by Cole DeSantis
In today’s world of multiculturalism, ideological and religious pluralism, and widespread secularism, Catholics need to be able to take part in rationally coherent and persuasive apologetics. The term “apologetics” comes from the Latin term apologeticus, which means “defense,” which in turn is derived from the Greek term apologeisthai, which means “to speak in one’s own defense.” Apologetics is a field of theology centered on trying to find ways to defend one’s beliefs and convince others of them. Here are some suggestions for how to best prepare oneself for the task of apologetics.
I. Be Biblically-Oriented
The Bible is the foundational text of Catholicism, and of Christianity in general. One cannot be acquainted with the basic beliefs and principles of Catholic theology without a knowledge of Bible. One should read as much of the Bible as possible, and understand it within its original historical, religious, political, cultural, and ideological context. This requires at least a basic knowledge of ancient history, especially the history of early Middle Eastern civilizations (especially the Semitic peoples), as well as an understanding of the history of Ancient Greece and Rome, a knowledge of Ancient Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman religion and literature, at least some understanding of Ancient Hebrew and Greek (the languages the Bible was written in – though an understanding of other languages could also help, including Ancient Near Eastern languages [Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian], and the languages of some of the early Biblical manuscripts [Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Samaritan Hebrew]).
The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: “ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). It was, however, pleasing to His wisdom and goodness to reveal Himself and the eternal laws of His will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way. This is how the Apostle puts it: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error. … Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us (Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter 2) 
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, #11) 
However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, #12) 
II. Be Historically-Oriented
Theology is such a vast field that it is easy to get bogged down and only concentrate on one field of theology. Biblical theology itself is such a vast field that it is easy to only specialize in that. Yet, to be a well-rounded apologist, one must recognize that the Bible, as foundational as it is, is not the only factor in the development of Church teaching. It is only the starting point. Popular forms of Christianity in the United States have been heavily influenced by Protestantism, particularly of an Evangelical or Fundamentalist variety. Such traditions tend to place a particularly strong emphasis on the concept of Scriptura Sola, thus leaving one with the impression that one could jump immediately from the Bible to the doctrines held by Christians today, as if there was nothing in between. Anyone who reads the Bible can abstract from Scripture the beliefs held by the Church today, as if in a vacuum. (Note: I am not saying that this is what Scriptura Sola teaches; rather, I am saying that this how popular preachers and theologians often present it, and how it is depicted in the popular imagination of many Christians).
Any honest apologist must realize that this was the great difficulty of past generations of Christians, particularly in the first few centuries after Jesus and the Apostles: the doctrines of the Church were not as well defined as they are today. They didn’t have catechisms, creeds, or confessions of faith. The canon of Scripture was still being debated. Thus, any intellectually honest apologist will admit that Christian theology, as it exists today, is the result of 2,000 years of debate and dialogue, and that theologians and Churchmen today are building on the labors and insights of those who came before them. Thus, any well-rounded and truly knowledgeable apologist is just as historically-oriented as he/she is Biblically-oriented. An apologist worth his or her weight should first seek out the Biblical basis for any given doctrine or belief, then should examine how this doctrine was interpreted or lived out in the ensuing two millennia since then.
Nobody approaches the Bible with pure eyes. We all approach the Bible with certain presuppositions, rooted in personal biases and the influence of a larger interpretive tradition. We all are under the influence of this. Everyone has their own set of experiences which influence them on a spiritual and moral level, and thus influences how we read the Bible. We are also influenced by the theology of our specific community. Whether we know it or not, our larger community is influenced by a larger set of theological and moral principles. None of this is a bad thing. We see this even among the proponents of Scriptura sola themselves. Their theology, like the theology of all other Christians, depends on a very specific reading of Scripture. Further, any scholar who studies the intellectual history of Christianity will soon discover that within a century after the start of the Reformation, Protestant scholars fell into a form of theological debate and discourse similar to that of the Medieval Scholastics – very philosophical, with every idea and concept being intensely debated and scrupulously defined. One reason for this, as Fr. John Patrick Donnelley pointed out, “[R]eligious controversies led theologians back to Scholastic thought categories for more ammunition after they had shot off their store of Scriptural proof texts.”  Scriptura sola quickly hits a wall – that is, one can only spout off proof texts so much. Which proof texts we use presupposes a certain, overarching theological worldview. This theological worldview becomes more relevant later on, when it comes time to interpret the text. We thus need something more than Scripture alone to interpret Scripture. And that’s all good. The question is not whether or not this fact is necessary – its inevitable. The question is, “Who’s interpretive framework is most in line with the historical trends of Christian thought?” If you want the certainty as to whether the claims you are defending are the truth, or if you want to properly defend them, look at the basic ideas and doctrines laid down in Scripture, and then trace how they developed or were interpreted over the years. Whichever theological systems, whichever interpretation of Scripture, is most in line with this, is the organic result of the historical development of Church teaching.
