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Apologetics: Forgotten Science, Lost Art

by Jeffrey A. Mirus, Ph.D.


Dr. Mirus developed and taught a model required course in apologetics as a professor at Christendom College. This tract is the fruit of his experience.

Publisher & Date

Christendom College Press, 1983

Any attempt to resurrect the dead practice of apologetics must begin with a conscientious effort to state clearly exactly why it is that apologetics is most necessary in our own time. Why is it that the Faith needs particular defense in the twentieth century West? What in the 1980's is keeping so many men and women from God and from the fullness of His Truth which is found within (and only within) the Roman Catholic Church? The answer to such questions is not at all easy; yet the task must begin here.

I think we shall not be too far wrong in our analysis of this basic problem if we begin by saying that modern man is in headlong flight from God. Even those Christians who strongly embrace a non-Catholic creed often fail to come to Catholicism primarily through a sharing in certain modern prejudices which cause men to fear the great Encounter, such as the prejudices against authority and dogma. But such strong Christians of the mainline Protestant or Evangelical type generally attempt to advance Christ's work in the world, and so they ought not be the first concern of Catholic apologetics today, and are not the primary focus of this guide. I repeat, then, that our chief apologetical problem is that men are in headlong flight from God, and I maintain that this statement adequately describes most secularists, most cultists and other "seekers," and nearly all Christians of the modernist bent. There is no greater commentary on our unfortunate condition than Francis Thompson's remarkable poem, "The Hound of Heaven," which was written by a somewhat decadent urbanite (after he ceased to be decadent) not unlike the typical twentieth century man. Thompson described how we flee God "down the labyrinthine ways" of our own minds—or seek fulfillment in drugs, nature, the secrets of the universe, or any one of a number of other pleasurable and desperate distractions alluded to in the poet's account of his own flight from Christ. And the reason our brothers in the modern age find the approach of Heaven's Hound so terrifying is precisely Thompson's reason: they are so far removed by culture from an appreciation of the Catholic life, that they actually do believe the Lord denies us certain pleasures only to make us poorer. They do not see that "All which thy child's mistake / Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home."

With St. Teresa of Avila, contemporary man needs to learn that in turning away from a beautiful flower to gaze upon the Redeemer, one really does find all the beautiful flowers, perfect and unblemished, and full of life.[1] And if it is the task of apologetics to defend the Truth of the Faith so that men will finally embrace that Truth (or embrace it more strongly), then the apologist must in some way teach that lesson. This puts before the twentieth century apologist an awesome task. Not only must he argue doctrine with those who reject it, but he must argue the fundamental principles of religious life with those who have lost all sense of it. He must at once clear the mind for receiving truth and clear the heart for loving truth. Thus if apologetics is a forgotten science, the apologist is also a lost artist. A complicated problem indeed: let us take each aspect in its proper turn.

Logos: Apologetics as a Science

Traditional manuals of apologetics have used three convenient but now-forgotten Greek terms to divide their subject into its essential parts: logos, pathos, and ethos,[2] which we shall take up as occasion demands. If we look at apologetics as a subject or discipline rather than as a task, we see at once that its central matter is logos: logic, propositions, truth, words, the Word. Apologetics is first and foremost some sort of argument by which the apologist makes specific truths acceptable to the minds of others. As such, it is vital that reason be satisfied, that the argument proceed properly from point to point until a sort of "staggering probability"[3] in favor of the point of Revelation in question brings the unbeliever to admit its truth.

It is here that apologetics must have—and does have—the character of a science, and must be examined briefly from a technical point of view. For the subject of apologetics ought to be a body of well-confirmed explanations of duly accepted facts (which is the very definition of a science).[4] On the one hand, apologetics takes the facts of Divine Revelation and explains them in such a way as to seem worthy of belief by the man who denies or doubts. Traditionally, apologists have spoken of clearing away the rational obstacles to faith, of presenting logical arguments, arguments from authority, or arguments from experience to prove that a sensible person can, or even ought to, assent to a point of Revelation. On the other hand, apologetics also uses the commonly accepted facts of ordinary life and explains them in such a way that they appear compatible with God's Revelation, in some cases so precisely compatible as to point like a well-aimed arrow to Revelation's truth.

Let us take but one example: the Catholic teaching on original sin. From the believer's point of view, the apologist will carefully explain the teaching, how it derives from Scripture (e.g., Gen. 1-3 and Rom. 5), and how it has been developed by the Church (e.g., Humani generis). He will then begin a transition by insisting on the doctrine's compatibility with reason and justice, explaining man's original relationship with God and the logical consequences of rebellion. Finally, adopting now the non-believer's point of view, the apologist will unveil the doctrine's compatibility with mercy and love by suggesting the spiritual advantages of man's new state, and will stress that this doctrine of human nature weakened by original sin is entirely consonant with the unbeliever's own fair observations of the current condition of man.

As indicated by our example, this feature of apologetics as proceeding always from a double point of view wilt not be contradictory, for Truth, wherever it is found, cannot differ with itself. In fact, the central task of apologetics is neither more nor less than to relate the facts accepted by the believer to the facts accepted by the non-believer in such a way that these facts seem but opposite sides of the same coin, in such a way that Truth appears to be what in fact it is: the paradigm or outline of reality. Describing it yet another way, we see that the apologist calls into play a series of facts and explanations which demonstrate to the non-believer that there is no basis for his non-belief—that the Revelation in question does not contradict other known facts, that it does not contradict itself, that it is not meaningless or absurd, that it does fit well with what the non-believer already knows to be true, that it does have logical arguments in its support, that it does base itself on significant evidence, that it does have solid authority on its side. In so doing the apologist scientifically demonstrates the compatibility between Revelation and the facts accepted and understood by the nonbeliever, and in direct proportion to the tightness of that compatibility, the apologist establishes the appropriateness or the obligation of belief.

