A Catholic Reply to “How to Suck At Your Religion”

An anti-religious (and specifically, anti-Catholic) webcomic is making the rounds on the Internet right now. It’s part of a webcomic called The Oatmeal, and is called “How to suck at your religion.” I have to warn anyone clicking that link that it’s really offensive: profane, lewd, and blasphemous, all at once. Honestly, if you don’t have some reason to read it, just go ahead and skip it (and this whole post).  Whatever your religious views, this webcomic simply doesn’t enrich the discourse, or advance the debate in any positive or meaningful way.

You would think that something this over-the-top would cause even non-religious people to balk at posting it on their Facebook feeds as indicative of their own views. Apparently not. I’ve already gotten two e-mails from people who had friends share it, and who wanted to know how to respond.

There is a temptation to say, “It’s a webcomic, don’t take it so seriously!”  But the truth is, while it’s supposed to be funny, it’s also supposed to make a serious point. In my view, it fails on both counts, but I’m really only concerned about the latter.  Nearly every panel raises a different argument against certain types of religion, with most of the vitriol saved for Catholicism. Each of these arguments collapse on closer inspection, and it’s clear that the sheer quantity of arguments cannot overcome the dearth of quality of any given argument.

So here are my thoughts, by panel:

  1. The first panel depicts a Catholic priest (with a Roman collar) confidently damning all those who don't belong to the Church. This is just a lazy straw man. While She's canonized thousands of Saints, the Church has never declared anyone in Hell. On a related note, one of the obnoxious things about atheist attacks on Christianity is that they act as if Catholicism and Evangelicalism / Fundamentalism are basically the same thing.  On of the things that Dr. Mark Gray said, in the article I linked to last week, was that: “It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view.”  If you’re going to argue against something, it helps to at least understand the thing you’re arguing against.

  2. This gets the Galileo affair completely wrong. A much-needed corrective here, or a thousand other places, for those who actually care enough about the facts to check them.

  3. Jewish twins kept alive at Auschwitz
    for the sake of human experimentation.
    Were those who opposed this barbarism “anti-science”?
    This also grossly misrepresents why Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research (and falsely accuses us of being against all stem cell research). But I suppose the author has to misrepresent the Christian view, because otherwise, it makes a lot of sense. If human life begins at conception (which, scientifically, it does.... and is the only reason embryonic stem cell research is even possible), we're talking about doing medical research that profits off of mass killing. This has been done before, and those who opposed it on moral grounds weren't "anti-science," and aren't today. The term you're looking for is pro-life.

  4. So... religion is fine, unless you actually believe in it? Should parents not pass their political, ethical or moral views on to their children as well? What parts of parenting would be left if parents were to avoid passing their views on to their kids? The irony here is that silence is itself a statement. Avoiding any mention of God to your kids sends as clear a message as talking about God: specifically, it tells your kids that God's existence is either untrue, unknown, or unimportant. Because if you knew Him to exist, surely you'd share that knowledge, right?

  5. This next section is probably the worst, because it's just an incoherent argument. A kid asks, “Dad, what happens to us after we die?” The author compares providing the Christian answer to this question with correcting your kid for having green as a favorite color. What??  That just isn’t a coherent argument.  In what world are those two ideas parallel, or even comparable?

    According to the webcomic, good parenting is to pretend to be agnostic, and say that “no one really knows for sure.” Of course, if the Resurrection is true, that claim is false. So to be a good parent, you apparently have to deny the Resurrection and embrace agnosticism, treating beliefs about the afterlife as mere matters of personal preference like having a favorite color. This is just… stupid. There’s just no other way of describing it. Imagine if we treated everything that way. “Dad, what’s 3 x 3?” “No one really knows for sure. What do YOU think 3 x 3 is?”

  6. Raphael, Adam and Eve (1511)
  7. The idea that a religion is bad if it gives you “weird anxieties about your sexuality” is naïve. What I mean is that sexuality is much more powerful and truly awesome than the author lets on. If sex is just no big deal, recreational fun, then adultery’s no problem, right?

    Of course not. Agnostics and atheists have “weird anxieties” about sexuality, too, precisely because sexuality is powerful, and can cause a heck of a lot of damage when treated carelessly and casually. Everything from broken hearts and broken homes to rampant STDs and AIDS to millions of unplanned pregnancies and abortions would seem to have made all of that really clear by now.

  8. Religion is bad if you believe enough to try to tell other people that it's true. Why, exactly? As a society, we freely try to convince each other of specific worldviews all the time, including really speculative ones, like political worldviews. Why is all of that positive, healthy democracy, while treating religion the same way is evil?

