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Mercy and Apologetics

We do not expect the words apologetics and mercy to appear in the same sentence. After all, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does logic have to do with charity? Can apologetics and mercy harmonize?

When we think of works of mercy, we think first of the seven corporal works of mercy. Often that is as far as our thinking goes. We tend to forget that the seven spiritual works of mercy parallel the seven corporal works of mercy. The first two of those are particularly applicable to apologetics: “instruct the ignorant” and “counsel the doubtful.”

Our era is noted for (or, at least, it one day will be noted for) its moral collapse, but moral collapses do not occur by themselves. They are accompanied by, and usually are preceded by, intellectual collapses. The mind goes off track before actions go off track.

The human person consists of body and soul, and the soul is a spirit. Like every spirit, the soul has two faculties: intellect and will. With the intellect we know. With the will we love. Distressingly often, with the intellect we know poorly or incorrectly, and with the will we love the wrong things or we love the right things in the wrong ways.

Just as a weakening of the intellect generally coincides with a weakening of the will, a strengthening of the intellect means a strengthening of the will. If we wish others to live well—which is to say, to live in a holy way—then we should wish them to think well also. It is a mercy to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, but it also is a mercy to provide intellectual nourishment and to slake the thirsts of the mind.

How we are most effective

St. Paul reminds us that we are parts of a great body, the Church. Each part of a body has its own role to play. The eye is not the ear nor is the ear the mouth. While we all are called to be merciful, we do not all have the capacity—or even the inclination, perhaps—to be merciful in the same ways.

I am not suggesting that we compartmentalize ourselves so that we focus on one of the seven corporal works of mercy or on one of the seven spiritual works of mercy to the exclusion of the others. It would be a strange Christian who would give bread to a hungry man but who would refuse to tell him about the Bread of Life—or vice versa.

But I am suggesting we acknowledge that our native talents, enlivened by grace, make us better at one task than another and that, while we should endeavor to perform all fourteen works of mercy, we should understand which of them we might be most effective employing. And I would go further to say that apologetics can be viewed as a work of mercy. Of course, sometimes, in the wrong hands, it can seem like something else.

There is reason to think that we have made progress in dealing with people who disagree with us about the Faith. In the thirteenth century, King Louis IX had two rules for dealing with a heretic. He said, “If you are a learned cleric, reason with him. But if you are a plain man-at-arms, thrust your sword into his belly as far as it will go.”

At ease before crowds

That is a story told by Frank Sheed, possibly the greatest Catholic apologist of the twentieth century, at least in the English-speaking world. Sheed was Australian by birth, British by training, and American by sympathy. He and his wife, Maisie Ward, were the leaders of London’s Catholic Evidence Guild from the 1920s through the 1940s.

In his autobiography Sheed recounted how it took him quite some time to learn how to deal with non-Catholics properly, particularly when speaking outdoors. On one early occasion, Sheed was assigned to speak after a more experienced speaker had taken the public platform. He reported: “The senior speaker, a woman, had a vast crowd. She came down. I got up. In five minutes I had lost them all. She got me down, got up herself, and won the crowd back. I touched a low point in misery. I was able to balance things up later by marrying her.”

Sheed said that being in front of crowds was invaluable to his maturation as an apologist. “The crowds forced a general intellectual and specifically theological development not to be had elsewhere. One had to examine every doctrine—not only to answer the question but to relate Christ’s revelation to the listeners’ appallingly various natures, in order that they might discover unrealized needs in themselves and find those needs met in Christ. Very early we learned that we could not meet their depths with our shallows.”

But sometimes even our shallows have good effects.

In enemy territory

My first public debate was in Southern California and was against Bartholomew Brewer, a former Catholic priest. He had been a Carmelite but had abandoned the Faith and had become a virulent anti-Catholic. He ran a ministry dedicated to bringing Catholics out of the Church of their upbringing and into what he considered to be authentic Christianity.

The debate was held at his church. He selected the topic and the format for the debate. The moderator was his own pastor. Nearly everyone in the large audience was a member of that church. They knew my opponent, and they held views like his. I thought it prudent to be on my best behavior.

In his remarks Brewer excoriated the Catholic Church, condemned its history, its leadership, and its doctrines. He told the audience that there could be no salvation through the Church of Rome. He spoke about the Church in the most unflattering terms and misconstrued every Catholic distinctive that he brought up. Sensing that the audience was at least unsympathetic to Catholicism and probably hostile to the Church—and maybe to me—I tried to present the Catholic case simply, clearly, and without rancor.

At the conclusion of the debate, I looked up from my notes and saw the crowd surging toward the front. For an instant I thought it might be prudent to pray an act of contrition, but then I saw that the people were coming up with outstretched hands and with smiles on their faces. They thanked me for coming. They said that they appreciated that I did not speak about their religion the way Brewer spoke about mine. Some of them insisted that, while they never would become Catholics, they no longer would consider themselves anti-Catholics. It turned out that how I made my points had been more effective than the points themselves. I tried to learn from that.

Example of mercy: St. Virgil

Mercy—particularly what we might call intellectual mercy—is not as common as we might wish, even at higher levels in the Church. We might keep in mind a story recounted of St. Virgil, the eighth-century bishop of Salzburg. He was an Irishman who started out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but after two years had gotten only as far as Bavaria. The duke of Bavaria arranged for Virgil to be appointed an abbot, and eventually Virgil became a bishop.

