THE INTERNET has been called everything from “the encyclopedia of the now” to “an open sewer.” There's cause for these extremes, but an aspect that receives little attention is the Net's role in evangelization. In the September 1996 issue of This Rock, a Catholic apologetics magazine, a man from New Zealand writes: “I am a recent convert. My own conversion took place on and through the Internet with the aid of some wonderful Catholic people.” Some of those people are staff members at Catholic Answers, the largest lay-run Catholic apologetics organization in the United States and publisher of This Rock.
Founded more than a decade ago by Karl Keating, the San Diego-based outfit operates with a staff of 10 whose work mostly revolves around supplying accurate information about the Catholic faith to all comers, many of them potential converts. Catholic Answers has kept pace with the new forms of electronic communication: It now offers a large variety of apologeticaI tracts at a web site (www.catholic.com) which receives thousands of “hits” each month.
Staff-member James Akin, 31, a former philosophy teacher and himself a convert to Catholicism, counts a 100 MHz lap-top computer with 500 Mb hard-drive among his favorite tools for evangelization. He conducts a good part of his work on the Internet, trading messages with several dozen people who are pondering the idea of converting. Lately he has been helping two Baptist pastors who hope to enter the Church this Easter and who have asked him to act as sponsor. “There is one up in the Los Angeles area who has just resigned from his congregation. He's bringing about 12 people who have decided to convert with him,” says Akin.
“The Internet mirrors real life,” says Akin, adding that the population's general level of interest in religion is reflected in the thousands of religion-oriented web sites, numerous “chat rooms,” e-mail discussion groups, a “use net” discussion group, even an Internet Relay Chat channel devoted to Catholicism (#catholic) that features real-time “live” interaction takes place.
An Internet conversion may begin with “web surfing,” with a potential convert typing the subject word “Catholic” into one of the major search engines. This generates a list of web sites one can visit and browse to satisfy initial curiosity. Many of these sites have “hyperlinks,” or cross-references; sooner or later, anyone seriously interested in converting will probably come across the Catholic Answers web site. After reading the material there, the potential convert may take the next step. That's where Akin comes in.
“Several times a week I get an e-mail message in my box from someone saying that they are looking at becoming Catholic, but would like some more information about some topic,” says Akin, who then sends a return e-mail that often starts a dialogue. “Most people I deal with,” he continues, “especially if I have exchanged more than one or two emails, end up converting.” He does not attribute the success to his personal abilities but to the truth of the arguments. The process from start to finish may be a few months or a few years.
“I get lots of questions about Mary,” Akin says. “How do you explain the ‘brethren’ of the Lord mentioned in the Bible?” is a frequent query. Others ask about the basis for the Church's teaching on Mary's assumption into heaven, or the Immaculate Conception. Akin also fields questions on Purgatory and papal infallibility. Questions on moral issues, he notes, more typically come from confused or fallen-away Catholics than from non-Catholics. The strangest question he recalls fielding was, “How do you tie the monk's knot?” probably referring to the rope cinctum worn by friars. “Even if I knew the answer,” Akin says, “I don't think I could have explained it by computer.”
What is the next step of an “on-line” conversion? Akin once received the following e-mail message: “Yes, send me more information about joining the Catholic Church. Is this something I can do by computer?” Well, not exactly—not yet. After a potential converts have expressed a desire to enter the Church, Akin directs them to contact a priest.
Sometimes he may try to grease the skids by contacting a priest in the person's area and explaining the situation. From there, the conversion process follows conventional avenues. Akin notes, however, that there are still potential stumbling blocks on the way. One of the biggest of these, is that many RCIA programs require all converts, regardless of previous background, to complete the same lengthy and highly rudimentary catechesis of the Christian faith. Akin describes this as “very off-putting” to converts who are already catechized in other Christian Churches. He notes, however, that the U.S. bishops have asked that catechesis for converts henceforth be geared to their level of knowledge of Christianity.
While Catholic Answers staff already have their hands full simply responding to the large number of inquiries they receive, there's a temptation to take a more proactive approach to Internet evangelizing by sending out thousands of unsolicited messages to e-mail boxes exists. Akin, however, dismisses the idea: “That is called ‘spamming’ and is very bad ‘netiquette.’ It's like electric junk mail.”
Still, the Internet stands to evolve as a major tool for evangelization. Says Akin, “it's hard to see the specific way it's going to happen, but you know it's going to be big.” Looking at human history as divided into eras of the spoken word, the written word, and the printed word, he observes: “Now we are at the dawn of the era of the electronic word. Each time there has been a revolution in communications technology it has provided vast new potentials—and vast new dangers—for the transmission of God's Word in the world.”
Brother Clement Kennedy is a monk at Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, Calif.