     The author specifically advocates that good religions are ones that make it hard to join. Again, why? If having the right relationship with God is the best thing, not only for me, but for anyone, then trying to prevent others from that right relationship would literally be about the worst thing that I could do.

  9. This just grossly misrepresents Christianity.  As I said before, if you’re going to argue against something, it helps to at least understand the thing you’re arguing against.  In Monday's post, I mentioned that one goal we should have in inter-religious dialogues and debates is to be able to describe the other person’s position in a way that they would recognize, and acknowledge as their own.

    Needless to say, that’s not what happens here. Instead, there’s mockery and sneering of a ridiculous distortion of Christianity: mocking beliefs, in other words, that no Christian actually holds.  Edward Feser has a great response to this sort of cheap shot, showing that this same asinine approach could be used to make science look stupid (provided that no one bothered to listen to scientists about what they actually believed).

  10. Do you need to read the Bible to know
    that killing him is immoral and unethical?
    I don't think anyone votes based solely on religious beliefs. I also don't think that being against abortion is a “religious belief.” The belief consists of three propositions: (a) human life begins at conception, (b) the intentional ending of innocent human life is murder, and (c) murder is bad. Which of these beliefs requires being a Christian?

  11. Invoking the Muhammad drawing controversy is just a reminder that the reason Christians are targeted for this mockery instead of Muslims is that smug atheists are afraid of Muslims. They bully us precisely because we're not the violent, intolerant psychos that they pretend we are. If there really were a “Christian Taliban,” folks like this would be too afraid to mock us, as they are with Muslims. So in this sense, all of this is a beautiful reminder that, for all our faults, there really is something to Christianity.

  12. In condemning killing for religion, the author conflates it with “hurt[ing], hinder[ing], or condemn[ing] in the name of your God,” right after a lengthy tirade condemning Christians. Not even a hint of irony.

  13. Good religion is apparently placebo religion, and it's okay only as long as we keep it to ourselves. The author then indulges the mandatory use of profanity to show us how calm and reasonable he is.
In Scalia's dissent from Lee v. Weisman, he accused the majority of treating religion as “some purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one's room. For most believers it is not that, and has never been.”  This really does capture two competing views of religion.

Lucas Cranach the Elder,
Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns (1510)
One view, the view taken in the webcomic, is that religion consists of a set of ideas that we latch on to, not because they’re true, but because we happen to like them. Because our religious views aren’t objectively true, but just subjectively nice, they’re as personal (and insignificant) as our favorite color. It’s just a way of coping “with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die,” and that all existence is utterly meaningless. But someone who takes this view of religion can’t even be reasonably described as religious. After all, they’re essentially saying, “I know religion isn’t true, but I wish it was.”

But the other view is that religion describes something, and Someone, utterly real… the very ground and sustenance of reality, in fact. What’s more, knowledge of this Truth is the most important knowledge we could possess – the only knowledge that makes an eternal difference, while all other knowledge fleets or fades. But beyond even this, a relationship with this God, our God, enriches our life here on earth, filling it meaning, not as some delusional placebo, but in the way that a story takes on new profundity when you can hear the author explain why he wrote it that way.  This is the only view of religion worth taking, since this is the only view of religion that treats it as true, rather than just a nice idea: that is, it’s the only one of the two views worthy to be called “religious.”

Beneath all the smugness, profanity, blasphemy, and sneering hipster irony, the webcomic falters in the face of this: true, substantial, real religion. The comic can mischaracterize and distort, but in the face of actual Catholicism, it’s silent. It has no coherent or compelling answer in response to the Catholic claim. Snark simply has no retort to truth.

Update: Marc Barnes (Bad Catholic) responds to the same webcomic, quite wittily.

Update: Thanks to all who have commented so far.  I obviously can't respond to every one of you, but I've written a follow-up post responding to some of the general trends that I've seen.

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.

Three Arguments Against Atheism from Pope Benedict

According to Dr. Mark Gray at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), an astonishing 70% of those raised as atheists won't be atheists as adults.  Some will leave for organized religion, others for agnosticism, and still others for a vague theism detached from any church.  Of those who continue to identify as atheists, over a fifth say that they believe in the existence of God or a universal Spirit.  And Dr. Gray does a good job of showing that atheists, agnostics, and those with no affiliation really are three very different groups.  

