May 17, 2020
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Responsorial: Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:15-18
Alleluia: John 14:23
Gospel: John 14:15-21
One of the things that we are constantly told is to never discuss politics or religion with someone – unless you are sure that the two of you share the same perspective. Now, as a matter of bourgeois social etiquette, that may be good advice. But as Christians, we are called upon to evangelize others. We have to try to share our faith. We see in the first reading, it says: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.”
This is the classic image of evangelization, where a Christian has the opportunity to share the Gospel with others who are receptive to that message. However, truth be told, more often when we try to evangelize others, the other person will be resistant and argumentative. Alternatively, even if we aren’t trying to evangelize someone, a person simply knowing that we are Catholic or Christian will challenge us on some point of the faith.
When that happens, we are not no longer in the world of evangelization, at least not in the immediate sense. We’ve entered into the realm of apologetics. Here, we recall the words of Saint Peter from the second reading: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.”
Just as we shouldn’t shy away from sharing our faith with others (even at the risk that they will reject it), we also shouldn’t shy away from defending our faith when it is challenged. This is what apologetics is. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when it may be better to walk away from an argument with an unbeliever. But recognize, too, that there will be times when the Holy Spirit is calling upon us to be stalwart defenders of our faith.
Now, ideally, when we enter into an apologetical dialogue with someone, it will eventually turn into an evangelical opportunity. In other words, we will turn back their direct challenge or attack, and this will open the other person to being converted to the fullness of the Catholic faith. But in order to get to that point, we first have to defend the Catholic faith against whatever attack is being leveled against it. So here is my collection of 14 tips for engaging in a spirited but respectful defense of your faith:
First, know who you are talking to. To defend our faith, we have to know where the person attacking it is coming from so that we can tailor our answers to them. The best apologetical argument is the one that will make the most sense to that person – whether they are an atheist, a follower of a non-Christian religion, a Protestant, or even an ex-Catholic (or perhaps a Catholic who dissents from the Church on some issue or another). Thus, before trying to respond to someone’s challenge, try to find out what perspective they are coming from.
Second, keep your cool. There is a time for righteous anger, but now is not it. No matter what the other person says, if you can stay calm and respond rationally you will do a lot to advance the faith. Especially with atheists, they often expect religious people to be emotional or unable to engage in considered discussion. If you can be light-hearted and genial, you will often diffuse the antagonism of the other person.
Third, be sensitive to feelings. Remember that people who attack the Church or her teachings are often speaking from a point of emotional hurt or insecurity. This is especially true of ex-Catholics. Be sensitive to their feelings and do not “beat them down” with the force of your arguments. Try to get them to the point where they want to agree with you.
Fourth, let your faith shine through. This point applies especially when dealing with fellow Christians – particularly evangelical or fundamentalist protestants who tend to have an enthusiastic sense of faith. People relate to people, especially to people like them. If you can show the other person that you read and take the Scriptures seriously and that you believe in personal prayer and a personal relationship with Christ, then you show the Protestant person that you (as a Catholic) are not so different from them. That, of itself, will change more hearts than any argument.
Fifth, know the Bible. This should be obvious when dealing with evangelical or fundamentalist types, since the Scriptures are our one common language. However, it is often just as important when dealing with other Protestants, dissenting Catholics, or non-believers. Although these latter groups may not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, they will often try to cite Scripture against the teachings or practices of the Catholic Church to argue that what we do is contrary to what the Scriptures we proclaim actually say. So read and learn your Bible.
Sixth, do not dodge the difficult issues. This is important: If someone asks you a question about some “hot-button” issue, do not try to avoid it by talking about something else. It seems (and is) condescending. If someone asks you why the Church is against contraception, for example, you need to be able to respond without evasion to that issue. Of course, you can and should place such any “hard” teachings in the context of Christian love and mercy. But do not ever make the person think you are avoiding the topic. You would not like it if you were in their position.
Seventh, have modest expectations. While ideally responding to a person’s apologetical challenge will give you a direct opportunity to evangelize, recognize that often this will not immediately be the case. There is nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, we want everyone to share in the fullness of truth, but that does not mean that we can expect that everyone we talk to will become a Catholic right then and there. Most of the time, sincere conversions are not hasty. Rather, our immediate aim should be to remove false conceptions about the Catholic Church and her teachings in the hopes that, by the further action of the Holy Spirit, that person will embrace the Catholic faith in due season. Further, even if the person does not become Catholic, if that person simply recognizes or understands some aspects of the truth better, that will improve our relations with non-Catholics and give greater hope that such a person (even if outside the Church) will be saved.