It is important to realize here that the apologist does not merely proclaim the Faith (like a good evangelist or a bad dogmatist); he is under no illusions about the role he plays, for he knows that the Faith is full of mysteries which cannot be completely "proved" and that to give this Faith to anyone is far above his capability; with John the Baptist, he knows that the Faith comes from one far greater than he.[5] True, he may have to proclaim the Faith like an evangelist, and even repeat it somewhat stubbornly like a dogmatist, and he may even be, with Isaiah, a voice crying in the wilderness—but he is still only making straight the way of the Lord.[6] For regardless of the deep psychological, cultural or emotional reasons why a man does not embrace the Faith, his objection to it will always take the form of a proposition: This or that point about Catholicism is illogical, or self-contradictory, or meaningless, or absurd, or incompatible with known facts; therefore this or that point about Catholicism is unworthy of belief. It is the apologist's task to fill in the valleys and shave down the peaks of such rational objections. It is the apologist's scientific task to dispose the nonbeliever's mind to the acceptance of Faith.

This rational, logical and scientific character of apologetics as logos could have been predicted from the dogmatic character of Revelation. That is, for God's message to be understood by man at all, it must be expressable in human speech—in sentences or propositions.[7] Indeed, Revelation has always been refined into specific teachings, and these teachings have ever been defended by apologists, all of which is quite correct. But at the same time, not even the apologist can escape the double-meaning of the ancient term of logos which describes his principal work. For logos does refer to words and propositions and arguments, but it also refers to the Word, not a proposition or an argument, but a Person, and the fullest Revelation of God at that. In approaching the Logos, in approaching Christ the Lord, the human mind will unquestionably break down His characteristics into separate descriptive propositions, but the goal will rightly be to know the Person, not the litany of His personality traits. In the same way, the apologist must dispose the mind to the acceptance of Faith in Christ precisely by successfully overcoming the rational stumbling blocks to these propositions which describe Christ. However, the final and personal goal will color his entire approach, will cause him to proceed in some ways but not others, to emphasize some truths over others, to open the mind by some techniques but not others—as we shall soon see. But before these vital yet secondary aspects of the discipline of apologetics can be introduced, it is necessary to look briefly at what points of Faith cry most for defense in our day, and at what sorts of arguments will best serve the apologist's case.

Basics of the Faith

Like St. Peter, we must speak today to men who do not yet believe in Christ. Often, our audiences will not even have heard much about Him. Now insofar as people have not heard of Christ, or have heard of Him only in a vague or inadequate way (as I am convinced is the case of many young people in secular families today), our job is not apologetics, but evangelization. To do that job effectively, we must turn to a manual far superior to this one, Evangelii nuntiandi[8] by Pope Paul VI. But insofar as people have heard of this Christ even just enough to dismiss Him with a superficial shrug, then we have somewhat unceremoniously entered the realm of apologetics, and the Church gives us no uniform manual for that.

What is it, then, that we are primarily to defend? Obviously, it is Christ Himself, His Divinity, and His Lordship. But are there not many who appreciate Christ in some lukewarm sense but are kept from intimacy with Him by all that "nonsense" about an institutional Church to which we must belong and submit? If so, then the apologist's second task is to defend the Church, its legitimacy, purpose and beauty. But are there not many who see the sense of some sort of continuing Christian body who are yet again barred from full initiation by the "ridiculous" claims of pontifical authority and dogmatic precision? If so, then the apologist's third task is to defend the principle of dogmatic authority as implemented by the Roman Catholic papacy, its foundations in Christ, its essentiality to the Faith, its service to souls. These three—Christ, the Church, and the Dogmatic Papacy—are at once the soul of Catholicism and the chief stumbling blocks to the acceptance of the Faith in the modern era. Successfully defend these, and the mind, at least, is prepared for the Divine gift. Very well, how are they best defended?


To learn to defend Our Lord, we do well to look at how He defended Himself. He came into the world preaching hard sayings and wild dreams;[9] ultimately, he claimed to be the Promised One, the Messiah, God's Son, God Himself,[10] and for this he was rejected, whipped, crucified and buried by some, but, more to the point, believed by others.

I suggest that Our Lord made Himself believed by three clear techniques (in addition to having fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament).[11] First, He proved His Divinity by the unblemished sublimity of His life and teachings. Who knew this man to have any fault? Who ever saw Him weaken or crack under the enormous pressures of a three-year apostolate in which He had no place to "lay His head'"?[12] Who had ever heard such teaching, with such precise application to each person's thought that He was said to read hearts, with such clarity and force that His authority seemed self-evident, with such dizzying heights and startling lack of convention that His doubters first hoped He was mad, but knew at once that He could not be so.[13] In all of this Our Lord operated in a human way, but in a degree which utterly exceeded the merely human capacity, and for this He was increasingly recognized by those who knew Him well as precisely what He claimed to be."[14]

This approach, taken by Christ, may also be profitably taken by the apologist—with results the more effective because these arguments go beyond themselves to a personal attractiveness in Christ which will always assist in the apologetical task. But Christ also had a second approach or method, the method of miracles. Little need be said about this, because every apologist will already have his favorite miracles, and will have no need to read a catalogue here. It suffices to point out that Christ's miracles were always used not for entertainment or personal profit but to confirm His claims, as when He cured the paralytic to demonstrate His power to forgive his sins, or cured the Centurion's servant to prove the power of Faith, or multiplied the loaves to teach about the Eucharist, or changed bread and wine into His body and blood to institute the Eucharist.[15] In all, Christ's miracles certified His teachings, including His teachings about Himself. They may still be used by apologists today.