What I found even more interesting was a link in the article to a 2007 meeting with Pope Benedict, in which the Holy Father made three very strong points against atheism:

I. Without God, Life is Meaningless

Benedict's first point is that the famous atheist philosopher Nietzsche was right that, without God, life is inherently meaningless:
At first sight, it seems as if we do not need God or indeed, that without God we would be freer and the world would be grander. But after a certain time, we see in our young people what happens when God disappears. As Nietzsche said: "The great light has been extinguished, the sun has been put out". Life is then a chance event. It becomes a thing that I must seek to do the best I can with and use life as though it were a thing that serves my own immediate, tangible and achievable happiness. But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being.
This was illustrated well in Alan Moore's graphic novel (and atheist apologia) Watchmen.  In the series, seemingly every character is both an atheist and a nihilist, and the connection between the two is made particularly clear in a particular scene involving a psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long:

If you can't read that, Long says,
“I sat on the bed. I looked at the Rorschach blot. I tried to pretend it looked like a spreading tree, shadows pooled beneath it, but it didn’t. It looked more like a dead cat I once found, the fat, glistening grubs writhing blindly, squirming over each other, frantically tunneling away from the light. But even that is avoiding the real horror. The horror is simply this: in the end it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.
Fittingly, the chapter closes with a quote from Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”  In other words, if atheism is true, nihilism is true, too: life is a meaningless black abyss, and the meaning that we project on to it is just self-delusion to escape that horrible reality.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Let’s be clear about what this argument is (and isn’t) saying. Certainly, atheists can experience joy and even beauty (itself an argument for the existence of a loving God, but that’s an argument for another time and place).  But what they can’t credibly claim is that they have any absolute purpose, that their lives have any inherent meaning, that they’re here for any reason beyond random chance, etc.

This distinction between whether life is enjoyable and whether life is meaningful is an important one, and one that plenty of people muddle, atheists and theists alike.  For example, the atheist Daniel Florien takes issue with this claim by Gene Edward Veith:
[The atheist's] worldview lacks all appeal. They get hung up on the last remaining absolute: Atheism is not beautiful. It is so depressing. 
If there is no God and this physical realm is all there is, life is pretty much pointless. A person might believe such a bleak worldview, but no one is going to like it.
That's explicitly an argument about whether or not life is meaningful within atheism: in fact, it's almost identical to what both Moore and Nietzsche say for themselves.  But look at how Florien characterizes Veith's argument: “A Christian’s worldview makes life beautiful and exciting, but an atheist’s worldview makes life depressing and meaningless. At least that’s what Gene Edward Veith says…”  See what he did there?  He turned an argument about whether or not an atheist's life is meaningful into one about whether or not it was exciting or beautiful.

Even more strikingly, Florien admits: “It is true I do not have an absolute purpose in life — I am not dedicated to ‘glorifying God’ anymore. But I find creating my own purpose thrilling. I am the author of a novel, and the book is my life. The freedom is exhilarating.”  In other words, he actually concedes Veith’s (actual) point. He just claims not to have a problem with it. Or put another way, he might as well concede that life is as inherently bleak and meaningless as an inkblot, and amuse himself imagining what the inkblots look like to him.

Here’s why that matters. First, because it provides a possible explanation for why so few atheist children remain faithful to their unbelief later in life. While it might be diverting fun to imagine that the clouds form specific shapes, or to veg out in front of meaningless (but enjoyable) television, a life where that’s all there is is inherently unsatisfying.  As Pope Benedict explained above, it's fun for a while, but the fun runs out.  Second, it presents an implicit argument for God: if our lives aren’t meaningless, then God exists. That is, if each of us is correct in feeling that we exist for a reason, we have to recognize that this is an argument against atheism.

II. Evolution Doesn't Disprove Theism

Pope Benedict rightly criticizes the silly debates over evolution as being a red herring in the question of whether or not God exists.  While Creationists insist that since Christianity is true, evolution is false, and atheists insist that since evolution is true, Christianity is false, Benedict bluntly rejects both of these arguments as “absurd”:
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.
In other words, there's absolutely no reason why a Christian can't simultaneously affirm that we have a natural and a supernatural origin.  There's no evasion here: in fact, Christians frequently acknowledge that we are both individually created by God (Jeremiah 1:5), and created by union of sperm and egg.  If sexual reproduction doesn't disprove the idea that God creates us, neither does evolution.  Or put another way, if we can individually have a supernatural and natural origin, we can collectively have a supernatural and natural origin, too.  

Dr. Gray notes that this hang-up about evolution is an argument that really only works against Evangelicals, and relies on assuming that the Bible should be read the way that Fundamentalists or Evangelicals read it (even though this wasn't the historical way the Bible was understood):
It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view. After all St. Augustine wrote about allegorical interpretations of Genesis in the 4th Century CE.
In fact, the entire process of evolution points to an ultimate beginning, and thus, to a Creator.  So the entire debate over evolution is worse than a red herring, because it starts from the completely inaccurate assumption that if evolution is true, religion is false (and vice versa).  In fact, the opposite is true: if everything in time and space originated at a single point, and grew and developed and evolved, tracing the line backwards gets you to a place where a Timeless, Spaceless Cause is necessary to set the whole chain in motion... that is, evolution should be considered a proof for our Eternal, Immaterial God, rather than against Him.

III. Scientific Inquiry Points to God

The final point that Benedict made so well is that the very existence of reason, and an intelligible universe points to the existence of an Intelligent Creator.  This is his argument from intelligibility, which I like:
This is what I wanted to say in my lecture at Regensburg: that reason should be more open, that it should indeed perceive these facts but also realize that they are not enough to explain all of reality. They are insufficient. Our reason is broader and can also see that our reason is not basically something irrational, a product of irrationality, but that reason, creative reason, precedes everything and we are truly the reflection of creative reason. We were thought of and desired; thus, there is an idea that preceded me, a feeling that preceded me, that I must discover, that I must follow, because it will at last give meaning to my life. This seems to me to be the first point: to discover that my being is truly reasonable, it was thought of, it has meaning. And my important mission is to discover this meaning, to live it and thereby contribute a new element to the great cosmic harmony conceived of by the Creator.
In other words, it isn't just that this or that scientific discovery or fact points to the existence of God.  It's that the very fact that we live in a universe that is governed by immutable laws of science, and that is capable of being discovered and understood and discussed, is itself a sure sign of an Intelligent Author.  You can tell a book from a series of randomly-pressed buttons on a keyboard (“oiafnsafkdnsafo aosdifdofsdaf,” for example): one makes sense, the other doesn't.  You may love or hate the book, you may adore or despise the author, but you're not left with any serious question that an author does, in fact, exist.

Even to say, “that plot twist makes no sense,” you have to concede that there’s an intelligibility in the thing that you’re reading, that there is a plot, and things should have happened in a certain way (in your opinion), and didn’t. Likewise, the criticisms of God’s designs for the universe begin by conceding that the universe is intelligible, and makes enough sense even to us that we can speculate about how things should operate. None of this is consistent with a meaningless randomly-created universe.

In discovering that the universe shows clear signs of Authorship, Benedict draws us back to his original point.  Once we discover that we've been authored, we can know at once that our lives do have meaning.  He chose to create us, and He could have chosen not to.  This begins the next phase of our journey, a phase that will last us until the day we die: seeking to understand and cooperate with the Author's plans for us.

St. Augustine on Our Separated Christian Brethren

In Tuesday's Office of Readings, St. Augustine offered one of the most beautiful Scriptural meditations on how we should approach those Christians who refuse to be in Communion with us, including those who regard us as less than Christian.  I immediately thought of both the sedevacantist Catholics who claim we're Modernist heretics, the fundamentalist Protestants who regard us as half-pagan, and the Baptists who reject the validity of our Baptism.  Regardless of which group we're talking about, Augustine's advice is sound:
From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop
(Ps. 32, 29; CCL 38, 272-273) 
Whether they like it or not, those who are outside the Church are our brothers 
Benozzo Gozzoli,
St Augustine Teaching in Rome (detail) (1465)
We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father
The prophet refers to some men saying: When they say to you: You are not our brothers, you are to tell them: You are our brothers. Consider whom he intended by these words. Were they the pagans? Hardly; for nowhere either in Scripture or in our traditional manner of speaking do we find them called our brothers. Nor could it refer to the Jews, who do not believe in Christ. Read Saint Paul and you will see that when he speaks of “brothers,” without any qualification, he refers always to Christians. For example, he says: Why do you judge your brother or why do you despise your brother? And again: You perform iniquity and common fraud, and this against your brothers. 
Those then who tell us: You are not our brothers, are saying that we are pagans. That is why they want to baptize us again, claiming that we do not have what they can give. Hence their error of denying that we are their brothers. Why then did the prophet tell us: Say to them: You are our brothers? It is because we acknowledge in them that which we do not repeat. By not recognizing our baptism, they deny that we are their brothers; on the other hand, when we do not repeat their baptism but acknowledge it to be our own, we are saying to them: You are our brothers. 
If they say, “Why do you seek us? What do you want of us?” we should reply: You are our brothers. They may say, “Leave us alone. We have nothing to do with you.” But we have everything to do with you, for we are one in our belief in Christ; and so we should be in one body, under one head. 
And so, dear brothers, we entreat you on their behalf, in the name of the very source of our love, by whose milk we are nourished, and whose bread is our strength, in the name of Christ our Lord and his gentle love. For it is time now for us to show them great love and abundant compassion by praying to God for them. May he one day give them a clear mind to repent and to realize that they have nothing now but the sickness of their hatred, and the stronger they think they are, the weaker they become. We entreat you then to pray for them, for they are weak, given to the wisdom of the flesh, to fleshly and carnal things, but yet they are our brothers. They celebrate the same sacraments as we, not indeed with us, but still the same. They respond with the same Amen, not with us, but still the same. And so pour out your hearts for them in prayer to God.

