Year by year Catholic Answers has grown not only in the breadth of its outreach but also in the number of its personnel—we total nearly four dozen now. Some staff members have worked with me for well over a decade, but many have been here less than half that long. It was chiefly for the benefit of these relative newcomers that I recently gave the entire staff an illustrated history of Catholic Answers’ early years. The history came in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. I wanted to include photographs, so I found myself revisiting places I had not been for a long time, beginning with the scene of my first overt apologetic act.
The story began in 1979 or thereabouts. I say “thereabouts” because Catholic Answers’ beginnings were so inauspicious that I made no permanent note of them at the time. It was years before there was any prospect that what had begun as a lark might turn into a full-time occupation, and by that time my recollections of the beginnings had faded, though not entirely.
I well remember leaving St. Patrick’s Church one Sunday morning and finding anti-Catholic tracts on the windshields of the cars in the parking lot. The tracts were written against the Mass and the priesthood and were distributed by a Fundamentalist church that was located hardly a mile away. This was in the North Park section of San Diego. My wife and I lived within walking distance of the parish, and, once we returned to our apartment that Sunday, I began to compose a tract in defense of the Church.
This was in the days before personal computers. I used an IBM Selectric typewriter at my law office to lay out my text, which was to be printed on two sides of a sheet of paper and then folded to make a tract. Not wanting to reveal my identity or my home address, and wanting to leave the Fundamentalists with the impression that what I wrote was more than just one man’s opinion, I made up the name “Catholic Answers” (it sounded authoritative), and I rented a post office box on the off chance that someone might actually reply to me. I had my tract photocopied and folded, and the next Sunday I went to that Fundamentalist church and put my tract on the windshields of the cars in its parking lot.
Then I forgot about the whole thing, until it occurred to me that I should check the post office box to see if any letters were there. I was surprised to find it full—and doubly surprised to find some letters were from Catholics, who said, “This is great stuff! Send us your catalogue!” I wrote back, saying, “I’m sorry, but everything is out of print at the moment.” Then I went back to my Selectric and began churning out tracts—first an initial batch of six, then another six, then another 12, until finally I had 48 in all. Until the late 1980s, when I wrote my first book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, those tracts were Catholic Answers. In the years since they have been modified and have been joined by more than 70 others, but those early tracts survive largely as I first wrote them.
What about that very first tract, distributed outside that Fundamentalist church? I seem not to have kept a copy—something I now regret. It did not occur to me, nearly 30 years ago now, that Catholic Answers might become anything more than an interlude for someone who expected to finish out his working life in a “regular” job. I had no idea that a short-term avocation might turn into a long-term vocation.