Finally, Christ's passion, death and resurrection give, among other things, a third approach for the apologist to take. Here the apologist will mainly wish to call attention to the authenticity of the sign of Jonah[16] which Christ deliberately offered to a faithless age—His Resurrection after three days in the bowels of the earth, which He predicted on several occasions, and fulfilled in one blinding flash.[17] There is no need to overlook the important fact that Our Lord's passion completes the lofty character of His life and teaching, even as His Resurrection fulfills the promise of His other miracles. But a detailed defense of the Resurrection itself is perhaps most effective, for, as St. Paul says, if Christ is not risen then our Faith is vain.[18] Such a detailed defense is readily available for study elsewhere[19] and need not detain us here. But the Resurrection is vital, as St. Peter proved when he made it the principal argument in the very first attempt at apologetics on Pentecost.[20]

As a final note, it must be remembered that all of these defences of Christ frequently require the establishment of the authenticity and reliability of the books of the New Testament. The case here has long been proved and merits study by any apologist, but it is somewhat technical, and likewise readily available in another place.[21] We turn, then, to an outline of the defense of the Church.

The Church

Any thoughtful apologist will grasp at once the essential link between Christ and the Church in the three major defences of the Church which can be easily made. First, one can argue from Scripture and history that Christ founded a Church; second, that it is precisely the Catholic Church which has the marks of this true Church; third that the Catholic Church has so many great qualities, shown so consistently throughout such a long span of years, that it must have a Divine character. This third way, of course, enables one to defend the Church intelligibly even to one who does not yet believe in Christ.

The foundation of the Church by Jesus Christ is clear from both Scripture and the historical record. In any fair reading of the Gospels, one sees that Our Lord established an institutional structure to carry on a specific religious ministry,[22] and that He intended this structure and ministry to carry forward even after He was gone.[23] The Epistles sometimes refer to,[24] and always presume,[25] some sort of ecclesiastical organization, as do our first chronicles of the early Christians, the Acts of the Apostles.[26] Later documents, be they heretical or orthodox, from the pens of such early figures as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and St. Cyprian of Carthage, all not only take a Church for granted, but give many details about its organization, leadership, sacraments and goals.[27] The compelling evidence of Pope Clement of Rome (the fourth pope), exercising his disciplinary and teaching authority as early as 96 A.D. through his letter to the Church in Corinth, is simply the first in a long line of non-Scriptural documentary supports for the foundation of a Church by Christ—a Church very much like the present Catholic Church. The unbroken tradition of the Catholic community from the present back to Pentecost is a further proof of this same thesis.

A thorough analysis of the marks of the Church requires considerable space.[28] but it is not too much to say that the traditional reference to Christ's Divine desire that his disciples exist in a body that is one,[29] holy,[30] catholic (universal),[31] and apostolic[32] are matched impressively by the following characteristics of the Roman Catholic Church: 1) her remarkable unity in authority, structure, doctrine and essential practice across time, place, culture, state in life and social station; 2) the sanctifying effects of her doctrine and sacraments, and her fruitfulness in good works and holy persons of every kind; 3) her chronological, geographical, social and doctrinal universality as she has won adherents to the entire faith in every time, place and group; 4) her ability to trace her teachings and her ministry back to the apostles, including the vital apostolic succession of papal, espiscopal and priestly supernatural powers. It will be easily seen that all other religious bodies find themselves partly or totally lacking in one or more of the marks. (Indeed, most other churches are even named for a particular man, place or doctrine whereas the true Church has retained the providential name of Catholic.)[33]

Finally, arising from a consideration of the Church's marks comes a conviction that she is somehow special and exalted. How is it that even now she maintains unity against all natural obstacles; that she has remained stable over two thousand years in the face of every form of external attack; that she has been able to propagate herself from the first under the most difficult of conditions; that her doctrine has been always sublime, her sacraments symbolic of the grace they confer, her authority conducive to the salvation of souls, her character so unsurpassably holy; and that she has been marvellously and inimitably fruitful in all manner of good works, projects, purposes and people since her foundation? These aspects of the Church's existence are all uniquely attractive to men, who see that they are impossible unless the Church has within it the Spirit of God. For this reason, such aspects are called motives of credibility—they make men want to believe.[34]

The Papacy and Dogma

Having defended Christ and the Church, the apologist will nearly always encounter a great stumbling block in modern man's reluctance to accept authority over his own mind, especially religious authority precisely defined. Before one can proceed to the fullest possible defense of the papacy, it is perhaps best to clear the way by proving the importance, utility and even necessity of dogma. The discussion necessary for a complete proof is technical[35] and hinges upon a proper understanding of Revelation, as has already been suggested. But in outline we may say that dogma is the end process of any reasoning upon faith, that when a man seriously inquires into the meaning of his faith, he will begin to define his general conception of Christ and Revelation in the form of various propositions which together accurately convey the truth. Thus for a man, as for the Church, doctrine (or teaching, or refining into propositions) develops or unfolds over time. The end product of a fruitful development is a sentence so precise and well-worded that, with respect to the point it addresses, it is completely and unalterably true. This is dogma; it is, again, the goal of any truly religious man, and it is of immense and obvious help to everyone who seeks the truth.