Is Scripture Self-Attesting?

One of the most glaring problems within Protestantism is on the authority of the Bible: how do we know which Books are sacred Scripture?  How can a Christian possibly know which Books belong in the Christian Holy Book without learning this from the Christian Church?

Titian, John Calvin (16th c.)
As Catholics, we'd argue that they can't.  An often overlooked point is that the Bible was written to the Church.  St. Paul specifically addresses most of his Epistles to specific churches (see, e.g., Romans 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:1-2; 2 Cor. 1; Gal. 1:1-2; Eph. 1:1; etc.), and every Book in the New Testament was written to, and for, the Church.  These Books were then preserved by the early Church, read publicly in the Liturgy, and solemnly declared as canonical: by the Council of Carthage in 397, by Pope Damasus shortly thereafter, all the way through to the Council of Trent.

But Protestants reject this Bible.  They have a Bible, with seven of the Books (and portions of two more, Daniel and Esther) removed. The result is a Bible which was not used by a single Church Father, or endorsed by a single early Church Council.

That is, while they call it the “Bible,” it wasn’t the Bible that the early Christians would have used or recognized.  How to get around this problem?  The Reformer John Calvin addressed this issue by simply claiming that it's obvious which Books belong in the Bible, as obvious as telling white from black:
As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.
But of course, the canon of Scripture isn't as obvious as telling black from white, or everyone would agree on which Books belong in the Bible.  Calvin addressed this problem by claiming that the key was listening to the “the inward testimony of the Spirit.With the Holy Spirit's help, you could easily know which Books were truly Scripture:
Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.
Calvin's argument, known as the “self-attestation of Scripture,” is one that countless Protestants have reused,
often by proof-texting John 10:27 to say that the true Christians (the sheep) will hear Christ's voice (and thus, know which Books are in the Bible, since the Bible is the word of God).  So, for example, Michael Kruger at Reformed Theological Seminary trots this argument out in his recent book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Justin Boulmay, a Protestant blogger, gently dismantles Kruger's arguments for self-attestation.

So let's address the obvious, glaring problems with this argument for the self-attestation of Scripture: the unanimous witness of the Church Fathers.  There are three facts to consider.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
  1. First, the early Church Fathers had different canons.  That means that, even as Catholics, we have to recognize that the canon of Scripture wasn't always as clear as it is today.   For example, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Cyril each argued for a different canonical list.  Yet Catholics, along with most Protestants, consider all three men Saints, and exemplars of the faith.  This suggests that while the Holy Spirit remained, at all times, in control, He worked slowly and through the Church, rather than instantaneously, through each believer (as Calvin imagined).

  2. Second, no Church Father had the Protestant canon.  Despite the various canons that the early Church Fathers used, none of them used the canon of Scripture that Protestants use today.  Consider the implications.  If Calvin is right that those with the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit will recognize the Protestant canon of Scripture, then not only are Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyril not Saints, but no known member of the early Church was a Saint.  We would have to reject as non-Christian the very people, the very Christian communities, the very Church that brought all of us (Catholic and Protestant alike) the Bible. So, if John Calvin and his spiritual heirs are correct, the Early Church Fathers are neither our spiritual fathers, nor representations of the true (Spirit-led) Church.  But even Calvin himself would reject this conclusion.
  3. Even Jerome didn't buy into the idea of Self-Attestation.  St. Jerome argued unsuccessfully for the Protestant canon, before deferring to the judgment of the Church.  But even in his arguments for the Protestant canon, he wasn't saying, “I’m guided by the Holy Spirit, so this is obvious to me.” Instead, he was making arguments based on textual criticism, and the Jewish canon, etc. So even the Father who came closest to having a Protestant Bible didn't find the canon of Scripture obvious or self-evident.
Given Calvin's high view of St. Augustine (he quoted him 232 times in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, for example, while quoting no other Father more than 11 times), it's instructive to hear what St. Augustine had to say on the matter.  Not only did Augustine endorse the entire Catholic canon, but he explained the standard by which “the most skillful interpreter of the sacred writings,” ought to determine which Books were Scripture:
Louis Comfort Tiffany, stained glass window of St. Augustine (detail)
Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. 
So it's not just that Calvin denies the canon that Augustine affirms.  It's that they're taking totally different approaches to Scripture.  Calvin's approach encourages each individual to assume that the Holy Spirit is directly communicating this knowledge to him.  Augustine's approach encourages the individual to humbly look to the Church.

