Michelle Arnold on a Key Failure of the Catholic Apologetics Subculture

Over at Patheos, Michelle Arnold, who used to work for Catholic Answers, looks at one of the key weaknesses of the New Apologetics:

The “new apologetics,” which began in the late 1970s, started out as a means of answering questions people had. When Karl Keating discovered an anti-Catholic tract on his windshield after Mass, he wrote out a response, printed it out in tract form, and distributed it to the windshields of cars in the parking lot of the church that sponsored the anti-Catholic tract. Later, when he received letters from people wanting more information on Catholic teaching, he wrote more tracts.

Eventually, more Catholics were inspired to learn their faith and go and do likewise. Conversions resulted, and the new converts got in on the action, sharing their stories of how they became Catholic and why they thought everyone else should become Catholic too. Soon enough, apologetics became an industry, complete with books, audio and video lectures, debates, magazines, and web sites.

Somewhere along the way though, the personal touch in apologetics was lost. Instead of answering problems people had, the focus shifted to telling people how they should behave—how to vote, how to get married, how to raise children, even how to dress.

The intention behind this shift was mostly good—there really are people out there who want to know how a Catholic apologist thinks they ought to fill out a ballot, find the right spouse, raise their kids, and choose their clothes. Instead of discerning the real problem behind these questions though, which is that there are a lot of scrupulous people in the world, apologists accepted the opportunity to become gurus.

While some Catholics welcomed this micromanagement of their lives from apologists, many more Catholics did not. And, frankly, rightly so. But what has been most interesting to me in the past few years is how many Catholics I’ve met who were once part of the conservative constituency who looked up to the New Apologists for guidance in their faith—and who are now “deconstructing” (re-examining the faith to determine if it really is true).

This deconstruction is, I believe, a direct consequence of the New Apologetics, which was built on an uncritical amassing of Scripture, patristics, and Church documents to promote various agendas. For example, when Catholics are told that they absolutely must not vote for a certain political party lest they risk going to hell (and, here, have a truckload of cherry-picked quotes from Church documents to prove it)—even when their intent is to block the rise of a dangerously unqualified authoritarian—many Catholics are eventually going to question the underlying premises of such arguments.

As with all idols, the New Apologetics will eventually fall. Fortunately, Christ didn’t build his Church upon apologetics. Even if hell swallows up the New Apologetics, Christ promised that his Church would endure (Matt. 16:18).

Much more here.

I used to move in these circles and am grateful for the chance to have written about the Faith. But at the same time, there were always things about this world that made me nervous. Perhaps the biggest worry for me was the way in which the apologetics subculture tended to partake of the American habit of worshiping celebrities while alloying that with the habit of canonizing them.

As one who received my share of worship from #1 Fans back in the day, I can tell you it is deeply unhealthy for both idol and idolator, not least because it has contributed hugely to the situation in which now find ourselves as apologetics subculture becomes a feedback loop in which a bunch of talking heads who have reduced the Faith to a System and forgotten that it is a relationship with the Blessed Trinity decide that God has called them to defend the Church from the Magisterium and the Holy Father for the sin of being out of step with their little sect.

I’m grateful for the brave (and persecuted) witness of people like Michelle Arnold.


7 Responses

  1. “Instead of answering problems people had, the focus shifted to telling people how they should behave—how to vote, how to get married, how to raise children, even how to dress.”

    I once listened to an evangelist who did a lot of work with so-called “street people” in Brooklyn in the ’60s and ’70s. These were not PTA or Knights of Columbus members. They were gang members, prostitutes, junkies, dealers, thieves, etc. Very few them were aware of the proper dress code or language for church, but he never once hassled them about it. He just showed them Jesus, answered their questions, and did everything he could to take care of them. He said that without fail, people changed on their own once they had Christ in their lives. He didn’t have to tell the former prostitutes how they “ought” to dress or the former gang members to watch their language. He just let the Holy Spirit take over.

    A lot of apologists could take a lesson.

  2. I like your last paragraph, though not all apologists are guilty of the charges mentioned. I do feel, however, that even the best of them are eagerly repeating the ”Church is in crisis” mantra ad nauseam. We’re called to be the salt of the earth, not the salty of the earth.

    Two other things that I find often unappealing:

    1. We are a universal Church. I do understand that local churches work on a national level, but nonetheless: there is a whole continent full of Catholics to the south of you guys, and if all I hear about Latin American Catholics is that some Austrian dumped a statue into the a river in Italy, I find that slightly .. suspicious.

