Introduction to Apologetics

Apologetics is a Greek word compounded from apo and logos, meaning “to give a reason for.” St. Peter uses it in his first epistle: “But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason (apologian) of that hope which is in you” (3:15). Some of the Fathers of the Church called the treatises that they wrote in defense of the Catholic Faith “apologiae.”

Definition (Father Hardon’s, modified): “The science that aims to explain and justify religious doctrine. It shows the reasonableness of such doctrine in the face of the objections offered by those who refuse to accept Catholicism. Also called fundamental theology as the science that establishes the credibility of Christian revelation on the evidence of miraculous phenomena and the testimony of unbiased history. (Etym. Greek apologetikos, a defense.)”

Here, we are limiting ourselves to considering apologetics as a defense of the Catholic Faith in the face of an attack from an adversary.

The proper dispositions for engaging in apologetics are piety and charity. We must desire God’s glory because he deserves it and because we love Him. The Catholic Church is the only one that glorifies Him: It is His; we must love it and defend it. Charity as love of neighbor is also a necessary predisposition for effectively engaging in apologetics. That is, we must cultivate a zeal for the salvation of our neighbor based on the love of that neighbor, who has an immortal soul that has been redeemed by the Precious Blood.

Apologetics is very important to the Crusade. It is a tool — one among many — for the Conversion of America to the true faith.

For the rest of this conference, I will enumerate some absolute DOs and DON’Ts that are obligatory in the art of apologetics, then I will elucidate a simple method to use in dealing with objections to the Faith.

  1. Always listen to your interlocutor. He will give you plenty of ammo to use against him in the argument. Chances are, he is not used to people actually listening to what he says. You are interested, because you want to use what he says in attacking the Faith to defend the Faith. Think Judo.
  2. The second DO is related to the first. Never, ever, ever assume you know what your opponent believes unless he explicitly declares it. This will necessitate asking him questions like, “Do you believe in the Trinity?” or “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God?” Do not think, “Well, this fellow’s a Protestant, and Protestants believe X.” Protestants believe whatever they want, change frequently, and often make it up on the spot. I have not yet met a Protestant who actually believes what Martin Luther or John Calvin taught. About the only constant in their beliefs is that Catholicism is wrong. You may also be shocked to learn what the guy actually believes. I’ve met Baptists that believe in Purgatory and Greek Orthodox who believe that the Pope is the head of the Christian Church — which, by the way, makes them Catholic, but that’s another issue. I’ve also had a Protestant tell me that the difference between us is that Catholics have plain Crosses and Protestants have Crosses with Jesus’ body on it. I’m not kidding!
  3. Learn how to resume your interlocutor’s points so that he can validate them. This will sound something like this: “Are you saying that the Catholic Church is wrong for venerating Mary?” or “So, you’re saying that the Catholic Church was actually founded by Constantine in 325 AD and not by Jesus?” You may find that they suddenly deny what they have just affirmed. It happens. They are used to throwing out a sloppily-worded objection, half-listening to a verbose Catholic explanation of the thing, and then saying something non-committal like, “Well, Ralph, you still haven’t convinced me.” This is not rational discourse. Again, assume nothing. Force them to express themselves with some clarity and do that yourself. You will have to ask questions to do this. You will have to get them out of their comfort zone.
  4. Stay on the point. Do not allow the Protestant to drag you into an argument about Purgatory when you’ve defeated his false claims on the veneration shown to Saints. Get some closure on one point before moving onto another. Even if the closure is that the person is now not sure of his position. Frankly, that is often the best you can hope for.
  5. Do not feel obliged to defend everything said or done by Catholics, including important Catholics like Popes, Bishops, and lesser clergy. You must defend God, Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and the Church. But you are not obliged to defend everything done by every Pope in history, all of whom were sinners, even the saints. [Catholics use the word “the Church” like liberals use the word, “Jew.” They do not distinguish between the Church and Churchmen, between those who call themselves Catholic and those who actually believe.]
  6. Do not assume that the other guy knows what he is talking about. Chances are, he knows little or nothing about Catholicism. He learned a caricature of the Religion from his minister or another highly prejudiced and probably ignorant source. You know Catholicism better than he does. Be the expert and don’t let him tell you what Catholics believe. Call him on factual errors.
  7. You have no obligation to assume your interlocutor’s good will. You don’t need to call him evil or ill-willed, but do not be naïve: people do not hate the Church, leave the Church, or refuse to enter the Church because they are good. Besides this, people lie all the time in these kinds of arguments. They fudge the facts, change their arguments while denying that they’ve changed their arguments, etc. If you assume their good will, you will have to contort yourself into thinking that these things are all morally acceptable. You would be courting insanity if you did that.

With those DOs and DON’Ts out of the way, I will give you a three-point method to approaching objections to the Faith. It involves three questions:

1. Is it true?

2. Is it wrong?

3. So what?

Bob, your interlocutor, says “I would never become a Catholic. The Catholic Church killed millions of Jews during the Crusades!”

Is it true? No. Most non-Catholics that attack the Church for the Crusades haven’t the faintest clue what the Crusades were. It was not about killing Jews. It was about killing Muslims, specifically for the purposes of liberating Eastern Christians from Seljuk Turkish oppression, and saving the Holy Sepulcher of Our Lord as a place of pilgrimage for Western Christians. So, you can contradict the fellow and tell him that his facts are wrong: “You are wrong and your objection is baseless. The Crusades had nothing to do with killing Jews.”

But supposing he says, “I would never become a Catholic. The Catholic Church launched the Crusades, holy wars, at the command of the Pope and all war is evil!”