There's much more that can be said on this topic. For example, Neal Judisch at Called to Communion makes a number of good points, including this one:
Second, his [Calvin's] own theory simply comes down to the idea that each individual can replace the Church’s activity in this regard – that although it’s demeaning to Scripture and indeed sacrilegious to say that the Spirit can tell the Church in Council which books are inspired and which are not, it’s God-honoring and perfectly pious to say that He does this with each particular person, as a kind of little church standing alone, one by one.

Now Calvin, I honestly believe, didn’t see himself as doing this. But this was because he clouded the issue by assuming (as have many following him) that when something seems clear and evident to him it’s got to be because the Spirit is speaking directly to him, giving him the unvarnished news, as it were, whereas anyone who doesn’t see precisely the same thing must not enjoy that unmediated spiritual insight he has but is instead being blinded by some or other interpretive “filter.” The misled might feel just as inwardly certain about their own beliefs as he does, of course, but if so they’re just deluding themselves, mistaking their own unfounded psychological certainty for the testimony of God Himself.
Judisch's point is astute, and we see Calvin's tendency to assume that his own views were the result of the Holy Spirit guiding him, while everyone else's views were delusional elsewhere in his writings, like on the issue of assurance of salvation and “evanescent grace”.

“Where Are You Going, America?” Abp. Naumann’s Challenge to the Nation

We celebrate Independence Day this year in the shadow of the Supreme Court's recent decision affirming the constitutional authority of the individual mandate (and indeed, the ability of Congress to tax inactivity), and as the last day of the USCCB's Fortnight for Freedom. As part of the Fortnight, I went with two buses full of Prince of Peace parishioners, to the Religious Freedom Rally on June 29, at the state capital, in Topeka.

There were a number of excellent speeches from both politicians and religious leaders, but I especially enjoyed the one by my own archbishop, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. His speech is a wake-up call to Americans to protect their liberty, and it's timely. Here, courtesy of Fr. Shawn Tunick, is the full text of the Archbishop's address:


Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Religious Freedom Rally
Topeka, Kansas
June 29, 2012

Annibale Carracci, Domine quo vadis? (1602)
Quo Vadis? These Latin words translate into English: Where are you going? This phrase, made famous from a scene described in the apocryphal Acts of St. Peter, has become part of popular Christian legend in which Peter, fleeing Rome at the time of Nero’s persecution encounters the Risen Jesus. Peter asks Jesus: “Quo Vadis?” Where are you going? Jesus replies: I am going to Rome to be crucified.

This encounter reminds Peter of his cowardly denial of Jesus during His passion and crucifixion. Peter realizes that he is committing the same mistake again by abandoning the living Jesus in His Church at the hour of crisis. Peter turns around and returns to Rome where he is martyred.

Today in the Catholic Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Feast of the Great Apostles, Peter and Paul. I imagine Our Lord is asking the question of us and our country that Peter posed to him: Quo Vadis? Where are you going America?

Where are you going America, when our own federal government attempts to limit severely religious freedom, the first constitutional right in our nation’s Bill of Rights? Quo Vadis America, when the current administration attempts to narrow religious liberty to include only the freedom to worship? Where are your going America, when our government considers women’s fertility as a disease to be suppressed and pregnancy as a disease to be prevented? Quo Vadis America, when this Administration defines a religious entity so narrowly that Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity would not qualify?

Americans have always understood the free exercise of religion to be the first and most precious right. Religious liberty for Americans always included, not only the right to worship, but also the right to live according to our conscience.

The arbitrary Mandates, promulgated by the Department of the Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Reform Act, are perhaps the most egregious threat to religious liberty in our nation’s history. The President’s so-called accommodations have changed and corrected nothing.

This Administration has deceptively attempted to portray the HHS Mandates as an essential measure in the provision of health care for women, feigning the existence of a crisis regarding the availability of contraception and abortion inducing drugs. They have attempted to demonize anyone who objects to this encroachment on religious liberty and conscience rights as waging a war against women.

The reality is that we are gathered here today to just maintain the status quo, not to advance any agenda. It is the Administration who has chosen to pick this fight at this particular time. It is they who are waging a war against women and men of Faith.

