Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously remarked that “there are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.” He penned this observation many decades ago, but today the problem of mass religious ignorance—and the spiritual indifference it causes—is worse than ever.
How can we evangelize this apathy-ridden culture?
A long-term solution to the problem of religious indifference begins in the home, in the context of the family. Christian parents have a responsibility not only to teach their children about the Faith (and how to pray) but to familiarize them with common objections to Christian beliefs and teach them how to respond. They must also teach their children how to think, emphasizing the Church’s deep reverence for science and reason—and reason’s intimate compatibility with faith. Crede, ut intelligas wrote St. Augustine: “Believe, so that you may understand.”
But the pressing circumstances of today necessitate some immediate interventions as well. Few Christian thinkers have thought more deeply about the problem of religious indifference than Blaise Pascal, so let’s start with the approach he outlined in his classic Pensées:
Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first  to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next  make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then  show that it is.
1. Show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect
There are many compelling arguments that can be given to explain and defend the Catholic faith. But the more elementary case for reasonable religion requires an even more elementary step: the defining of terms and the dispelling of caricatures.
Skeptics often rush to define faith as something like “holding a belief for no good reason” or “believing something despite stronger evidence for the contrary.” Of course, neither of these definitions are helpful. Rule number one, therefore, is: do not let skeptics define your terms for you!
Properly understood, faith is the assent given to a proposition based on the authority of another. Faithful assent is what students give to teachers, what plaintiffs give to lawyers, and what historians give to war veterans. But such trust does not close itself off to further investigation. Reason is used to confirm belief; and although the mysteries of faith are often perceived as “barricaded” truths inaccessible to reason, we may instead view such mysteries as wellsprings of truth and insight. Mysteries are gifts that keep on giving to the human intellect. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
2. Make Christianity attractive so that indifferentists desire it to be true.
Christianity is beautiful. We can tell people that; but often it is better to show it.
In a 1970 lecture, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and survivor of the Soviet labor camps, asserted that “the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable, and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.” Beauty draws its beholder in. Then through the visible, the invisible becomes intelligible. The beautiful is unimposing—even disarming—which makes it an attractive starting point for evangelism. As Bishop Robert Barron has said, “Beauty is the arrowhead of evangelization.”
There is no icon more attractive than the eikon (to use St. Paul’s Greek term) of God, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15). Particularly through Christ’s death and resurrection, man has been able to comprehend in a newly profound way not only the seriousness of sin but the infinite love of God. This is why Paul decided to “know nothing” among the Corinthians he was evangelizing, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We need to show people that the crucified Christ is alive—and, indeed, alive within ourselves.
3. Third, show that Christianity actually is true.
It doesn’t matter how attractive a religion is if it is a counterfeit. This is where apologetics come in. Catholicism makes three basic truth claims, each serving as a pillar of the religion’s entire doctrinal system.
The first is that God exists. But why should anyone care about this in the first place? “The first step in answering,” writes philosopher Richard Purtill, “is to point out that if the traditional idea of God is true, we would cease to exist if God did not think of us and will to keep us in existence. God is interested in us; that in itself is a reason.” Indeed, that an immanently present God exists and is at work in the world is not a mere assertion but can be formidably defended by way of reason (see St. Thomas’s Five Ways, for instance).
The second pillar is that Jesus Christ is God incarnate—which he demonstrates definitively by rising from the dead as he predicted. This resurrection is the keystone of the Faith. “If Christ has not been raised, then we are still in our sins,” Paul admits (1 Cor. 15:17). Luckily for Christians, there are good reasons to believe Jesus was raised from the dead. “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion,” skeptic Antony Flew has admitted. “It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” Catholics should be familiar with this evidence, and be prepared to share it.
Finally, the Catholic Church claims to be the Church Christ founded. Defending this claim we find not only the robust work of Catholic apologists but also the early Church Fathers, some of whom were even disciples of the apostles themselves. From St. Ignatius of Antioch to St. Augustine to St. John Damascene, all of the Fathers from the earliest centuries prove themselves, in their writings, to be unmistakably Catholic. Thus, the Catholic Church has Sacred Scripture and early Church history on its side.
We have to remain realistic about the challenge ahead. Evangelization is hard work, and the fruits are not always immediately apparent. There is no magic bullet that will automatically awaken every spiritually indifferent person and bring him to faith. Conversions tend to happen in baby steps, and often neither the evangelist nor the evangelized knows that a conversion has begun, when indeed it has. We must, therefore, move forward patiently in faith, hope, and love, remembering always Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor.For we are God’s fellow workers (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
For more on helping the apathetic and indifferent come to know truth, God, and the gospel, see Matt’s new book, Just Whatever, available from Catholic Answers Press.