Well, his historical facts are correct, but his assertion based on them is incorrect. War per se is not evil, and there are many Biblical proofs of this, from the Old Testament and the New Testament. In other words, in reply to the question, “Is it wrong?” the answer is “No,” because war is not necessarily evil — though most wars in fact are.

But let’s have him say something else: “I would never become a Catholic. The Catholic Church launched the Crusades. The Crusaders in the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, murdering innocent Orthodox Christians and plundering the place for filthy lucre’s sake! That was pure evil!”

At this point, he has said something factually true. The crime he accuses Catholic of — note Catholics, not properly the Church — really happened and it was really bad. It was so bad that Pope Innocent III castigated the Crusaders in very strong terms for their horrible crimes in shedding Christian blood. But here is where we ask ourselves the third question, “So what?” This does not mean we blithely dismiss the outrage. We literally ask “So WHAT?” In other words: what are the ramifications of this pursuant to the claims of the Catholic Church to being God’s Church? Essentially, there are none. The incident proves what we all already know, namely, that there are bad Catholics in the world. Peter denied Jesus, the other Apostles all ran away at Our Lord’s arrest. St. Paul wrote of many who suffered “shipwreck of the faith.” The book of the Apocalypse was written to a variety of Christian leaders — Bishops — one of whom was told “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.”

Let me give three other scenarios showing how to use these three questions when dealing with objections against the Faith. In the first scenario, we have a badly formed Catholic attempting to answer the objection:

Protestant: Indulgences are the selling of God’s grace.

Catholic: Well I don’t think you understand Indulgences. You see when a Catholic sins, he incurs this debt. Even after his sins are forgiven, he must pay something else. It like when you…”

Prot: You mean when Christ forgives your sins, it’s not enough? You have a debt that Gods mercy doesn’t wipe away?

Cath: Well if you think about it, it’s like a boy playing baseball outside and breaks his neighbor’s window…”

Prot: What’s that got to do with it? You Catholics have a serious problem. Forgiveness is forgiveness. There’s no debt involved except the debt Christ paid for us. Where are indulgences in the Bible?

Cath: Well, they aren’t there explicitly, but…

Prot: Aha! It’s not in the Bible. Why should I believe any of this nonsense?

Here is the correct way to handle it:

Prot: Indulgences are the selling of God’s grace.

Cath: you are factually incorrect. Indulgences are NOT the selling of God’s grace.

Prot: But that’s what you Catholics teach.

Cath: It may be what some Catholics teach, but it is still incorrect, the Church does not teach that Indulgences are the selling of God’s grace. Where did you hear that?

Prot: from my minister.

Cath: Well, he has his facts wrong. I am a Catholic and I know what my Church teaches. That is not the teaching of the Church on Indulgences.

Prot: Well, what are Indulgences then?

The above two examples deal with the first question: Is it correct. What the non-Catholic is saying, in this case, is factually incorrect and he ought to be told so.

Now for an example of question two: “Is it wrong?” — meaning, “is what this person accusing Catholics of — even if true — a wrong, i.e., morally objectionable, thing?”

Prot: The Bible says to call no man father, yet you Catholics call your priests and the Pope father. You are therefore condemned by the very Bible you claim to follow.

Cath: Are you saying it is wrong to call any man father other than God?

Prot: Yes, that is what I am saying!

Cath: If a boy calls his dad “father” will he go to Hell for this one thing alone?

Prot: Well, let’s not be silly.

Cath: I am trying to understand what you mean, please answer my question. If a boy calls his dad “father” will he go to Hell for this one thing alone?

Prot: Well, no, but you’re an adult, you should know better.

Cath: Do you think Stephen the martyr, in the Acts of the Apostles was a holy man?

Prot: Sure, but what’s that got to do with it?

Cath: Because Stephen, after Our Lords said “Call no man father” used the word father 17 times in the Acts of the Apostles referring to people OTHER than God. We actually are following a Biblical principle aren’t we? When Our Lord said, Call no man father,” it doesn’t mean what you say it means does it?

Note that the accusation is correct. We really do call priests Father, and this is something the Church herself endorses. But what we are accused of is morally good, and can therefore be defended by numerous arguments.

Now let’s look at the third question: “So what?” I said earlier that “So what?” means, “what are the ramifications of this pursuant to the truth claims of the Catholic Church?” It can also mean, “What are the consequences for an individual believer?” In other words, it’s taking the opponent’s reasoning to it’s fatal conclusion: “Will I go to Hell for it?” Observe:

Prot: Since there is no Purgatory, it is wrong for you to pray for the dead.

Cath: Really? Are you saying that, assuming I lived an otherwise good Christian life, that showing my love for my dead mother by praying for her just once, all by itself will send me to Hell for all eternity?

Prot: Well, no.

Cath: Then, if it will not send me to Hell, it can not be wrong.

Prot: Well, it’s still wrong.

Cath: You mean I can do something wrong and still get to Heaven? Is that like a venial sin?

Prot: Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as venial sin.

Cath: ok, then if I am doing something that will not send me to Hell, then it is not wrong; by definition.

I hope you see what I did here. We all believe in venial sin, but the Protestant guy doesn’t, so I’ve just shown him that his objection to Catholicism is irrelevant by his own criteria, since the thing he says is wrong has absolutely no negative ramifications. Biblically, of course, religious error has dire and eternal ramifications.

So, to review, I’ve taught you one simple method that involves asking yourself three questions:

1. Is it true?

2. Is it wrong?

3. So what?

Anyone can put these to use.

Coda. I said that you are the expert in Catholicism and your non-Catholic opponent is not. Don’t make me a liar, please. Study your Faith so that your apologetical forays have more fire power. Sister Maria Philomena has been working very hard to formalize and enhance the SAI program. Her good work can be of tremendous help to forming you as a lay apostle.