Catholic apologetics is the defense of the teachings, beliefs, and practices the Roman Catholic Church. Its objective is to respond with full and coherent reason to the objections against the doctrine, to explain subjects that are difficult to understand, or to refute misconceptions, in the hope that the minds and souls come to accept Jesus Christ and thus obtain salvation. The Catholic apologist seeks to reach the heart of his audience by means of making them understand Catholic teachings.

The word apologetics comes from the Greek άπολογητικός (apologetikós). That is understood as the formal defense of a belief.  It is also an argument that defends a philosophical or theological proposition. In its evangelical sense, it is the exposition of those arguments that intend to persuade the unbeliever to accept Christ and his teachings.

Colossians 1: 28-29 — It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that every man may attain Christian perfection. For this I toil and struggle with his full power working within me.

Today there so much religious ignorance among ordinary people that we can say that very few Catholics really know their faith. Even among those who have been educated in Catholic institutions often have a superficial and even erroneous knowledge of Catholic doctrine. It is regrettable to see that many who have taken holy orders fail to teach the people how to effectively defend their faith. Because of our negligence, the Church suffers the loss of so many souls that fall into indifference, superstition, agnosticism, or under the sway of sects. If the Catholic faithful do not know the doctrine of the Church well, it is because they do not know its foundations. They cannot coherently demonstrate the integrity of their own faith if they don’t know the basics. That has to change.

1 Peter 3: 15-16 — Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to present a defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

The word translated here as ‘present a defense’ is apologia. The ideal model of the Christian apologist is perhaps Saint Paul. In the New Testament we see that Paul reasoned with Jews and pagans to make them understand the Christian faith, responding to the objections of his audience with reasonable answers.

Acts 17: 17 — So he [Paul] argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

Paul prepared others for the apologetic task, explaining that they should “demolish the arguments and everything that stands in opposition to the knowledge of God”

2 Corinthians 10: 4-5 —  For the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

The bishops who produced Aparecida Document on May 13, 2007, commented:

“Today it is necessary to rehabilitate the authentic apologetics that the Fathers of the Church presented as the explanation of the faith. Apologetics does not have to be negative or merely defensive per se. It implies, rather, the ability to say what is in our minds and hearts clearly and convincingly, as St. Paul says “doing the truth in charity” (Ephesians 4, 15). The disciples and missionaries of Christ today need, more than ever, a renewed apologetics so that all can have life in Him.”[1]

To defend the faith, it is necessary to know it well. The apologist must be familiar with   Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the content of the main papal encyclicals, as well as the work of good classical and contemporary Catholic authors.  Thank God, we live in a time when access to all this good information is speedy and abundant, not only in the form of books but also audiovisual media.

When we must respond to an objection against Catholic doctrine, we must do it in an orderly manner. Let us take for example the typical and frequent challenge to the use of images in the Church. The Old Testament is usually quoted by our adversaries, indicating that the images are explicitly forbidden. Here we cannot respond to this challenge in depth.  We will analyze the elements of the argument. Those will later serve as a guide in any defense of the faith, namely: authority, mode, historical context, and logical context.

What authority does a person have to deny or criticize any Catholic doctrine using the Bible against the Church? In reality, that person has no authority, to use a Catholic book that the Church has composed, authorized, and sanctified in several ancient councils. Some think they have the right to interpret something they do not know well. They stand outside the ecclesial tradition and try to turn the meaning of the Scriptures against the Church. That is exactly what Satan does when he tempts Christ by misusing the Old Testament. Notice the difference on how Jesus and the enemy use Scripture.

Matthew 4: 1-11 — Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

This person who contends with the Christian doctrine using his Bible, is implicitly affirming that the Christians of twenty centuries have been wrong. Here he is to correct the error. The severe attitude of the critic is opposed to the work of the Christian community of the ages as if nothing would matter but his own opinion. He seeks to impose his hasty interpretation of something that has already been considered many times by the Church through the centuries but he has no authority other than his faulty reasoning.

