There are times where we seek out opportunities to evangelize for the faith, but sometimes, the opportunity comes to us. When this happens, it’s not always pleasant. A couple months ago, for example, I was on a flight next to a guy who spent nearly the entire time telling me how rotten the Catholic Church was, I could hardly get a thought in edgewise.
It might be a Protestant trying to save you from your Catholicism, a dissenting Catholic trying to liberate you from obeying the Church, or an atheist trying to enlighten you about the foolishness of belief in God. What should we do in response to these situations?
1. Change the Tone.
I recently had dinner with a friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in some time. He used to be a Mormon missionary, and he’d heard that I’d left my job to become a Catholic seminarian. We both knew that the topic of religion would arise. I breached it by asking, “What would it take for you to become Catholic?”
His response impressed me, because he began it by saying, “First of all, thank you for caring enough about my soul to have this conversation with me.” What a great way to frame the conversation. If a person is rebuking us for being Catholic because they love us and want the best for us (and, in the case of fellow Christians, want to save our eternal souls), we should start out by recognizing that with sincere gratitude. And if that’s not why they’re trying to persuade us (if, for example, they just want to vent some built up anti-Catholic prejudices, or are naturally combative, or want to show us how smart they are), then this is one way of calling them to be more.
Hopefully, this recognition calls both of you to act in true charity: to discuss your differences openly, but in a spirit of authentic love. Not only will setting this tone make the whole conversation more bearable, but it’s a critical first step. After all, no matter how great your defense of the faith is, there has to be fertile intellectual and spiritual soil for the truth to take root.
I frequently hear Catholics, even devout Catholics, say that they just don’t feel ready to get into these conversations. They’re afraid of getting overwhelmed by their Evangelical aunt’s ability to quote Scripture by chapter and verse, or their atheist friend’s knowledge of science, and are afraid that their own ignorance will make the Church look bad.
Sometimes, there’s truth to this: when Catholics are on the spot to defend their faith, and can offer nothing in response, they’ve both failed a direct Biblical injunction (1 Peter 3:15-16) and risked making the Catholic faith look stupid to those who might have been open to the truth of the faith.
The best solution to this isn’t in the heat of the moment, but in the rest of our lives. We should be serious about learning our faith, including knowing Scripture intimately, so that when confronted, we can give a defense. When we are thrust into these situations, we should take the first opportunity to offer a quick, silent prayer to the Holy Spirit for His assistance. Particularly if the other person is a Christian, you even might offer to say a prayer to the Holy Spirit together, that He will open your minds and your hearts.
Once you do all of that, relax. No matter how smart your interlocutor is, the Catholic has the advantage of defending the truth. No matter how badly you defend the faith, the Catholic answer is the right answer.
3. Keep the Big Guns Ready.
There’s simply no way to prepare for every possible topic that could come up in the course of these sorts of conversation. Even if you take your faith seriously, and make a good-faith effort to be familiar with Scripture, the Catechism, and apologetics, you’ll get the occasional curveball. For example, one reason that my seatmate on that flight was upset was that his wife had a lousy experience as a seven year-old in confession, when she told the priest she hadn’t sinned, and he didn’t believe her. Needless to say, I don’t think the Summa has a section on that.
So, what can you do about that? One solution is to know a few specific areas really well. For example, I would suggest that you should know four areas really well:
- The promises Christ made to the Church [namely, that the gates of Hell would not overcome, that the Holy Spirit would guide and protect the Church always, and that He would lead the Church into all truth, etc.];
- What apostolic succession is, and how to defend it;
- The necessity of the Magisterium; and
- The relationship of the Church and Sacred Scripture. Learn these areas, and learn the Scriptural and Patristic support for each.
If you know these four areas really well, you’re ready for most debates with other Christians.
A couple of examples to show what I mean. A Reformed friend of mine recently claimed that the Mass was idolatrous. One way to respond to that would be to know the specific Scriptural and Patristic support for the Real Presence, and for a sacrificial understanding of the Mass. For what it’s worth, then an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of the Catholic view, if you know where to look. But another way would be to point out the obvious. For centuries, all Christian worship (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Coptic) was centered on a sacrificial Liturgy that was, if the Reformed are correct, idolatrous.
Now, Christ promised that the Gates of Hell wouldn’t overcome. Surely, if every visible Christian church (including the ones converting all of the pagans) ceased to be Christian, and centered instead on idol-worship, then the Gates of Hell overcame. This leaves only three possibilities: (1) that the Christian churches weren’t uniformly centered on the Eucharist, (2) that Christ was wrong, or (3) that the Reformed are wrong, and the Eucharist isn’t idolatry. We know from history that the answer isn’t (1), and obviously, the answer isn’t (2). See what happened? You’ve shown that the Protestant arguments against the Eucharist are impossible, before you even get into the exegesis of specific passages.
Let’s take something a little more off-the-wall. Maybe you run into a member of the Church of God with Signs Following, a fringe charismatic church that believes Christian liturgy should involve snake-handling or even drinking poison, based on their reading of Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19. Odds are, you’ve never seriously considered why Catholics don’t drink poison and handle snakes at Mass. Fair enough. But you should be ready to explain that (a) we know which Books are in the Bible through the Catholic Church, and (b) we are called to interpret the Bible with the Church, not just take whatever interpretation suits our fancy. If you can explain this, then you can at least show that Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19 don’t require liturgical snake-handling, since the Church doesn’t teach that.
