Monday, October 26, 2015

State of Apologetics II: The Answer, and More Questions

Earlier this month I asked a serious question and received just two responses, a believer's reply and a polemicist's reply. No one offered a secularist's reply. What does it matter?

The world continues to change and so the nature of disbelief continues to change. Those who advocate for the faith in the realm of public ideas, now a self-acclaimed professional class known as the "apologists," are supposedly the ones who explain the Catholic faith in words understandable to those who hear and who present the faith to those who might believe. What is now called "apologetics" could at any point in the past have been called evangelical writings, proselytism, catechesis or just "preaching the gospel." The Truth cannot change, but the means of its presentation can and must (I believe some bishops held a get-together 50 years ago to discuss this very topic).

These requirements expose the modern apologist class for its many defects in presentation and suitability for catechesis. Somewhere else on this blog, my co-writer quipped that modern apologists are "good at arguing people into the Church, but not so good at keeping them in the Church." Indeed, some, who will remain nameless, look at the lapsing of converts as a problem that belongs to someone else when in fact it belongs in no small part to them. Why?

"Apologetics" lags no fewer than three centuries behind the times. Current apologetics are geared entirely towards right brain religion, the religion of pure thinkers and lawyers, rhetoricians and quibblers. Aside from Luther and Cranmer, a notable number of the Reformers were lawyers. The formalized theology that emerged in the Latin Church to counter the Reformation vacillated between Jesuit casuistry and the parochial scholasticism of St. Alfonsus Maria de' Liguori, himself a lawyer. Targeted Protestants were and are offered the choice between accepting the Catholic proposition or retaining the Reformist proposition. One can believe it, but one need only think it.

Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi and Dwight Longenecker highlight a generation of apologists who converted from clerical Protestant lives to the Catholic faith, in no small part, by reading their way into the faith, by reading the Fathers, Newman and the rest. Their arguments about the three main Protestant scandals—the Eucharist, the Papacy and the Virgin—are sensible and tailored by personal experience. And they are quite ineffective to the great majority of the irreligious.

The Constantinian Church spent most of its breath on Christological controversies, working out ways of expressing just Who Jesus is and how God can be three without being more than one. Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers and the first few Councils dealt with this difficulty more or less effectively, although the associated politicking damaged the unity of Christendom to an extent that has still not been repaired. Still, no bishop at the Council of Ephesus was decrying the Neronian persecutions.

Modern disbelief is no longer Protestant disbelief. No exegesis on Matthew 16:18 is going to convert an agnostic with a live-in girlfriend to the papacy. Most people will not even spend the time to read full books, aside from the odd cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter. Their conversion must be a left brain conversion, or at least a left brain encounter that could effect a right brain conversion. At the Church's hands are several liturgical traditions, young enthusiasts and lay associations that could become the next evangelical force in the Church if only the apologist class would allow it. How many converted because they finally read Augustine's doctrine of justification with patience? Some. How many converted because they walked into a Sunday Mass—for any reason, curiosity, the music, anything? A great many more.

The modern pagan lacks the Roman Imperial pagan's instinct for virtue and pride in rhetorical skill. Our pagan want pleasure, a good laugh, some nice clothes and a girl. He wants enjoyable experiences, not deep thoughts. As a believer, he may think deep thoughts some day, but he will only think about God if he meets God first, and that is where the polemical slant of the apologists fails.

Society is passing post-modernism. Catholic Answers has not even reached the Enlightenment.


  1. For all their flaws, Catholic Answers inculcated in many people an approach in right thinking in regards to the Faith of the Church.

  2. The liturgy is a multi-pronged tool, at its best appealing to most of the senses, as well as the mind and imagination. Frank Sheed's apologetical grandchildren appeal to the mind, which in modern man is the most atrophied of his faculties. When Sheed was publicly disagreeing with Anglicans and atheists in Hyde Park, there was still at least a subculture of educated debate. The people who call in to the Catholic Answers radio show, by and large, are just looking to have their worries abated (usually something involving a clerical scandal), or are bored Protestants looking to play "Stump the Catholic."

    Reasoned debates about religion are rare, and generally ignored when they happen, aside from those in the various apologetics industries. (For there are many such industries: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, Pagan, etc.) It may be soothing for the educated Christian to listen to William Lane Craig debate agnostics, but most of the population will get bored (i.e., mentally exhausted) within the first sixty seconds of one of his Youtube videos.