Eighth, give them some credit. When people approach you with aggressive or even rude questions or challenges, you will do the situation a world of good if you can affirm at least some premise of their question or challenge. When you partially agree with someone, they feel affirmed and it lowers their defenses. At the very least, you can almost always say, “That’s an interesting question,” before beginning to respond.
Ninth, ask them questions. Do not just launch into a rebuttal of the argument or respond to the question asked. Especially if the question or argument is not entirely clear, which most of the time it won’t be, since most people are not very precise speakers. Ask a few questions to clarify the basis of their challenge or the premise of the debate. Asking questions will also give you time to think and will allow the person to feel they are being heard, rather than getting a canned response.
Tenth, avoid all-or-nothing arguments. It’s a typical tactic of antagonists to goad us into give one, ultimate reason for a belief or practice since a single ground is more easily attacked or disputed. For example, priests will often be asked for “the” reason for clerical celibacy. Well, the purpose of celibacy can’t necessarily be explained as serving just one purpose in the life of the Church or deriving from some singular text in the Bible. As Catholics, almost anything we believe does not depend on one argument, one reason, or one Scripture passage. Rather, a good apologetical approach is to show how multiple arguments, reasons, and Scriptural accounts combine to support a belief or practice.
Eleventh, there’s form and then there is essence. Remember that Catholic practices (including the Mass and the sacraments) have taken on a variety of valid forms throughout history, and even today their forms differ between the Western and Eastern rites of the Church. Do not get stuck in defending a particular form as though it were of the essence. The Bible defines our faith, not the details of every practice we engage in as Catholics. The Bible is there to teach us what to believe, but specific details of how we practice that belief may come from other sources of inspiration. This point is especially important when dealing with “Bible believing” types. You can’t prove that every detail of the way we celebrate Mass (or the other Sacraments) is specifically commanded by Scripture. Some things have simply evolved as customs or symbolic practices. You can, however, show them that such customs and practices are not inconsistent with a Biblical faith. You can also show them that the practice of these things leads to greater and stronger relationship to Christ. (This is a situation when a personal example is often very helpful.)
Twelfth, avoid discussing personalities. This point applies especially when dealing with ex-Catholics, but also to others. Sadly, not every Catholic out there (and this unfortunately includes some priests, nuns, catechists, etc.) understands or embraces the all of the Church’s faith. Many, many people (both Catholics and non-Catholics) have been misled at some point by someone who is Catholic (perhaps even an authority in the Church) telling them something about the faith that is, in fact, incorrect. For example, a fallen-away Catholic might say to you, “my religious studies professor at a Catholic college told me that the Church believes such-and-such.” Even if you know that what that other person had related is wrong, do not attack that other person or speculate as to “why” they said that. Instead, simply say to the person you are dialoging with: “Let me tell you what I understand the Church teaches about that issue,” and proceed from there.
Thirteenth, do not lead with complexity. A famous philosopher once said that our greatest fault comes from a desire to want to tell others everything we think we know. In some ways, the teachings and the practices of the Catholic faith are complex – they contain many nuances, exceptions, layers, etc. They are this way because they are intended to cover many situations and apply to all peoples everywhere. This is a good thing. However, some Catholics have a way of over-explaining these nuances when discussing the faith with others before people even ask about them. For example, a person will ask why the Church is against divorce, and the Catholic will start explaining the annulment process to them. That kind of response can make Catholicism sound legalistic and arcane to the uninitiated. Instead, set forth the basic teaching of the Church and then let that person follow up with questions about the exceptional situations as they occur to them.
Fourteenth, remember to pray! Prayer is important to the apologetical mission because, very often, these types of situations can put us into conflict with others. This can give rise to strong emotions and hurt feelings on either our part or the part of the person we are engaged in dialogue with. The devil loves to troll in these waters. To be an effective apologist for our faith, we must constantly pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we might “stand for the truth with love.” No matter how abrasive a challenger to our faith might be to us, seek to banish pride, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness from your heart.