How Should We Evangelize?

Several of you had asked whether we would be recording the live Shameless Popery series. We did (well, some parishioners did: Frank Moley did the video, while the Marian Mantle group prepared an audio version of the talks). Here’s “Act One” of the first talk, on how to evangelize. Put differently, what should, and shouldn’t, apologetics look like?

I. Apologetics Done Badly

One of the books that we gave away during the series was How Not to Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics by Mark Brumley, C.E.O. of Ignatius Press. If the title alone isn’t enough to sell you, the preface was written by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., while the foreward was by the then-Archbishop of Denver, Abp. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but I liked the sections that I skimmed. The “seven deadly sins” Brumley identifies are:

  1. Apologetical Gluttony
  2. Reducing the Faith to Apologetics and Apologetics to Arguments
  3. Confusing the Faith with Our Arguments for It
  4. Contentiousness
  5. Friendly Fire
  6. Trying to “Win”
  7. Pride

I’ve been guilty of several of these, both on this blog and in the course of my life.  In particular, his point on “friendly fire” is a good one. We Catholics often focus too much of our attention on evangelizing Protestants, while overlooking atheists, non-Christians, and even nominal Catholics in our midst.  Partly, this is justifiable, not because Protestants are the worst of sinners, but because they’re, in many ways, the easiest to reach.  After all, with an ordinary Evangelical, we can start from the assumption that there is absolute truth, that the Bible is trustworthy, that God is Sovereign over history, and so on.  That makes proving the case for Catholicism a lot easier.  Still, it’s a helpful rebuke: apologetics isn’t shorthand for “make Protestants Catholic.”  Rather, it’s about bringing the whole world to Jesus Christ and His Church, and Protestants are often our allies in this struggle.

II. Apologetics Done Well

For a good recent example of apologetics being done well, I was impressed by the video below, in which a priest, Fr. Ted Martin, is confronted by a group of protesters after Corpus Christi Mass, who were upset by the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. He was outnumbered, talked over, and had to struggle to keep the discussion on any topic. But throughout it all, he showed the patience of a Saint, all while calmly dismantling the protesters’ various assertions, and providing much-needed, gentle correction:

I was particularly impressed by the way Fr. Martin handled issues related to the Second Vatican Council, and his ability to say specifically what the Council said, and where it said it.  Although the leader of the protesters prided herself on having two degrees in theology and having taught religion for sixteen years, and although she’s the one who caught Father off-guard, and although she’s the one who started making claims about what Vatican II (allegedly) said, when the priest is able to actually cite the conciliar documents by paragraph, she immediately retreats, declaring herself unprepared to have the conversation.  Anyone wanting to enter a discussion on the “spirit of” Vatican II should strive to be as prepared as this priest was. There are a handful of passages that get taken out of context — often, by people who haven’t read the documents for themselves. Knowing what the Council actually says, and where to find it puts the kibosh on this approach.  But as impressive as Father’s ability to quote the Council by paragraph is, what’s even more impressive is his charity.  It’s apparent, even to the protesters who ambushed him, that he’s a reasonable priest who has their best interests at heart, and who seems to know what he’s talking about.

III. What About Polemics?

Fr. Ted Martin’s approach was gentle and thoughtful.  But is there a place to just say,  “No, that’s really a stupid argument, and here’s why” within Christian apologetics?  Or is that uncharitable behavior? In Friday’s interview, Leah offered Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition as a book with “a really good introduction to Aquinas,” but the tone of which meant that “your atheist friend would have to have the patience of a saint to get past his snide asides at atheist writers.”  Feser responded, saying that polemic wasn’t innately counter to Christianity.  He then went further, arguing that polemic is called for in response to the notoriously smug, bombastic New Atheists:

There are, first of all and most importantly, a lot of people both on the religious side and on the fence who are so impressed by the absurdly self-confident rhetoric and apparent prestige of the New Atheists that they suppose there must be something powerful in their arguments, and this supposition will remain even after one has patiently explained the defects in their books. Sometimes, “breaking the spell” of a powerful rhetorical illusion requires equal and opposite rhetorical force (if I can borrow Dennett’s phrase). When you treat an ignorant bully arguing in bad faith as if he were a serious thinker worthy to be engaged respectfully, you only reinforce his prestige and maintain the illusion that he might be onto something. You thereby make it easier for people to fall into the errors the bully is peddling. Again, see the blog posts I linked to and the chapters from Fr. Sarda y Salvany for more on the reasons why polemics are sometimes not merely allowable but called for. 