First know both the Bible AND the history of various Church doctrines, and keep both in the back of one’s mind at all times; only then one can be certain that they are authentically doing theology in the same spirit of the larger Christian tradition, and are not simply restricting or reducing Church teaching to their own personal vision of what Christianity is or should be. They are thinking with the mind of the Church; they are thinking with the mind of what the Christian tradition was since its earliest days.
And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thessalonians 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). … This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. … The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, #8) 
[There is an intimate] connection, or rather oneness, with primitive Apostolic teaching…[and] the body of doctrine known at this day by the name of Catholic, and professed substantially by both Eastern and Western Christendom. That faith is undeniably the historical continuation of the religious tradition, which bore the name Catholic in the eighteenth century, in the seventeenth, in the sixteenth, and so back in every preceding century, till we arrive at the first; – undeniably the successor, the representative, the heir of the religion of Cyprian, Basil, Ambrose and Augustine. … I have maintained that modern Catholicism is nothing else but simply the legitimate growth and compliment, that is, the natural and necessary development, of the doctrine of the early church, and that its Divine authority is included in the Divinity of Christianity. … I shall begin by determining what a corruption [of doctrine] is, and why it cannot rightly be called, and how it differs from, a development. … Corruption is the breaking up of life, prepatory to its termination. … There is no corruption [of a doctrine] if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and vigorous action from first to last. (Cardinal John Henry Newman, On the Development of Doctrine, Part II, Chapter 5) 
III. Make Use Of All Good And Relevant Tools
The Bible serves as the basis for everything we believe, the springboard into deeper theological discussion, and being able to situate the Bible within the framework of the larger Christian tradition helps us to interpret it. Yet, theology alone will not suffice. To understand the Bible, or any given saint or theologian over the course of Church history, we need to have an understanding of the historical, cultural and intellectual/ideological context within which they acted. It is true that the authors of Scripture and later theologians are attempting to articulate timeless truths; yet, it is also true that no one thinks or acts within a vacuum: how they articulated the truth, how they interpreted or implemented the truth, and which aspects of or to what extent they articulated the truth was, in many ways, influenced by their historical context. Having at least a rudimentary understanding of different languages (even if it is not the point of fluency), a familiarity with different cultures throughout the world, and an understanding of the dominant ideas and worldview of different historical periods and intellectual circles will help us to appreciate why different theologians expressed the truth the way they did.
This leads to an important balance: we need to understand the larger historical, cultural and ideological context of a particular Scripture passage or theological system; yet, we cannot make theology merely a function of history or culture. Fundamentalists ignore, or at least selectively appreciate, the former truth; some of the more secular or ideologically radical proponents of the historical-critical method and other similar forms of Biblical interpretation provide us with an example of the second extreme. Everyone thinks and acts within a larger context, and unless we understand this context, we will never be able to properly interpret a particular Biblical passage or appreciate a particular theologian’s thought. Yet, once we have come to understand the historically, culturally, ideologically, and personally contingent aspects of any Biblical passage or theological system, we must move beyond that and see what larger, more transcendent spiritual, moral or theological truth is being pointed to. A good apologist thus always takes theological issues people struggled with in the past and tries to connect them to the problems faced by people in the present.
