Answering apologetics questions for a living can sometimes feel a bit like riding a unicycle on a high wire, fifty feet up, no safety net, with only a tiny umbrella for counterbalance—in a hailstorm. When done well, it can draw oohs and ahs from onlookers. When you falter, the results can also be spectacular but not in a good way.
I started thinking about this when my Facebook newsfeed exploded with reactions to a question and answer that appeared earlier this week in the "OMG!" column, written by religion writer Lisa Miller for Crux, a web site started by The Boston Globe a few months back to cover Catholic news. The question was from a mother worried that her pre-teen daughter was becoming "obsessed" with the occult:
My daughter is at that age (pre-teen) where she is intrigued with the occult. But it seems to be bordering on an obsession. She watches that "Long Island Medium" TV show, checks books about witchcraft out of the library, and goes over to the house of a friend who owns a Ouija board for "séances."
Ms. Miller took what might be called a humanistic approach in answering her inquirer's question. She focused on the details that this is a young girl, on the cusp of adolescence, experimenting with what the girl might consider to be harmless fantasy.
Many children in their pre-teen years find escape in fantasy. On some level, your daughter recognizes that her life is about to get a whole lot harder. As she grows up, she will have to take on more responsibility. Her actions will have long-term consequences. How she treats other people will matter in deep and enduring ways. Not to mention the obvious: Her homework load will increase exponentially. All of this is very scary. No wonder she's seeking an escape hatch, a reversion to a more carefree time of pretend, dress-up, and imaginary play.
This observation is indeed a valid one. Kids who are undergoing stressful periods in life often do seek escape—and, occasionally, healthy escape—in imaginary play. Sometimes they do it as a way to release anxiety; othertimes, as Miller noted somewhat indirectly, they do it to test boundaries and challenge authority. Had this child been obsessed with science fiction, Minecraft, or The Lord of the Rings—all of which Miller used as comparators for this child's interest in the occult and witchcraft—there likely would not have been an uproar over her response.
Dismissing the occult
Unfortunately, Miller equated the occult in general, and witchcraft in particular, to science fiction and fantasy, basically minimizing the occult and witchcraft as little more than "pretend, dress-up, and imaginary play." It must be noted though that Miller did acknowledge Church teaching on the subject, though mostly as an aside:
The Catechism takes a dim view of what it calls "interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums." And, to be sure, an intense fantasy life is very occasionally an indicator of trouble, a slippery slope into dangerous behavior—but not usually.
Although I think it must be said that Miller tried to be helpful to her inquirer, and showed a desire to calm fears, in this case I'm afraid she failed to take seriously the objective nature of the occult and witchcraft, which is what this child was becoming involved in. To begin with, the Catechism of the Catholic Church's warning about occult activities is far more "dim" than its brief mention in Miller's column might suggest:
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone (CCC 2116).
Witchcraft specifically cannot be dismissed lightly as imaginary play, nor confused with the fantasy magic found in J.R.R. Tolkien novels. It is both a methodology and an ideology. The methodology consists in casting spells and invoking spirits (i.e., sorcery and divination); the ideology consists in finding gods and goddesses both in nature and within the self. Practitioners are very serious about what they call "the Craft" and actually would be quite offended by Miller's dismissive characterization of interest in their religion.
Crux's biography of Lisa Miller does not indicate any special training in theology (or apologetics for that matter). She has written on religion, but her professional background is in English and journalism. So perhaps those who have been expressing outrage at what they consider a lackluster theological response might cut her a break.
Let's focus instead on how the answer might have read differently if the question had been submitted to a Catholic apologist.
An apologetics approach
When I read through questions submitted to Catholic Answers for an apologetics response, I am asking myself three questions:
What is the core apologetics concern? Here at Catholic Answers, this apostolate exists to explain and defend the Catholic faith. Part of that task includes explaining the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings on actions and ideologies at variance with the Catholic faith. In this case, the core apologetics concern is clear: What does the Church teach about dabbling in the occult?
What are the unique circumstances for this inquirer? Inquirers do not often ask questions merely for the sake of satisfying curiosity. Oftentimes there is context to their question, what might be considered the story behind the question. Although stories can sometimes be told at excessive length, it is important to distill the main plotline because the answer you give has to be appropriate to the inquirer's unique circumstances.
