Before television, people read a lot more than they do today. Instead of watching sit-coms, they would read short stories. In the absence of panel-discussion shows and talk radio, they followed current debates on the pages of magazines. One very popular subject was “the intelligent discussion of religious differences.”
Register columnist Karl Keating has selected eight chapter-length readings, most of them from the heyday of Catholic apologetics in 1930s Britain. Authors like Msgr. Ronald Knox and Hilaire Belloc argue in print with scientists and skeptics about the truths of the faith. Keating introduces the opponents and the issues, provides notes to explain topical references and then lets the controversialists speak for the Church's teachings.
The result is one heady book. A sample of Belloc, taking to task the Anglican Dean Inge: “The Faith, you say, is foreign. Certainly it has been alienated by force and fraud from the English [by Henry VIII, etc.] — but since how long?… You are a man cultured and acquainted with the sources. You know well enough that England only is [i.e., exists today] because the Church made England after the chaos of the fifth and sixth centuries.”
The training in logic and debate that was part of British university education is very much in evidence, together with a marvelous sense of fair play. The writers often go to considerable lengths to be gentlemanly while trouncing their opponents. Aware that the reading public is “listening in,” they can also be wryly entertaining.
Keating shows how Cardinal John Henry Newman's magnificent testimonial, Apologia pro Vita Sua, actually began with a response to a snide remark in a magazine. An Anglican clergyman had implied that Newman (and Catholic priests in general) were so involved in casuistry that they had abandoned the truth. Newman challenged his accuser to prove the allegation by citing a text. When no concrete evidence was forthcoming, Newman spelled out his adversary's innuendoes, the better to refute his “method of disputation.” The excerpt is an intricate tour de force, an impressive demonstration that precisely a love for truth had brought Newman into the Catholic Church from Anglicanism.
In another chapter, Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit scholar in his 80s, wagered that he could find a dozen substantial errors in as many pages written by an anti-Catholic “medievalist.” He won the bet, with errors to spare.
Though sometimes technical, most of Controversiesis in a genial, conversational style. Arnold Lunn, the adversary in an early chapter, returns as a Catholic convert for three of the later ones. He challenges C.E.M. Joad, a professor of philosophy (and former fellow Oxford student) on his evolutionist views. “The paragraph I have quoted from your work is full of unanswered questions: 1. How would you define ‘life’? How did ‘life’ originate? … 4. Whence did ‘life’ obtain [its] motive power? 5. How did ‘life’ acquire purpose? … This sort of thing, my dear Joad, imposes a greater strain on our credulity than the first chapter of Genesis.”
An American professor teaching a survey course used to say that the history of philosophy is worth studying because it deals with “perennially disputed questions.” Karl Keating's new book proves that good apologetics, like fine wine, improves with age because of perennial Catholic answers.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania