Five Ways to Defend the Faith Against Unexpected Attacks

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.

2. Prepare, Pray, and Relax.

Gerard Dou,
Old Woman Reading a Bible (1635)
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.

Lorenzo Veneziano,
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter (1370)
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:
  1. 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.];
  2. What apostolic succession is, and how to defend it;
  3. The necessity of the Magisterium; and
  4. 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.

Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Kentucky (1946)
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
Sacred Scripture?

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?”

5. Be Patient and Charitable.

Ven. Fulton Sheen
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.
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  1. I just may bookmark everything you write!

    As I read this, I had memories of some recent conversations I've had with Protestants. News of my return to the Church didn't go over very well. One particular friend is Reformed and tried very hard to "save" my from my (predestined?) damnation. I can see now that at the very least, her attempt was done in love.

    Controlling the terrain is most difficult with the anti-Catholic crowd, I've found. For whatever reason, these folks just tend to throw it all at the wall to see what sticks. When speaking to my post-Catholic parents (now Evangelical), I can barely keep up with their arguments about statue-worship and cries of "but mass is boring!" Very aggravating, but I like your suggestion about asking questions (especially "What would it take for you to become Catholic?").

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Excellent post! Bookmarked and waiting for your next article! :)

  3. man, i really enjoyed this post! i agree with Christina that "Controlling the Terrain" is a very difficult and time-consuming aspect of these conversations. in my limited experience, i have noticed that my protestant friends and family "jump from topic to topic" exactly as you describe. I have also noticed that the best way to move forward in these conversations is to do just as you suggest - bring up the big issue of Scriptural Interpretive Authority. Thanks for the great thoughts!

  4. One of the most effective replies to those who reject the Catholic Church is to point out the fact that the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions ever created that is structured so as to be self-correcting. It is the combination of objective moral principles grounded in the natural law, a Sacred Tradition established by the apostles and fathers of the Church, and the authority of Scripture that have always restored and renewed the Church whenever sin or neglect have threatened to undermine its mission.

    Neither secular liberalism nor Bible alone Protestantism is capable of withstanding the corrupting influence of individual sinfulness in a relativistic culture that is committed to the kinds of moral compromises that promote short term solutions while undermining the long term health and stability of the entire culture.

  5. Blink

    I never had any problems with snake-handling. You would think a clear test of not putting the Lord your God to the test would be hard to find.

    1. You're right. In Luke 4:9-12, the devil tries to goad Jesus into treating God's promises in Psalm 91:11-12 as a challenge. That seems to be almost a perfect parallel to how the snake-handlers treat God's promises in Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19.

  6. I'm back to tell you that some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door this morning. Usually this would terrify me, but I kept your tips in mind. :) It went AWESOME. They're even coming back next week because they weren't able to answer my questions regarding sola scriptura, etc. We got along great, which is even better news. Thanks again for the timely post!

    1. Wow, that's great! Thanks for sharing that.

  7. Joe, a potentially dumb question but where in scripture does the sentence: "you must have a personal relationship with Jesus" reside? I dont know scripture well enough to find it and I want to see if the greek word personal is used. Just wondering.

  8. Teomatteo,

    There is no such passage in Scripture. It's just a sort of catchphrase that Evangelicals made up, and as your comment suggests, it's a bit problematic, since it's often used in a way that suggests that the Church, being a communal relationship with Jesus Christ and one another, isn't necessary.

  9. Make sure, Christina, that you follow the author's other tip of knowing the Jehovah's Witnesses' own views well before these representatives return; and learn their views directly from them. Consult their website at to inform yourself about their materialistic understanding of the nature of the human soul, their neo-Arianism, and (as to be expected) their understanding of the Eucharist as only symbolic. You will note the subtle errors in the Witnesses' explanations that lead to very wrong conclusions.

    Keep in mind that these representatives or visitors are probably far less prepared for a real theological and ecclesiological discussion than you are. They have a script that they carefully follow, and they usually will not deviate from that script either because they do not have the capacity or they do not have the permission to do so. They may very well end the discussion and excuse themselves when you press them to interrupt their rehearsed delivery. It is, nonetheless, worth an attempt. God may use this encounter as part their converting to the true Faith, albeit some time later.

    May the Holy Spirit work on both you and your visitors during your exchange with these representatives.

    1. Thank you very much for the resource. The Witnesses who came to our door today were very set on proof-texting to refute the Trinity. I listened carefully and then kindly asked them to go back to the bigger issue that divides us: who has the Authority to proof text to begin with? The man insisted that "Scripture interprets itself," and I asked him to provide his basis for the assertion. If Scripture is self-attesting, surely it says so of itself (spoiler alert: it doesn't). He had never heard of sola scriptura and I invited him to return when he could provide proof of the Protestant view of the verse. In the meantime, I copied down his proof-texts for his arguments against the trinity. I agreed to provide the Catholic response when he comes back.

