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Apologetics Primer

The word apologetics is derived from the ancient Greek word apologia. An apologia was the case a lawyer would build on behalf of his client. So apologetics is about building the case for our faith—learning how to explain and defend our faith.

There are three types of apologetics: natural apologetics, Christian apologetics, and Catholic apologetics. My local bishop, in one of his regular columns in our diocesan newspaper, once wrote, “There comes a time when we, as Catholics, have to be able to defend and explain certain teachings of our Catholic faith. . . . Our faith is based on reason and logic. The explanation of what we believe and why we believe it is called apologetics.”

Most people might say that this apologetics stuff is fine for priests or theologians or ex-Protestant pastors, but what does this have to do with me? In that statement from the bishop, he wasn’t talking to priests and theologians and ex-Protestant pastors; he was talking to all Catholics. He said that we, as Catholics, have to be able to defend and explain our Catholic faith.

The question I ask Catholics is: “If necessary, can you defend your faith?” If a Baptist were to ask you for scriptural reasons for the Catholic belief in purgatory, would you be able to give him an answer? Could you answer an Evangelical’s question on where in Scripture it says anything about the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? Can you explain to a person from the Church of God that praying the rosary is not equivalent to worshiping Mary?

And, going beyond what the bishop said, listen to what Scripture says: In 1 Peter 3:15, the author tells us, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” Always be prepared! The bishop in his column simply was echoing what God says to us through the sacred author of Scripture: We must be prepared to defend our faith. God wouldn’t tell us to do something that we are incapable of doing.

Why is it so important that we be able to defend our faith? Because it contains the fullness of God’s revealed truth—our faith and only our faith. There is truth in other creeds, but not the fullness of truth that is contained in the Catholic faith. Therefore, we must be equipped to explain and defend it so that others may come to believe in the truth—the whole truth.

In 1 Timothy 2:4 we read, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In John 8:32, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” God desires that all men know the truth, and man needs to know the truth to be set free. God desires that all men be saved, and he wants you and me to participate in the process. What will your response be?

There are those who rationalize not learning more about the faith, and who pass up opportunities to explain and defend the faith, by saying things like “I’m not all that concerned about doctrine; I just want to show people the love of Jesus Christ.” Well, the love of Jesus Christ is the truth of Jesus Christ! In John 18:37, Jesus says, “For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Doctrines and dogmas are nothing more than the truth given to us by Jesus Christ. They are lampposts lighting the path that leads to Christ. When you consider all the Scripture passages on truth, it becomes clear that if you want to share the love of Jesus Christ with others, you have to share the truth of Jesus Christ with them.

We need to understand that truth is not a concept that each person can bend according to their individual whims, truth is a person. Jesus Christ is the truth. And Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The fullness of revealed truth that rests in the person of Jesus Christ resides in the Catholic faith.

If we truly love our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, would we not want them to have the truth—the whole truth—that sets them free? And how will they know this truth if we are unwilling to share our faith with them or unable to explain our faith to them? Will you stand up for the faith, or slink quietly into a corner, when the faith is questioned? Will you act as if you’re a member of the Church Militant or the Church Milquetoast?

Does publicly sharing our faith mean that we have to go around beating people over the heads with Catholicism to get them to convert? Hardly. Look again at 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” That’s not telling you to stand on the street corner preaching the good news (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). It’s not telling you to alienate all of your friends or co-workers by shoving Catholicism down their throats; it’s simply telling you to be prepared when someone comes to you.

You do not have to go looking for people to convert to Catholicism. All you have to do is let it be known that you are a Catholic, and they will come and try to convert you. The more you live and practice your faith, the more opportunities God will give you to defend it.

So, in order to be prepared to defend your faith—in order to become a Catholic apologist—what must you do? The only thing you need to do is to learn a little bit more about your faith each day and every day. That’s it. Gain a greater understanding of your faith daily. Notice that I did not say that you have to have a complete understanding of your faith. The Catholic faith is deeper than the oceans, and no one in this lifetime will plumb its depths. I also did not say that you have to have a master’s degree in theology or a bachelor’s degree or anything else of that nature. All you need is an earnest desire to learn more about your faith and then simply act on that desire.