We see something similar with regard to philosophy. Throughout history, Christian theologians have frequently made use of secular philosophy in order to help interpret Church teaching. For example, the metaphysical view of secular philosophers was often employed to help make sense of the Biblical view of God. To provide a few instances of this: the Church Fathers – including Origen, St. Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius – were influenced by Platonic metaphysics, particularly of a Neo-Platonic variety. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages was heavily influenced by the metaphysics of Aristotle, with some Platonic influences. This can be seen in Aquinas’ description of the relationship between Divine Providence and human free will, which made use of both Platonic and Aristotelian views of causation. This can also be seen in Aquinas’s description of God as the “unmoved mover,” a term derived directly from Aristotle. Catholic moral theology has also employed elements of secular ethics to help explain its major precepts. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas made heavy use of the teleological ethical systems of Aristotle, which have remained influential in some form or another in Catholic moral thought to the modern day.
There are some moral truths, and some truths about God, which can be known through the use of reason, even unaided by Divine Revelation. Thus, philosophy – and reason and secular areas of study in general – can be used to clarify or explain the truths of Scripture. Yet, there are certain truths about God which completely transcend the capacity of the human mind to understand (i.e., the Trinity and the Incarnation). And even those truths which the human mind could have known by its own effort are frequently obscured – i.e., forgotten or misinterpreted – since reason has been warped by sin. Thus, philosophy need to be subordinated to theology; reason needs to be subordinated to faith; the ideas which result from human speculation need to be subordinated to Revealed truth; the employment of secular areas of study is meant to be subordinated to the eternal and transcendent truths which they point towards. Thus, do not be afraid to turn to and make use of anything true and good outside of the realm of theology or the Christian faith; yet, we should always remember that the guiding principles of our thought need to be the truths of the Christian faith; reason, philosophy, science, history, and so on, help us to interpret and implement these truths, but are ultimately subordinate to faith and Divine Revelation.
The perpetual agreement of the Catholic Church has maintained and maintains this too: that there is a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards its source, but also as regards its object. With regard to its source, we know at one level by natural reason, at the other level by Divine faith. With regard to the object, besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless Divinely revealed, are incapable of being known. … Now reason, does indeed when it seeks persistently, piously and soberly, achieve by God’s gift some understanding, and that most profitable, of the mysteries…but reason is never rendered capable of penetrating these mysteries in the same way in which it penetrates those truths which form its proper object. … Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. (Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter 4) 
I answer that, it was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed towards God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of His reason: “The eye hath not seen, O Lord, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee.” (Isaiah 64:4) But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. … Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man be taught by a Divine Revelation; because the truths about God such as human reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. … It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through Revelation. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, I, Q. I, A. 1) 
IV: Meet People Where They’re At
Now, this last piece can often be misinterpreted or misapplied. When people hear, “Meet people where they’re at,” they hear, “Tell the people what they want to hear,” or “Say what is popular,” or “Interpret the Bible or Church teaching in accordance with whatever ideas happen to be the norm.” Don’t be afraid to make use of what is best in the modern world to help you understand God’s Revelation. Nonetheless, the Gospel message is the lens through which we analyze and respond to the world around us. Our first allegiance needs to be to Christ and His Church, and the teachings which they promoted. This means very often saying things that are not in line with the prevailing mindset, saying things that are not popular – Same-sex marriage is not a valid form of marriage; abortion and contraception are intrinsically sinful and never allowable; there can only be one true religion; etc.
Yet, even though we have to be brave enough to proclaim to the world unpopular truths or ideas which it may not want to hear, we also have to understand that our task is to draw people into the truth, not to drive them away. Jesus tells us that most people will reject the truth – He even directly warns us that most people are on the path leading to hell (Matthew 7:14). The Bible tells us that in the End Times most people will fall away from the One, True Faith (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Revelations 13:1-18). There will always be a certain segment of the people who reject God and His Revelation. Yet, all people have free will, and thus anyone who currently rejects God can, with the help of His grace, come to accept Him. That most people will reject the faith is the way things are, but it is not the way things must be, that is, it is possible for people to change. It was logically possible for things to have been different.
