A few years ago I became one of the “experts” at the Eternal Word Television Network Web site. I've been a little embarrassed by the title, since I consider myself a fairly well-read amateur and not an expert; but that's a matter of public relations and I leave it in EWTN's hands.
When I first was asked to handle the apologetics forum, I thought, “Why not?” The (uncompensated) task would be little more than an incidental, just a few minutes a week. After all, how many people could be browsing the “experts” section? Well, quite a few, as it turns out. Most months I have been answering publicly between two and three hundred questions at the EWTN site, and, behind the scenes, I handle another hundred or so that either aren't proper questions (some people just like to vent) or are inappropriate for public display. I estimate I process, in one way or another, up to 400 questions monthly for EWTN. (Sometimes I wish I had made arrangements to be paid on a piecework basis. Now let's see — at $2 an answer, in a year I could earn … )
The EWTN questions aren't the only ones I receive electronically. Lots of people send questions to my personal e-mail addresses. I handle about 200 a month that way. Then there are the questions that come in the old-fashioned way, on paper. They're in third — no, make that fourth — place. Beating them out in quantity are the questions I answer on “Catholic Answers Live.”
When the daily radio program began, in January 1998, I decided that Tuesday would be “my” day. I began by working up discrete topics for most of my weekly appearances — papal infallibility, Mary's perpetual virginity, the inspiration of the Bible — but quickly saw how time-consuming that was. I feared I wouldn't have much time left for my regular work.
Besides, I found that I more enjoyed the occasional “open forum” question-and-answer session: easier to prepare — no preparation possible, actually, since there's no telling what the questions might be on — and, it seemed, of more interest to the audience. Listeners like to play “stump the apologist.” So Tuesdays became Q & A days. As I say on the air, only partly tongue in cheek, I'll take any question on any non-controversial topic — which leaves out politics, sports, and soap operas. But anything on religion is OK. On most shows about 20 questions get answered. They come from devout Catholics, wavering Catholics and non-Catholics.
In sum, I answer about 700 questions a month. Who'd have thunk it? I confess, though, I have mixed feelings about all this. There is a downside. Handling that many can be tiring, and to a large extent one answers the same questions over and over. (This is something I shouldn't complain about since priests have to listen to the same sins over and over in the confessional.) On the upside, the fact that so many people ask so many questions is a good sign. It means the questioners are alive. It means that Catholics are waking up to their faith and their religious responsibilities, and that non-Catholics are following up on their curiosity.
I don't know how many questions the other “experts” at EWTN field, but collectively we must answer several thousand a month, publicly and privately. A publicly posted answer may also be read by hundreds or thousands of people. Work out the arithmetic how you will, it seems that the “answers-read tally” must be over a million a month — at least that much since a thousand answers times a thousand readers per answer gives a million.
I'm impressed that so many people want to learn the faith. And this is just a beginning. If half the households in America now have Internet access, then 30 million Catholics are online. Most of them haven't even heard of sites such as EWTN's, or Catholic Answers' site, www.catholic.com. As word spreads, and as more of the remaining 30 million Catholics in America get computers, the “answers-read tally” is likely to zoom. The nice thing is that all the answering seems to be done by orthodox Catholics. I'm unaware of any Q & A services offered at Web sites sponsored by people or organizations that don't adhere to the fullness of the faith.
One thing I've learned is that people want the straight scoop. They may not agree entirely with Catholic beliefs or morals — alas, this goes for Catholics as well as non-Catholics — but they don't want someone to present them only half a loaf. “What does the Church say about … ?” they ask. They don't ask, “What do you think the Church should say about … ?” They want the official version, not one that has been sifted through my prejudices or anyone else's. Of course, I want my version to be identical to the Church's official version — and I think it is — but my questioners aren't asking what I think. They want to think with the mind of the Church.
I like that.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.