The printing press revolutionized apologetics. Suddenly it became possible for books to be widely disseminated with a relatively small expense. Today, the Internet has reduced that expense even further. As with the printing press, the blessings are mixed. The technological advances make defending the faith easier, but they also making attacking the faith easier. Apologetics remains important — and the defenders of the faith have an important role to play.
Mr. Shea recently wrote an article for Catholic Exchange discussing Roman Catholic apologetics. The article was not narrowly focused on any one topic, but addressed some history, some ad hominem, and some meta-apologetics. The historical part of the article deals with some of the evolution of post-Vatican II Roman Catholic apologetics, especially focusing on the last two decades. The ad hominem section has already been addressed by Dr. White (link) and James Swan (link). The bulk of my response is directed toward the third part of the article, the meta-apologetics aspect: defending the defense of the faith
Mr. Shea seems to take a rather cavalier attitude toward apologetics in his article. He portrays the history of modern Roman Catholic apologetics as disorganized and largely individualized and seems to glory in this, commenting that “I don’t believe in organized religion. I’m a Catholic.” He brings up an example of his apologetic failure in a dispute against Mr. Swan, but dismisses the matter as unimportant. He tries to portray Dr. White (and metonymically other non-Romanist apologists) as having an inordinate (and unhealthy) interest in apologetics, while praising his fellow Romanists for their lack of exclusive focus on apologetics.
Of course, it has not always been that way. The notable counter-Reformation apologist Cardinal Bellarmine is more likely to be praised (by those of his church) for his tireless focus on attempting to respond to Reformation apologetics than for leading a balanced life. Indeed, while I have not attempted a survey of his biographies, one would expect that devotion to his work would be one of the many praises he would receive from favorable biographers.
In dismissing his failure against Mr. Swan, Mr. Shea tries to minimize the historical error he made in claiming that Jerome accepted the canonicity of the Deuterocanonical works, by indicating that it does not matter that Jerome rejected those works. It does, of course, matter. Once Rome acknowledges that its foremost Bible translator disagreed with the canonicity of some alleged books of Scripture, we realize that the set of beliefs held by Jerome was different from the set of beliefs held by modern Roman Catholics. That’s not to say Jerome held an identical set of beliefs to those I hold, or that Dr. White holds. What it does say is that the entire pre-Reformation body of those who claimed the title “Christian” is not “owned” by modern Roman Catholicism, just as it is not “owned” by the Reformation.
Mr. Shea says that the moral of the story is “test everything and hold on to what is good,” citing Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians. This is, of course, the Achilles heel of Catholic apologetics. How can the claims of Roman Catholicism be tested to see what is good? How can a person test the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent to see what is good? We all know what the answer is: the answer is that we turn to the standard of truth found in the written and uncorrupted Word of God.
Men err. God’s Word, which is to be found authentically in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, does not err. Jerome erred and even the Apostle Peter erred. The sixty-six canonical books that Jerome recognized as the authoritative Scriptures do not err. The two general epistles of Peter, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, do not err.
Ultimately, it is the errors of men that make apologetics so important. Apologetics is the fulfillment of the church’s duty to serve as the support (στυλος and εδραιωμα) of the truth. It is a defense of the faith, and part of the duty of Christian brethren as laid out by Paul in Ephesians 6:10-20. Scripture is our sword, and with it we quench the fiery darts.
At the end of day, Roman Catholic apologetics cannot say the same thing. Instead, Roman Catholic apologetics must adopt blackwhite, which has been defined this way:
…this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that white is black, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. (1984 George Orwell)
Lest you think that description too harsh, consider the words of the founder of the so-called Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, “I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”
It is that attitude that renders much of Catholic apologetics moot, and permits Mr. Shea to have the nonchalant attitude toward it that he does. It’s what permits him to respond to Dr. White’s critique of his mockery with yet more mockery, “The Hindenburg of anti-Catholic apologetics blows up because ‘The prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mock’d.'” (link)
And yet, despite the seeming nonchalance, hollow mockery, and studied dismissal of apologetic failures, one can sense that Mr. Shea is concerned about the strength of his positions. The reader notices that Mr. Swan is called not by his own name but “Mr. X.” Meanwhile, Dr. White is referred to by another pseudonym (a handle Dr. White never used, but which is rather the current name of the general purpose Christian fellowship IRC chat channel that he runs).
Ultimately, apologetics in the Internet age is as important as ever. There are fresh attacks and regurgitations of old attacks, even some of the same that were given long ago by the Jesuit counter-reformers. Apologetic teams and individuals, as long as the keep their eyes on God’s word, can contribute to this defense. The building of the church sometimes progresses one way, sometimes another, but we can model our role along the lines of Nehemiah 4:18, “For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded.” Even so let us joyfully edify the church, with the Sword of the Spirit as our defense against error.