Its been over twenty years since Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating’s book Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) was released. This book was one of the catalysts for the resurgence of Roman Catholic apologetics today. Keating had already founded Catholic Answers a few years prior, but this book catapulted his efforts dramatically. I’ve heard more than a few converts to Roman Catholicism mention the importance of this book in their swim across the Tiber. Catholic Answers now asserts, “This book is so insightful that it has been used as a college textbook in theology classes across the country. Yet it is so full of heart that it has inspired and guided Catholics everywhere to defend their faith.”
I’ve had this book for some time now (for reference purposes when studying Romanism). Recently I revisited sections of it and came across an interesting commentary that applies to the current practices of Roman Catholic apologetics.
Keating documents some of the counter-Roman Catholic ministries popular in the 70’s and 80’s. He goes into great detail of a particular ex-priest turned “fundamentalist,” highlighting how this man used his conversion story as an apologetic against Roman Catholicism (pp. 51-57). He then mentions the materials produced by these organizations included testimonials from ex-Catholics (p. 59). He then documents some of these stories, along with some of the other methods for evangelizing Roman Catholics “testimonies of former priests… testimonies of former nuns… testimonies of former Catholic laymen… miscellaneous tracts, most of them on particular Catholic doctrines or practices” (p. 63).
Keating is not a convert to Roman Catholicism. It is obvious from reading his book that the tactics used by those tempting his comrades away from Rome greatly disturbed him. As one raised in Roman Catholicism, he saw the methods used on his fellow churchmen as lacking in facts, playing to the emotions of the potential convert. Keating spends the majority of his book attempting to present the factual basis for Romanism. He concludes, “The key, then, is instruction- and not just in the proper approach to the Bible, but to all aspects of the faith. Almost without exception, Catholics returning to the Church from fundamentalism report they never would have left had they been well catechized… Fundamentalist neighborliness, however freely accepted, would not have resulted in the acceptance of fundamentalist doctrines” (p. 341).
Fast-forward to our present day. Now twenty years later, Roman Catholics have come to embrace many of the methods, if not all, which Keating so clearly portrayed as tools of manipulation back in 1988. Catholic Answers sells tapes and books of conversion stories. There is a long running EWTN show specific to conversion stories. On the Catholic Answers radio program I’ve heard them more than once recommend Patrick Madrid’s Surprised By Truth conversion story books as witnessing tools. Roman Catholic organizations have found that the use of a good conversion story… sells.
Keating’s book makes an excellent point which I wonder if he’d make today with the same vigor:
“Now it may well be that a man leaving one religion for another can write fairly, without bitterness, about the one he left behind. After all John Henry Newman did just that in his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. But it stands to reason that most people who suddenly think they have an urge to write about their change of beliefs just want to vent their frustrations or justify their actions. Their books should be read with discretion, and they should not be used at all as explanations of the beliefs of their old religion if the books betray the least hint of rancor” [Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 33].
Indeed, as I’ve been through at least one hundred or more Roman Catholic conversion stories, their testimonies in many cases are vented frustrations and attempts to justify actions. When I hear or read ex-Calvinists, ex-Lutherans, or ex-Evangelicals explain their old beliefs of their old religion often if not always, the former religion is ill-portrayed or misunderstood. Perhaps it isn’t outright rancor, but it’s at least an explanation with a hint of mockery.
Who watches over the proper use of the conversion story for Roman Catholic apologetics? It certainly isn’t the Vatican. This apologetic use of the conversion story is directly borrowed from Protestantism. As the “fundamentalists” Keating wrote about read his book, they swam the Tiber, bringing their methods with them to the shores of Rome. They brought their vocabulary and their communication skills- Roman Catholic apologetics had been rejuvenated using the very practices Keating critiqued in 1988. What was once the tactic of the enemy became the evangelism method of choice for Roman Catholic apologetics.