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The Twentieth-Century Apologetical Rollercoaster

The Scripture verse most commonly associated with apologetics is the well-known exhortation by our first pope: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

That word defense is translated from the Greek apologian, from which we derive such words as apology, apologist, and apologetics. Over the last hundred years or so, apologetics has taken radically different forms, almost disappearing at times, only to make a fairly recent comeback. Admittedly, apologetics must always adapt and change according to cultural needs. However, much of the rollercoaster ride experienced in the twentieth century could have been avoided had apologists adhered fully to both aspects of St. Peter’s exhortation: “defense” and “gentleness and reverence.”

The rise of defensiveness

William Cardinal Levada, when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, noted, “If apologetics was criticized and largely abandoned in the wake of the Second Vatican Council for being too defensive or too aggressive, it is perhaps because the admonition to proceed with ‘courtesy and respect’ [citing 1 Pet. 3:15; cf. ‘gentleness and reverence’] had too often been ignored” (The Urgency of a New Apologetics for the Church in the 21st Century).

Indeed, shortly after Vatican II, German theologian Heinrich Fries slammed Catholic apologists for seeing the opponent “simply as an alien, divisive force that is inimical to one’s own position” (The Development of Fundamental Theology, 58-59). In other words, the apologetics of the pre-conciliar era lacked a pastoral approach of “gentleness and reverence,” being too focused on “defense.” As a result, it came across as offensive, shutting others out.

From the time of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, modernism, and various forms of secularization had begun taking hold in Western culture, and religious faith was increasingly gained not as a response to the rational arguments of apologists but to the simple testimony of the lives of devout believers. The International Theological Commission, reflecting on this era, recently remarked:

Catholic theology reacted defensively against the challenge of Enlightenment thinking. It gave priority to apologetics rather than to the sapiential dimension of faith, it separated too much the natural order of reason and the supernatural order of faith, and it gave great importance to
“natural theology” and too little to the intellectus fidei as an understanding of the mysteries of the Faith. Catholic theology was thus left damaged in various respects by its own strategy in this encounter” (Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria, 70).

Indeed, by the mid-nineteenth century apologetics had evolved into a dogmatic science, a purely intellectual work. This environment and ensuing attitude came to a head as modernism crept into the Church. Joseph Ratzinger would later surmise, “Was the intellectual position of ‘anti-Modernism’—the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new—to be continued?” (Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 44)

A change of approach

Catholic modernist Maurice Blondel wrote around the turn of the twentieth century that the apologetics of the day “is incompetent, and metaphysics, at least in its traditional form, is inefficacious when we are trying to bring back the men of our time to Christianity” (The Letter on Apologetics, 127). He realized that, for apologetics to be successful, more than rational argument was necessary: the dynamics of humanity had to be considered. His proposal was for an intrinsic rather than an extrinsic approach to apologetics, a “method of immanence.” This met with direct condemnation from Pope Pius X (see sidebar).

Pius X condemned apologetics that relied on Blondel’s method of immanence; he essentially identified apologetics as the rational proof of doctrine prevalent in the day. (Note that the pontiff’s reflection is disciplinary in nature, not doctrinal.) But French theologian Ambroise Gardeil and others began to make a distinction between the purely defensive approach to “classical” or “traditional” apologetics and a modern approach to “practical” apologetics. Such analysis kept Blondel’s method alive for future apologists to refine. Protestants such as Swiss theologian Karl Barth built on Blondel’s approach and led to its resurgence among Catholics. The magisterium took note of this as can be seen in Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis:

And as in former times some questioned whether the traditional apologetics of the Church did not constitute an obstacle rather than a help to the winning of souls for Christ, so today some are presumptive enough to question seriously whether theology and theological methods, such as with the approval of ecclesiastical authority are found in our schools, should not only be perfected, but also completely reformed, in order to promote the more efficacious propagation of the kingdom of Christ everywhere throughout the world among men of every culture and religious opinion (Humani Generis, 11).

The stage was set for a formal revamping of apologetics and, with that, the birth of a new “fundamental theology.”

Vatican II and ecumenism

Naturally, this new approach to apologetics, which took a keen interest in the individual being dealt with, ushered into the Church an official spirit of ecumenism. Indeed, ecumenism would be a primary theme of Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger explained what this did and did not mean:

“Ecumenical” must not mean concealing truth so as not to displease others. . . . “Ecumenical” must mean that we cease seeing others as mere adversaries against whom we must defend ourselves. . . . “Ecumenical” means that we must try to recognize as brothers, with whom we can speak and from whom we can also learn, those who do not share our views. . . . The Council had resolutely set itself against perpetuating a one-sided anti-modernism and so had chosen a new and positive approach (Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 45-46).

