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Apologizing to the Masses
Today, while still engaging Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, the “new apologetics” movement has broadened and responds to confusions and challenges from all quarters, including from within the Church. And it’s proving unexpectedly successful. The author provides an overview of the development, current status, and importance of the new apologetics movement within the Church. The future, we now see, belongs to those who are unafraid to proclaim and defend the fullness of Catholic truth.
Sometimes, upon being introduced as a Catholic apologist, I ask my listeners whether they know what an apologist is. Eyes are lowered in shame and heads shake, so I explain, with a straight face, that “an apologist is someone who goes around the country apologizing for being a Catholic.” Most people laugh, but some don’t. They think I’m being serious. To them, “apology” simply means “I’m sorry.”
Chalk it up to ignorance of Greek roots — and to the fact that, for a third of a century, apologetics has been in disrepute. As late as the eve of Vatican II, apologetics was taught in seminaries and Catholic colleges, where it was understood as the art of using reason to explain and defend the faith. Then, almost overnight, it disappeared from the curriculum. Worse, it disappeared from practice. Even those trained in it declined to use its techniques. No longer was a challenge to the faith met head on; it was sidestepped through an appeal to a misunderstood ecumenism: “We no longer should argue in favor of the Catholic faith; instead, we should try to understand the faith of non-Catholics” — as though the one precluded the other.
Soon there was a gaping hole in pulpit teaching, adult education, and publishers’ lists. At first nothing seemed amiss. But, just as it is true that ideas have consequences, so it is true that the lack of ideas has consequences. When the faith no longer was explained, when challenges were no longer met, when reason was laid aside in favor of a mushy irenicism, interest in Catholicism flagged. Those who no longer understood the faith saw little reason to practice it. Those who found their questions unanswered looked for answers elsewhere. Catholics voted with their feet and became lapsed Catholics or non-Catholics.
From this disarray has arisen the “new apologetics” movement.
But it is not the first movement to have that name. Today’s revival of apologetics can be traced to a revival in the 1920s, when there arose a new interest in using reason to advance the faith in terms accessible to everyday believers and non-believers. In the English-speaking world this interest coalesced around the Catholic Evidence Guild, headquartered in London. Members of the Guild (almost exclusively laymen) became well-known for setting up “pitches” in Hyde Park, where they took on all comers. Apologetics was saved from the dry theology manuals of the preceding century, and it turned into a movement, dubbed the “new apologetics.” In the inter-war years many Catholics found their faith reinvigorated by a clear explanation and defense, and many non-Catholics found themselves coaxed Romeward.
Frank Sheed, probably the most influential Catholic apologist of our time, noted that in the first half of this century, “a Catholic, merely as a Catholic, was an object of interest. . . . A Catholic speaker faced an audience of which practically every member had a solid and stateable — and stated — set of anti-Catholic prejudices.” People were divided into two groups. One held what we now would call the prejudice of the Fundamentalist: The Catholic Church subverts the authority of Scripture, elevates Mary artificially, and is guilty of “inventing” countless doctrines and practices that are antithetical to authentic Christianity.
The other group “accused the Church of denying man’s animal ancestry and of thinking that the world was made in six days” — in other words, the secularist view. “Both groups united in the view that the Church was hostile to virtue, intellectual freedom, [and] science.”
Then after World War II came a sea of change. While the traditional anti-Catholic forces — Fundamentalism and secularism — continued to exist, they no longer were representative of the larger portion of society. “People as a whole,” said Sheed, referring to the situation at mid-century, “do not care much who is put in place of Christ, what commandment gets broken, how anyone goes to God. . . . Indifference lies over all such things. They have not come to deny the existence of God or the supremacy of Christ; they have simply turned their mind elsewhere. They are not sufficiently interested to doubt.”
Suddenly the Catholic apologist found himself facing a crowd “which is almost totally apathetic.” It retained a hostility to Catholicism, but a hostility “from which all the sap has drained out. It is a hostility without vehemence and without shape — a slight discoloration marking the place of what was once a great wound.”
