Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Difficulties of "The Apologetic Mindset"

In the January issue of First Things, David Mills writes about the issue of apologetics. What he said has so far triggered quite a bit of discussion. He states the following:

I think Mark is right about this. Culture precedes apologetics—or maybe it would be more accurate to say apologetics only matters for the believer when it leads him to a greater comfort with or confidence in the culture that has formed and continues to form him, freeing him from doubts so that the culture can mold him more deeply. (Critical reflection on that culture and argument is the job of theology, and theology may, of course, suggest doubts. It’s complicated, as they say in movies.)

Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees might apply to many of us, cut rate Gnostics that we are, who assume—partly, perhaps, because we like to argue and think we’re good at it—that knowledge and particularly success in argument is the essence of the Faith. We could easily be found praying “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that poor guy over there with his holy cards, who wouldn’t know what to say to Richard Dawkins,” when he is having a lively and intimate conversation with Our Lord, His Mother, and several saints with whom we are not yet on speaking terms.

Pride goes before a fall, as Proverbs notes. Accepting an argument is not conviction, even when you think the argument final and conclusive. You may change your life or your life may be changed and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem so final and conclusive any more. We can all think of obvious cases when someone made a moral choice, usually sexual, that led him to reject beliefs he had believed with all his heart and mind, and should assume that we might be equally affected by choices more subtle and harder to see. That you can defend a doctrine now and win does not mean you will believe it tomorrow.
Anyone who has read my works over the years has known I have talked about a similar problem. I’m grateful to see this getting a far wider exposure. I’d like to return to this theme today.

I have never been an “anti-apologist.” I think the apologetics movement within Catholicism in the last 35 years is one of the most important trends in the Church in the 20th century. The apologetics movement has provided a valuable frontline defense against those who seek to attack the Church. St. Peter tells us that we must be able to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15), and the apologetics movement is just one way of doing this.

That being said, there are some difficulties. Many Catholic apologists in this age of social networking and the blogosphere have long ago stopped writing about actual apologetics. They feel their expertise in apologetics (an expertise earned) makes them relevant on various other matters as well, some of which aren’t even remotely religious. (One could read Mark Shea’s rants on foreign affairs and “torture” and one realizes there’s really nothing pro or anti-Catholic about them, they are simply an attempt to use alleged Church teachings to mask his political beliefs.

This trend has proven quite disastrous when many of the apologists started wading into matters where Catholics of good will could take varying prudential stances. With a few notable exceptions, the apologetics movement had some of the harshest critics of those who were attached to the Latin Mass and various approaches to handling the faith. It wasn’t enough to accept Vatican II as a valid ecumenical council whose decrees are binding upon the faithful. It had to be “the highest form of thought the Church has ever had.” (To paraphrase Dave Armstrong in a dispute I had with him in the past.) To say that John Paul II did some good and some not so good things is indeed beyond the pale. If you don’t refer to him as “John Paul the Great”, it is evidence you are resisting the Holy Ghost. These are prudential matters that cannot be solved by the intellectual formulations of apologetics. Catholics of goodwill are free to take a variety of positions on these and countless other issues.

I think it goes without saying that many in the apologetics movement have well overstepped this boundary. Part of the problem is what I call the curse of “Career Catholicism.” For many of them, defending the faith is not just their vocation, but their occupation. They need to put food on the table through it for their families. The only problem with this is unless you are really good at what you do; you can only beat a dead horse so many times. If you’ve been writing apologetics at least once a week for 3 years, you’ve basically demonstrated all that is wrong with Protestantism. Yet your children still need to eat. So people start going into other areas they really have no business being in, but attempt to speak with the same level of authority. In the secular world, this is known as the mentality of “publish or perish.”

These issues, while problematic, can be easily managed. It simply requires a greater humility (never a bad thing) and knowing your limits. The problem I wish to outline next does real damage, and ties back into the point Mr. Mills made.

The mindset prominent amongst many apologists today is that of what I have derisively called “sola intellectua.” In this mindset, the Catholic Church is simply a proposition of intellectual formations. Provided one demonstrates an intellectual belief in a given doctrine or principle, that is the height of catholicity. This is obviously wrong. As Fulton Sheen famously said, “Catholics do not submit a dogma. They submit to a person, Jesus Christ.” The intellectualism problem infects all circles of Catholicism. One can see it particularly on display in the debates surrounding Christopher West. It is practically a belief of “sola fide” in Theology of the Body, and one will be cured from all the ills of this vale of tears.

This approach is in error because Jesus Christ engages more than just our intellects. Our reason and intellect are of great importance, but we cannot stop there. Jesus Christ engages us in every aspect of our life. Understanding the pedagogical mission of the Church might be great for a lecture or a thesis paper, but what does it tell you about living the everyday aspects of your faith? Not much.

These sorts of things have dropped to the wayside. Rather than placing apologetics against culture, we need to make sure that instead, the work of apologetics flows from the greater Catholic culture.


  1. Note: Dave Armstrong has posted a reply here.

  2. I understand the "sola intellectua" (not sure if that's proper Latin) mindset and why it's so prevalent. It stems from our society basing all truths on secular science and the total ignoring of God (Modernism). Now, Catholic apologists don't go to that extreme, but the notion that it's "all about the argument" tends to cause the "spiritual" component of Catholicism to fall to the wayside. This is also influenced by the 'dumbing down' of the Catholic Life in terms of Liturgy, Solidarity, and powerful testimonials from those in the Religious life. Since most Protestant converts never had a background in these in the first place, they're only more at risk for treating the Faith as primarily an intellectual exercise.

    One thing crucial to being a good Catholic is a regular prayer life. I'm totally convinced of this, and realizing this the hard way. Without this, you're a sitting duck spiritually and will not grow as a Christian. Without this, your intellectual arguments will eventually fall short when it comes to reaching someone who's lost. All the great saints didn't start any 'evangelistic' tasks without a robust prayer life.

    One recent encounter that reaffirmed all this to me was when I was with a (ex-Catholic) JW whom I was trying to 'rescue' without scaring him off. I came to realize that despite how well I could refute this or that claim about Christ's divinity, this poor guy wouldn't be able to accept it without the gift of Faith. Thinking that I could "intellectually argue" him into accepting the Trinity, I was unknowingly reducing the central dogma of our faith to an intellectual exercise, and unknowingly putting the true power of conversion in my own abilities and not the Holy Spirit.

    And this is the key to realizing the cultural crisis as a whole: the masses have simply become apostate, losing the gift of Faith and thus unable to assent to Gospel Truths. And without reverent Liturgy, Solidarity groups for committed Catholics, and good testimonials coming from those in Religious Orders, the Faithful today are in danger of starvation and basically living off of bread-and-water Christianity.

    p.s. I don't think Dave Armstrong and his apologetics efforts are or should be the focus of this piece. The people who do concern me are those like Mark Shea, who have unfortunately tended to make things "personal" and 'verbally assault' people he doesn't agree with. And when that happens, no true apologetics are being done.

  3. I only mentioned what Mr. Armstrong said in one sentence. Anything else that was written, I wasn't thinking whether he was guilty or innocent of it. He really didn't enter my mind outside of that one statement.

    Which is why I found the whole response of his most curious.

    As to the rest, whether I engaged in "Pope bashing" or "Council bashing", I really see no need to answer that charge. Even in the old days of the RTC archives, I believe no such occurence happened, and I think the record speaks for itself.

  4. I've deleted Mr. Armstrong's comments, as I view the ad hominems completely unwarranted at this weblog. If he wants to say those things, he is welcome to at his own blog or elsewhere.

    Here, we handle things as adults. An email has been sent to Dave notifying him of this, and if he so wishes, I will forward him what he said (I have a copy in my inbox) and I will let him post it at his blog, should he so desire. He can even come here and notify people it has been said.

