The Last Temptation of the Lay Apologist

Lay apologists today, because of the media environment and other circumstances in society, face temptations that their predecessors did not; primary among them is the clickbait temptation.

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In the 19th century, the rise of a popular press changed the dynamic of the Catholic Church permanently. Initially used as a weapon against the Church by French Lumières and later anti-clerical parties across Europe, by the mid-19th century, the Church began to utilize the press for its own purposes. The Jesuits founded La Civiltà Cattolica in 1850, with papal approval of course, but they were already preceded by several newspapers, above all L’Univers from the French journalist Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), who worked to popularize “ultramontane” views of the papacy. 

Veuillot’s career is a good example of the dangers of a layman taking on a public role in defending the Church. Though Veuillot did good work in combating anti-clericalism, much of his work on the papacy would strike many today as highly embarrassing. He exalted the popes as if they were gods on earth. For example: once, he rewrote the sequence Veni Creator Spiritus with Pius IX as its subject rather than the Holy Ghost: “To Pius IX, Pontiff King, / Father of the Poor, / Giver of Gifts, / Light of lights, / Send forth thy beam of Heavenly Light!” 

The tradition of lay apologists is a venerable one, going back to early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. But today, lay apologists for the Faith face challenges even the likes of Veuillot never dreamed of. Technological and social changes have profoundly altered how the Church has to operate in public, and apologetic efforts seem directed as much toward baptized Catholics, who don’t seem to know or care much about the Faith, as to non-Catholics. It is worth reflecting on some of the pitfalls that may beset well-meaning lay apologists today.

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I admit that I don’t often seek out the opinions of popular apologists when I have questions about this or that controversy in the Catholic world. This is not because I do not think there is a role for lay apologists in the contemporary Catholic scene—quite the opposite. They play a crucial role, in my opinion. With media technology being what it is, the Church simply cannot control its image or make sure its actual teachings will be heard in the cacophony of opinions; having lay apologists who can mediate sometimes highly technical teachings in an accurate way to the public without doing violence to them is crucial. 

But there are a couple of reasons I don’t generally consult them when I encounter this or that difficulty. One is that, as someone who is self-motivated, I like finding things out for myself. Also, I have been trained as an academic historian, so I am used to doing my own research. Even though history and theology are rather different disciplines and I am likely less knowledgeable theologically speaking than many lay apologists, I am willing to bet on myself, at least for most things. I also have no problem admitting when I am wrong (which is, sadly, quite often).

The other reason, however, is that lay apologists today, because of the media environment and other circumstances in society (of which more anon) face temptations that perhaps their predecessors did not, or at least not to the same degree. One of these that afflicts popular apologists of all types is that of the clickbait temptation. It is very difficult to avoid this particular trap, especially if you are someone trying to make a living doing Catholic apologetics. 

With all the competition out there, Catholic and otherwise, it is very difficult to support one’s self monetarily by simply answering people’s questions about the Faith. The impulse to sensationalize and provoke can hardly be resisted when that is the only way to make your living. It is easier to attract an audience by insisting that Jorge Bergoglio is not the real pope than to calmly explain that the College of Cardinals elects bad people as popes from time to time.

I know this from experience because I produce a Church history podcast in my spare time. Mostly, I do this because I enjoy learning about the history of the Church and want to present what I have learned to other Catholics. But if you actually want to make a living as a podcaster, or YouTuber, you must attract advertising, and the only way to do this is to get clicks. And the only way to do that is to create an addiction through continuous cultivation of outrage and curated dopamine hits that sooth such outrage. This is, in the cacophony of voices that comprise our online public life, virtually the only way to attract a consistent audience. If you actually want to make a living as a podcaster/YouTuber, you must attract advertising, and the only way to do this is to get clicks. And the only way to do that is to create an addiction through continuous cultivation of outrage.Tweet This

Much greater than this, however, is the temptation to present oneself as an authority to your audience. I don’t mean as if you possessed canonical faculties or something official like that. I mean presenting one’s self as a de facto authority who should be listened to as a substitute for doing one’s own investigation of whatever topic one desires knowledge of. This second temptation is related to the first: some fans become so enamored of their favored online apologist that they take their word for things as if it were the final one.

And it is here that those circumstances I mentioned above matter a great deal. I am referring to the lack of trust, and the subsequent consequences of that, which exists in American society today. America used to be a “high trust” society where few people locked their doors and most were comfortable taking on faith the things their government told them. As we should all be plentifully aware by now, America is today a decidedly “low trust” society, one in which Americans are increasingly suspicious of each other and their governors, for reasons I should not have to elucidate. 

Readers of Crisis will probably recognize that much the same situation holds within the Catholic Church as well. Once, the Church in America and elsewhere was a “high trust” society too. It has long since ceased to be such. 

Here the reasons are worth enumerating. Just to name two, the sexual abuse scandals and their cover-ups, and the divide between Catholics over difficult teachings (especially on sexuality) have long eroded trust between Catholics and, above all, trust in their shepherds. A recently released survey on lay Catholic’s trust in their shepherd’s confirms this. As difficult as it may be to admit, devout Catholics have good reasons not to trust authority figures in the Church today, from the pope on down.

This brings me back to conspiracy theories and outrage merchants. I think those lay apologists—or simply Catholic social media “influencers”—who spread silly conspiracy theories or who make idiotic political statements damage the Church’s reputation, to be sure. But I do not think those who spread such ideas are stupid or insane. I also do not think that popular apologists parroting ridiculous ideas is the most embarrassing thing that could be said about the Catholic Church. 

To understand why, take the parallel case of conspiracy theories in the political realm. Though it may be foolish in this or that particular case to think the U.S. government is lying to its citizens, it is not foolish to believe the U.S. government capable of such a thing. The federal government has lied to citizens often enough over the past half century (and the past five years or so especially) that its truthfulness can no longer be taken for granted. 

I do not believe, for example, that the September 11th attacks were an “inside job,” but I am very ready to believe our elites are capable of doing something like this and that they would employ all sorts of chicanery to achieve their goals, if they thought it necessary. If our leaders are so concerned about conspiracy theories and “misinformation,” they have no one but themselves to blame for their spread.

In other words, the YouTube political theorists of the world and their opinions about 9/11 or who killed John F. Kennedy are not nearly as embarrassing as the dishonesty and depravity of the leaders of the United States. The same is unfortunately true of the bishops, theologians, and others with canonical authority in the Church who covered up and, in some cases, committed acts of sexual abuse; and those who refuse to teach the fullness of the Catholic Faith, either through fear or unbelief. 

It is true that the situation of social media today makes it more difficult for a bishop, even the pope, to make the message of Revelation heard. But this does not change the fact that, because they do have final authority in the Church, they are ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. It is their failures that cause Catholics to go online and seek affirmation of their Faith elsewhere. Controversial lay apologists would have no audience if the bishops and those with authority in the Church would simply do their duty. 

Lay apologists, at their best, are messengers and media for the truth of the Catholic Faith to those who otherwise might not hear it. But they must always resist the temptation to believe that their efforts are more important than they actually are or that they can compensate for the failures of those in authority. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

Author

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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