Therefore, we should not be discouraged. Don’t water down the faith, don’t beat around the bush, and don’t tell only part of the truth about what the Bible or the Catholic faith believe. Say what the people need to hear, but also realize that the purpose of apologetics, and theology as a whole, is to convince the people of the truth, and thus bring people into salvation. Recognize that each individual is in a different emotional, psychological, spiritual, and moral state. Try to find a way to present the faith that resonates with a person in a particular frame of mind. Also, realize that different people have different levels of knowledge about the faith, different levels of education and intelligence. As a rule of thumb, never presuppose that a person already understands how you are defining your concepts and basic terminology, or already knows or has been convinced of the basic presuppositions built in to what you are saying; yet, never presuppose that they don’t know it either. This is a very situational matter. With an uneducated or unintelligent person, you may need to start from the very beginning, and define even the most fundamental concepts or terms with precision and thoroughness. With a person who is more educated, you can use the more technical theological and philosophical language without having to define it, or by defining it more briefly and in more technical terms. Yet, even when speaking to a more educated person – a scholar let’s say – don’t presuppose that their area of expertise is theology, or if they are a theologian or a scholar in a related field, don’t presuppose that they understand the Catholic religion or the particular school of thought within Catholic theology which you are a part of. Feel people out to know what level of knowledge they have.
Also, people are struggling with different questions, or attempting to cope with various issues within their personal life. They want to know how God contributes to their lives, makes it better; they want to know where God’s plan fits into their larger struggles, and how their struggles fit into God’s larger plan; they want to know whether the Bible or the Catholic faith can answer these basic “meaning of life” questions. You will be able to better convince people if you directly address these issues: don’t just prove that Catholicism or the Bible can provide a framework for a rationally coherent worldview in general, but also can provide the moral and spiritual framework by which to deal with the issues and questions that THEY AS INDIVIDUALS face.
One must also keep in mind something I said earlier: one must not look at theology in a bubble. I mean that in two ways: first, never look at theology merely in the abstract. Look at theological ideas within the concrete historical, cultural and ideological context within which they emerged. Yet, there is another level of meaning: the teachings of a A.D. 4th century Greek bishop, a 13th century French friar or monk, a 19th century Pope, a turn of the century scholar of theology, are not just relevant to their context. The same questions they dealt with, humanity is still dealing with today. As newer levels of depth are added to these perennial, age-old questions, we need to build on what was said before. Further, new questions are raised with each generation, and so we need to use the teachings of the past as a framework to deal with entirely new sets of issues. Theology is thus an ongoing process, because humanity’s search for truth is an ongoing process. The task of the theologian is thus to show how the ideas of those from the past are relevant to us today and our questions and concerns.
To conclude, the chief purpose of the theologian, and the apologist in specific, is to take the truths which God revealed and bring them to the people, explaining them in terms that they can understand, and thus showing how these truths are necessary components of our salvation. The theologian does this by first examining Scripture in a manner that aligns with the larger mindset of what the Church has always believed, so that they can thereby present an authentically Christian or an authentically Catholic worldview (that is, one which is the organic result of what Jesus and the Apostles taught). We have to be willing to use our reasoning faculties and all the necessary tools to do so; yet, all of this must be subordinate to, and at the service of, the truths of the faith, and guided by our sense of trust in God’s Word. Everything up until now has been solely or primarily academic; all of this is in turn ordered towards the end of finding ways to express these truths to the people in a way that they will be receptive to, winning souls for God and bringing people to salvation.
- The First Vatican Council, Session 4, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith. Originally promulgated on July 18, 1870. Accessed on: https://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v1.htm#6
- The Second Vatican Council, On Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum]. Originally promulgated on November 18, 1965. Accessed on: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
- Fr. John Patrick Donnelley, S.J., “Calvinist Thomism.” Originally published in Viator, 1976.
- Cardinal John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Part II, chapter 5. London: Longman’s, Green, and Co., 1909. Accessed on: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/development/chapter5.html
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ. Translated and edited by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm