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Present at the Creation

Editor’s note: In June, nearly three decades after founding Catholic Answers, the author officially retired as senior fellow. He can be found currently playing his baroque mandolin, Jeeping in the California desert, hiking one of any numerous mountain ranges, or working on one of any numerous writing projects.


Sometimes, on being introduced as a Catholic apologist, I would ask my listeners whether they knew what an apologist was. Eyes lowered in shame and heads shook, so I explained, with a straight face, “An apologist is someone who goes around the country apologizing for being a Catholic.”

Most people laughed, but some didn’t. They thought I was being serious. To them, “apology” connoted “I’m sorry.”

Chalk it up to ignorance of Greek roots and to the fact that, for a third of a century, apologetics had been in disrepute. As late as the eve of Vatican II, apologetics was taught in seminaries and Catholic colleges, where it was understood as the art of using reason to explain and defend the Faith. Then, almost overnight, it disappeared from the curriculum. Worse, it disappeared from practice. Even those trained in it declined to use its techniques.

Was a challenge made to the Faith? No longer was the challenge met head on; it was sidestepped through an appeal to a (misunderstood) ecumenism. “We no longer should argue in favor of the Catholic Faith; instead, we should try to understand the faith of non-Catholics”—as though the one precluded the other.

Within a few years there was a gaping hole in pulpit teaching, in adult education, and in publishers’ lists. At first nothing seemed amiss. But, just as it is true that ideas have consequences, so it is true that the lack of ideas has consequences.

When the Faith no longer was explained, when challenges to it no longer were met, when reason was laid aside in favor of a mushy irenicism, interest in Catholicism flagged. Those who no longer understood the Faith saw little reason to practice it. Those who found their questions unanswered looked for answers elsewhere. Catholics voted with their feet and became lapsed Catholics or non-Catholics. Out of this disarray came the “new apologetics” movement, which began in the 1980s.

The first “new apologetics”

It is not the first movement to have that name. Today’s revival of apologetics can be traced to a revival in the 1920s, when a new interest arose in using reason to advance the Faith in terms accessible to everyday believers and non-believers. In the English-speaking world, that interest coalesced around the Catholic Evidence Guild, headquartered in London.

Members of the Guild (almost exclusively laymen) became well known for setting up “pitches” in Hyde Park, where they took on all comers. Apologetics was saved from the dry theology manuals of the preceding decades, and it turned into a movement, dubbed the “new apologetics.” In the inter-war years, many Catholics found their faith reinvigorated by a clear explanation and defense, and many non-Catholics found themselves coaxed Romeward.

World War II changed things. Frank Sheed, probably the most influential Catholic apologist of the time, noted that, before the war, “a Catholic, merely as a Catholic, was an object of interest. . . . A Catholic speaker faced an audience of which practically every member had a solid and stateable—and stated—set of anti-Catholic prejudices.”

In those halcyon pre-war years, people were divided into two groups. One held what we now would call the prejudice of the Fundamentalist: the Catholic Church subverts the authority of Scripture, elevates Mary artificially, and is guilty of “inventing” countless doctrines and practices that are antithetical to authentic Christianity.

The other group “accused the Church of denying man’s animal ancestry and of thinking that the world was made in six days”—in other words, the secularist view. “Both groups united in the view that the Church was hostile to virtue, intellectual freedom, [and] science.”

“Indifference lies over all such things”

Then came a sea change. While these two modes of opposition continued to exist, they no longer were representative of the larger portion of society. “People as a whole,” said Sheed, referring to the situation at mid-century, “do not care much who is put in place of Christ, what commandment gets broken, how anyone goes to God. . . . Indifference lies over all such things. They have not come to deny the existence of God or the supremacy of Christ; they have simply turned their minds elsewhere. They are not sufficiently interested to doubt. They have not come to deny materialist evolution—but the excitement has worn off, and they have other things to think about.”