In general, those who criticize Catholic doctrine do it in a certain mode that is absolute and literal. In these objections to the millennial practice of the Christian faith, often the meaning of the Scriptures is reduced to a literality that suits the heretical argument. To be valid, that construction should be consistent, that is, it should agree and be consistent with all of Scripture and with itself.  The beauty and perfection of Catholic doctrine becomes evident when we see, century after century, that is impossible to construct a heresy that will not eventually collapse under its own internal contradictions.

Let us take the common argument against the use of images that often appears among Protestant critics of the Catholic Church who cite the third commandment:

Deuteronomy 5: 8-9 — “‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children up to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,

At first glance it seems that the critic is right to object to the use of images in the Church. Then — if the literalist argument fits — such literal mode of interpretation should apply consistently to all the Scriptures and especially to the words of Christ.

Matthew 18: 9 — “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out …”

Luke 14: 27 — “And he who does not carry his cross and follow me can not be my disciple.”

Luke 9: 60 — Jesus said to him:  “Let the dead bury their dead; and you see, and announce the kingdom of God.”

If we take these words using a consistent mode of literal interpretation there would be many faithful without eyes, we should drag a Roman cross all day to be true followers of Christ, and there would be no Christian cemeteries. Obviously these words were said for a community familiar with the symbols that Christ used: the cross is the Christian acceptance of suffering; cutting off a body part represents the renunciation to the desire for illicit pleasures; people who do not follow Christ are spiritually dead, etc. The community shares with Christ (and with the believers of the past and future through Sacred Tradition) a language, a way of understanding things. They do not merely follow a book of instructions that anyone can interpret freely.

This problem of contradiction between consistency and literalness is very readily apparent among Protestant Christians when we consider the Eucharistic verse:

John 6: 53 — Jesus said to them: “Most truthfully, I say unto you, If you eat not the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

The critic then changes his interpretation here. His literalness disappears and now he tells us that Christ must be speaking in a symbolic way. The problem with this inconsistency is that the interpreter must establish himself as an absolute judge of how to understand the Bible. In doing so, he is skillfully tempted to put himself in the place of God and of the Church. St Paul warned us about that kind of man:

2 Thessalonians 2:4 — He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.

Christ established the Church and gave her a mission. He also gave her the authority to interpret and sanction the rules of community life.

For us and for the Hebrews, our ancestors in the faith, the written Law is “a schoolmaster who leads us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). The Law is not an inflexible master who limits us to strict literal instructions. The written law of God, the Holy Scripture, is “useful to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) but it does not contain everything that the community of believers accepts. In this, the community itself practices or “keeps” the doctrine of faith, knowing “how to behave in the house of God, which is the Church […] pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 315).

Never in the life of Israel, or even in the life of the Church, was community practice reduced to a book of instructions, but rather to the wise men of Israel who  “tie and untie” in collegiality, reasoning the Law in light of their living experience as a people. Both, the written and the traditional instruction must be consistent and cannot contradict each other. However, the written Law does not contain every liturgical, legal or practical detail. To determine those things among the Hebrews there is a “chair”  described by Jesus as the chair of Moses.

Let us reflect carefully on these words of Christ:

Matthew 23: 2-4 — “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

Christ clearly points to the good instructions emanating from the sages who study the Law but reminds us that they are human and although their instructions are guided by the Law, their way of life does not always reflect the wisdom of God. With this Christ reminds us that the perfect Law operates in the context of original sin from which no one can escape. We are naturally unjust judges and personal perfection does not belong to us. What we can do is live in community and keep the Law as a group. That was the mission of the people of Israel, a “holy people” set apart for God by the Law.

The Church inherits that mission and is also a “holy” community because she is set apart for the service of God and keeps in her the things that God has sanctified: the Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Liturgy, and Sacred Tradition. These things are too great to be entrusted to the interpretation of a man reading the Law by himself. If there have been insolent groups that were tempted to violate the law of God with distorted interpretations, then it must follow that it is impossible for an individual to be able to build the religion of truth interpreting the Word of God in a personal way. [2] It is the Church in submission to God, the community of the faithful, which will keep the practice of the truth received as a “column and bulwark” of the faith.

