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Thirty-Two Flavors of Error

Apologetics is loaded with opportunities to err. Like ice cream, the errors come in a bewildering assortment of flavors. Some are as mild as vanilla, others as shocking to the palate as chunky raspberry-lemon. You can commit vanilla errors endlessly and never be tripped up by them, but a single chunky .aspberry-lemon error can throw you off track, can mislead others, even can sink your career.

There never has been an apologist who has not bungled. The tradition started early. Peter, visiting Antioch, must have been embarrassed when he realized he undercut his own principles when he removed himself from the table of the Gentiles—surely he was doubly embarrassed when Paul upbraided him for throwing a stumbling block in front of new Christians (Gal. 2:11–14). Peter did not hide himself away but went on to spread the faith at the seat of the empire. We should take a cue from this.

I remember with vivid and acute embarrassment some of my own blunders. (A poor memory has preserved me from the pain of recalling a far longer catalogue of failures.) Some of the errors have been of fact; I simply did not know my stuff. More of them have been of facts misstated: the mind thinking one thing, the tongue speaking another. The blunders most regretted are not those of ignorance or of clumsy speech but of tone. What I said may have been true and may have been voiced without tongue-twisting, but it should not have been said at all, or it should have been said but came out harsh instead of gentle.

When I say I take it as a given that an apologist will like “arguing,” I hope you understand what I mean by the term. I use it in the good sense. I do not mean raising your voice and lifting your opponent off the ground by the lapels, trying to shake sense into him. That is not apologetics—it is a misdemeanor. By “arguing” I mean discussing differences charitably, coolly, without pretending the differences do not matter.

Most of our bungles appear in the form of misplaced or misshapen arguing. Our vanilla errors are not too serious. Often they are not even perceived. (How many listeners will realize you erred if you refer to the Reformer as “Fred Zwingli” instead of “Uldrich Zwingli”? The average listener never has heard of him anyway.) But chunky .aspberry-lemon errors might have far-reaching effects.

I know a few apologists who use a slash-and-burn speaking technique, their chief aim being, it seems, to win an argument at any cost. Not smart. “Win an argument, lose a soul,” cautioned Fulton Sheen.

I know other apologists who ought to apologize for engaging in apologetics. Many of the “facts” they relate about the faith are simply wrong; they have not done their homework. They still do not know the difference between the Virgin Birth and the birth of the Virgin. They should be at the receiving end of the instructions, not the giving end.

I know others who seem put off by some Catholic teachings; they end up giving only a partial apologetic, which can lead, at best, to only partial evangelization—not good enough. If the blind cannot lead the blind, then the half-blind can lead them at best half way to the truth.

Of the errors committed by apologists, the greatest may be to fear errors inordinately. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul said (Rom. 3:23). We cannot expect not to err, at least occasionally and in small things. We should not allow fear of erring to dissuade us from the work that needs to be done.

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