But how do we know that a dogma, which represents a truth coming from beyond man, is correct? To paraphrase Cardinal Newman, there is no reason to presume that the conditions of faith for the first Christians were so different from those of our own time that they had a living, infallible guide (Christ) and we have not.[36] We have, indeed, the infallible vicar of Christ, the Pope, and the apologist has four basic types of arguments to use in his defense. Again, the actual arguments are detailed elsewhere,[37] but the types may be listed as follows: 1) Scriptural: all texts which first establish Peter's special place in Christ's plan after Our Lord's Ascension may be used by inference to apply to those who succeed Peter in office;[38] thus we might argue that since Christ knew that Peter would die, yet entrusted to him powers vital to the life of the Church, He must have intended that these powers should be passed on to successors in Peter's pastorate (the Diocese of Rome); 2) Historical: the documentary evidence of the earliest Christian writers and fathers testifies to the existence and authority of the Bishop of Rome (Pope) as Peter's successor; we need take only one example here in St. Cyprian's third century exclamation about the papacy: "the See of Peter and principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise. . ., to whom faithlessness can have no access;"[39] 3) Ecclesiotogical: following Newman's suggestive remark, it can be logically argued that the structure, purpose and guaranteed endurance of the Church until the end of time[40] require the existence of a monarchical and infallible teaching and directing authority; surely, for example, a universal error in faith on the part of Christians unprotected by an infallible guide would be a triumph of the "jaws of death" against the Church;[41] 4) Motive of Credibility: the extraordinary logic and consistency of papal teaching under more than two hundred popes during nearly two millenia provides a strong suggestion of the papacy's Divine protection.

In constructing any of these arguments—for Christ, for the Church, for the Papacy and dogma-apologists should carefully reason upon Revelation so that its reasonableness, compatibility with authentic facts, and general suitability for belief may be clearly shown. We are still very much in the realm of apologetics as science. But we may say now that while this scientific character is the essential quality without which apologetics cannot exist at all, it is nonetheless not the whole of the apologist's work. We turn, then, to the second major element of the practical defense of the Faith, under our second Greek term, pathos.

Pathos: Apologetics as an Art

All human beings enjoy beauty; it follows that the apologist should attempt to make his message as beautiful—as appealing—as possible. Yet in our day orthodox Catholics seem to be leery of using the rhetorical arts in the service of Truth for three lamentable reasons: a) the general decline in literary standards over the past two generations; b) the feeling that the Faith is so much under fire that anything beyond the baldest assertion of truth is frivolous; and, c) the habit of insisting so much on the importance of objective reason in a subjective age as to rely on logic alone. Still, all men do love beauty, and paying some attention to the attractive power of one's defense of the faith is, in the long run, the most efficient way to proceed.

There are many other reasons to pay this attention to attractiveness, the chief being that most people fail to easily accept rational argument precisely because there are deeper reasons for their failure to embrace Christianity itself. In Evangelii nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI stated the case well when he noted that evangelization is very much a question of "affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind's criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interests, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation."[42] To be successful, the apologist must consider very carefully how he can shape his message so that he overcomes by degrees the various sources of resistance within the heart and soul. Such impediments to faith may be called stumbling blocks, and insofar as they go beyond mere ignorance, simple lack of understanding, or lack of reflection (all of which are addressed by apologetics as a science), these stumbling blocks are of two types: preconceptions and predispositions.

When a man reacts negatively to the Church's teaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation"), he will probably reveal an understandable but no less erroneous preconception, or prior notion, about what those words mean with respect to who is and who is not "within" the Church. As soon as he encounters apologetics as a science—that is, as soon as he understands all the terms and sees how this doctrine fits into a total Catholic understanding of the problem—his difficulty will disappear, for in fact the doctrine excludes from the possibility of salvation only those Catholics who willfully and knowingly abandon membership in the Church and those non-Catholics who fail to take seriously their responsibility to seek the truth and live virtuously.

When, however, a man is alienated from the Church because he "knows" that Catholics worship images, we are very likely dealing with years of anti-Catholic conditioning as well as misunderstanding, and also with hidden motives for not clearing up such a simple confusion, for which the preconception that "Catholics worship images" is merely the symbol or the excuse. While an explanation of the natures of God Incarnate, the holiness of the saints, the composition of man in body and soul, and the sacramental principle may do some good, the apologist in this situation will generally need to add something to his message to get the man's attention in the first place, and to keep his interest. These more serious preconceptions can spring from a variety of causes: cultural or family conditioning, bad experiences, or willful but unrecognized blindness to the truth. In varying degrees, a certain persuasive power added to the basic message will assist greatly in overcoming the problem.

So too with predispositions, which present even more difficulty than preconceptions. A predisposition is simply an attitude toward a question which tends to settle it before the question is really examined. Clearly, someone may be predisposed to reject Catholicism in part or in whole for a variety of reasons: bad experiences, conditioning of various types, intellectual laziness, moral weakness, or even dislike of the apologist! Here again, apologetics as an art must come into play, and what the ancients called pathos must be used. Pathos has no direct equivalent in English. It refers to the emotional quality that a speaker imparts to his message, a quality which makes his audience actually want to hear and accept what the speaker has to say. As used here, the term is somewhat more broad, and refers to any attractive quality in an apologetical presentation which tends to cause a non-believer to accept the apologist's points almost before his mind has analyzed their reasonableness. It refers, in a word, to persuasion. Just as "to convince" literally means to "strongly conquer" the mind, so "to persuade" literally means to "make sweet" to the whole person, and in this simple return to the Latin roots of the words, there is a great and obvious lesson.

