Karl Keating: In the vanguard of Catholic renewal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 26, 2018

In writing his new 239-page memoir, Booked for Life, Karl Keating has done a great many things well, but I would like to begin by praising a deceptively small feature. How could something as simple and effective as a page-marking ribbon have disappeared from nearly everything but prayer books? Booked for Life has a red ribbon sewn into its binding. It is a typical act of responsibility for this author to send his brain child into the world properly clothed.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers, easily the largest and most effective organization dedicated to Catholic apologetics in the world. He founded CA in 1979 and remained its president until he turned things over to Christopher Check in 2015 (proving that some of us old war horses really can let go, though one person I know who is just a tad older is still hanging on). Keating had a life before Catholic Answers, too. He took a doctorate in law and a theology degree from the University of San Diego and began practicing law in 1976, a profession he continued for eleven years, and which stood him in good stead when Catholics for Free Choice attacked Catholic Answers for allegedly crossing the non-profit line by taking political (aka moral) positions.

Clearly, Keating’s greatest single public contribution to the Church was the use of his institutional savvy and management skills to build what is very nearly an apologetics empire, widely known through the United States and around the world, and now sporting one of the most visited and informative of Catholic websites. It is also a measure of Keating’s decisive personality that he did not hesitate to snap up the domain name “catholic.com” despite the potential canonical question that surrounded the use of the “Catholic” name. The decision has worked out very well.

There is at least one other grand achievement in Karl’s list of accomplishments. Back in the early 1990s (if memory serves), when Karl had a speaking engagement in Washington which I failed to attend because of problems at work, he kindly came out to Manassas with his young son, to chat, to walk around the yard, and to have dinner. It is not atypical that people must track me down in one lair or another if they (inexplicably) wish to see me in the flesh. I was honored that Karl made the effort.

The Book Itself

Booked for Life is subtitled “The bibliographic memoir of an accidental apologist”. Given Keating’s interesting life, surely full of dramatic conflict, I was hoping the book would extend beyond the art and science of apologetics into both his interior life and his more dramatic encounters. But while one can read between the lines, very little of these more personal things are discussed. Still, as a memoir of the books Karl found indispensable over the years, and as the story of how each one filled in a certain range of knowledge or fostered a technique that he needed in his apostolic work, Booked for Life is both enjoyable and inspiring.

Here you will find an appreciation for the works of Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed, Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn, Hilaire Belloc and B. C. Butler, William Jurgens and Johannes Quasten, the surpassingly brilliant John Henry Newman, and half a dozen other nineteenth and twentieth century contributors to the great fund of truth and understanding necessary to defend the Catholic Faith. Here also you will find a wonderful primer on how the apologist must make use of good intentions, absolute integrity, sound technique, Scripture, the Fathers, the precision of dogma, the mutual interdependence of Catholic doctrines, the Church’s deepening understanding over time, and the vicissitudes experienced by God’s people through history. Here, in other words, you will find out what it takes to be an effective defender of the Faith.

Keating has chosen to include long quotations from a good number of the books which he prizes as the best and most useful from his extensive library. Normally, I would regard this as a drawback, since it is so tempting to skip long dense quotes. But in this case the technique is well chosen for two reasons. First, it allows the reader to experience the sublime mastery of English prose, the razor wit, and the commitment to gentlemanly argument which characterized the best of these writers—men like Sheed, Knox, Lunn, Belloc and Newman. Second, Keating is such a fine writer himself that he is able to weave his thoughts through and around these excerpts without ever once stalling the narrative or tempting the reader to skip ahead or, worse, to drop out altogether.

Karl will not disagree when I emphasize that great apologists enter upon their task having read widely different books and having studied widely different disciplines. A rather eclectic group, they excel at presenting different aspects of the Faith to different kinds of audiences and with an emphasis on different motives of credibility. Keating himself notes that the field has come so far over the past thirty or forty years, both in range and sheer numbers, as to place us in an age when specialists are very welcome. Every audience and every question that troubles an audience requires a slightly different approach, a slightly different fund of information, a slightly different sensitivity, a slightly different “hook”.

But Booked for Life explains with incomparable lucidity how one man, whom we may justly call the father of the apologetics movement as we know it today, accomplished the daunting task of becoming a generalist in the field, willing to tackle almost any question on almost any ground under almost any rules of engagement. Throughout, Keating explains what each book gave him, why he needed it at the time, how it fits into the vast range of the task at hand, and even what it inspired him to become.

At the Root

Karl Keating is one of the great Catholics of the era out of which our own work at CatholicCulture.org grew, one of the leading contributors to that vibrant renewal of the Church which was forged during the dark years of the last third of the twentieth century—the years when my colleague Phil Lawler and I were also (with whatever success) attempting to shape fresh contributions to the cause. This “Bibliographic Memoir of An Accidental Apologist” is delightful reading for anyone who wishes to follow in Karl’s footsteps, or for anyone who simply loves Catholic books.

But the term “accidental” does require a footnote. For the author to become an apologist might have been “accidental” in the sense that it was never imagined and initially unintended. But it is far from “accidental” in terms of subsequent accomplishment. Success required faith, prayer, the sacraments, trust in God, immense ability, strength of character, willingness to suffer, perseverance in the face of whatever inescapable weaknesses and failures were his to experience, and just plain unrelenting work.

In comparison with the present moment, we must remember that Karl Keating began his quest when there was very nearly nothing any longer in place on which to base it. For this reason, the personal reality that he was “booked for life” has had a dramatic impact on all the rest of us. As for me, I will unashamedly head the line. I am deeply grateful.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 29, 2018 6:45 AM ET USA

    Hear ye, hear ye! It was a blessing to read Catholicism and Fundamentalism and to learn at Catholic Answers.