I’ve read a lot of fair criticisms of Catholic Answers Forum, and of apologetics forums in general. The format – virtually anyone can post, and can post whenever they want – can be akin to everyone speaking at once, or shouting over each other to get noticed and responded to. Besides that, all of the factors that make YouTube comments so awful (a speaker who can remain anonymous addresses a person s/he doesn’t know, and with no editorial oversight in-between pushing “post” and the world seeing it). It’s also a surefire place to go if you want to rile up Catholics, and plenty of people avail themselves of these darker motives. So it’s no surprise that it often brings out the worst elements within both Catholicism and Protestantism, and the non-Christians, particularly atheists, who show up (be they “trolls” or honest inquirers) all too often get treated like opponents from the outset. Since anyone can post, and anyone can claim to be Catholic, there are more posts than anyone would like to acknowledge where people say things which aren’t Catholic in content and/or tone.
But there are a lot of redeeming factors as well. First, it lets people get a glimpse into the world of average faithful Catholics, rather than the more learned apologists who you might know of through books. There’s a perception that Catholic clergy are overeducated (or perhaps just miseducated) on all things religious, and lay Catholics are uneducated (or at least undereducated) on the same. CAF presents a less clear picture. While there is “Ask an Apologist” with both clerical and lay apologists responding, there’s also the general forums, where lay Catholics answer questions themselves. Sometimes, they’re right on, sometimes they’re off by a mile. But when someone presents as the Catholic position something which isn’t, they usually get correctly (often politely, even!) by other lay Catholics. In some parts of the country, it’s edifying just to know that there are devout Catholics out there somewhere, like stumbling upon a fresh Ichthys carving on a catacomb wall when you feel like the last true believer on Earth.
Often, the difference between a great conversation and an awful one is how the initial question is posted. “Questions” thinly veiling attacks on the Faith are answered more harshly than actual questions or cries for help. This thread, which inspired me to write this post, is CAF at its finest. A teenage boy feels despair at his cystic acne and social awkwardness, and within a few minutes, there are some really solid responses from people who’ve experienced both. They offer encouragement from a specifically Christian perspective, reminding him that the goal of a Catholic young man isn’t to fly “in and out of relationships” with girls, etc. It’s the sort of response which can best be provided by a place where regular Catholics can mingle and share without embarassment, and it’s one of the perks of anonymity.