Apologetics as an art then is the crafting of the central message or argument with all the tools of persuasion one can call into service without crossing the delicate line between making an informed convert and manipulating the convert's will. Persuasion begins with good grammar and syntax, and proceeds through the finer points of rhetorical style: it learns from the genres of literature how to introduce things in a striking manner (perhaps a startling fact or amusing story), develop things with some sense of poetry, suspense, or drama, and build to a conclusion while using some emotional quality which tends to form a bond between the audience and the apologist. Alt of this can be studied in a good English class, except perhaps for the point about engaging the emotions. Here one example will show what I mean:

Suppose you are a believer attempting to convince a group of serious Jewish friends that Christ is Divine. Will you not at once stir up in them anew a holy reverence for all the prophecies they themselves accept about the coming of the Messiah? Will you not remind them that they know you well, that you are not a wild-eyed enthusiast, and that you are a witness to be trusted, thus tightening the bonds of friendship? Will you not refer to the tragedy of the crucifixion of such a good man with whom they are themselves already familiar, and remind them of the startled joy of the disciples on the third day? Will you not, finally, even joke with them in the course of the discussion, so that the strain of the differing viewpoints remains manageable? If so, you will be following precisely the approach of St. Peter on Pentecost when, reminding the Jews that the apostles were fellow Israelites who had witnessed the same events as they had, and playing upon his audience's memories of the great prophecies, he presented a neat and logical argument for the Messiahship of Christ—but took care to point out to everyone that it was too early for these heady apostles to be drunk![43]

When the apologist couples persuasive power with a proficient use of the previously-outlined motives of credibility concerning the Church and Christ, his potential for making effective arguments is greatly enhanced. He will alienate fewer among those he can defeat in debate, he will attract more among those he cannot defeat, and he will bring more people closer to the truth.

Special Problems

In the preceding discussion, I have attempted to define the character of apologetics as a science, indicate the central arguments needed to defend the most important points of the Catholic faith, and suggest the sort of artistic efforts the apologist must make to have maximum effect. In so doing, I have also addressed our introductory problem—man's flight from God, his fear that acceptance of Christianity wilt leave him poorer than before. I have said, in effect, that a scientific apologetics will put the mind of the unbeliever at rest by showing that the principles of faith enrich rather than weaken his reason, that a well-practiced apologetics can bring elements of beauty, joy and emotional kinship into the unbeliever's life, and that apologetics based upon motives of credibility will draw men to Truth precisely by exposing them to the innate strength and attractiveness of Christ and the Church which they had not seen before. There is much more to be examined, however, if the apologist is to address thoroughly this fearful condition of modern man with respect to religion, and in this our first concern must be to analyze the specific fear that haunts people today, and the specific forms their flight takes.[44]

Perhaps the single most inclusive name for what people are afraid of both in general and with respect to Christianity is suffering. This is in many respects no different than at other times in history: People do not want to suffer, and they shrink from it. Moreover, people instinctively attempt to adopt a general view of life which explains and conquers suffering, something which is also the self-conscious goal of any serious search for meaning amid the difficulties of human life. Indeed, since the historical disintegration of the Catholic world view, various religion substitutes have been developed which now serve as the vehicles or the objects of the flight from God, and these religion substitutes each have a solution to suffering at their very core. They, along with suffering itself, make a special problem for the apologist which C.S. Lewis called the "problem of pain,"[45] believe there are three contemporary religion substitutes to be especially noted.

By far the oldest is Progress. Having its origins in the 17th century, the notion of inevitable Progress has become a major world religion with a variety of forms.[46] Currently, the twin branches of Progress are technological materialism and evolutionism. The former holds that through modern man's ever improving understanding of the material laws of nature and his ever increasing technological mastery over nature, people will surely and progressively enjoy longer life spans, better health, greater leisure, easier and more affluent lives—in short, a gradual escape from suffering and death. The latter holds that all of nature is inevitably unfolding into greater perfection through time. By evolutionism here I do not mean the problem of whether God brought forth creation in an evolutionary or an instantaneous manner, which is still a matter open to competent discussion among Catholics,[47] but rather the quasi-religious or wholly secularist notion that we are all achieving material (and, for some, moral and spiritual) perfection through a sort of mystical evolutionary process.[48] Under both forms, the god of Progress promises absence of suffering, but I believe, to use Belloc's word, that the Progress myth is now primarily a "survival"[49] of a bygone age, and that the apologist should not fear to attack it with full force. For everywhere this notion is finally receding before our very eyes: global evils astonish man as never before, scientific studies strongly suggest that we have reached the upper limit to the human life span,[50] and the mighty West—mother of Progress—lies in economic ruins. Progress is becoming increasingly unsatisfying as a substitute religion.

A not entirely new arrival, but still younger substitute, is psychology as religion,[51] which currently takes the form of best-selling psychological selfism. Developed in the work of such theorists as Fromm, Rogers, Maslow and May, psychology has been popularized into an unscientific religion which tries to change the truly limited self into a sort of temple of transcendent awareness which gives the person the assurance that he is now coping with all his fears and anxieties in such a way as to inevitably produce acceptance, growth, inner peace and success. Psychology has come a long way from its early days of atheistically explaining religion away as both wish-fulfillment and guilt-projection. In its more popular forms it is now the religion of the mass of the middle class, with its own salvific pattern of sin (neurosis), confession (therapy) and new life (self-actualization). The apologist must recognize that the attraction of psychology as religion arises from a deep fear of personal inadequacy on the part of so many in today's unsupportive culture and, despite the false confidence it provides, the apologist must deal with this religion substitute by attempting to initiate the unbeliever into a warm and supportive community, or at least into an individual Christian relationship, while at the same time explaining firmly and patiently the true nature of religious principles and how they operate to transform human life.[52]

Within the Church, both of the previously-mentioned religion substitutes often take the form of Modernism,[53] a painfully prolific source of efforts to explain away the very points of Faith the apologist sets out to defend. Infecting as it does every rank of the Church (except the papacy), Modernism is a great difficulty for the apologist not only because it can bewilder the unbeliever when he seeks information about the Catholic Faith, but also because it confuses so many Catholics about the very nature of the Faith they already profess. Paradoxically, nearly any non-Catholic who is interested in listening to an apologist is willing (indeed has perhaps been effectively conditioned) to take Catholicism as something authentically defined—for good or ill—by popes. Consequently, Modernism's impact on the nonbeliever can be combatted simply by noting that the Church, like any other community of men has its divisions, but that papal authority is guide to its real teachings, and that the non-believer really ought not to waste his time on presentations which differ from the official Catholic line. The apologist will, in effect, defend the papacy only after the non-Catholic already accepts it as the arbiter of Catholicism. Within the Church, however, the task will be quite different. Here the apologist will have to launch an immediate and powerful defense of papal authority even before he can reach an agreement with his audience about what Catholicism is. In either case, of course, the problem—though serious—is manageable.

