Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A simple example of how apologetics works

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 06, 2024

Years ago I used to write a good deal about the art and science of apologetics, or the defense of the Faith. St. Peter told us that we ought always to be ready to “give a reason” (or “make a defense”) to anyone who calls us to account for the hope that is in us. He wrote that we were to do so with gentleness and reverence. Moreover, we must keep our consciences clear, so that when we are abused, those who revile our good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (see 1 Pet 3:15-16). In the past two weeks I’ve come across two other quotations which can be useful to those who attempt to defend the Catholic faith and draw others to it.

The first comes from St. John of Kanty (1390-1473). John was a theology professor who was dismissed from his university because of false accusations, and so worked in a parish for some years before being exonerated and returning to teaching. His prompt solicitude for the poor and suffering became legendary, as did his refusal to lose his temper or give in to any sort of meanness of spirit when expounding the truths of the Catholic faith.

I suppose this theologian’s most famous quotation is: “Fight all error, but do it with good humor, patience, kindness, and love. Harshness will damage your own soul and spoil the best cause.”

Ethos, Pathos and Logos

Those who have made a careful study of apologetics have conveniently used three Greek terms to highlight the three keys to a successful defense of the Faith. The first is “ethos”—that is, the “trustworthy character” of the apologist. If those who defend the faith are cantankerous or mean-spirited, if they are motivated by personal gain, if they display no concern for the well-being of their audience—or indulge in cheap rhetorical tricks or use various kinds of pressure to gain a hold over their audience—then they will not project a trustworthy character, and their audience is unlikely to give them a sincere hearing. In the long run, an effective defender of the faith must exhibit and project a fundamental trustworthiness and concern which makes others more inclined to take him seriously. This citation from St. John of Kanty highlights the “ethos” required to defend and advance the Catholic faith.

It is frustrating, of course, when everyone ignores our learned and gentle explanations and exhortations. Assuming we are not ill-motivated in the first place, even the most sincere defender of the faith can grow frustrated at the obduracy of human hearts, and so we tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To those who can read souls, a degree of anger is permitted in the face of self-serving resistance (as Our Lord proved). But for those of us who cannot even read our own souls, the recipe for our anger is typically some unique combination of self-righteousness and loss of temper. Therefore, if we fail to see positive results from our more courteous interventions, we must suppose that this is not why God permits righteous anger but rather why He invented prayer.

It may well be true that there is not much power in any zeal for souls that does not at least sometimes tempt us to sin. We ought to experience both anger and sadness at the stubbornness with which our neighbors cling to their own fleshly indulgence, cultural errors and worldly convenience. But we ought also to know how to deal with this effectively from our experience within ourselves. So, yes, zeal for souls ought to run strong in us. Like Christ, we ought to be able to say, “I thirst.” But we know that the Devil seeks to twist even our most appropriate feelings. If our zeal for souls leads us to sin, it ceases to be good for souls.

Now, assuming a genuinely noble ethos in the apologist, there remain two other elements. Next comes what we call “pathos”, the attempt to create an emotional bond with our listeners, usually by appealing to their own felt fears or confusion or hopes or joys, or at least by stimulating appropriate feelings which increase interest in our message. Sometimes this can be done by the use of touching stories about difficult situations that cry out for resolution in accordance with the particular spiritual, theological or moral points the apologist wishes to convey. This pathos can also be generated to a degree by good rhetoric—by speaking both well and sympathetically on a subject with a genuine “feel” for one’s audience.

Ethos and pathos are, of course, always in the service of the truth we wish to convey. In other words, ethos and pathos are not developed and deployed simply to increase our own powers of manipulation or to gain approval or fame. Rather, they are ordered to the service of “logos”—the “word” or the “concept”, not our words but what is actually the truth. I mean the very Word and words of God, as known most fully through the Church Christ founded to make Himself present to us.

The apologetics of purgatory

If my first quotation from St. John of Kanty exemplifies ethos, my second quotation exemplifies both ethos and pathos in the service of logos. It is taken from the Second Book of Maccabees, and it provides a perfect example of a truth denied or misunderstood by many non-Catholic Christians as well as many non-Christians—namely the truth about Purgatory. Huge numbers of people regard Purgatory as a peculiar invention on the level of an old wives’ tale—in particular a Catholic invention without any possible basis, an idea cut out of whole cloth.

But that this is not the case can be seen from the history of the Jews, especially as recounted in the Second Book of Maccabees. This can be useful in dealing with those Christians who insist that we must all either be taken straight to Heaven or spend eternity in Hell.

The topic is not unimportant. Though a Catholic might say that he will be happy if he gets into Purgatory—sometimes a rather too convenient attitude when it comes to ignoring smaller sins—the love of God ought to impel us to work steadily at that detachment from sin which leads directly to Heaven. Nonetheless, providing we show an ultimate willingness to accept God and His will, it is both comforting and true that He will purify us in Purgatory rather than send us to Hell. Since at least a great many people must be guilty of unexpiated sin at the time of their deaths, Purgatory is an extremely important reality.

Therefore, here is the marvelous quotation from the Old Testament which confirms that the idea of Purgatory is not a Popish invention. It was known to the Jews even before the coming of Christ, and it neither makes too much nor too little of God’s mercy, justice or grace. The text is found in a book that describes the wars undertaken by Judas Maccabeus to protect the Jews, the Temple and the worship of the One God of Israel:

Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchers of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.
So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering.
In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. [2 Mc 12:39-45]


You can see how the story of deaths in battle provides the pathos that makes this particular passage emotionally engaging. Moreover, the entire account of the courage and leadership of Judas Maccabeus exemplifies the ethos of both Judas and the sacred author who has undertaken to preserve the memory of these noble and courageous deeds. And all of this is in the service of what the author identifies as a sure and certain logos or truth about reality: That praying for the dead is a noble duty which really does help them attain to resurrection and life with God.

Now it is true that some Christian sects do not accept the Church’s judgment that the first two books of Maccabees are canonical—that is, that they are part of the Canon which identifies the writings inspired by God. Nonetheless, this book was written by a Jew 100 years or more before Christ, and it both intentionally and pointedly testifies to the following pre-Catholic Jewish beliefs: That the dead will be resurrected; that sins can be purged from souls even after death; and that it is efficacious for those still on earth to pray for those who have died. This is precisely the Catholic understanding of purgatory, and the myth that this is a peculiar Catholic invention (and therefore ought to be rejected) is effectively exploded.

Call this article a guide to ethos, pathos, and logos in the service of Christ and the Church—or perhaps just an example of how to do apologetics without setting your hair on fire.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Feb. 07, 2024 6:02 AM ET USA

    I've never had the chance to do this, but a good question to ask a non-catholic Christian might be, Where would you go to find the historical explanation for every Jewish feast that Jesus celebrated when He was on earth? Only the Catholic Bible has Hanukkah as part of Sacred Scripture. And so the next question would be, why would Jesus celebrate a holiday that was only apocryphal and not Scriptural? But maybe this isn't the most right I've ever been.