In a recent article, Michael Sean Winters, a contributor for the National Catholic Reporter, claimed that Pope Francis essentially “delivered a strong rebuke to Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary of the same archdiocese, and groups such as ‘Catholic Answers’ and EWTN in a Dec. 4 speech to the clergy, religious and seminarians of Athens, Greece.”
Winters admits that Pope Francis didn’t mention any of these people or groups by name, but he claims that the pope’s description of evangelization is markedly different from what “U.S. conservatives” practice.
Here is what the pope said about acceptance in evangelization:
[Such an attitude] does not try to occupy the space and life of others, but to sow the good news in the soil of their lives; it learns to recognize and appreciate the seeds that God already planted in their hearts before we came on the scene. Let us remember that God always precedes us, God always sows before we do. Evangelizing is not about filling an empty container; it is ultimately about bringing to light what God has already begun to accomplish.
So Winters excoriates Abp. Gomez’s “negativity” toward groups that identify as “woke,” calls Bp. Barron’s description of joy as the first step in evangelism “manipulative,” and then says,
You can go to the website of Catholic Answers, or watch almost any show on EWTN and you will find a similar approach to evangelization: We have the answers, and if people were not so easily duped by the evil of the world, they would recognize that we have the answers, embrace our answers, and submit.
Winters claims that this approach to evangelism is problematic because it presents the faith “as a series of propositions to which people are expected to give their assent.”
I’ll let the other targets of Winters’s scorn speak for themselves. As for us here at Catholic Answers, his claim—that we demand that others “embrace our answers and submit”—is a caricature of our apostolate, dispelled by just a cursory examination of our various projects.
We have articles that admonish people to not be “the Catholic Answer Man” and to exercise humility when evangelizing. In one of my articles on abortion, I exhort pro-lifers to find common ground, ask questions, and not be weird. In a recent talk I gave at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I stressed that you can evangelize even if you have none of the “right answers” by simply asking questions and treating the other person with respect. In short, at Catholic Answers, our goal is to help as many people as possible have a personal encounter with our Lord, Jesus Christ.
But what would Winters recommend we do for people who reject that encounter because they reject a key proposition about Jesus—like that he is God or that he is truly present in the Eucharist? In a podcast episode I did on why Catholics leave the Church, I pointed out that the majority do so because they no longer believe that the Church’s teachings are true. In another episode, I shared an article authored by a transgender individual who called out Catholics who avoid sharing their doctrines on sexual ethics and instead patronize people by reducing evangelization to being kind and passing out water bottles at Pride parades.
Winters might say, “Sure, apologetics has its place. But you should follow Pope Francis’s lead and ‘propose’ answers instead of imposing them.” I would heartily agree with that! But it’s worth noting: St. Paul and Pope Francis show us that sometimes, being truly pastoral means being blunt with persistently wayward sheep. Paul told the Galatians they were “foolish” (3:1) and wished the heretics leading them astray on circumcision would mutilate themselves (5:12). In a previous column, Winters admits, “We are accustomed to the pope using harsh words against the conservative legalists in the Church.” For those outside the Church, Pope Francis has compared abortion to “hiring a hitman,” called gay adoption “discrimination against children,” and described attempts to legalize so-called same-sex marriage as “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
It’s true that we give many answers each week on our radio program Catholic Answers Live, and we hope people will accept them because they are true. But we don’t browbeat people into accepting them. Most of the callers are Catholics who want advice, but a significant number are non-Catholic, some of whom faithfully listen to our show every week because we treat them and their views with respect even as we respectfully disagree with them. I’ve personally engaged in over a dozen public debates and dialogues where the truth of the Catholic faith was graciously proposed—and in some cases, it became the springboard for conversions and reversions among those who watched these encounters.
In conclusion, I hope Catholics like Winters who care deeply about evangelization will see that every part of the body has a different part to play. Catholic Answers seeks to be the part that helps people learn what the Church actually teaches and answer arguments of those who would try to refute Catholicism and lead people away from Christ’s church. In that respect, we follow Paul’s exhortation to “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
But we don’t demand submission. Rather, we agree with Winters in proposing the truth and engaging in respectful dialogue so that, following St. Peter’s advice, we may “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).