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).
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.