Apologetics Should Not Be Catholic Bible-Thumping

These days, at least in my circles, Catholics are familiar with the concept of apologetics. It is from the Greek apologia, which is not an “I’m sorry” speech, but a defensive speech. It’s more like an explanation than an apology. People who are defending their beliefs usually aren’t sorry they believe those things, anyway!

It is very easy, though, to become the Catholic version of a Bible-thumper when one sets out to become an apologist or to learn apologetics. “I know stuff, and it’s all true. Listen to me tell you about it!” This is not the ideal way of apologetics.

In my wanderings around the Internet, I discovered an essay (which may actually be a graduate theology paper) by Frank Iovino about catechetics (learning the Faith), apologetics, and Frank Sheed. You may remember my mildly overwhelming experience with Sheed’s Theology for Beginners. I knew I would return to that book and its wealth of information someday. Today is that day—but if you haven’t read the book, still read on here.

Frank Sheed, according to Iovino, knew the intricate relationship of catechesis and pastoral sensibility to the work of apologetics. Learning leads to knowledge of the teachings of God, possession of those teachings, and saturation of one’s life with them. As I see it, in the classic words of the Baltimore Catechism, we know God, love him, and serve him.

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Many Catholics know God intellectually, catechetically. We can name the seven sacraments, even if we struggle with the last few as though they’re the seven dwarves. We give all the proper responses at Mass. The best can even take a stab at breaking down the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or why the priesthood is limited to men. Perhaps fewer have begun to live in those teachings and love them.

To possess the teachings of the Church is to know them with your heart, not just your head. To love God is to crave the sacraments for their sheer joy and not just for the efficacious grace. Finally, to be saturated with the Church is be transformed by her. To serve God is to live out the teachings with your very life, to know Scripture as well and readily as you know your name and address, to seek God so habitually that it becomes not even second nature, but first.

When that richness is reached, it is only natural to want to share it by engaging in the work of apologetics. That’s where things can start to go wrong, and that is what I found most compelling in Iovino’s essay.

Sheed and his fellow apologists at the Catholic Evidence Guild could use the content of the Faith as a bludgeon, but it would be more a pillow than a hammer—irritating, yes, and some cases, stinging, but leaving no lasting change—for the most cogent arguments are useless if the hearer does not attach enough meaning to God, the soul, or salvation in Christ.

As Iovino writes, the apologetics for which Sheed advocates are informed by a pastoral sensibility. We heard at Mass on Sunday about Christ as the Good Shepherd: the one who lays down his life for us, but also the one who leads us with his rod and staff. Sharing the Good News cannot be about beating people over the head with the truth they are so obviously missing out on. It must be about being so full of the joy of knowing Jesus that we almost cry at the thought of others not knowing him.

As you have learned about Jesus and felt the desire to share him with others, are you a brow-beater, or are you bursting with joy?

Featured image by ssalonso at flickr.