Suddenly the Catholic apologist found himself facing a crowd “which is almost totally apathetic: it retains a hostility to Catholicism, but a hostility from which all the sap has drained out. It is a hostility without vehemence and without shape—a slight discoloration marking the place of what was once a great wound.”

This was the situation on the eve of Vatican II. The tumult that followed the Council confirmed, in the minds of many, that even the type of apologetics that was successful earlier in the century should be abandoned, in favor of—nothing.

With unilateral disarmament came not an increased appreciation of Catholicism but a hardening of opposition to it. That opposition was manifested as a resurgent anti-Catholic sentiment among “Bible Christians,” a now-public attack from secularists, and, among the indifferent, an intellectual “nimbyism” that insisted that Catholic ideas should not intrude on the “I’m okay, you’re okay” complacency of middle-class life.

Hemorrhaging Catholicism

Such a state, being inherently unstable, could not last. As the Church seemed to implode in the 1960s and 1970s, Catholics left in droves. Before then, there may have been many lapsed Catholics, but there were few apostate Catholics. The dissatisfied may have stopped attending Mass, but they didn’t attend services elsewhere.

Thousands of “Bible churches” arose in which most congregants were former Catholics. Other Catholics, adopting as their motto Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”, ended up with a syncretistic religion, adding to their version of the Faith beliefs and practices incompatible with it.

The absence of the promotion of an intellectual component to the Faith didn’t result in a slumbering Catholicism but in a hemorrhaging Catholicism. Adult Catholics, deprived of solid catechesis, proved vulnerable to the blandishments of proselytizers who (unknowingly following the Brothers Grimm in “Hansel and Gretel”) argued that “who says A must say B.” This vulnerability, widely recognized but not widely understood, created an opening for a revival of apologetics.

The revival came not at the urging of Church authorities but spontaneously from the ranks of the laity, many of whom came to realize that their lot and the lot of those like them would not be improved if they kept to a “let Father do it” stance. Even more so than in the era of the Catholic Evidence Guild, today’s “new apologetics” movement is a lay-run affair.

The “new” new apologetics

Dean Acheson, Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953, titled his memoirs Present at the Creation. I have a sense of what he meant, having found myself, serendipitously, entering apologetics just as the “new apologetics” movement took shape. My book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, which appeared in 1988, was the first sustained response to the inroads made by modern Fundamentalism. It sought to stanch the flow of Catholics to “Bible believing” churches and seems to have been partly successful.

Not surprisingly, the apologetics movement identified with the book concentrated at first on dealing with challenges posed by “Bible Christians.” Today, while maintaining an active engagement with Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, the movement has broadened and responds to confusions and challenges from all quarters, including from within the Church. It’s proving effective—and has been effective, for about three decades now.

Perhaps that explains the intramural Catholic attack on the “new apologetics.” The overt attack began two decades ago (see sidebar p. x) and has not subsided, though its public manifestation quickly became subdued. Until 1997 opposition to the “new apologetics” among certain Catholics had remained low key but nevertheless palpable.

Despite lip service to Vatican II’s call for greater lay involvement, some clerics and religious educators seemed displeased that outsiders were being successful in “their” area, instruction in the Faith. Worse, the outsiders conveyed the Faith in its integrity, not with the doctrinal or moral looseness so commonly employed.

A changing paradigm

In those years, the Catholic Internet and Catholic radio were in their infancy, but they matured rapidly. I suppose we could say they emulated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Topsy: they just “grow’d.” As they grew, the “new apologetics” modified its methodology. Until then, the chief modes of outreach were parish seminars and small-circulation newsletters and magazines. Seminars are still given, though in lesser numbers, and some publications have disappeared, but now most of the outreach is online or on the air.

Catholic radio apologetics, led by Catholic Answers Live but including programs from other apostolates and individuals, may be considered a replication of parish seminars but with much larger audiences. Listenership numbers generally are not available, but certainly at least tens of thousands of people—many of them non-Catholics—listen to apologetics programs on Catholic radio. Compare this to parish seminars, which might see a turnout of two or three hundred.