We return, then, from what people are fleeing to and examine again what they are fleeing from: suffering. Suffering is not only the great fear, but the great rationalization. It has driven people to pursue false gods, and caused them to retreat from Christianity which—as is obvious to any sane man—has suffering at its very heart. Also, it has caused men to repeat endlessly the old charge against God, the charge that no God who is good and worthy of love could allow suffering to exist the way it does today.

On one level, C.S. Lewis' treatment of the problem of pain is the best short answer to this charge. We do need to be reminded that the gross sufferings of mankind are felt only as individual sufferings by each individual, and that, since Christianity teaches that man is dependent upon God for his perfection and fulfillment, it is altogether consistent for a good God to permit men to be reminded through pain that they are not self-sufficient or perfect, so that they are more likely to turn to God and be truly happy in the end. We need to reflect as well on the nature of original sin, the existence of fallen angels, and how the evil in the world is indeed the result of God's permissive and not his active will. Every apologist— indeed every Catholic—should study the problem of suffering so as to be able to meet rationally the continuing concern of unbelievers on this point. But as a Catholic (which Lewis was not), the most effective apologist will conclude his inquiry and explanation with that peculiar but traditional attitude of the saints which makes suffering into an opportunity and a joy.

For suffering was clearly at the center of Our Lord's mission, and those who would be his true followers must embrace more than the mere temporary withdrawal symptoms of turning from vice in order to seek higher, and ultimately more satisfying, goods. Christ hardly suffered because He had sinned; rather, he suffered in service to others, specifically as a redemptive act, and St. Paul teaches clearly that we can use our own sufferings "to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ."[54] Prayerful reflection on suffering will enable the apologist to teach even this as a motive of credibility, as a point of attractiveness for Catholic faith and life. For if he can capture in his presentation but a small particle of the vision of the mystic, he will make the nonbeliever see that suffering too has its positive aspect, and that he who accepts it with faith and understanding has embraced a noble life.

The Social Dimension of Apologetics

To round out any guide to apologetics which claims to touch at least lightly all the major aspects of its subject, it is necessary, especially in our own time, to take account of one great fact. I mean the fact that most men are bound up in secular activities, in pursuit of the goods of this world, most of the time, so that religious principles may seem to be irrelevant or at least relatively unimportant to their lives. We must consider, then, the unabashed horizontalism of our age.

By horizontalism I refer to the more or less complete exclusion of the supernatural from ordinary affairs, such that all activity is directed along lines from man to man, and very little from man to God. The result is a modern society which goes about its political, economic, social and cultural business as if the principles of the Christian Faith have nothing to contribute to the proper completion of this business. Thus numerous public persons adopt the self-contradictory pose of not "wanting to impose personal views on others" through appropriate legislation or executive action, which is only the contemporary inversion of the equally fatuous remark of Lord Melbourne, Protector of Queen Victoria, to the effect that: "No one has more respect for the Christian religion than I have; but really, when it comes to intruding it into private life . . . ."[55] The point here is that the theoretical irrelevance of religion to the public order is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if religious principles are not actively applied to current affairs, then every school boy leaving his mother's knee will learn very quickly from experience that religion is irrelevant to the larger life of men. And he will likely conclude, therefore, that religion is not worth much at all.

Should any otherwise orthodox Catholics be in doubt on this point, we could cite numerous encyclicals to prove that the popes have consistently taught that Christ's kingship over all creation means something very important to the public order: it means that Christians have an obligation to work on specific issues to order the affairs of society along the lines of Christ's teachings; and it means that no state or society will have true peace, liberty or happiness unless it is so ordered.[56] Thus Pope Pius XI praises Catholic Action as a fruit of piety, states that the Church alone possesses the power to combat effectively the materialism which threatens society, points to the problems of war, economy, education, and marriage as requiring vigorous work by Catholics for proper solutions, and laments the timidity of otherwise good Catholics who are reluctant to engage in conflict with secularists under the banner of Christ the King.[57] In Quas primas, Pius XI further states that "it would be a grave error . . . to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs. . . ."[58] And lest anyone think this authority is limited strictly to matters of precise Revelation, Paul VI states categorically in another context that "no member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law."[59]

Such arguments will convince sincere Catholics, but I introduce them forcefully here only to make it plain that the apologist must take seriously the social dimension of the various principles of faith if he is to speak effectively to an age which lives almost exclusively on the horizontal plane. It must be demonstrated to people who might find religion otherwise irrelevant that beliefs have consequences, and that, just as current practices are based on secular beliefs, so too the practices of men must become increasingly based upon Christian beliefs if true progress in the social order is to be made. This insistence upon, first, the legitimacy of the Church's authority to teach principles governing the natural order and, second, the need to apply such principles vigorously, is vital to an integral understanding of what it means to be Catholic—and so vital to apologetics.

At the same time, a certain caution is in order. The apologist must take care to defend as Catholic only those principles of social life which the Church has enunciated already, mostly in her encyclicals of the past century,[60] but also in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and recent addresses of Pope John Paul II.[61] One must make an important distinction between the defense of the Church's role in the public order, including the specific defense of principles she has carefully defined,[62] and the defense of any specific application of these principles, about which good men can in many cases (though not all) disagree. Thus, to take a current example in the United States, the apologist will as apologist defend the principle that abortion is evil, that it ought not to be permitted by law, and that the Church must be followed in this regard, but when it comes to defending a particular proposed amendment as the Catholic position, he will cease to be an apologist and in fact exercise his own fallible judgment of prudence. (He may of course legitimately argue that the amendment in question is the solution most compatible with the principles all are bound to recognize, but this would not be apologetics.)