The Council’s ecumenical approach rejected the negative polemics of the old apologetics and promoted fruitful dialogue instead of debate. Catholics were encouraged to focus on areas of agreement with non-Catholics. Writing after the council, French theologian Claude Geffre noted, “[T]oday we are more aware of the mistake of using an apologetic method derived from the religious controversies of the past and collecting external motives of credibility to explain how and why a definite concrete person should accept the faith” (The Development of Fundamental Theology, 14). Thus it seemed that the old apologetics was gone for good, having been abandoned in favor of the new ecumenical approach. Harsh criticisms of the old apologetics flew, and even the term apologetics was rejected in favor of “fundamental theology.”

The dangers of radical ecumenism

As apologists—or fundamental theologians—focused on an intrinsic approach to the conversion of souls, an extrinsic defense of the faith waned. Writing shortly after the close of the Council, Fries noted that “theologians can no longer . . . tackle fundamental questions ‘apologetically,’ regarding them as error, apostasy or sinfulness. . . . Today the main concern is not to rebut error. It is to create a basis for discussion, to open up doors, to listen and ask questions, and to seek answers to these questions” (The Development of Fundamental Theology, 58).

His tone clearly decries a sense of something missing: Apologists were missing the ability to adequately offer a defense of their faith. The new fundamental theology could explain the Faith, study it ever deeper, and teach it, but it could seemingly only offer it out as simply one option among many potentially legitimate ones.

Jesuit professor Rene LaTourelle explained, “In the present ecumenical climate . . . the first step is not to refute but to create the conditions needed for drawing closer and listening to each other. . . . [The] approach is now one not of confrontation but of presenting positions and propositions” (Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, 326). These “positions and propositions” sounds almost too shallowly friendly, offering little or no error correction, at least not as the apologists before had done. Contrasting this early state of fundamental theology with that of the turn-of-the-century apologetics, the focus had been turned toward “gentleness and reverence” and away from any real “defense” of the Faith.

The need for a more traditionally apologetical approach became apparent. Dominican professor Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., noted that fundamental theologians “tend to avoid reference to the moral miracle of the Church or even to miraculous signs and prophecies altogether” and they “seek a different and more subjective route to faith” hoping for an end in “a correlation between subjective experience and the interpersonally shared experience of a public community, because the human subject is essentially social and political” (Choosing a World-View and Value-System, 214). Hoping for it but apparently not attempting to persuade it.

The new apologetics

In the decades following Vatican II, theologians came to the realization that, while the old approach to apologetics needed some work, it could not be scrapped altogether. As our first pope attested, apologetics is necessary, but it must be carried out with pastoral wisdom. The apologetics of a hundred years ago focused on the defense of the Faith but neglected the necessary gentleness and reverence. The later ecumenical approach to fundamental theology had the opposite problem.

The Pontifical Council for Culture in 1994 recognized the need for a resurgence in genuine apologetics—an apologetical approach that defends the Faith with gentleness and reverence:

[T]here is also need for a renewed apologetics, taking into account many of the fruitful developments within the field of fundamental theology over recent decades. Excessively rationalist approaches have been abandoned, but frequently nothing has taken their place. Hence the role of reason as an avenue towards faith has been unduly neglected. It is possible to evoke fresh and converging roads to faith, that start from basic human experiences, and that communicate in a language that reaches people in today’s cultures (Speaking of God to People Today, 4.3.ii).

Pope Benedict XVI articulated the need again in 2008:

In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the Church needs to promote at every level of her teaching—in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction—an apologetics aimed at affirming the truth of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason, and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin and for an authentic and fulfilling life. In a word, the gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems.

Thus, the modern Church recognizes the need for a new apologetics, and in 2010 Cardinal Levada specifically identified both the theological and pastoral concerns of apologetics as he noted their overlap with fundamental theology and pastoral theology:

[A]pologetics has a double place in theology: It finds its place in fundamental theology, where the praeambula fidei contribute to the foundations of theological inquiry, and in pastoral theology, where theology is “inculturated” (to use a popular post-conciliar term) in preaching, catechesis and evangelization. In both of these areas apologetics has all but disappeared, but the need for it is perennial, as a look at the history of Christian thought shows. Hence, in my view, a “new” apologetics is not only timely but urgent from both the scientific and the pastoral point of view (Urgency of a New Apologetics for the Church in the 21st Century).

In this short instruction, Levada encapsulates the fullness of Saint Peter’s exhortation to defend the faith with gentleness and reverence, a model for practical apologetics in the world today.


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