Why was there no discussion of these Mandates during the months of debate over health care reform? Why was none of this specified in the more than 2,000 pages of legislative text? Does anyone really think there is a crisis regarding the availability of contraception? For Americans, who desire contraception as a lifestyle choice, it is readily available and inexpensive. The federal government already spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to give away free contraceptives to the poor.

Quo Vadis?, stained glass window,
St. Peter's (Westum, Germany)
The HHS Mandates are not about access to contraceptives. They are about the federal government saying to people of Faith that it is not enough that you live in a culture where contraceptives are readily available, where tax dollars are already used to provide them, where they are given out in some public schools to minors without parental permission. Now we – your government – are going to force you (the Catholic Church or any Church or individual Christian or person of Faith who finds contraception and abortion morally offensive) to participate in the provision of them.

Regardless, of one’s personal belief about contraception as a life-style choice, every American should be outraged at this assault on religious freedom. For if the federal government can do this to Americans, who believe contraception and abortion to be evil, then what prevents this same government from coercing other Americans to violate their deeply held moral convictions on any other matter.

The HHS Mandates are by no means the only threat to Religious Liberty in our nation. Several states no longer permit Catholic Charities to provide adoption or foster care services. Similarly, Catholic Social Agencies, who have longed distinguished themselves in their service to victims of sex-trafficking, are now being denied federal contracts because of our refusal to provide contraceptives and refer for abortion.

We are so blest as Americans. The United States historically has been a beacon of hope for the entire world on matters of religious freedom and conscience protection. Many individuals in our nation’s history have made heroic sacrifices in order to defend these precious liberties. They endured much more than standing for a couple of hours in this severe summer heat. We must not fail at this moment to exercise our citizenship and
make certain that our voice is heard.

Where is America going? Perhaps, the more important question is: Where, as Americans, are we going to permit it to go? Your presence here today demonstrates your desire to turn America around, to return it to the principles upon which it was founded and which made it great. You are here today because you want to protect and restore our first and most precious liberty.

Let the cry go forth from Topeka, Kansas to the President, to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to the Congress, to the Supreme Court, we will not accept, we will not acquiesce, we will not tolerate our liberties to be diminished or robbed from us. We will pray; we will advocate; we will vote; and we will never, never, never give up our religious liberty and conscience rights! Thank you and God bless!

How Should We Evangelize?

Several of you had asked whether we would be recording the live Shameless Popery series. We did (well, some parishioners did: Frank Moley did the video, while the Marian Mantle group prepared an audio version of the talks). Here's “Act One” of the first talk, on how to evangelize. Put differently, what should, and shouldn't, apologetics look like?

I. Apologetics Done Badly

One of the books that we gave away during the series was How Not to Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics by Mark Brumley, C.E.O. of Ignatius Press. If the title alone isn't enough to sell you, the preface was written by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., while the foreward was by the then-Archbishop of Denver, Abp. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. I haven't had a chance to read the book, but I liked the sections that I skimmed. The “seven deadly sins” Brumley identifies are:

  1. Apologetical Gluttony
  2. Reducing the Faith to Apologetics and Apologetics to Arguments
  3. Confusing the Faith with Our Arguments for It
  4. Contentiousness
  5. Friendly Fire
  6. Trying to “Win”
  7. Pride
I've been guilty of several of these, both on this blog and in the course of my life.  In particular, his point on “friendly fire” is a good one. We Catholics often focus too much of our attention on evangelizing Protestants, while overlooking atheists, non-Christians, and even nominal Catholics in our midst.  Partly, this is justifiable, not because Protestants are the worst of sinners, but because they're, in many ways, the easiest to reach.  After all, with an ordinary Evangelical, we can start from the assumption that there is absolute truth, that the Bible is trustworthy, that God is Sovereign over history, and so on.  That makes proving the case for Catholicism a lot easier.  Still, it's a helpful rebuke: apologetics isn't shorthand for “make Protestants Catholic.”  Rather, it’s about bringing the whole world to Jesus Christ and His Church, and Protestants are often our allies in this struggle.

