A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Random thoughts on online apologetics

There was a time when I heavily involved in online Catholic apologetics on some Yahoo Groups. I still do some of this, but I've gotten jaded about the work of Catholic apologists. Part of this is because I fear that apologetics battles may, in Catholics at least (I can't speak for Protestants at all on this issue) ultimately promote a kind of triumphalism that may ultimately hinder Catholic-Protestant relations. Don't mistake this concern for relativism: I'm not saying that there's nothing wrong with believing your church is right and that others are wrong. In fact, I'd say there's something wrong with belonging to a church which you don't believe is the correct or most correct one! I'm just saying that making smug comments about the blindness or irrationalism of those who disagree with you is not a way to make friends or influence people. More importantly, it doesn't demonstrate Christian charity. (And I freely admit that I have been uncharitable in this way.)

But there's a bigger problem with apologetics, or rather with the Catholic-Protestant debating that often makes up the meat of amateur apologist's work. It's that bigger problem that is my concern here, but I want first of all to reaffirm the good work which is being done in the field of internet apologetics. At its best, Catholic apologetics can clear up misconceptions about Catholic doctrine and practice- and boy, do those misconceptions abound! There's still plenty of genuine anti-Catholicism out there, too. (If any who read scoff, I can point my readers to some.) There is real work to be done in the field of Catholic apologetics in showing that Catholicism is not as irrational or unbiblical as it often seems to conservative but inadequately-educated-on-this-subject Protestants. If this work results in nothing more than less animosity and a more accurate understanding of Catholicism, the results are still significant.

I worry, though, that at times apologetics forums and blogs just encourage Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) to view Catholic-Protestant relations as a great debate, a big combat. "Let's duke it out and see who wins!" While I admit that I love a good intellectual fight myself, this no longer seems to me to be a helpful attitude to take to inter-denominational relations, particularly in light of the fact that many of the issues at stake are already under discussion through official channels of the Catholic Church.

Take one example: the issue of justification. I don't know how many times I've seen online arguments between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants on the issue of whether we are saved by faith alone or by works. What is sad and rather stupid about all of this is that considerable consensus on this issue has actually been reached in various ecumenical dialogues. The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification is of course the best known one, but Catholics reached points of agreement on issues of salvation with the Anglicans, Baptists, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). Agreement is not complete, of course, but it is far more substantial than one would guess from either the Protestant or Catholic apologists, at least the amateur ones. To their credit, professional writers from all sides do tend to be more familiar with these documents, but it seems disturbing to me that armchair apologists aren't aware of ecumenical dialogues which have, in some cases, been going on for decades.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, though. Average church goers don't hear about these agreements. They aren't announced from the pulpit. I can understand why, in a way: I suppose most pastors don't think that cutting-edge-ecumenical-dialogue impact their congregations. Churches tend -reasonably- to focus on the needs of their congregations, not to be worried about what other ecclesial bodies are doing.

But I submit that "average Joe" church goers -whether Catholic, conservative Evangelical, or mainline Protestant- do need to be kept informed of the conclusions of past and on-going ecumenical dialogues. And if "Average Joe" needs to know, there's an even greater obligation for those who like to be involved in Catholic-Protestant debating/ apologetics. There's no need for us to keep reinventing the wheel by hashing out the same issues over and over again when (in some cases) we may find that our churches have already come to a degree of agreement that may surprise us.


Anonymous Becky said...

Have you read this book:

Anyway, it agrees with you. One of the points is that while apologetics is good, ecumenicism is also good and is necessary, and we can't pretend that we're engaging in ecumenicism when we're really engaging in apologetics. I could dig up mom's copy and send it to you, if you want and have time to read it.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Kevin Jones said...

On-line apologetics has become too abstract for me. It's far too easy to forget there's a person behind the comments. Other than just sending an occasional link to an otherwise unchallenged polemic, I've cut back a whole lot.

I myself now only engage in apologetics with locals, especially when things appear in the local newspapers. The possibility that one could meet in real life helps keep things from getting too nasty.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

How NOT To Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins Of Apologetics And Evangelization

Becky, do you have a copy of this? I'd like to read it. Maybe I should check out

In case you're curious, this blog entry was prompted by me reading Mark Noll's Is the Reformation Over?. The latter is really a book for Protestants which says "Hey! Look at how much we can agree with Catholics! Isn't that great?" I'm only half-way through, but it's already moved to the rank of "best book about Catholicism by non-Catholic authors that I've ever read." I plan to do a review of it whenever I finish.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

It's far too easy to forget there's a person behind the comments.

Yeah, I hear ya. I'm a lot meaner on the internet than I usually am in real life. (Maybe my husband would disagree. . . .)

Seems like there's been some recent discussion about whether on-line religious groups are bad specifically because of the possibility of flaming, but I'm not sure I remember where I read that. Touchstone or FT, maybe?

9:17 PM  
Blogger Kevin Jones said...

I know the Japery at the New Pantagruel has been ranting against internet forums because they create a false sense of community.

4:36 PM  

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