Retrieving Apologetics

A number of Catholics, including theologians, think that the Church should not engage in apologetics. These critics claim that Vatican II made apologetics obsolete by calling for the Church to embrace, and no longer turn its back on, the modern world. They say theology is supposed to engage pressing contemporary issues that affect everyone, but apologetics seems to rehash irrelevant topics while undermining fruitful dialogue by provoking division and strife.

Ironically, the documents of Vatican II make the exact opposite claim. They implore the faithful to evangelize the world with apologetics. For decades following Vatican II, a reasoned defense of Christianity became passé due to a widespread crisis of faith. Catholics must overcome their spiritual malaise and misplaced priorities by employing reason to fulfill the Church’s mission to evangelize the world. Reason, says John Paul II, “should be seen as a fundamental and original contribution in service of the new evangelization” (Fides et Ratio, 103).

On the Need for Apologetics
Let us turn to some positive reasons why Catholics should engage in apologetics.

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First, Scripture commands it. In Jude 3, Christians are told to “contend for the faith.” Paul saw his own role as that of an apologist. In Phillipians 1:16, he wrote, “I am here for the defense of the Gospel.” The central apologetics passage of the New Testament says (1 Pet. 3:15), “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Notice that St. Peter says we are to always be ready to give a defense, not just sometimes.

Second, God created human beings with the ability to reason. Catholic theology has never held to the total depravity of the human person, which is more at home in certain Protestant circles. According to Catholic theology, God expects us to use reason. It also helps people to determine what is true, and how to justify one’s beliefs. Without reason, there is no justification for holding to any one set of certain beliefs over and against another set of beliefs.

Third, apologetics helps inculturate the Gospel. Catholics must be able to understand the wider cultural context where they live in order for evangelization to be effective. The intellectual zeitgeist of the modern West can be traced back to the secular philosophies of the Enlightenment. The hallmark of this movement was to free humanity from what it saw as the shackles of organized religion, marked not by reason but by superstition. The upshot of these materialistic philosophies is that faith is considered equivalent to an opinion or personal taste; only that which is observable through the senses and understood through reason is worthy of public discussion and debate. By employing reasoned argument, apologists can “speak a language” that unbelievers can understand. Ironically, it is a hallmark of modernity that reasoning has fallen out of favor. It is the task of the faithful to recover rational discourse in the service of truth.

Fourth, the results of apologetics confirm its effectiveness despite the claims of skeptics. After trying to debunk the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, Frank Morrison became a Catholic after recognizing the historical evidence for the resurrection. C.S. Lewis came to believe in Christ under the influence of apologetics. St. Augustine embraced Catholicism after hearing a thoughtful Catholic debate with a Manichean. The former atheist, Antony Flew, recently became a philosophical theist because of arguments for God’s existence. These and other notable examples confirm that apologetic defenses have accompanied conversions and a change of mind.

Moreover, the popular objection “only the Holy Spirit brings persons to Christ, not human arguments” is a completely shortsighted understanding of reason and theology. It limits what an infinite God can do. It is not the Holy Spirit or human reason. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit working through persons who use good arguments to reach unbelievers with the Gospel.

Some people claim apologetics is ineffective in their witness. However, what these individuals tend to overlook is that conversions often take place over time. We simply do not know how or when God will use the things we say in our apologetic witness. The seed may sprout in a few days or a few years down the road.

Conversely, everyone who entrusts themselves in faith has a reason for becoming Catholic. Not having a reason for faith is tantamount to saying that one has faith by accident. So the principle question should not be whether or not there are reasons for faith, but what kind of reasons one already has absorbed into his or her Catholic outlook. By denying the efficacy of apologetics, critics are themselves revealing their own irrationality and unfaithfulness by effectively admitting having no justification for their own belief.

An apologetical mind conforms to the heart of Christ. Hiding the truth is not a sign of love for Christ, but of fear and unbelief. If Catholics truly believe that Jesus is Lord, then they will make the attempt to win converts for him in every way that is humanly possible, not just in ways that exclude verbal persuasion. Arguments can and must be given for faith. However, apologists should not be argumentative because they will likely fall short of the ultimate objective: persuasion and conversion. Apologists are defenders, not defensive, of Catholic truth.

Moreover, the apologist is not exclusively concerned with persuading unbelievers, but also seeks to inspire believers. In this way, apologetics is needed for believers to become confident about what they believe in order to explain and live out their faith. Like a good sermon, apologetics strengthens the faith of believers. And just like catechesis in the years immediately following Vatican II, apologetics fell out of use because of growing doubt as to what Catholics believed. Thus, a successful apologetics is a sign of a confident Church.

Of course, apologetics can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. This reaction may stems from apprehending the truth about Christ and his Church (cf. John 3:19-21). With this realization in mind, we should not only be ready to give a reason for Christian hope; we should also prepare ourselves for rejection, if not persecution. A hostile response is not necessarily the result of a failed apologetics but the reaction to a countercultural message.

Lastly, believers should engage in apologetics because a blind faith can lead to self-destruction and a reasoned faith can lead to sanctity. Richard Dawkins once noted that faith “leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and die for it without the need for further justification.” Dawkins is partially correct: blind faith can lead one down the path of violence. But a healthy faith will seek to understand the object in which their faith is placed. A healthy faith does not forget to use reason.

Magisterium and Apologetics
The Magisterium urges the faithful to engage the world with apologetical arguments. The Council, for instance, did not break off from Sacred Tradition but rather called upon believers to defend the Gospel and Church teaching. For instance, the Council urged “all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them” (Lumen gentium, 10). In the Declaration on Religious Liberty, we read: “The disciple has a grave obligation to Christ, his Master, to grow daily in his knowledge of the truth he has received from him, to be faithful in announcing it, and vigorous in defending it without having recourse to methods which are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel” (14).