The application of principles is a matter which involves the gathering of disputed facts and the exercise of uncertain judgments about how best to achieve a Catholic goal in a particular set of complex circumstances. Sometimes there may be several available solutions compatible with Catholic principles, sometimes only one, sometimes no obvious solution at all will be immediately found. But one principle is clear: while the apologist must speak clearly to the problems of the public order, based especially upon the injunctions of Scripture and the teachings of popes and councils, he must not unnecessarily offend unbelievers of differing points of view by pretending, under the guise of apologetics, to be defending principles of faith which are in reality conclusions of his own.

Having thus suggested the importance of the Church's teaching on the social order to effective apologetics in the late twentieth century, I wish to emphasize that I am not here recommending different priorities from those outlined in the section on the "Basics of the Faith". It is of far greater importance to convince an unbeliever of the Divinity of Christ, legitimacy of the Church and authority of the Popes than to prove the correctness of a particular social teaching, and this for three reasons. First, the Christ-Church-Authority issues more completely and clearly speak to the needs of the soul and its eternal salvation than do the social teachings of the Church; second, if the unbeliever is won over to Christ, Church and Authority, the social teachings (like alt the authoritative teachings of the Church) will follow naturally; third, the social teachings of the Church will often mean very little to the man who does not first accept the Church itself. Still, an understanding of the Church's wisdom as applied to the social order ought to be very attractive to men caught up in the perpetually unsatisfying conflict between "left" and "right," for the Church offers an alternative that transcends both. Insofar as her social teachings are attractive,[63] their defense will serve to provide yet another motive of credibility drawing unbelievers closer to the fullness of Catholic truth and life.

Conclusion: Ethos and Successful Apologetics

Even a casual glance at the preceding discussion about how to use the social teachings of the Church in apologetics reveals a crucial point about the relationship between the apologist and the unbeliever which must become the final word in any serious discussion of this discipline. It was asserted that few men would listen wholeheartedly to Catholic social teaching who did not first accept the Church and its authority. This suggests that, before an apologist can successfully defend the faith to anyone, he must know what the person believes already and what he does not yet believe (and, if possible, why).

Now this is merely the first indication of a larger, more important, and less obvious point—that there must be a bond between the apologist and the unbeliever such that the unbeliever can identify in some way with the apologist, if he is to follow the apologist's lead. The first (and least difficult) step in the formation of such a bond is the apologist's sincere effort to find out where the unbeliever stands and to start his arguments from a point of common ground. Who would begin defending Catholicism to a sincere Protestant by defending the Divinity of Christ? Who would attempt to prove that the Catholic Church is the true Church as the first step in defending the faith to an atheist who believes in neither God nor Christ? The first error would be an insult; the second would make the case impossible to understand. And indeed, the apologist, to maximize his effectiveness, ought to go much farther than this: he ought to attempt to empathize with the unbeliever's lack of faith and the various reasons for it, so as to approach him with an appropriate and sympathetic tone, style and structure of argument which respects the delicacy of his very real human condition.

When the apologist can establish a kind of bond of identification between himself and the unbeliever, he is said to possess ethos. Ethos differs from pathos in that while the second is a quality of the message, the first is a quality of the man. To take a modern caricature, nobody trusts the fat man in the outrageous tie, smoking the big cigar; but nearly everyone trusts Pope John Paul II because he appears to be genuinely concerned for their welfare, personally above self-interested party programs, honest and good. He is, somewhat as Christ was, the kind of man troubled people bring their problems to when they want both a sympathetic ear and an objective judgment.

The apologist who has ethos has a charismatic sort of integrity which is instantly felt by those to whom he is speaking, so that they identify with him, trust him, are personally attracted to him, and are instinctively willing to follow him. And the curious thing about this ethos is that it cannot be shammed or put on; people see through that in an instant. No, it must be real; and it is generally acquired in one way and one way only: by becoming holy.

There are a number of reasons for becoming holy, not least of which is St. Peter's wise advice to Christians to live with clear consciences so that those who defame their way of life in Christ may be shamed.[64] Where apologetics is concerned, it is only practical to try to practice what one teaches. More than this, however, the apologist's difficult task requires that he grasp intellectually a great many complex propositions and their interrelationships, that he see almost as a visionary their total meaning, and that he understand with both mind and heart the situation of the unbeliever to whom he addresses his work. For this our intellects need to be enlightened and our motives purified by grace, and we must sanctify ourselves so that we may become fountains of God's grace to others. Finally, this holiness which produces ethos is essential to the apologist's own salvation. There are many who know the faith, who can even present convincing arguments in its favor, who will not enter into the Kingdom of God.[65] It would be the greatest of tragedies if any apologist, so apparently busy about the task of convincing others of the truths of Faith, should suffer the loss of his own soul.

St. Peter cautioned all of us to be "ready with a reason for the hope" that is in us,[66] and to follow his advice the apologist must not only have his reasons, but also his hope—his prayerful confidence in the fulfillment of the promises of God. We are told by St. Luke that the hearts of the disciples burned as Our Lord opened the Scriptures to them on the road to Emmaus,[67] but I don't think it likely that it was either the science of his arguments or the art of his eloquence which inflamed those hearts. No, it was His ethos, His own holy love blazing forth and warming the lives of others. Like our modern unbelievers, the disciples were in a sense running away. But nobody runs from hope and love, and so they returned at once to Jerusalem. As with Christ, so too with every Catholic apologist who allows Christ to live in him:[68] it seems not improbable that, like the discouraged disciples of old, today's fearful and doubting travellers will also return.