I also think people overstate the extent to which atheist readers will be put off. Some atheist readers, sure. But there are also atheists whose confidence in atheism is largely sustained by the vigor and self-confidence of the people on their side coupled with the timidity, defensiveness, and halfway-apologetic responses of some people on the other, religious side. To see people from the religious side hitting back with equal force and exposing certain prominent atheists not merely as mistaken, but as ignorant and foolish, can shock some of these atheist readers out of their complacency.

That argument is obviously a bit more sophisticated than “they started it.” Rather, it’s a recognition that sometimes, good manners can come off as a weakness, rather than the high road.  Taking an argument seriously sometimes gives it an air of credibility that it doesn’t deserve.  Feser is certainly not the first Christian to take this approach. We see numerous examples of this within Scripture Itself. For example, in Galatians 3:1-3, St. Paul writes this to the Galatians:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?

He doesn’t treat heresy as an intellectually-serious alternative to the Gospel.  He presents it as it is: as a stupid choice for someone who has already been exposed to the truth.  We see similar examples in the writings of the Saints. St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, begins his The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary against Helvidius by explaining that:

Marinus van Reymerswale, St. Jerome in His Study (1541)

I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating. 

There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow (the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in wordiness and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience), would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him. He would stand as it were on a pedestal, and would publish his views far and wide. There was reason also to fear that when truth failed him he would assail his opponents with the weapon of abuse. 
But all these motives for silence, though just, have more justly ceased to influence me, because of the scandal caused to the brethren who were disgusted at his ravings. The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius — who has never learnt to speak — may at length learn to hold his tongue.

In other words, Helvidius’ argument is too stupid to warrant answering, but Jerome will do it anyway, because the Gospel is worth defending. I side with Feser inasmuch as he is saying that there is a legitimate place for polemic in Christian apologetics.  But I also think that this role is a limited one.  While polemics appear in the writings of the Saints and in the New Testament, they are never the primary means of defending the Gospel.  That approach, which 1 Peter 3:15-16 lays out beautifully, is one of reverence and humility — both of which are threatened by an overuse of polemic. I have no real advice for finding the appropriate role of polemic, other than to say that I think Fr. Ted Martin did it well in the video above.  As gentle as he was, he wasn’t afraid to laugh openly at a couple of the protester’s more absurd arguments.  Yet, even in laughing, he was clearly laughing at bad arguments, rather than the individuals he was trying to convert.


  1. Thanks for this post. Fr Martin’s example is so encouraging! I would argue that he does engage in polemics at 14:35 when he challenges his opponent’s view of absolute truth: “So when Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ he was wrong?”. I think this kind of respectful challenge is equally strong as Paul’s or Jerome’s.

    I think to live in obedience to 1 Peter 3:15,16, the more aggressive tone should be limited to very specific contexts. Paul’s tone with the Galatians was reserved for an exchange with people he knew well, having invested months of his life in building a personal relationship, unlike Fr Martin’s relationship with the protesters. If he had access to Youtube, and Jerome could have delivered his ad-hominem attack on his equally famous opponent as “an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning” with Monty Python-esque humour, it could work. But it could also backfire by reinforcing any undecided listeners’ impressions that orthodoxy is synonymous with self-righteousness.

    I think polemics lie in drawing a startling binary choice as Fr Martin did, or as God did in Deuteronomy 30:19 ‘I set before you life and death, choose life’. But before Jesus presented the rich young ruler with his binary choice in Mark 10:21, Jesus looked at him and loved him.

  2. I forwarded the ambush video to my door to door evangelization team – he uses the “Columbo tactic” of question asking beautifully – “What do you mean by ….?” “How do you come to that conclusion (what is your authority or source)?” “So, are you saying…?” “Have you considered …?” He engages in the debate, allows the other to actually hear themselves talk and forces them to see what they are actually saying, and offers some orthodox alternatives. He comes off as reasonable and charitable, the encounter ends on a friendly note, and further informed discussion is a possibility. LOVe IT! Also sent the Evangelization video – awesome – you need to make a DVD series! Any chance on getting the handout???? Thank you Church Militant!

  3. So the woman in the video rejects the Magisterium, believes God is “bigger than” Jesus, and doesn’t attend Mass or even belong to a Parish (belonging to a “home church” instead). At what point does she realize she’s just not Catholic?

  4. Polemics: More heat than light. When is heat needed? Against folks inoculated against the light, of course. A little heat will get them to open their eyes a little, won’t it?

  5. Hi! I loved the video from your class, and I hope the other two are coming soon. Also, I tend to prefer to extract the audio from videos to listen to as I commute. There used to be sites that would do this for you, but YouTube started aggressively enforcing the “no downloads” part of its terms, so they all shut down. Would it be possible for you to post a direct like to the video file for future editions, so that I could download and convert to audio on my own? If you’re worried about bandwidth, will host anything for free. Thanks!

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