“For people to take Catholicism seriously today, we must present it as both smart and beautiful.”
The other day in class, one of my theology students at Bishop McNamara High School (Forestville, Maryland) had a question about how the Catholic Church can help determine the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. I was able to pull up a new website, ChurchFathers.org, and share with the student what some Fathers of the Church had to say about exegesis/scriptural interpretation in light of Sacred Tradition within the Deposit of Faith (comprising Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition).
I recently had the opportunity to ask Brandon Vogt (Catholic author, speaker, content director for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and so much more) some questions about ChurchFathers.org.
How did ChurchFathers.org come to be?
My friend Joe Manzari created the website several years back, but it grew somewhat stale and was never mobile-responsive, which means it didn't work on mobile devices. So earlier this year, he passed it off to me, and along with my talented designer friend Daniela Madriz, we freshened up the site and re-launched it. Our goal was to offer a one-stop shop for people wondering what the earliest Christians believed, but we intentionally did not want it to appear as a Catholic apologetics site. There is no Catholic art or Catholic commentary on the quotes. The design is minimalist. We just wanted to present the bare quotes themselves, along with citations of where they came from, so that the Fathers could speak for themselves.
What are your hopes for ChurchFathers.org?
My hope is that visitors, especially curious Protestants, will take seriously what the earliest Christians believed and taught. These Church Fathers were the immediate successors to the Apostles. In fact, at least two of them, Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, learned at the very feet of John the Apostle! What's surprising when you read the Fathers is how Catholic they are. They believed in the sacraments, the Real Presence of the Eucharist, infant baptism. They revered Mary and held to her perpetual virginity and sinlessness. They took for granted the hierarchical offices of bishop, priest, and deacon. And they held the Catholic view on faith and works, purgatory, the pope, and more. In other words, the Church Fathers were unavoidably Catholic, and that's what I hope any open-minded visitor discovers.
You are a convert to Catholicism. Did the Church Fathers have a role in your conversion to the Catholic Church?
Absolutely. I converted from Protestantism (raised Presbyterian, active in a Methodist college campus ministry) and began looking into Catholicism my senior year of college. At some point, someone suggested I read the Church Fathers. They said, "If the Catholic Church teaches one thing, and different Protestant denominations teach another thing, how do you decide who is right? Well, one clue may be to see what the earliest Christians believed. That will at least show you how the first believers interpreted the words of Jesus and his Apostles on that question." So, that's what I did. I picked up some books by the Church Fathers, and I browsed the Internet to find their views on different issues. But I wish something like ChurchFathers.org existed then. It would have saved me a ton of time and energy.
I was enthused and inspired by your book Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too)*. Various Catholic parishes are using this book for small group studies and for ongoing faith formation, especially for adults and adolescents. How might parishes likewise benefit from ChurchFathers.org?
I think the two fit nicely together. I wrote Why I Am Catholic especially for fallen-away Catholics, the religiously unaffiliated, and skeptics, atheists, and agnostics. That meant I never assumed things Christian readers would take for granted, such as God's existence, or the reliability of the Bible. I tried to prove those things. But ChurchFathers.org is more for existing Christians, people who already believe Jesus is God and that he left us with a Church to teach and act in his name, but are still wondering how to determine which Church that is. After all, there are hundreds of Protestant denominations, not to mention Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. So, how do we find the true Church? One way is to compare each community's belief to those of early Christians.
*I recently had the opportunity to write the free companion study guide for Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) for Ave Maria Press, and would encourage you to use Vogt's book and the accompanying study guide in your parish, classroom, home, or other setting which provides for deepening your knowledge of why you are — or may want to become — Catholic.
You are friends with Bishop Robert Barron. What has he taught you about living as a Catholic in the twenty-first century world?
Oh, he's taught me more than I could ever list. But perhaps his greatest impact has been convincing me — along with myriad other disciples — that for people to take Catholicism seriously today, we must present it as both smart and beautiful. We must renounce “dumbed-down Catholicism,” which discounts argument in favor of feelings, emotions, and experience. The people leaving the Church today are not dumb; they're intelligent. They're leaving because, as they say in survey after survey, they “no longer believe,” or “have no reasons to believe.” We need to give them reasons. We must put the genius of the Church on full display. We must show that Catholicism is smart.
Likewise, we need to share the beauty of the Faith. Bishop Barron has done this better than anyone, especially through his CATHOLICISM series, and it's a touchstone principle for everything we do at Word on Fire: lead with beauty. Since our culture is so relativistic, especially when it comes to truth and morals, beauty offers a less conflictual path to God. We can enchant them with beautiful literature, poetry, music, architecture, movies, or holy lives. Then we can lead them from the beautiful to the source of beauty, and finally to the good and the true. I know that can sound abstract, but to concretize it and see it in action, just watch the CATHOLICISM series (or its sequel, CATHOLICISM: The Pivotal Players), and look at the results. It's simply been the most effective evangelical initiative of the last fifty years in the American Catholic Church.
These are challenging times for the Catholic Church - what are some causes for optimism about the future?
Well, for starters, Jesus Christ. Jesus is our hope. As long as Jesus is the head of the Church, we should be optimists. We know how this story ends, despite this awful chapter we're enduring. There are several more reasons for hope. I look to the success of many campus ministry groups — FOCUS, St. Paul's Outreach, Evangelical Catholic, the Brotherhood of Hope, various Newman centers. These groups are winning new disciples in the very places where we're losing most of our young people: college campuses. And they're winning people by the thousands.
I'm also encouraged by the whole Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Bracketing whatever you think of his political views, Peterson has energized an entire generation of young men to explore the Bible. He's shown that young, secularized men can handle weighty intellectual questions. His Biblical lectures on Genesis, for example, garner millions of YouTube views, and have led countless young men to begin taking religion and the Bible seriously for the first time. That's very positive.
Finally, I'm encouraged by the massive interest in religion online. From websites, to discussion forums, to podcasts, to social media, there's been a resurgence of religious dialogue over the past decade, thanks in part to the safe space the Internet allows to explore religion without being ostracized by family and friends.
All of those are reasons for hope.