Neither the Jews nor the Christians were ever guided exclusively by what was written to determine the liturgy. The Hebrews kept apart the instructions for the Levitical celebrations. Those appear in the Bible but they are not described in detail. It is impossible to reconstruct the Hebrew liturgical duty from the Mosaic Law. Take for example the very important celebration of the Day of Atonement:

What is the work of each priest on the Day of Atonement? How many of them participate? Where do they stop? What do they sing? How do they dress? There are some details in the Old Testament but the truth is that if we were to reconstruct all that using only the Bible we are in a bind because there is not enough information. We can try rebuilding the ancient liturgy using  the Scriptures. Surely the result will be no more than a row of assumptions that can be mistaken at every step.  In the same manner, those who try to guess the practice of Christianity using only the Bible are gravely mistaken.

Christianity is not a book, it is a way of life. A father does not write a book instructing his son how to be a good man. In the same manner there is not one book that contains everything a Christian should be. We learn the ways of life by living whithin a family. We learn to be Christians in the Church. St Paul said that much to his disciple St Timothy:

1 Timothy 3,15 — “If I delay, know how to behave in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

The Holy Tradition of the Church is equivalent to the family life of Christians. Each generation learns from the faithful of the previous generation. They live in the Church kept by God as He promised. Otherwise, there is no way to have a Church without generating divisions; each with its absolute “interpretation,” each acting as a pope. All are working on their own spiritual destruction and the destruction of other souls that lead to error with them. That is why it is necessary to defend the faith in truth, presenting the reasonable evidence that underlies Catholic doctrine, preparing the way to conversion, appealing to the intellect and common sense of individuals until we reach their heart.

How should apologetics be approached? It is good to keep in mind that what must be demonstrated is not the intelligence or brilliance of the apologist. The objective is to declare the “Good News” inviting us to enter into a salvific relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That is contained in the fullness of faith that only the Catholic Church can offer. All apologetic efforts must be oriented to conversion, even in the case of the most bitter opponents.

Apologetics has its limits. It can not by itself demonstrate the totality of the Catholic faith no matter how persuasive its arguments may be. Faith is a gift from God and only God knows the right time for the conversion of a soul. Having that in mind allows us to respect the dignity and free will of each person.

Winning a discussion in an offensive or blunt manner can result in the loss of the soul, a failure for which we will have to respond one day. Souls are driven to salvation by the Holy Spirit. Arguments are merely a means that serve the noble purpose of bringing the soul closer to the action of the Spirit along with prayer and reflection.

The first thing is to let people know that God is good and benefactor, that He wants every man to benefit from knowing him. When intellectual objections to the call of the Gospel arise in the unbeliever, then we reason with that person, we seek to eliminate the obstacles to belief. Thus, as the apologist responds to objections, the unbeliever is left without excuses before God.

1 Corinthians 12, 3 — No one can say: ‘Jesus is the Lord!’ If he is not impelled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we work on the objections placed before us, we prepare the way for the Holy Spirit to act. Frequently, our efforts are the means chosen by God to interest the unbeliever in the Gospel. Many converts testify to having heard or read the words of an apologist, when an inner light convinced them that they were listening to the truth.

As a farmer tills the soil before planting, so the apologist prepares the ground. The farmer can’t make the fruit grow, but it creates the conditions for the planted seed to  prosper according to the natural force that God placed in it.

1 Corinthians 3: 6-9 — I planted, Apollos watered; but it is God who has made it grow. So neither the one who plants is something, nor the one who waters, but God, who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one and the same thing; although each one will receive his reward according to his work. Because we are God’s co-workers, and you are God’s husbandry, God’s building.

Preparing to defend the faith prepares us to bear witness to Christ. Our training protects us from the deceitful and ever changing propositions of the world. As Saint Paul has said:

Colossians 2: 8 — “See that no one takes you captives through vain and deceitful philosophies that are based on human traditions and the principles of this world, but not on Christ.”