Further, Catholics are not merely called to dialogue with non-Christians, but must seek to convert them to the risen Christ (Optatium Totius, 16; Ad Gentes, 30, 39, 40). The Constitution on Divine Revelation goes so far as to say that we must “fight in defense of the faith” (8). Of course, this phrase is stressing the great lengths that Catholics must go in order to preserve the Church’s doctrine against challenges that confront the Church.

Moreover, it is well known that one of the great themes of Gaudium et Spes has to do with reading the signs of the times. In reading the culture, Catholics are not only called to engage outsiders with arguments for faith, they must learn effective ways to reach doubters with the Gospel. Method and context must be taken into consideration for effective evangelization to take place.

Apologetics and Dialogue
Some critics think that the Church should replace apologetics with dialogue. We have already provided some of the reasons why Catholics should engage in apologetics, including justification from Vatican II documents. While dialogue serves a valuable purpose, it is not a replacement for apologetics but a compliment to it. Nor does Church teaching countenance the elevation of dialogue to the detriment of apologetics. Dialogue has its time and place. Dialogue is not about conversion. The Magisterium urges the faithful to dialogue with members of other world religions because the presence of the Spirit can be found outside the Church.

However, the call to enter into dialogue with non-Catholics is equally marked by the concern to evangelize them (cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio). Nowhere does Scripture, Tradition, or Catholic teaching qualify who should be (or should not be) evangelized. Furthermore, the well-received document, Dialogue and Proclamation, settled the debate between evangelization and the dialogical paradigm. The Pontifical Council confirmed that proclamation holds a “permanent priority” (44) over dialogue. So although both of these enterprises play their own unique role in certain circumstances in the Church, they “are not on the same level” (77).

Practical and Theoretical Apologetics
Still other critics suggest that doubters do not come to faith through reasoned arguments. Instead, they say, people come to faith through experience.

Admittedly, the experience of Christian unity can help to foster faith. Be that as it may, ecumenists need to include apologetical tactics to attain full, visible unity. Indeed, trying to separate ecumenism from apologetics is like trying to separate blue and red from the color purple. For example, ecumenists rightly demand that Catholics familiarize themselves with other viewpoints. Theological knowledge of other faith traditions is necessary for apologists to achieve religious unity. Full communion will come about only through the embrace of truth.

Catholic tradition also emphasizes the persuasive power of holiness and charity. For example, this “apologetics of love” is displayed by the life and death of martyrs. As Tertullian said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The Martyrs provide “evidence of a love” that does not need to be defended in order to convince honest inquirers about the faith.

However, in all of these cases, the theoretical should not immediately be brushed to the side. Although many Catholics take great pains to stress the importance of love, it must be stressed that if one loves, then he or she will speak and defend the truth to the beloved. Holiness and love may be more than rational, but they are certainly not less than rational. Conversely, if one uses argument, then this can become a means by which one is sanctified. Of course, apologetics is not always needed, and is dependent on the context of the discussion.

Apologetics and Relevance
Many other critics believe that the notion of defending Christianity does not have relevance. For them, faith is not supposed to remain enclosed within the realm of thought, but must turn outward in service to one’s neighbor. However, this objection ignores the role apologetics plays in motivating religious and charitable action.

Apologetics can enhance a minister’s awareness and confidence to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. In this respect, apologetics might safeguard believers from becoming indifferent about evangelization. If we do not consider that it is important for others to hear the Gospel, we will question its importance for ourselves.

Recall, too, that an anti-apologetic mindset can destroy the driving impetus underlying missions. If dialogue is understood in the erroneous sense that faith in Jesus is unnecessary or unimportant, and that Christians only have to dialogue to understand one another for mutual enrichment, then the missionary mandate loses its underlying rationale. But evangelization is essential to the Church’s life. Missionary drive is a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is evidence of a crisis of faith.

Part of the reason for this lessening is due to a reductive understanding of ministry that forgets the importance of reasoned defenses of the faith. The Church is not merely supposed to be inclusive, but is called to be expansive. Conversely, if the Church is not expansive, then one must seriously question whether the Church is fulfilling its mission. The apologetic mandate provides an impetus for the missions.

Many believers recognize the deleterious effects that de-Christianization is having on society. Part of the reason why indifferentism is gaining such strong headway in the West is due to the ongoing separation of faith and reason. When this separation occurs, the fundamentals of the faith are seen as opinions or personal preferences, undermining one’s motivation to believe in the Gospel. Of course, if faith is nothing other than an opinion, then why seek to evangelize others to believe in the Gospel when the Christian faith is strictly a matter of taste?

The teaching of Vatican II on apologetics needs to be retrieved if the spiritual tide is to turn against the ongoing progress of secularization. Criticism of apologetics is often evidence of a loss of confidence in reason and a lack of faith in the Gospel characteristic of the crisis of faith in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Apologetics thus serves two vital functions: to build up the faith of Catholics and to spread the Good News of Christ across the globe. Other theological developments in the Church (e.g., ecumenism, dialogue, holiness, and practical relevance) that have displaced apologetics in the last half century lose much of their rationale unless they are grounded in the biblical mandate to evangelize the world.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “St. John Chrystostomos (c.347-407) Preaching Before the Empress Eudoxia” was painted by Joseph Wencker in 1880.


  • Gardner Jacobs

    Gardner Jacobs is the pseudonym for an assistant professor of theology at a Catholic college.

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