This was the situation on the eve of Vatican II. The tumult that followed the Council confirmed, in the minds of many, that even the type of apologetics that was successful earlier in the century should be abandoned, in favor of nothing. With unilateral disarmament came not an increased appreciation of Catholicism, but a hardening of opposition to it: a growing anti-Catholic sentiment among “Bible Christians”; a now-public attack from secularists; and, among the indifferent, an intellectual “nimbyism” that insisted that Catholic ideas should not intrude on the “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” complacency of middle-class life.
And so over the last twenty or thirty years, as the Church seemed to implode, Catholics left in droves. Half a lifetime ago there may have been many lapsed Catholics, but there were few apostate Catholics. The dissatisfied may have stopped attending Mass, but they didn’t attend services elsewhere. Today there are thousands of “Bible churches” in which the majority of the congregants are former Catholics. Other Catholics, adopting as their motto Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”, have ended trying to reconcile their faith with beliefs and practices that are incompatible with it.
The absence of the promotion of an intellectual component to the faith did not result in a slumbering Catholicism, but in a hemorrhaging Catholicism. Adult Catholics, deprived of solid catechesis, proved vulnerable to the arguments of proselytizers. This vulnerability, widely recognized but not widely understood, created an opening for a revival of apologetics. The revival came not at the urging of Church authorities, but spontaneously from the ranks of the laity, many of whom came to realize that their lot and the lot of those like them would not be improved if they kept to a “Let Father do it” stance. Even more than in the era of the Catholic Evidence Guild, today’s “new apologetics” movement is a lay-run affair.
Dean Acheson, Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953, titled his memoirs Present at the Creation. I have a sense of what he meant, having found myself entering apologetics just as the “new apologetics” movement took shape. My 1988 book Catholicism and Fundamentalism was the first sustained response to the inroads made by modern Fundamentalism. It sought to stop the exodus of Catholics to “Bible believing” churches and seems to have been partly successful. Not surprisingly, the apologetics movement identified with the book concentrated at first on dealing with challenges posed by “Bible Christians.”
Today, while still engaging Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, the movement has broadened and responds to confusions and challenges from all quarters, including from within the Church. And it’s proving unexpectedly successful. Perhaps that explains the recent Catholic attack on the “new apologetics.”
Until last April opposition among certain Catholics had remained low-key but nevertheless palpable. Despite lip service to Vatican II’s call for greater lay involvement, some clerics and religious seemed displeased that laymen were being successful in “their” area: instruction in the faith. Worse, the laymen conveyed the faith in its integrity, not with the doctrinal or moral looseness employed by many religious educators. The subterranean displeasure bubbled to the surface at a public lecture given by Prof. Thomas P. Rausch, a Jesuit teaching at Loyola Marymount University. Speaking at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and later at the country’s largest catechetical congress, he lambasted the “new apologists” and named names: Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Dale Vree, Thomas Howard, the late Sheldon Vanauken, and me.
I have answered Fr. Rausch’s attack in a booklet called No Apology from the New Apologists. I need not repeat its argument here. What I wish to note is that his attack signaled not just a heightened opposition, but an acknowledgment of the success of today’s apologetics. Those who sought to ignore it can no longer do so. Observers on all sides realize (but may not admit) that the methodologies and ideas of “progressive” Catholicism have failed. What was touted as the wave of the future just 30 years ago has ended up as the wave of the past. The future, we now see, belongs to those who are unafraid to proclaim and defend the fullness of Catholic truth.
Keating, Karl. “Apologizing to the Masses.” Lay Witness (February, 1998).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Karl Keating is the President of Catholic Answers, a lay organization which explains and defends the beliefs, history and practices of the Catholic Church. He also engages in public debates with leading anti-Catholics, and publishes This Rock magazine. Karl Keating is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1998 Lay Witness