1 See, e.g., St. Teresa's poem "Let Mine Eyes See Thee."

2 (If memory serves correctly, one work of this kind is Rev. T.J. Walshe, The Principles of Catholic Apologetics (London: Sands & Co., 1926).)

3 John Henry Newman develops this theory in his Grammar of Assent.

4 See W.H. Marshner's five part series, "Is Theology a Science?" in Common Faith, Aug.-Dec. 1982, esp. Oct. (Christendom Publications).

5 Jn. 1:27; Mt. 3:11.

6 Is. 40:3.

7 See W.H. Marshner, "The Defense of Dogma" in Reasons for Hope (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1978, 1982).

8 Apostolic exhortation promulgated December 8, 1975.

9 E.g., Mt. 5:1-12 (Beatitudes) and Jn. 6 (Eucharist).

10 E.g., Lk. 4:21; Jn. 9:36-7, 14:8-11, 8:58, 6:62, 17:5; Mt. 26:63-66, etc.

11 E.g., Ps. 22 and 110; Is. 7 & 53; 9:1,6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 12:10, 9:9; Dan. 7:13.

12 E.g., Mk. 6:30-31; Mt. 8:20; Lk. 6:22, 9:22.

13 Mt. 12:25, 8:29; Jn. 10:21, 8:48-52; Lk. 9:47; Mk. 3:20f.

14 Jn. 6:69.

15 Lk. 7:9-10; Mt. 9:6, 15:32ff, 26:26-28.

16 Mt. 12:38-40.

17 Mt. 17:23, 20:17-19, 26:32, 17:9; Jn. 2:18-22.

18 1 Cor. 15:17.

19 See J.A. Mirus, "The Resurrection and the Divinity of Christ" in Reasons for Hope, op. cit.

20 Acts 2.

21 See W. H. Marshner, "The Authenticity of the New Testament" in Reasons for Hope, op. cit.

22 Consider the calling of the Twelve, and Mt. 18:18; cf. Eph. 2:20; Mk. 16:16; Mt. 18:17.

23 Mk. 16:16; Mt. 28:16-20.

24 E.g., 1 Cor. 2.

25 E.g., Gal. 1 and 2.

26 E.g., Acts 8 to 9, 11 to 15 are filled with references to Church structures, actions and problems.

27 See, e.g., St. Ignatius' letters to the Ephesians and the Romans; Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses', Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church.

28 See J.A. Mirus, "The Foundation and Identity of the Church" in Reasons for Hope, op. cit.

29 E.g., Jn. 17:11-23.

30 Jn. 14:17, 15:16, 17:15; Mt. 5:14-16, 5:20, 16:17-18.

31 Mt. 24:14, 28:18-20, 8:11; Jn. 12:32; Acts 1:8; 1 Tim. 2:4-6.

32 Jn. 20:21; Mt. 28:18-20; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5; Rom. 10:15.

33 Thus Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists.

34 Dei Filius, Vatican I. See also J.A. Mirus, "The Foundation and Identity of the Church" and W.H. Carroll, "The Divine Character of the Church in History" in Reasons for Hope, op. cit.

35 See note 7 and Marshner's other chapter in the same work, "The Development of Doctrine". See J.H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

36 See J.H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1968 [reprint]), p. 85.

37 See J.A. Mirus, "The Authority of the Pope" in Reasons for Hope, op.

38 Thus Christ told Peter to feed "my" (Christ's) sheep, implying that Peter was a sort of vicar; presumably other vicars would succeed Peter until Christ comes to take charge of his flock personally once again (cf. Jn. 21:15-17).

39 St. Cyprian, quoted in Newman, op. cit., p. 158.

40 Mt. 28:20.

41 Mt. 16:18.

42 Evangelii nuntiandi, #19.

43 Acts 2; esp. 2:15.

44 Worthwhile reading is Donald DeMarco, The Anesthetic Society (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1982).

45 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962, orig. pub. 1940).

46 Franklin Baumer, Religion and the Rise of Skepticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960).

47 Pius XII, Humani generis, #36 (1950).

48 Note the fanaticism with which evolutionists cling to their theory; see also the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

49 Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (London: Sheed and Ward, 1939).

50 See the study by Dr. James F. Fries in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1980.

51 See Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

52 See John A. Hammes, Human Destiny: Exploring Today's Value Systems (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1978).

53 See, e.g., Msgr. George A. Kelly, The Battle for the American Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979).

54 Col. 1:24. Obviously, this is by Divine favor: Christ graciously wills that our sufferings, joined with His, can share in His redemptive merit.

55 Quoted in G.K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 28.

56 See Pius XI, Ouas primas (1925), esp. #17, 19.

57 Pius XI, Ubi arcano Del consilio (1922), esp. #24-30; also Quas primas, #24.

58 Quas primas, #17.

59 Humanae vitae, #4.

60 Thus, e.g., Pius IX's Quanta cura, Leo XIII's Quod apostolici muneris, Diuturnum, Immortale Dei, Libertas, Sapientiae Christianae, Rerum novarum, and Graves de communi re; Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno and Divini Redemptoris; John XXIII's Mater et Magistra and Pacem in terris; Paul VI's Populorum progressio and Octogesima adveniens, and John Paul II's Redemptor hominis and Laborem excercens.

61 Thus Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes, and John Paul II's addresses to the United Nations and other bodies.

62 An example of a defined principle would be that of subsidiarily— that any public activity should be carried out at the lowest possible administrative level.

63 As, for example, those aspects of her teachings embodied in E.F. Schumacher's recent best-seller, Small is Beautiful.

64 1 Pet. 3:16.

65 Mt. 7:21.

66 1 Pet. 3:15.

67 Luke 24:13-35.

68 Cf. Gal. 2:19-20.

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