Pray. Read Scripture. Read books on or by the saints. Read the Catechism, even if it’s just a little bit at a time—especially if it’s a little bit as a time, as it will stick with you if you take it in small doses and meditate on what you have read. Get books and tapes on apologetics. Subscribe to Catholic periodicals that are loyal to the pope and the magisterium.

To become a Catholic apologist you need simply to have a desire to learn more about your faith and the will to act upon that desire. As you do so, God will bring you into situations in which you will have the opportunity to share your faith, explain it, and defend it.

Seven Rules of Engagement

Here are some important points to remember when engaging in an explanation or defense of your faith:

1. Pray. Pray before, during, and after you engage someone in a conversation on the Catholic faith. You and I do not convert anyone; it is the Holy Spirit who changes the hearts and minds of men.

2. Remember Luke 5:10: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” Jesus said this to Simon Peter, but he is also saying it to us. Will you make mistakes? Will you get into tight spots? Of course. Peter did. Yet Jesus told Peter not to be afraid. Why? Because if we are sincere in our desire to share the truth with others, to share Jesus with others, Jesus will find a way to make something good come out of even our mistakes. He will bless our efforts. But you must be sincere in your desire. Do not become an apologist for your faith in the hope of winning an argument about Scripture with your Evangelical friend or your Fundamentalist brother-in-law. Apologetics is not about winning arguments. It is about sharing the truth; it is about planting seeds.

3. When presented with an opportunity to defend your faith, never be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But always follow “I don’t know” with “But I will find out and get back to you.” Once someone questions or attacks the Catholic faith in front of you, the door has been opened. Do not let that door shut! Get back to that person with further dialogue, books, pamphlets, tapes, whatever—but do not let that door shut!

4. Always look at an attack on your faith or a question about your faith as an opportunity. Most Christians who say something about Catholicism to you do so in good faith. Sometimes they are simply curious and want to learn more. Other times they think you are going to hell because you are a Catholic, and they want to save your soul from eternal damnation. That is a wonderful thing! They are practicing the love of Christ for you. So view any question or attack on the Church as God opening a door for you.

5. Never get frustrated. You may be brilliant in your explanation of a particular doctrine or practice of the Catholic faith, and the person you are talking to simply may refuse to hear it. And he may say the most irrational and illogical things imaginable in response. That’s fine. As I said earlier, just think of yourself as planting seeds. You and I are not capable of converting anyone. You do what you can and then offer the rest to God.

6. Stay focused. If you have ever engaged a non-Catholic in any serious conversation about your faith, you probably are familiar with what I call the “doctrinal dance.” He will ask you a question about purgatory, and, right in the middle of your answer, he will say something like “Well, why do you guys worship Mary?” As you respond to that, he will say, “Why do you believe the pope can’t sin?” As you explain papal infallibility, he will say, “Why do you confess your sins to a man instead of to God?” The doctrinal dance. Some non-Catholics switch the subject whenever you have an answer to their questions. Don’t let them do it. Keep bringing the conversation back, in a firm but gentle way, to one main topic until you have said all that you want to say on that topic. Then you may move on.

7. Know to whom you’re talking. For our purposes, there are two main types of apologetics: Catholic apologetics for non-Catholics and Catholic apologetics for Catholics. The people I have had the most trouble convincing on any given truth of the Catholic faith are not Protestants but Catholics—people who attend Mass every Sunday and who pick which of the Church’s teachings they want to believe, just like you would choose or reject items of food as you go down the line in a cafeteria. The term often used to describe such people is “cafeteria Catholics.”