    But you aren't saying that on this blog. I'm Willy Wonka and this is my Chocolate Factory. Comments will remain undermoderated Dave, but that will change. You are free to post all you want, provided you stick to the issues, and not personal motives, ad hominems, etc.

  5. You are free to post all you want, provided you stick to the issues, and not personal motives, ad hominems, etc.

    Okay; here goes (minus any hint of what you deem to be "ad hominem"):

    He really didn't enter my mind outside of that one statement. Which is why I found the whole response of his most curious.

    I was, in my first reply at Chris's blog, defending my field, using myself as an example in many cases since I am quite familiar with my own life and actions and goals in what I do (and as a member of the class that you critique).

    I also generalized in many places, of course, saying that I was unaware of certain alleged shortcomings being widespread in apologetics and asking for documentation of your claims to the contrary.

    And I agreed with you several times, too. I agree that apologists too often don't write enough apologetics. I've thought that for a long time, as well, and have wondered why that was.

    You brought up the issues of "John Paul the Great" and so forth. I was simply documenting the stuff you used to say about him, that a Catholic might have some problems with.

    You brought up Vatican II (in your reference to me). So it was relevant to show folks what your opinion was about that in those days, that I was responding to.

    Chris Blosser certainly thought my reply was relevant, since he said I made some good points, and linked to it here, hoping for dialogue. Your opinion of what I wrote is not by any means the only one.

    May God abundantly bless you.

  6. He can even come here and notify people it has been said.

    Excellent. My original comment can be read at my paper that is noted below in "Links to this post."

    I've also copied my revised version above to my paper, in case it, too, is deleted for some reason.

  7. Excellent points in the piece. Solus intellectus, though if you mean something like "just by the mode of the intellect", then perhaps solo intellectu

  8. [Here, we handle things as adults.]

    Well done comrade!

    [I'm Willy Wonka and this is my Chocolate Factory.]

    Then I want some fizzy lifting drinks mister! lol

  9. Yes, very adult, like Shawn's comments directed towards me that remain online to this day. E.g.:

    "Obviously those who have more of an interest in personality clashes and public pissing matches cannot stand this approach; ergo the spectacle Dave sought to create last year . . .

    ". . . your claim to want to dialogue was a sham exactly as I said it was. You should have had the decency to have admitted to it publicly rather than try to pretend that you wanted to dialogue. Furthermore, if you never intended to interact with my arguments, then you have NO BASIS WHATSOEVER for crying about how soundly I bitchslapped your crap down publicly after 8/28. . . .

    ". . . absolute outhouse compost that he threw together, . . . He has acted as disgracefully as Benedict Arnold in this whole situation and my tolerance for his blatant misrepresentation of my position on this was used up long ago. I was content to let the issue die but with his latest attempt at grandstanding and public sensationalism . . . every assertion Dave makes above is a bald faced lie. . . . Dave (if he had any scholastic integrity whatsoever) . . ."

    And all of this was on one day: 1-23-06.

    Very "adult." No personal stuff there at all. Yet neither Kevin nor Shawn's buddy Greg Mockeridge will rebuke this. Dr. Art Sippo urged mutual removal of our big fight on the Internet. I complied, Shawn refused.

    Instead we have lectures about how I supposedly act childish because I dare to disagree. And Greg rebukes Mark Shea for personal attacks while winking at Shawn's nonsense.

  10. Couple things to say:

    Not interested in what was said 5 years ago now. I've sorta moved on from that.

    Even still, he hasn't said anything on my blog. As I told you, whatever you want to say on your blog, such is your right. If he says anything approaching that here, be assured action will be taken.

    Here, things are handled differently.

    So that will be enough of that line of discussion.

    Mr. Sadler: I know it's horrid Latin. :) Yet it sounds like sola scriptura. Have used the phrase for years.

  11. If he says anything approaching that here, be assured action will be taken. Here, things are handled differently.

    Delighted to see it. Kudos.

