I recently read biographies of the great saints and apologists Edmund Campion and Francis de Sales and was struck by their profound grasp of the Catholic faith and their incredible graciousness when defending it, even under terrible duress.
I resolved to imitate them the next time I had the opportunity, not realizing how soon such a situation would come about or how difficult it is to apply their great lessons.
My friend Joseph and I were eating lunch at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas. Joseph is a Latter-day Saint (Mormon). Two men approached our table and began making small talk. It was awkward—I figured they were going to try to sell us something. After a minute or so, one of them abruptly ended the chit-chat and said, “The real reason we are here is that we want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with you guys.”
Well, now. We listened respectfully as the young man gave a decent Protestant pitch for turning your life over to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished, I looked at Joseph to see if he was going to respond, then turned to the men and said, “Thank you for sharing your faith with us. I’m Catholic, so I’ve also accepted Jesus as my Lord and repented of my sins.”
Their eyebrows raised and one glanced at the other. They may have smelled blood in the water.
Joseph added, “And I’m a Latter-day Saint and agree with everything you said.”
The two men had certainly been taught that Catholics and Mormons were not saved, but they were woefully unprepared to make an argument for their positions.
One of them dove in: “Mormonism contradicts the Bible, because Paul in Galatians said not to listen to any other gospel, but you call your Book of Mormon ‘another Gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
Joseph, who had clearly heard this line of attack before, and responded charitably as he had been trained to do.
Undeterred, the men turned to me next and said, “Well, Catholics believe in lots of unbiblical, man-made doctrines, whereas we believe in only biblical truth.”
Now, this was something I could work with. Following the method I laid out in The Protestant’s Dilemma, I steered the conversation to the canon of Scripture to help these well-meaning Protestants inspect the foundation of their beliefs.
“When we talk about whether something is biblical or unbiblical,” I said, “we first have to know with certainty which books belong in the Bible. You have sixty-six books in your Bible. I have seventy-three in mine. Which of us is right? And how do you know?”
One of the men looked confused and laughed a little, before saying, “No, we just mean the plain Bible, like the one you can buy at Barnes & Noble. You know, the Christian Bible.”
Such ignorance about the books removed from the Bible by Martin Luther is quite common. I asked them to give me a principled reason to believe that the early Church, which they claimed taught supposedly unbiblical doctrines like infant baptism, had gotten the canon of Scripture mostly right while getting these other doctrines completely wrong.
It was clear that these ideas were new to them. One said, “Wait, which books in our Bibles are different?” And I explained that our New Testaments were the same but our Old Testaments differed and that they were missing seven books.
They responded by claiming that the Old Testament didn’t matter much, since Jesus is testified to in the New Testament, and the old Law is gone.
I must admit that I’d never heard this particular line of reasoning from a Protestant. God inspired all the books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, so it behooves us to learn all that he revealed to us. Who knows, we might be missing key truths that he intended us to know in those books, like praying for the souls of the dead.
I replied that we could know which books God inspired, because the Holy Spirit led the Church into all truth, as he promised he would, and that included discerning correctly which books belong in the Bible. Protestants, of course, reject this belief and so have to find a nonbiblical principle by which to know which books belong in the canon of Scripture.
Finding themselves on unfamiliar turf, one said with some irritation, “Look, none of that stuff matters. In John 3:16 Jesus said that ‘God so loved the world,’ and that we simply must believe in Christ to be saved. That’s what matters and what we’ve been trying to tell you.”
Now, while there is a certain “mere Christianity” logic to what he said, he had not yet demonstrated how he knows that the Gospel of St. John is inspired in the first place or how his use of the verse comports with other verses in Scripture, even in the same Gospel.
I replied that we all believe in John 3:16, but in John 17 Jesus prays that we would all be perfectly one, as he and the Father are one, that the world might believe that the Father sent him. Unfortunately, we are not all one but are divided on countless doctrines, on the books of Sacred Scripture, so we are not following our Lord’s words.
They grudgingly acknowledged that Jesus did say that, but pivoted to: “Catholics are the ones with the problem, because you have added traditions to the Bible!”
I admit to losing my patience a bit at this point. I explained to them that they had to distinguish between man-made traditions versus ones that came from God himself.
At this point, my Mormon friend, seeking to be a peacemaker, jumped in and said that since we all agree with John 3:16, let’s just leave at that. The two men agreed, shook hands with us, and engaged a group at another table.
As I later reflected on this encounter, I thought of how I should have responded with more love, like Saints Edmund and Francis did. Those saints suffered extreme physical torture and yet were gracious, while I was only faced by simple ignorance while dining at a Whole Foods and yet was not gracious.
I don’t think I won any converts that day, because I didn’t incorporate both complementary aspects of apologetics: knowing how to defend the Catholic faith and doing so with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). I had succeeded in the first aspect but failed in the second.
Though their lack of understanding frustrated me, I admired their courage. They approached complete strangers to share the gospel with them, at a store and in a city not known for being conservative or Christian. When had I ever done something so bold? I resolved to handle future situations with more grace, and also to think about ways that I could conquer my fears about sharing my faith with others.
After thinking about these two mutually necessary aspects of apologetics—defending one’s faith, but doing so with gentleness—I began studying other traits the saints demonstrated as they spread the faith. The results of these studies and reflections are in my new book, Lionheart Catholic.
I wonder how the encounter with my courageous Christian brothers that day may have gone differently if I was a better practitioner of these saintly virtues and approaches. By naming these and beginning to integrate them into my own approach, I pray that I’ll be more ready to share the truth in love next time.