One day Virgil came across a priest who was woefully ignorant of Latin. The poor man could not pronounce the sacred words correctly. When the priest administered baptism, what came out of his mouth was “Ego te baptizo in nomine patria et filia et spiritu sancta,” which might be translated as “I baptize you in the name of the fatherland and of the daughter and of the feminine Holy Spirit.”

Virgil concluded that the mispronunciation was an innocent error of no sacramental significance. He said that the priest’s baptisms were valid and that there was no need for them to be repeated by another priest.

St. Boniface, the “apostle of the Germans,” was then the archbishop of Mainz. He thought Virgil erred grievously, and he sent an appeal to the pope, Zachary—the only pope to bear that name and the pope at whose direction Rome’s church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was built. Zachary replied that Virgil had made the right decision, and he expressed surprise that Boniface even had questioned it.

The pope showed mercy not just to Virgil but also to the mispronouncing priest and to the people the priest had baptized, apparently on the principle of Ecclesia supplet. The priest had intended to do what the Church does in the sacrament of baptism, and he tried to do it, but he so mangled the words that his pronunciation inadvertently made them sound like other words that had other meanings.

St. Peter Fourier

Another example. St. Peter Fourier was the co-founder of the Augustinian Canonesses Regular of Our Lady. He died in 1640. In those days, in France, there was considerable turbulence between Catholics and Protestants. Peter gave his nuns detailed instructions on how to deal with Protestant children. He said they were to be treated “kindly and lovingly. Do not let the other children interfere with or tease them. Do not speak harshly of their religion but, when the occasion serves, show them . . . how good and reasonable are the precepts and practices of ours.” In other words, let your apologetics be tempered with mercy.

Peter followed these admonitions in his own practice. In 1625 he was assigned to combat Protestantism in a small principality. It is said that he spent as much time encouraging Catholics to change their lives as in encouraging Protestants to change their beliefs. He refused to call Protestants “heretics” but insisted on referring to them as “strangers.” It is reported that he had more success in six months than his predecessors had had in thirty years.

Edmund Genings

A final historical example. Across the Channel and half a lifetime earlier lived Edmund Genings. He had been born in Lichfield, where, a century and a half later, Samuel Johnson would be born, and he was brought up as a Protestant. While still a teenager Edmund became a Catholic, and he went to France for studies and eventual ordination. In 1590, now a priest, he returned to England.

He learned that his entire family was dead except for his brother John, who lived in London. He searched for his brother for a month and found him only the day before he intended to leave the city. John was not pleased to see Edmund, whom he suspected to be a priest, and John warned Edmund that, if he were a priest, he would bring death to himself, to John, and to his friends.

Edmund saw that it was not an opportune time to try to effect his brother’s conversion, so he left London. He returned the next year, was captured by the authorities, and was martyred. John is said to have “rejoiced rather than bewailed the untimely and bloody end of his nearest kinsman,” but ten days after his brother’s martyrdom John underwent a sudden change of heart. He became a Catholic and a friar minor and eventually the head of the English province of the Franciscans.

Edmund had wanted to engage John in apologetics, but prudence and mercy told him the time was not ripe. He could not have imagined, I suppose, that it would be his own death that would bring his brother into the Church.

Attacks raise key questions

Those who take public stands open themselves to public abuse. Ask any apologist. If the abuse comes from the unlettered or unmannered, the apologist sloughs it off. But if the abuse comes from someone who in other contexts seems the epitome of intelligence and courtesy, the barbs sting. In that case one’s first reaction is defense, to salvage one’s reputation.

After a few moments comes the realization that perhaps even these barbs should go unremarked—better to say nothing, let the matter pass. Further consideration brings nagging questions: What if more than my own reputation is at stake? What if, by keeping silent, I allow the faith to be tarnished and people to be scandalized? On the other hand, is my desire to vindicate the faith masking a deeper desire to vindicate myself? Is my pride overpowering my prudence, or is it pride that encourages me to sit out the fray?

These are questions that assail anyone who is attacked in public, and this includes Catholic apologists. You can’t operate as a Catholic apologist for long without being attacked. Attacks from enemies of the Church are neither unexpected nor daunting. You expect them; you may even welcome them. The discouraging attacks are those that come from within the Church.

If, over the years, I have had arguments with non-Catholics, I suppose I have had as many arguments with Catholics, even with other Catholic apologists. Those arguments often have been about tactics. Apologetics tends to attract people who like to argue. This is both good and bad. Argumentation is a good thing if it clarifies in charity. It is a bad thing if it is used as a cudgel. There is a constant temptation not so much to prove the Church right but to prove yourself right (see sidebar p. xx).

Little effect to judge

However much an apologist may speak or write, however widely his words may be listened to or read, he will know little of their effect. That is both natural and good. It is natural because there is no particular reason for the large majority of those who are reached by an apologist’s words to let him know whether those words have been useful or useless.

And it is good because, if too many people were to praise the apologist, he would begin to think that whatever good had been done had been by his hand and not by the hand of God. Nevertheless, God, in his mercy, moves some people to let the apologist know that they have been helped, not so much to boost his self-esteem but to forestall his discouragement.

This is an example of what Ronald Knox—that quintessential English priest, scholar, and gentleman—used to refer to as God’s courtesy toward man. That courtesy is an aspect of God’s mercy. It can manifest itself even in such a thing as apologetics. For that, each apologist should be grateful, because he likely will need more mercy than he ever will be able to convey to those to whom he tries to explain the Faith.


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