The problem with being an apologist for the Catholic faith is that you must be ready for anything and everything.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.”
We might add to that that no two will come with the same axes to grind, either.
In fact, many times the criticisms you face from different family members around the table come Thanksgiving Day will be absolute opposites, or even more different than that.
Your brother Bill will tell you that the Catholic Church is false because it is really unbiblical and has added those extra books to the Bible just to get in false doctrines.
Cousin Fred who left the Church to become a married Anglo-Catholic priest will say that it’s not the number of the books that’s the problem, it’s the way the Pope dominates the other bishops that is so problematic and why he is an Anglo-Catholic.
Aunt Anne, devoted follower of Pope Pius XIII, who currently resides in Washington and faces the anti-pope Lando II of Sweetwater, Mo., will immediately scoff that if this German Ratzinger were really the Pope he would have excommunicated all the Jesuits immediately.
Your sister Jean, fresh from a reading of The Da Vinci Code and the works of Gnostic Gospel popularizer Elaine Pagels, will tell you the Church should accept the wisdom of the many different versions of Jesus’ life, some of which emphasize his practice of yoga, his advocacy of recycling and his romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene.
For some of you, my own little imagining of what Thanksgiving dinner will be like is probably somewhat tame and certainly doesn’t represent all the different viewpoints with which you’ll be attacked.
Some of you, on the other hand, might be facing a family that’s much more unified against you — they’re all secular or they’re all evangelicals. Whatever the configuration, I think it’s important to remember a few big things about being a Catholic apologist.
First, we need to go in armed — not just with knowledge about your faith, but with prayer.
It’s important to remember who our enemies really are in this life. Our enemies are not the Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Baptists, Calvinists, Lutherans, schismatic Catholics, liberal Catholics, Jews, Buddhists (even the annoyingly fashionable ones like Richard Gere), Hindus, Muslims, atheists or agnostics. These are all people to whom we are sent with Good News.
Our “enemies” are: 1) Satan and his angels and 2) ourselves, or rather the parts of us that still are slaves to sin — what St. Paul would call the “old man.”
We have to pray for the strength to see those who differ with us on matters of faith, even if they are our relatives and neighbors, in the way that God sees us: men and women made in the image of Christ himself and potential saints.
To see them this way, we need to ask God to give us eyes that work properly. If we thus go in armed, we will be able to.
So chill out.
You may get attacked personally by friends and family members who can regale you with your own past failures and even failures that they thought they saw or simply even made up.
Remember what Our Lord said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
Remember that you will often be attacked as a proxy for the God with whom they are angry for one of many reasons. You might be attacked as a proxy for some other Christian who treated them badly at some time.
I think one of the most delightful anecdotes about the making of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was that Jim Caviezel, while portraying Our Lord on the cross, was struck by lightning. The cross is a lightning rod. You too, should be ready to become a lightning rod for all the anger and hurt that are tossed at you.
When you are being attacked and get your turn to answer, remember this advice from Proverbs: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). If someone is really angry, the point is to calm him down, not to get even or even necessarily to correct his misunderstandings then and there.
There is a reason why Chesterton was one of the greatest apologists of the 20th century and why so many people from such different perspectives have been able to see the truth of Christ in him.
Michael Coren, the biographer of H.G. Wells, recounts a time when Wells went walking with Chesterton and ranted about “the bloody hand of Christianity” for about a half hour. Having exhausted himself, Wells looked to his friend, who had been silent the entire time. Chesterton gently responded, “Yes, you do have a point.”
Wells never, to public knowledge, converted to Christianity, but years later he said to Chesterton’s widow that if he had any hope of getting into heaven, it would be because he was Chesterton’s friend.
Part of giving a soft answer is sticking to the subject at hand, namely the Catholic faith.
It is particularly tempting to try to get in little digs about the other person’s group or faith when you are answering questions.
Arthur Rupp, a character in Ralph McInerny’s novel The Priest, proposes to his bishop a debate with some Protestants: “‘We have a man who is particularly good on Luther.’ Arthur thought it was wiser to speak of himself in the third person. ‘Lots of juicy stuff on him that few Lutherans know.’”
While it’s easy to gather “juicy stuff” on anybody, it won’t draw people to the faith. Instead, it will put the spotlight on juicy stuff — and given the size and longevity of the Catholic Church, if you start in with the historical spotlight on Luther or anybody else, you’re going to be in for a long evening of listening to angry historical accounts of Borgia popes, clergy abuse and probably rotten people from the neighborhood parish.
Even an attack strictly centered on the logic of the other person’s position may not have the effect you want it to have. Chesterton, speaking of his own conversion, recounted:
“I was converted by the positive attractions of the things I had not yet got, and not by negative disparagements of such things as I had managed to get already. When those disparagements were uttered, they generally had, almost against my will, the opposite effect to that intended; the effect of a slight setback. I think, in my heart, I was already hoping that Roman Catholics would really prove to have more charity and humility than anybody else, and anything that even seemed to savor of the opposite was judged by too sensitive a standard in the mood of that moment.”
What Chesterton desired to see in Roman Catholics is still what people long to see in them: more charity and more humility than anybody else. And that will come through in our conversation. Another verse from Proverbs: “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
David Deavel is an associate editor of
Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
and a contributing editor for Gilbert magazine.