II. Apologetics Done Well

For a good recent example of apologetics being done well, I was impressed by the video below, in which a priest, Fr. Ted Martin, is confronted by a group of protesters after Corpus Christi Mass, who were upset by the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. He was outnumbered, talked over, and had to struggle to keep the discussion on any topic. But throughout it all, he showed the patience of a Saint, all while calmly dismantling the protesters' various assertions, and providing much-needed, gentle correction:

I was particularly impressed by the way Fr. Martin handled issues related to the Second Vatican Council, and his ability to say specifically what the Council said, and where it said it.  Although the leader of the protesters prided herself on having two degrees in theology and having taught religion for sixteen years, and although she's the one who caught Father off-guard, and although she's the one who started making claims about what Vatican II (allegedly) said, when the priest is able to actually cite the conciliar documents by paragraph, she immediately retreats, declaring herself unprepared to have the conversation.  Anyone wanting to enter a discussion on the “spirit of” Vatican II should strive to be as prepared as this priest was. There are a handful of passages that get taken out of context -- often, by people who haven’t read the documents for themselves. Knowing what the Council actually says, and where to find it puts the kibosh on this approach.  But as impressive as Father's ability to quote the Council by paragraph is, what's even more impressive is his charity.  It's apparent, even to the protesters who ambushed him, that he's a reasonable priest who has their best interests at heart, and who seems to know what he's talking about.
III. What About Polemics?
Fr. Ted Martin's approach was gentle and thoughtful.  But is there a place to just say,  “No, that’s really a stupid argument, and here’s why” within Christian apologetics?  Or is that uncharitable behavior? In Friday's interview, Leah offered Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition as a book with “a really good introduction to Aquinas,” but the tone of which meant that “your atheist friend would have to have the patience of a saint to get past his snide asides at atheist writers.”  Feser responded, saying that polemic wasn't innately counter to Christianity.  He then went further, arguing that polemic is called for in response to the notoriously smug, bombastic New Atheists:
There are, first of all and most importantly, a lot of people both on the religious side and on the fence who are so impressed by the absurdly self-confident rhetoric and apparent prestige of the New Atheists that they suppose there must be something powerful in their arguments, and this supposition will remain even after one has patiently explained the defects in their books. Sometimes, “breaking the spell” of a powerful rhetorical illusion requires equal and opposite rhetorical force (if I can borrow Dennett’s phrase). When you treat an ignorant bully arguing in bad faith as if he were a serious thinker worthy to be engaged respectfully, you only reinforce his prestige and maintain the illusion that he might be onto something. You thereby make it easier for people to fall into the errors the bully is peddling. Again, see the blog posts I linked to and the chapters from Fr. Sarda y Salvany for more on the reasons why polemics are sometimes not merely allowable but called for. 
I also think people overstate the extent to which atheist readers will be put off. Some atheist readers, sure. But there are also atheists whose confidence in atheism is largely sustained by the vigor and self-confidence of the people on their side coupled with the timidity, defensiveness, and halfway-apologetic responses of some people on the other, religious side. To see people from the religious side hitting back with equal force and exposing certain prominent atheists not merely as mistaken, but as ignorant and foolish, can shock some of these atheist readers out of their complacency.
That argument is obviously a bit more sophisticated than “they started it.” Rather, it’s a recognition that sometimes, good manners can come off as a weakness, rather than the high road.  Taking an argument seriously sometimes gives it an air of credibility that it doesn’t deserve.  Feser is certainly not the first Christian to take this approach. We see numerous examples of this within Scripture Itself. For example, in Galatians 3:1-3, St. Paul writes this to the Galatians:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
He doesn’t treat heresy as an intellectually-serious alternative to the Gospel.  He presents it as it is: as a stupid choice for someone who has already been exposed to the truth.  We see similar examples in the writings of the Saints. St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, begins his The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary against Helvidius by explaining that:
Marinus van Reymerswale, St. Jerome in His Study (1541)
I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating. 
There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow (the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in wordiness and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience), would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him. He would stand as it were on a pedestal, and would publish his views far and wide. There was reason also to fear that when truth failed him he would assail his opponents with the weapon of abuse. 
But all these motives for silence, though just, have more justly ceased to influence me, because of the scandal caused to the brethren who were disgusted at his ravings. The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius -- who has never learnt to speak -- may at length learn to hold his tongue.
In other words, Helvidius' argument is too stupid to warrant answering, but Jerome will do it anyway, because the Gospel is worth defending. I side with Feser inasmuch as he is saying that there is a legitimate place for polemic in Christian apologetics.  But I also think that this role is a limited one.  While polemics appear in the writings of the Saints and in the New Testament, they are never the primary means of defending the Gospel.  That approach, which 1 Peter 3:15-16 lays out beautifully, is one of reverence and humility -- both of which are threatened by an overuse of polemic. I have no real advice for finding the appropriate role of polemic, other than to say that I think Fr. Ted Martin did it well in the video above.  As gentle as he was, he wasn't afraid to laugh openly at a couple of the protester's more absurd arguments.  Yet, even in laughing, he was clearly laughing at bad arguments, rather than the individuals he was trying to convert.

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