    We are falling back into a kind of paganism, the pre-Socratic paganism that was comfortable with logical contradictions and no sharp distinction between truth and untruth, between reality and dream-logic. Even Catholics are increasingly comfortable mouthing the words of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, but are shocked to hear that they are expected to mean it literally... or that "literally" even means literally. The desire for reality is becoming something more and more dependent on grace, so all the more reason to bring people closer to the fountains of grace in the liturgy.

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    2. I would contend that the world is falling back into the Imperial Roman atmosphere (choose your household cult while acknowledging the state cult).

  3. Dear Rad Trad. The Lil' Licit Liturgy, the new anthropocentric happy meal for women and children, is a devil's brew real non-catholic men will not even sip from, say nothing about swallow, but that service represents the vast vast majority of what passes for our worship.

    And it does not good to point to The Brompton Oratory as an example of how the Lil' Licit Liturgy can be done right etc because ABS has just returned from a trip there - he went to the saturday eve english mass owing to having to travel the next day - and while the nine oratorians sang beautifully and the Liturgy was solemn and sober, what the revolutionaries had excised from the Real Mass still left me wanting a real Mass.

    As usual, ABS remains flummoxed as to what to do and he waits for you to lead him.

    Seriously, Rad Trad, men like ABS come to you seeking answers even while knowing that is a unfair burden to thrust upon you.

    So, Chartreuse :)

  4. And in this connection, it's necessary to quote one of the Church's few great 20th century encyclicals, Quas Primas, in which Pius XI gave voice to the same wisdom as The Rad Trad:

    "For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year - in fact, forever. The church's teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man's nature." (QP 21)

  5. The one Counter-reformation apologist who I actually still think is useful is Francis De Sales. Rather than combating the legalistic Huguenots with more legalism, he chose an alternative route. His 'Guide to a Devout Life' is a masterpiece.

    I actually know a friend who finally had a state-ceremony of marriage with his live-in girlfriend of seven years. He rejected the Catholic faith (in which he was brought up.... very poorly) in his youth due to the pedophilia scandals and any sort of polemics would be lost on him. The best I can do is try to be a good Christian and a good friend to him and pray that God leads him wherever he will. To the man's credit, he does seem to have a moral compass of sorts (in a natural human pre-Christian pagan sort of way). It's a start at least.

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  7. What of the method of apologetics which Blaise Pascal sought to develop? Though he was a Jansenist, I find his general approach in the Pensees appealing. He doesn't seek first of all to make an argument in the style of modern apologetics, though that comes in a later stage. Rather, he first appeals to man's psychology, and man's awareness of his own wretchedness and simultaneous striving after greatness, which can only be satisfied by faith and by grace, and not by his own nature and reason. Christianity alone offers that solution.

    It's question to probe, whether this method is to be likened more to modern apologetics or to "liturgical" apologetics. On the one hand, Pascal is making an argument of some kind, certainly; on the other hand, the argument relies less on an appeal to man's reason than on an appeal to the heart, perhaps with the aid of reason. Pascal consistently argues for the insufficiency of man's natural powers, such as reason, to offer the fulfillment that he longs for; and only faith, which Pascal thinks is in the "heart," can offer that fulfillment. Though I don't think faith itself is in the heart, I do think an appeal to the heart can dispose one to faith; an appeal to the deepest desires of man which can only be satisfied by a God encountered; a God, perhaps, who discloses Himself primarily in the liturgy.

    I don't know that Pascal had liturgy in mind, but I wonder whether that connection might be made...

  8. Who's the believer and who's the polemicist? :D

  9. I'd like to add that this may be one of the most insightful posts you've made, Rad Trad. And that is saying something.

    Our Protestant-Converter Apologists are very good at what they do. To the serious Protestant who takes his faith seriously, they can be effective. But a) that's not where the real challenge is today - it's a post-Christian population for the most part - and b) the evidence is that even in a different religious and cultural context, intellectual arguments are never as effective for most people as nonverbal ones - as Pius XI pointed out 90 years ago. As the envoys of the Rus famously remarked on attending Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth."

    By throwing out our tremendous liturgical, devotional and aesthetic traditions for a mess of horizontalist pottage, we've robbed ourselves of our most potent evangelical tools.