Some might conclude that parish seminars are inefficient and ought to be discontinued, but that overlooks advantages that seminars have over radio. There is an immediacy and intensity in seminars, where the speaker can be seen and where, more importantly, the listener is surrounded by people whose enthusiasm bolsters his own.

A seminar is a validating experience. It affirms to the attendee that he is not alone, that others have the same worries and questions, and that progress is being made.

This sense of camaraderie isn’t possible through radio, which, by its nature, is a solitary and purely receptive experience. A few listeners may manage to get on the air in call-in programs, but most listeners just listen. At seminars, there is listening but also a chance to hobnob with others in the audience and, more importantly, to catch their excitement and make it one’s own.

I doubt that parish seminars ever will disappear, but they will assume a diminishing role as other means of outreach (such as yet-unborn Catholic television) are developed. The reason seminars will not disappear is that there is a constant need for a multiplicity of approaches.

The influence of the Internet

Some people (I include myself among them) learn the Faith and learn how to respond to challenges to it chiefly through reading. Others prefer to be instructed aurally, whether through radio or seminars or conferences; they like to hear how professional apologists developed their skills and answers. Yet others find they learn best in the vertiginous give-and-take of Internet discussions.

Until supplanted by a more effective mechanism, the Internet likely will be the most influential medium for explaining and defending the Faith for some years. Its apologetical history has been mixed, but that isn’t surprising, since it has been a short history.

Hundreds of Catholic laymen, most with no formal link to apologetics apostolates, have become “accidental apologists” by feeling compelled to respond to attacks on the Faith. Many of them are content to work only with what little they presently know (and many know far too little and so encloud minds as much as they enlighten them), but not a few online writers have outshone professional apologists in their studiousness and ability to construct winsome and compelling arguments.

Not long ago, all electricity was produced at giant, centralized power plants. Today an ever-increasing proportion is produced locally, even at the home. There is a parallel in Catholic apologetics. Twenty years ago the work emanated from a handful of apostolates. Today much of the best work—in book writing, online essays, podcasts, and radio programs—comes from people who work solo, usually from their homes and often on a part-time basis.

The consequences of truth

This is all to the good. The intellectual and moral disarray around us shows that there are far too few workers in the field. There likely never will be too many. (If that joyous day ever arrives, the overstock will be put to good use elsewhere.)

I look back from nearly three decades of full-time apologetics work, with another nine years’ part-time work preceding that. My first overt apologetic act occurred around 1979. (I say “around” because that act—the writing of a tract to counter an anti-Catholic tract that was distributed outside my parish—seemed so inconsequential at the time that I made no note of the date.) For years, my engagement in apologetics must have seemed to others as an exercise in eccentricity or a lapse into nostalgia.

What began as one-on-one work grew to one-on-many and then to one-on-too-many. It was the Topsy Syndrome, and I reveled in it, even as the work took over my living room and then my law office. As my participation in Catholic apologetics formalized into full-time work at the beginning of 1988, I delighted to find others interested in doing apologetics according to their own lights. We cooperated where possible and went our own ways where necessary. So it has been ever since.

Frank Sheed noted that you can’t prevent men from drawing true conclusions from true facts. The true facts of the Faith—doctrines and dogmas—settle in the mind but not comfortably; we demand to know their consequences. We want to know what can be drawn from them, and so we apply reason to truths taught to us or discovered by us. We delight in doing so, as a detective delights in gathering the evidence that solves his case.

“All men by nature desire to know,” said Aristotle, and nothing is more worth knowing than our origin, purpose, and goal. If they are worth knowing, they are worth explaining and defending, when misconstrued or denied by others. The explanation and defense come through apologetics, an honorable and useful profession, one about which I can say, with no little pleasure, that I too was “present at the creation.”


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