      Needless to say, he was pretty taken back by my husband and my willingness to engage. His younger companion (clearly a Witness in training) even exclaimed in surprise that he'd "never met a Catholic that used to be Protestant!" All in all though, it was a friendly exchange in the interest of seeking truth. I think they were genuine (albeit incorrect in their theology).

      On the way out, I complimented their evangelism and even said that we Catholics could learn a thing or two. ;)

  10. Joe,

    A question about another point Protestants and disillusioned Catholics bring up: the question of giant, beautiful church buildings. This Sunday evening the usual things came up: it's vanity, it's pointless, we could just do it (worship) back home, give the money to the poor etc. I had a few arguments in stock: men doesn't only need to eat, he also lives on beauty, churches are not built for us, but A.M.D.G. (for the greater Glory of God), we could all live in shacks, on the street, do you have leather seats in your car (copyright by P. Ted Martin), etc.

    But do you know of an article that concisely refutes all these 'arguments' against beauty (that's what these are, after all)? Why do these people love plain, white walls and puritanism? How can I convince them of the need for gold, murals, painted glass windows?

    Thanks in advance,
    A Catholic from Hungary.

    1. Good question. I usually just point to John 12:1-8, in which Judas complains that too much money was spent on perfume to honor Jesus, and that the money could have gone to the poor. Jesus rebukes him for this position. As you said, A.M.D.G.

      St. John also notes the hypocrisy here: Judas has no problem taking money for himself. Likewise, the Church's critics complain that too much money is spent on God's House, but I never seem to hear them complain that they themselves have too much luxury.

      I don't know of any good articles that talk about this off-hand, though. Anyone else?



    2. Thanks Joe. Here are two articles by the amazing Marc John Paul, though this is not a concise defence of why we should build huge and beautiful churches but it touches upon the subject:

    3. This not just a Catholic conflict. Here in Huntsville, the First Baptist Church constructed an ENORMOUS bell tower some decades ago. I was a teenager at the time, and I remember thinking (in my adolescent self-righteousness) what a horrible waste of money it was when there were sick and hungry people living in the shadow of this monstrosity. It was a few years before I was able to see it from the "John 12" perspective.

  11. If God exists, then churches should be the most beautiful buildings on Earth, ornate with the most precious items and drenched in beauty. People should make tremendous sacrifices to build and fill them with music and art. A special class of people should dedicate their lives to these places, and keep them. If God exists.

  12. Hello, all! I once considered myself a Protestant, having been raised as such, but as I became more familiar with the Scripture (even the Protestant Bible), I found many inconsistencies between the Protestant religion and the Bible. Especially important in my realisation that I could no longer think of myself as a Protestant concerned something which I observed for many years while listening to Protestant sermons and reading books by Protestant preachers: They carefully steer clear of the scriptures which affirm the necessity of good works and temperance in obtaining salvation. I don't call myself a Catholic, but I would advise any Catholic that if you want to strike at the heart of Protestantism when conversing with a Protestant, cater to their doctrine of "sola scriptura" and press them on the many scriptures which refute the Protestant doctrine of salvation, which is their pride and joy.

  13. My boss also said Catholic churches are a waste and should be sold, giving the money to the poor. I said how about your wife selling her engagement and wedding rings, and giving the money to the poor. He responded with silence.

    1. Good zinger. But it's probably not a good idea to win too many arguments with your boss. ;-)

    2. No one asks at the Smithsonian be liquidated to buy food stamps.

  14. What a nice blog! I find your posts inspiring, thank you for the share.

  15. I've been working with a guy trying to start a street evangelization organization, and I just finished a general outline on the non-confrontational approach we've adopted. Would you be willing and able to take a look at it and tell me what you think?

  16. An excellent post. One which I'll come back to again and again. Thank you!

  17. Hey Joe! I know I always say this on your blog, but particularly after I start reading comments, I start wondering why we refer to Protestant churches as "Protestant Religion?" Aren't we all part of the Body of Christ? Christians?

    Obviously there are significant theological differences, but I see so many key, fundamental similarities. And maybe it's my particular protestant/evangelical background that's very close to Catholicism. Maybe it's that I was raised going to Catholic school. Maybe it's that I was raised in a half-Catholic, half-Protestant home. Perhaps.

    I know I say this a lot and I am certainly not trying to argue, because I tend to always agree with what you say. Just interesting that things line up so neatly between us.

  18. Also - I don't know why people get so angry about Catholicism. And that's coming from a Protestant. I just don't get it...not angry at all...or bring guns to any conversations with my Catholic friends :-)

  19. As to snake handling and poison drinking, look up St Benedict.

    He was starting to drink from a poisoned cup, but before he put it to, the lips made the sign of the cross over it. It burst and so he was not hurt by the cup (it was handed him by monks who had wanted him for abbot but did not like him as such).


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