In the question submitted to Crux, the story is this mother's concern for her young daughter, who is the individual who has been dabbling in the occult. Had the inquirer instead been someone upset because her church was hosting a fortune-telling booth at the parish's Halloween carnival, a different set of concerns would have had to be addressed.
Where can this inquirer find more information? We cannot hope to fully satisfy an inquirer's needs in a Q&A on the Internet, and so I often try to think of resources the inquirer can consult for more information. This is also helpful to the rest of the audience who reads the Q&A and then thinks of more questions they have on the subject.
Answering the question
Putting this together, how might I have answered the Crux question had it been submitted to Catholic Answers? Here is one possibility, with glosses showing where I address the core apologetics concern, the inquirer's unique circumstances, and then point the inquirer in a direction where she can go for more information:
Dear Elvira's Mom,
[Apologetics concern]: Your mother's worry about your daughter's interest in the occult and witchcraft is valid. The Catholic Church teaches that occult activity is forbidden to Christians (CCC 2116), and that sorcery, "by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others" (CCC 2117), is "gravely" opposed to religious virtue.
[Unique circumstances]: Your daughter is at a vulnerable age right now, when she is not quite the child she once was and not yet the woman she will become. It may be that the occult and witchcraft appeal to her because they offer power over her life and over people in her life with whom she lacks control (such as you and her grandmother). I urge you to explain to your daughter both why occult activity is forbidden—both generally for Christians and specifically in your home—but also to talk with her about the hopes and fears she might believe can be overcome by becoming adept at divination and spellcasting.
[Bottom line]: Perhaps it doesn't seem so right now, but your daughter's interest in spirituality is a good impulse. She still needs you though to set appropriate boundaries and to teach her the faith into which she was baptized. Rightly-formed faith and trust in God is a far more powerful aid to facing life's uncertainties than recourse to the occult ever could be.
[Further resources]: For more information, I recommend that you read Wicca's Charm by Catherine Edwards Sanders, a Christian journalist who interviewed pagans on the modern appeal of the occult.
Walking the tightrope
I opened this blog post by noting that I felt some sympathy for Lisa Miller, and I do. Readers of Internet advice columns can be brutal in criticizing responses that they believe miss the mark for any number of reasons. Like Miller, I too have occasionally been savaged for answers I have given to apologetics questions. In one memorable case, a blogger was outraged that I suggested that a husband and wife, who were fighting over a family matter, might consider speaking to a marriage counselor.
When an apologetics answer inspires widespread controversy, it is usually because the writer has focused too much attention either on the core apologetics concern or on the unique circumstances, oftentimes to the exclusion of the other. In Miller's case, I believe she overemphasized her response to the circumstances and neglected (perhaps unintentionally) the core concern about the dangers of the occult.
While readers have a right to express concern about an answer that they believe misses the mark, it would be more constructive to express that concern without rancor toward the writer. What can you do to respond when you see an apologetics answer you strongly disagree with?
Think about it. First of all, avoid the temptation to emote. Spreading invective around cyberspace about the writer, her commitment to her faith, her intelligence, or the orthodoxy of her employer may feel satisfying in the short term, but really does nothing to address the problem. Rather, think carefully about what the writer said. Did she make some good points? Was she trying to be of assistance? Even if you ultimately disagree with the substance of an answer, there is very likely something you can praise in it.
Write your own response. When people ask me how they can learn apologetics, I often suggest they use the question-and-answer columns in Catholic magazines as practice by writing out their own responses to the questions posed. If you feel strongly that a writer answered a question incorrectly, set fingers to keyboard and put in the hard work of crafting your own response. At the very least, such an exercise may help you to understand that this job is not as easy as it looks.
Submit a rebuttal. In most cases, if you follow the first two suggestions I've given, you may realize that there is no reason to formally complain about an answer you disagree with. Perhaps you'll find that there is enough value to the answer to offset the problematic aspects. Or perhaps you'll find that the question is tricky enough that you can't offer a better response yourself. But in cases in which you believe something must be said, then write a rebuttal. Here are some tips for creating an effective rebuttal. Send it with a polite cover letter either directly to the writer or to the publisher.
Take stock. Finally, use these kinds of situations to evaluate how you offer advice in your own life. Are you too sympathetic to a family member's difficult circumstances at the expense of standing up for your faith? Or do you bludgeon others with a doctrinal hammer, without concern for the burdens they are carrying? Your first concern should always be "the log that is in your own eye" (Matt. 7:3–5).