An effective apologist isn’t necessarily a successful one in the sense of having a lot of convert notches in his apologetical belt. Jesus himself didn’t make a whole lot of converts because the soil he was sowing in wasn’t receptive. But he was faithful to what the Father wanted him to do, so in that sense he was successful. We’re effective apologists if we’re faithful to what God wants to do through us: We rely on him, we have the right goal in mind, we use the appropriate means, and we leave the rest to God. Now, habits are tendencies and behaviors that are acquired through repetitive action. These are the skills—or, if you will, the virtues—of apologetics. Habits imply practice, doing something over and over. There’s really no substitute for experience. Let’s look briefly at these seven habits.
We can study the faith and learn the arguments, but if we don’t pray we’re missing the point. An apologist should pray regularly. He should enter into the prayer of the Church. He should receive the sacraments, which is a form of prayer in accord with the practice of the Church. Prayer fosters our communion with God and our love of God and our acknowledgement of our dependence on God for his grace. If we love God we will be motivated to properly communicate the truth.
Start simple. Start with the documents of our faith—sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now, we need to study these things just as Catholics, to grow in our relationship with Christ. But the apologist brings to these things a particular angle: he is trying to respond to objections to the faith and to questions people may have about the faith. I think it’s good to use secondary resources like books and tapes. When we’re firmly rooted in our own faith, then we need to study what others believe to understand where they’re coming from.
We sometimes hear the word “dialogue” used in to mean sort of a vague, aimless search for common ground. That’s not what I mean here. I’m using the word in the sense Pope Paul VI used it in his encyclical Paths of the Church where he said “dialogue” is another name for the Church’s mission of evangelization. It’s the way a truth that’s living in one mind becomes a living reality in another mind. Paul VI mentions some of the characteristics of Christian dialogue: clearness, meekness, trust, and what we call pedagogical prudence.
This means being clear about what the Church teaches. Sometimes people will try to obscure the truth, maybe because they lack faith in what the Church teaches. Other times they make a misjudgment about where to begin in presenting the faith and so leave non-Catholics with a misperception about Church teaching.
Faith is the virtue by which we believe in God and what he has revealed. Apologists are defending the faith, and there can be a temptation to fall back on the weight of our arguments rather than upon faith in God’s word. There is any number of things about our faith we can’t prove. We can present arguments or answer objections, but we can’t prove the Trinity or transubstantiation from reason alone. These things rest upon faith. We can show that faith is reasonable, that God has left signs and he’s acting here. But ultimately faith is involved.
Hope is the virtue by which we trust God to provide what we need to live according to his purpose and to get to heaven. Hope is relevant to apologists because we have to rely on the Holy Spirit and not simply on our own abilities to change people’s minds. We certainly have to hone our skills, do our research, know the arguments—but ultimately we have to rely on God. It’s God who gives the grace of faith to the person we’re talking to.
This is virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and we love our neighbor as ourselves for the sake of our love of God. Why is that important? It should serve as our motive for why we engage in apologetics. In 1 Corinthians chapter 13 Paul lists all those things we can do—we can have the faith to move mountains, we can give our bodies over to death—but if we don’t have love, we’re nothing. Charity is really the form of all the virtues of the Christian life. With respect to apologetics it should shape and order what we do. It’s no substitute for study—we must be clear about what the Church teaches—but it has to always guide how we engage in apologetics.