account changing mindsets and preoccupations.

If we fail to do that, we fail.


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