  12. [Yes, very adult, like Shawn's comments directed towards me that remain online to this day.]

    You mean unlike a lot of stuff David said which he excised from his pages and which I know where in the internet archive to look for? Text without context is a pretext and context was never David's ally in that circumstance anyway.

    [Dr. Art Sippo urged mutual removal of our big fight on the Internet. I complied, Shawn refused.]

    The last time I checked, the adult thing to do is take responsibility for what one does and says and not pretend it never happened.

  13. [Not interested in what was said 5 years ago now. I've sorta moved on from that.]

    That is a very Christian attitude to take Kevin and I concur with it 100%. Besides, I am sure that like me you have far more important issues on your plate to deal with than play the game of "so and so said this on X date" kind of games. But to each their own I suppose.

  14. This is sorta moving away from anything that is relevant. If people wanna take a stroll down memory lane for the most salacious statement, they can do so elsewhere.

    People wanna discuss that, go over to Dave's blog. People want to discuss the actual article itself, what I wrote in it, etc, they can here.

    Don't make me put you two in timeout. :)

  15. Back to the main subject: I think one of the major problems in Catholic apologetics today is the mistaken notion that for one side the pre-VII Church could do no wrong, while the other side has the mistaken notion the post-VII Church could do no wrong.

    Over the last few years, I've come to realize there has always been 'criticism' of the papacy at the time and church from orthodox Catholics, and that's simply a fact of Catholic life and history. Criticism, when done without an axe to grind, can be uplifting and urge people to improve their ways.

  16. Thank you for getting things back on topic Nick.

    And now I'm going to slightly derail it. :)

    I think the "Pre-Vatican II did no wrong" idea is a little tough to verify in reality. I really haven't heard even the Remnant crowd say that. At times it appears that way, and it's a defensive mode. They feel attacked, and so they look to shore up the foundations so to speak.

    Not defending them in any sense, merely pointing out that if they aren't doing it, the more saner traditionalists aren't either. What I think is happening is that as tempers cool (and Benedict's election had a huge role in this) you are starting to see some more honest reflection, but not relitigating the past. Its okay, what do we do now?

    I think you see that amongst traditionalists like Alice Von Hildebrand, in her relentless crusade to return traditional thinking into the mindset of the average Catholic. (I don't think it's that out of line to say this.)

    Now getting back on topic, apologetics is neccessary. Yet there needs to be a lot more than just apologetics. There's more to things than intellectual disputes. Since we can all agree on this, don't really see what the problem is. I see the roles as complimentary, but there needs to be that distinction made, in word and deed.

  17. An important point of clarification: I never intended to suggest you or anyone here believed the pre-VII church could do no wrong!

  18. People want to discuss the actual article itself, what I wrote in it,

    I certainly did that, but you had no interest in discussing it whatever. Your choice. Thanks, at any rate, for letting me express myself here (somewhat edited, but good enough). Be well.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. If people wanna take a stroll down memory lane for the most salacious statement . . .

    It ain't "memory lane" because it is all quite present and online today. This is the point! What is online now is "present" for whoever runs across it. Greg Mockeridge was arguing in the original combox at First Things that Catholics ought not condemn each other (citing Mark Shea), and so I brought this up there, saying that if we're gonna be serious about ethical conduct between Catholics, we have to condemn attacks even if we agree with the person's position; not just when we disagree with it. Everyone's gotta bend a little if we are truly to reform online discourse.

  21. By the way; you may think we always disagree, but I read one of your papers about Christopher West and you seemed to have a good argument. I haven't read enough on TOB to have an informed opinion, but it was well-argued, and it piqued my curiosity to see who is being the more accurate interpreter of JPII's thought.

    One day when I have some time to do so I'd like to read more about the dispute, to arrive at a more informed judgment.

  22. Then perhaps in the meantime it can be viewed as more than mere "Christopher West bashing", no?

  23. If he's wrong, yes. It would be a charitable act to correct him.


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