It is evident that the spirit of modernity is in complete opposition to God’s plans. Faithful Catholics are often defamed in the media. They are presented as ignorant retrogrades who believe in obsolete doctrines that impede human progress.

In these times, learning apologetics help us to reinforce and confirm the believers in their faith so that their witness is clear and reasonable.

Acts 19: 8 — For three months, Paul went to the synagogue, where he announced the message without any fear, and talked and tried to convince people about the kingdom of God.

Questiones Disputatae de Veritate 14, X, 9 — “Faith does not destroy reason, it goes beyond it and perfects it … “St Thomas Aquinas

We should not fear the so-called intellectual arguments of those who oppose the faith. Our God is not imaginary, he is the living God and it is not possible to disprove tHis existence. Our defense of Catholicism must be such that it serves to strengthen and train other Christians, so that they know how to distinguish truth and error, affirming themselves more and more in the faith.

We said that attacks on the Catholic faith are frequent, therefore our behavior must be irreproachable and consistent with our preaching and doctrine.

1 Peter 2: 12 — May your conduct among the pagans be without blemish, so that when they accuse you of doing evil, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.

When we face the defamation of the faith, we must be prepared and be skillful in investigating and finding information that demonstrates the falsity of those attacks. It is a frequent misfortune of our days to accuse those who faithfully follow Christ for the misconduct of some who follow Judas. We have been prophetically warned:

2 Peter 2: 2-3 — Many will follow them in their vicious life, and because of them they will speak evil of the way of truth. In their ambition for money, they will exploit you with false teachings; but the condemnation awaits them without remedy, since for a long time they have been sentenced.

It is important to know how to explain human errors so that in our effort to defend the Catholic, we do not end up defending the error. The apostles did not hesitate to describe the conduct of Judas in all his shameful ugliness. We owe allegiance to God first of all.

John 12: 4-6 — And one of his disciples said, Judas Iscariot son of Simon, who was to deliver him up: Why was not this perfume sold for three hundred denarii, and given to the poor? But he said this, not because he took care of the poor, but because he was a thief, and taking the bag, he stole from what was thrown into it.

The apologist must then form his intellect diligently and carefully so that his work will glorify God. He has given us a measure of intellectual capacity and the best we can do is to use it well to help those who are lost and wish to return to God. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, St John Paul II summed up perfectly the task that is set before us:

Redemptoris Missio, 3 — “Peoples everywhere, open the doors to Christ! His Gospel in no way detracts from man’s freedom, from the respect that is owed to every culture and to whatever is good in each religion. By accepting Christ, you open yourselves to the definitive Word of God, to the One in whom God has made himself fully known and has shown us the path to himself.

The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. Indeed, since the end of the Council it has almost doubled. When we consider this immense portion of humanity which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son, the urgency of the Church’s mission is obvious.

On the other hand, our own times offer the Church new opportunities in this field: we have witnessed the collapse of oppressive ideologies and political systems; the opening of frontiers and the formation of a more united world due to an increase in communications; the affirmation among peoples of the gospel values which Jesus made incarnate in his own life (peace, justice, brotherhood, concern for the needy); and a kind of soulless economic and technical development which only stimulates the search for the truth about God, about man and about the meaning of life itself.

God is opening before the Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel. I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.”

The urgency and importance of this mission can not be minimized. Today we are called to follow the example of the first Christians. It is up to us to be once again the salt of the earth and to give life with the Gospel to a dying world. The culture has lost its way and is dangerously close to the abyss of extinction. Apologetics is the fundamental tool of this evangelization of the world, it is our sword in the present battle for life.

[1]  Concluding Document, V General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, given on May 13, 2007 in Aparecida, São Paulo, Brazil.

[2] As it happened with the Sadducee and Pharisee scribes, who came to oppose their interpretation of the Law to Christ himself, thus committing the worst crime in history.