Apologetics as a form of teaching and defending the Catholic faith is very ancient. In fact, many Scripture scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was originally written as an apologetic teaching. In the earliest Christian period, apologetics was a way of responding to pagan accusations, so the earliest apologists were defending the church from pagan persecution.
|Father Richard Kunst
But that is not the way apologetics is viewed or practiced in the modern world. Though some may say we live in a pagan world, or at least in a world of pagan values, the fact is that there are very few people in our neck of the woods who are worshiping many gods. Today, when we think of apologetics as a form of teaching, we tend to understand it as a form of justifying particularly Catholic beliefs and practices. So instead of defining ourselves in contrast to pagan belief, Catholic apologetics most often is defending particularly Catholic teaching in response to non-Catholic Christian faith and practices.
Having written these apologetics columns for more than 11 years now, I have certainly covered all the classic apologetic subjects and then some. Most of the big differences between Catholics and non-Catholic Christian religions are things like Eucharistic theology, the veneration of Mary and the saints, the dogma of purgatory, the sacraments (especially confession). Other big differences are apostolic succession and the role of the pope, the “brothers of the Lord,” the “extra” books in Catholic Bibles, the rosary and other sacramentals, sola scriptura and biblical interpretation, the Sign of the Cross, and a handful of others.
All of these have been covered in this column over the years. Each of these topics has a logical and historical explanation. Every single Catholic Church teaching and practice is logical. Apologetics is the way we connect the dots to make things clear.
All that being said, there is one, solitary response from the Catholic perspective that would cover all these subjects. If and when you ever come across a friend, family member or coworker who is questioning your Catholic faith, you need remember only one response. And it is all about history.
The Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th century, and since then it has led to a mesmerizing splintering of Christianity, to the point that there are some 35,000 different denominations today. That is crazy, and I can assure you it is not what Jesus intended when he established his church. There is plenty of blame to go around for this, but what is important is the time of the Reformation: the 16th century.
Catholic belief on all the classic apologetic subjects listed above is of ancient origin. With very little evolution over 20 centuries, what we believe and practice as Catholics has remained the same. One example among countless examples is the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. That church was built in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1,000 years before Martin Luther was around. Veneration of Mary has been a part of Christian spirituality since the first generation after her Assumption. The Catholic Church has not changed — what we do and believe has remained constant.
So here is the point: When a non-Catholic Christian challenges you about any classic apologetics subject, you really need only one response: We have always held the same belief. For 1,500 years before the Reformation we were united in faith. So why, after 15 centuries, did Protestants stop believing? Catholics did not change; Protestants did. So the burden of proof lies on them, not on Catholics.
So when someone asks you, “Why do Catholic believe in Purgatory?” — or fill in the blank — the response should be, “Why did you stop believing? Why, after 1,500 years of all of us believing the same thing, did you stop? What evidence came forward that made you decide to stop believing in the Immaculate Conception or other Catholic beliefs?”
Because we as Catholics have always held the same belief for 2,000 years, our belief is not the one that needs defending. The persons who have changed the constant faith are the ones who are to defend. And that truly is the “catch-all” response for those who question the Catholic creed.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.