Thursday, March 02, 2006

Defending Catholic Apologetics Against (Mostly) Catholic Critics

By Dave Armstrong (3-2-06)

I feel very strongly that the common sweeping judgments of apologetics need to also be accompanied by (at least some) in-depth, specific critiques, sent to those who are being critiqued, so that they can have a chance to respond to the critiques. Yet I rarely see this happen. Instead, I often observe a curious "anti-apologetics" mentality which operates on several different levels (at times approximating outright gossip).

1) There is, for instance, the "apologists pretend to be scholars" routine. I've been accused of this myself, though there isn't the slightest thing anywhere in my writings that would suggest such a ridiculous thing (and lots of instances where I deny this, so there is no misunderstanding). Sometimes folks (even scholars) think I am some kind of scholar, which is a great compliment, but it ain't so, and I have never pretended that it was. Perhaps others have, but I am unaware of any prominent examples in the apologetics community.

Lots of scholars are also apologists: for example, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard (in his own fashion), priests such as Fr. Pacwa (insofar as a priest can be considered a scholar). Many other (published, professional) apologists are not scholars (myself included). But I don't see why we have to create a wedge between the two classes, as if a scholar becomes "tainted" or "dirtied" through mere association with apologists, or like the profession of apologetics is some intrinsically unsavory, embarrassing thing.

2) The "apologists are unduly simplistic" charge is another common complaint. Yet this approach is based on a fallacy and internal contradiction. If apologists are trying to reach those (on the outside) not well acquainted with Catholic theology, or those (on the inside) not well-catechized, then obviously they will have to simplify a bit, as an academic-type treatise will not reach either group.

Why this would be at all objectionable, is beyond me. If we apologists try to do something akin to scholarship, then we get lambasted as pretenders. Yet when we simplify, because that is part of good apologetics (as St. Paul said, "I have become all things to all people, that I might by any means save some"), we get excoriated for that. What gives? What would these critics have us do; what would satisfy them?

3) Another example of what I see as the "anti-apologetics" mentality is the accusation that we are (theologically) right-wing fanatics or that we are merely importing Protestant polemics and thinking into Catholicism.

4) There exists a certain animus against converts (a class from which many apologists derive), both from Protestants (because conversions pose a threat to them, as a "rejection" of their claims) and from cradle Catholics (who sometimes seem to resent converts because they get a lot of attention or because they perceive them to be "Catholics Light" or theological lightweights).

5) Let's not forget the perennial false dichotomy of "apologetics is contrary to ecumenism." I've dealt with that till I am blue in the face, through the years (being quite passionately ecumenical myself). I agree that apologetics can in practice, done badly, antithetical to ecumenism, but it need not be that way at all. Vatican II manages to combine both endeavors in a complementary way, and I have always sought to do the same.

6) Often, we observe in such critics an uncritical, illogical equating any Tom, Dick, or Harry who runs around on bulletin boards doing apologetics, with professional, published apologists, as if we would condone everything that is done by everyone who attempts apologetics at all. I haven't even commented on bulletin boards for several years now, so disgusted was I at what usually goes on there. Yet we professional apologists are often regarded as little different than someone trying apologetics for the first time (i.e., the ones who do indeed do it badly, which is not everyone, by any means). This is - to put it mildly - hardly fair.

I might add that (as an aside), with the blog phenomenon, everyone who wants to be, is immediately an author and writer. That's a far cry from actually being published in the traditional, conventional manner. At least some publisher or editor provides a standard whereby some writers will be rejected, and others accepted. I was published in magazines in 1993, three years before I ever went online (and three after I converted).

I wouldn't disparage blogs in the least (after all, I have one, too). But I am making a rhetorical point here: if these critics wish to take on apologists as some kind of undereducated, overestimated class (as seems increasingly fashionable these days), I could just as well retort (if they are merely blog writers, with no apologetic or academic credentials, "who are you to make such serious charges? Just because you can publish on a blog, due to the Internet, somehow gives you the authority, importance, or credentials, to make such accusations?"

Obviously, as a member of this class of apologists (and one who knows almost all the most well-known apologists on some personal level), I strenuously object to all of these caricatures and bum raps.

I would like to see some articulate, thoughtful person who feels this way provide, for once, a specific, documented critique that someone can respond to. Perhaps many apologists would not do so, or would think it too unimportant of a task. Speaking for myself, as a member of this dreaded, derided, disparaged tribe of apologists, I would be more than happy to respond to specific criticisms, and would appreciate the opportunity to have a chance to give "the other side of the story" for a change. I would gladly publish any such exchange on my website. If such a critic can be found who wishes to have a good discussion about this, that would be wonderful; all the better. They are most welcome on my blog, as is everyone else.

Lots of people can fire shots. That's easy to do. But I find, almost invariably, that when these "general critics" are asked to get specific, they don't want to do so. I think it is an intellectual and moral duty if someone wishes to publicly make serious charges.

Even many of the critics state that apologists helped them greatly to convert or become interested in theology. So why do they run them down now? In so doing, they confirm exactly what the purpose of apologetics is: to remove roadblocks to the Catholic faith, or a fuller, more thoughtful espousal of Catholic orthodoxy.

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