Now, like I said, those four areas are specific to conversations with non-Catholic Christians. You’ll want a different set of “big guns” for debates with atheists: being able to defend the Empty Tomb, and the Five Ways are a good place to start. But my point is simple: you don’t have to waste an excessive amount of time squabbling over minutiae (or, for that matter, researching minutiae). After all, odds are, it’s not going to be the minutiae that converts people. Save the minutiae for later.
4. Control the Terrain.
One major reason that I think Catholics feel outgunned when dealing with Protestants and atheists is because they don’t control the apologetic terrain very well. First, we tend to let the other person control the topic of the conversation. Now, sometimes, that’s necessary. This really might be the thing keeping the other person from being Catholic. But other times, we’re just letting the Protestant or atheist choose the arguments that they think are the best proofs against the Church, without giving us a chance to raise the best arguments for Her.
Second, we tend to let the other person jump from topic to topic as they please: usually is once they’ve made their point, but before you’ve adequately responded (or once it becomes clear to them that the argument isn’t.the silver bullet against Catholicism that they were expecting). So we end up in conversations like the one I had on the flight, trying to respond to a long string of arguments over everything from clerical celibacy, to divorce / annulments, the priesthood, auricular confession, the necessity of the Church for salvation, Scripture and Tradition, etc., without getting a real chance to flesh out the Catholic view much. No matter how well you know your faith, if you’re rushing from topic to topic like this, you’re probably going to come away feeling exhausted and unproductive.
Here’s what I suggest: ask lots of questions. But not just any questions. Ask questions that make them determine how important, and how strong, their arguments really are. For example, ask questions like, “is this the reason that you’re not Catholic?” or, “if I could show you that the Catholic view on this was correct, would you be more likely to convert?” If the answer to these questions is “no,” there’s a good chance you’re both wasting your time. From here, you can turn the conversation to the real reasons that they’re not Catholic.
You can also shift the argument towards the “big guns” for Catholicism by asking good questions, or responding to arguments well. For example, when Protestants quote a Scriptural passage that they think supports their particular argument, it’s often worth asking whether they think the passage could be read in good faith in more than one way. Do they acknowledge any genuine doctrinal ambiguity in Scripture? If not, how to explain all of the different denominations in Protestantism? If so, it sounds like there’s a need for some sort of a Magisterium. What authority did Jesus Christ leave for maintaining and interpreting
Or perhaps you simply present it as an argument: someone tells you that Mark 16:17-18 means that Christians should handle snakes and drink poison in church, and you respond, “I don’t read it to say that, and I think it’s reasons like this that it’s important that the Church’s teaching authority exists.” There’s also the fact that some Christians don’t think the end of Mark’s Gospel belongs in the Bible. Who can we turn to in order to know which Books belong in Scripture, and which don’t?
Likewise, when the other person keeps changing topics, politely call them on it. Ask directly: “Okay, you asked about x. Now, it sounds like you want to talk about y, instead. I can explain why Catholics believe as we do about x, or we can switch gears. Which would you prefer?” You can even say, “I’m giving you plenty of time to explain why you think that the Catholic Church is wrong on such-and-such an issue. Will you extend me the same courtesy to show why the Church is right?”
One of the most surprising things that Catholics discover in talking to Protestants and atheists is how misunderstood Catholicism actually is. Fr. Andrew Strobl is fond of saying that we should strive to understand non-Catholics’ beliefs well enough to be able to state their beliefs to them in a way that they would recognize and accept as their own. St. Thomas does this beautifully in the Summa, and unless we can do this, we don’t really know where the other side is coming from.
By this standard, there are a lot of folks who write and speak against the Catholic Church without knowing what Catholics actually believe. Ven. Fulton Sheen said it best: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”
This is both incredibly aggravating and strangely comforting. It’s aggravating, because you end up shadow-boxing, as the other person knocks down straw men of what they imagine Catholics believe… and because it’s frankly a bit insulting that anyone really thinks we’re really as dumb and backwards as the anti-Catholic stereotype.
In some cases, you have to slowly wade through a lot of what can only be called bigotry. Protestants frequently hear invectives against the Catholic Church in sermons – something we don’t really do in return at Mass. These invectives are rarely accurate, so by the time they’re telling you how horrible the Catholic Church is, it’s not like they’re bought into one or two lies –they often have a completely inaccurate picture of Catholicism, and are suspicious of any Catholic who attempts to set the record straight.
But as I said, it’s strangely comforting as well. It’s nice knowing that many of those who appear to be the Church’s fiercest critics are acting on a holy impulse: having heard that Roman Catholicism is paganism, they hate Her, not because they hate the Body of Christ, but because they hate paganism, and have mistaken the One for the other. This creates an opportunity to set the record straight. Showing that the Church isn’t Babylonian paganism or an anti-science fever swamp can open people’s eyes to the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church in surprising and beautiful ways.
Getting there is not always easy (and sometimes, doesn’t happen at all). But with patience, prayer, and the grace of God, miraculous things can happen.