Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The apologetics subculture in the Church is a place with both rewards and dangers. The rewards are plain enough: People write you sometimes and tell you that something you said or wrote helped them “get it” about the Faith and even helped them reach the decision to trust Christ, or enter the Church, or not go through with that divorce or whatever. It’s lovely to see somebody flourish and grow. It’s also humbling because (in my case anyway) I often can’t remember what particular bit of blather I wrote or said somewhere that my reader is talking about. It’s like when some guy comes up to you at a party and starts talking about that hilarious thing you and he did back in 10th grade, and you have no memory at all of him or the event that made such a huge impression on him. You’re glad to be part of this joyous moment in his life—and you are also wracking your brain trying to recall what he’s talking about. It’s like somebody else did all those things, not you.
Conversely, one of the great dangers of the apologetic subculture is that people will, in their joy and generosity over what God has done in their lives, make the disastrous mistake of crediting you with their conversion and even set you up as some kind rabbi or oracle with whom their Faith (often unconsciously) stands or falls.
It’s a problem as old as the Church. Paul had his groupies in Corinth. As did Peter and Apollos. And similar things happen today. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of it, being told that something I yakked about meant so much to somebody that “I converted them.”
False. Neither I nor any of my fellow yakkers in the apologetics subculture have ever brought a living soul to the Church. The Holy Spirit does that. We humans yak about the Faith and sometimes, by the grace of the Spirit, something we say scratches where somebody itches and they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit to obey Jesus. But they do not receive that grace from Keating, Akin, Shea, Hahn or whoever, but from God. Because (mark this) no human being has any power at all to convert a human heart to faith in Christ or to trust that He is present and teaching through Holy Mother Church.
We humans are like children watching Dad work under the hood of the car on the big mysterious engine of the human heart that we are not even tall enough to see. Periodically, Jesus emerges from under the hood, hands us a wrench and says “Hold this.” We do so, Jesus does some more fiddling under the hood, and then tells us to pump the gas, turn the key and start ‘er up. Vroom! goes the engine and our friends and playmates in our kindergarten class of discipleship say, “Wow! He helped his Dad fix the car!” If we are fools, we listen to our friends. If we are monumental fools, we believe the banana oil about how our words or deeds “convert” people or “brought them into the Church.” If we are wise, we listen to St. Paul:
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor 2:4-6)
No mere creature has ever “converted” another to faith in Christ. Not the Blessed Virgin. Not St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Apollos, [insert favorite apologetic subculture teacher here], nor most especially me, who mostly spends my time creating obstacles to people’s faith by being an annoying and sometimes scandalous sinner. It’s impossible for one human to change another human’s heart. The best we humans can do is, by grace, furnish occasions for people to open themselves to the Holy Spirit’s working. God, in sheer grace, lets us hold a wrench, turn a key, or do some other act that cooperates with his grace at work in the lives of our neighbors. Sometimes, as a result, people will feel grateful to the human being who helped them on the way to Christ, as I am, for instance, grateful to such people as Chesterton or the sundry Christians in my life who have been agents of grace for me. I owe them a debt I can never repay. But it is absolute folly to credit any human being with giving you the grace of conversion. God gave you that and generously lets us creatures hold a wrench and bask in a bit of his reflected glory. The moment we creatures either give to others or demand for ourselves the divine honor of having “converted” somebody is the moment we are engaging in the sin of idolatry.