    2. This is one you also mentioned, but here goes: the priests I am close to never discuss politics with me, nor do I want them to. There is a need for the Church to broadly outline concerns and priorities, but I have no need for a bunch of self appointed internet authorities to guide me, certainly not when I feel the unholy smoke of partisan hackery wafting about them.

    1. I’m confounded, I agree with everything that Mark said, and everything that you said. what to do?

      I will have to ponder this.

      Your words about the whole continent to the south of “us guys”, brings me back to the winter of 1985: I was sitting in a muddy, open air Catholic church. It had half a roof and wooden bleachers over a sticky, puddled floor. The town was named “Sour Lake”–known for its toothless prostitutes, and the oil workers that worked for Texaco. I had seen many shocking things in that little slum in the middle of the Ecuadorian Selba, but on par with the cigarette-smoking monkey, (leaning up against a post in the downtown), and the giant roach that was crawling up the leg of my host’s mother’s nylon stockings –and EVEN the sideless airplane that buzzed the forest canopy–with nothing but a flimsy seat belt between me and the next life.. I was jarred MOST by the sermon that Sunday (which I mostly couldn’t understand.) My twenty-five-year-old future step-mother-in-law, angrily translated for me. The priest was calm, but Maria Lourdes became increasingly agitated, clenching her jaw and muttering under her breath.

      He was preaching “liberation theology.”

      I’d heard about that demonic scourge, and was appalled and thrilled to witness it first hand. I echoed Maria L’s shock and disgust, shaking my head at the poison such an obviously misguided priest was filling those poor Ecuadorians’ heads with.


      Disturbingly, later on, a nagging thought began to play like a loop in my head, (along with the violent dysentery, and the moth the size of a bird flapping against the inside window of my room.)

      I agreed with the priest.

      What he had said made sense.

      That moment was on par with the shock of Pope John Paul 2, saying that Capitalism was not the solution to the world’s problems. I remember my father’s response. He belittled a Pope’s ability to grasp economics, snapping, “he should stick to theology!”

      Maria Lourdes and her mother ended up stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down when my father-in-law passed away suddenly, seven years later. Her mother complained bitterly about the heist my husband’s oldest brother had pulled off which only left them with a little flesh on the carcass. Between the two of them and my husband’s oldest brothers, by the time we’d stepped off the plane in Quito, every asset had been pilfered, liquidated, hidden and squirreled away.

      1. @ Taco

        You definitely grew up among a different kind of people 🙂

        In the late eighties and early nineties I mostly moved in circles of left leaning students, including some refugees of the Pinochet regime. My favourite pub in Louvain, where I studied at the time, was called the ”Libertad”. I’m sure you get the picture.

        It’s perhaps no surprise then that I eventually began to realize I’m more ”conservative” than they are. Such is the way of life, eh?

        As for liberation theology: I’m no expert, but I don’t like the Christological heresies in some of their teachings. On the other hand, I’m also not a fan of prelates who make ”opium for the masses” seem like a perverse reality rather than a Marxist slur. Finally, I am not against Fidel marching on Havana, and, if need be, clean out an episcopal palace on the way. However, I also think that the Cuba and Nicaragua could be in a much better place today, an that failure is largely due to the ideological underpinnings of their respective regimes.

  3. @Artevele,

    “You definitely grew up among a different kind of people… ”

    No doubt. It would be hard for any family to reach that level of crazy.

    Hmmm…this makes me wonder what kind of people you grew up among.

    Even though I married into a different race to try to get away from mine, it didn’t take long to realize that snobbery, avarice and licentiousness are equal opportunity employers. Universal.

    Some people just manage to hide it better.

    I was just a little “boba” at the time my future FIL and his girlfriend invited me to stay at the Texaco camp in the jungle. She worked in the oil industry and my FIL designed bridges and pipelines. Back then, I saw things pretty much in black in white. I was the one that insisted that I not miss mass that Sunday because I firmly believed at the time that I would incur mortal sin if I didn’t. Later, I remember feeling shocked that the mother of Maria L was a cooperator of Opus Dei after she behaved in the manner that she did–as if the two things couldn’t coexist.

    Anyway, I remember my father’s cronies calling that Central American martyr priest (his name escapes me at the moment!) a commie! Haha–I wonder how they feel now about a “commie” being canonized. How delicious.

    My maternal grandfather on the other hand WAS a bona fide commie, but purely in the romantic sense–not in the 100s of millions of dead people sense. He fancied himself a kind of Hemingway right down to the black standard poodle as his fishing companion on the sea of Cortez. Interestingly enough, he once commissioned a painting from one of the great (commie) Mexican muralists that is ravishingly beautiful and priceless.

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