When talking to Protestants, you have to stick mostly to Scripture. You can use logic and plain old common sense as well, but you almost always will find yourself coming back to Scripture. So don’t let Scripture scare you! And do not be intimidated by any Protestant’s seemingly superior knowledge of Scripture. The average Protestant has memorized maybe twenty or so Scripture verses to deal with Catholics. Most of these verses, if not all, have been taken out of context. The average Protestant is hardly a Scripture scholar. He loves it, and he probably reads it more than the average Catholic (a habit we should strive to emulate), but his is not such a scriptural juggernaut that you should be afraid to engage him in a discussion of Scripture.

If you run into scriptural difficulty, what do you do? Always remember point 3: “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”

The Bible is a Catholic book. The Catholic Church gave it to the world. The Catholic faith can be defended on purely biblical grounds much more easily than any non-Catholic Christian faith. So do not be afraid to engage non-Catholics in a discussion of Scripture.

When talking to cafeteria Catholics, you can use Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (which you cannot use with Protestants) as well as logic and common sense—and none of it may do you any good. Some of the Catholics I have talked to are more irrational and illogical even than some atheists I have talked to. When I run across a Catholic of the cafeteria kind, I simply ask if he says the Creed every Sunday at Mass. “Of course I do,” he’ll respond inevitably. Then I say to him that when he recites the Creed, he needs to skip the part that says, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Because he doesn’t.

All or Nothing

Which brings us to an important point: Do not try to defend the Catholic faith unless you believe what the Catholic Church teaches in its entirety and you can say that you believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Because if you do not believe what the Catholic Church teaches in its entirety, then sooner or later the part that you don’t believe will be thrown back in your face. Your disbelief of a particular doctrine or doctrines will cause all of your arguments for believing the other Catholic doctrines to come crumbling to the ground. It’s the same authority behind the doctrines you choose to believe as the ones you choose not to believe.

How do we know what the Church believes? A good start is the Catechism. As the Pope writes in the introduction, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.” The Pope, and each bishop in the world, is telling us that the Catechism contains what the Catholic Church believes. That, then, is what we as Catholics believe.

Bishop Anthony Pilla, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated at one of the group’s national meetings, “Essential to true reconciliation within the Church is the principle that being Catholic is not a purely personal and subjective matter but is something that involves accepting Church teaching and practice.”

The Catechism gives us Church teaching and practice. We need to accept these teachings and adhere to them with a religious assent. If we don’t, what happens? If you call yourself Catholic but you want to pick and choose which of the Church’s teachings you will accept and which you will reject, you give everyone else who calls himself “Catholic” the right to do the same.

For example, let’s say you believe women should be allowed to be priests. Turn to the Catechism, paragraph 1577, which states, “Only a baptized man validly receives ordination. . . . For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” You reject that teaching? Okay, that’s fine. Please rip that page out of your Catechism. There. You just made it the Catechism of your Catholic Church, but not of mine.

Remember, if you can throw doctrines out, so can everyone else who calls himself Catholic. That gives Joe Parishioner over at St. Doubting Thomas Catholic Church the right to throw out the Church’s social justice teachings. He doesn’t feel like feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and all that other bleeding-heart stuff, so he rips out paragraphs 2401–2463. He just made it the Catechism of his Catholic Church, not mine and not yours.

You believe contraception is okay? Rip out paragraph 2370, which says contraception is “intrinsically evil.” Joe Parishioner doesn’t like what the Church teaches on the Eucharist? Paragraphs 1322–1419?—Rip! Someone else doesn’t like what it teaches in paragraphs 200–205?—R-r-i-i-p! Or in paragraphs 1560–1580?—R-r-r-i-i-i-p!

Can you see what is happening? Can you see where this is leading? I’ve heard it said that there is a shortage of vocations to the priesthood in the United States, but that there is no shortage of vocations to the papacy. If we don’t believe in all of it, if we each appoint ourselves pope and throw out a doctrine here or a doctrine there, then our faith is no longer Catholic.

Once we accept the principle that adherence to Church teaching is a matter of personal preference, once we accept the principle that cafeteria Catholicism is legitimate—that anyone may pick and choose which truths of the faith to accept and which to reject—then we no longer believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

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