The Bishop's Bulletin

Does “apologetics” mean we are apologizing?


I’ve been reading your column, but what, exactly, does “apologetics” mean?


Thanks for this question! Frankly, it’s probably a topic I should’ve addressed in the very first column before taking any questions. In order to answer it, I’d like to begin by referring to Bishop DeGrood’s vision for the diocese: Lifelong Catholic Missionary Discipleship Through God’s Love. At the heart of this vision is missionary discipleship: the reality that we are all called not only to follow Jesus as His disciples ourselves, but to invite others to follow Him as well.

In both following Jesus more closely and helping others do the same, questions often arise, whether they be our own questions or the questions of those we are talking with. Boiling it down, we can put it this way: why do we believe what we believe and do what we do as Catholics? Answering those questions requires the craft of apologetics.

In order to find a summary answer to the question of what is apologetics, we can look to one of the writings of the first shepherd of the Church in Rome: St. Peter. In his first letter (at least in the Bible), St. Peter said this: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15-16) Always be ready to give an explanation, an account, a defense of the hope that is in you. When someone asks us to explain our faith, Peter tells us we are to be ready to explain, to defend ourselves.

This passage is the go-to verse when it comes to apologetics, in the sense that it’s the place in Scripture where we clearly see the basis for doing apologetics. In fact, the word translated as “explanation” or “account” or “defense” is apologia, the Greek root for the word apologetics. And this is a good point to explain a common misunderstanding: apologetics does not mean apologizing for the faith in the everyday sense. When we do apologetics, we don’t say that we are sorry for what we believe! Rather, it’s about explaining our faith and answering questions about it, whether those questions are coming from ourselves or others.

It’s important to note when St. Peter wrote these words, he wasn’t just speaking to leaders in the Church but rather to every member of the Church. In other words, all Christians are called to be prepared to explain and defend their faith.

But how do we do this? What does apologetics entail? What is necessary for us to be able to explain or defend our faith to someone of another belief, whatever their belief is?

Here we must recognize a key aspect of our Catholic faith. The Church teaches there is no contradiction between faith and reason, that is, between what we know because God has taught it to us through the Church and what we know because we’ve discovered it with our human reason. In other words, we do not need to “put our brains on the shelf” when we walk into our parishes because nothing we’ll be taught will contradict human reason.

This relationship between truths of faith and truths of reason means we are able to rationally demonstrate some truths of faith and refute objections to all the rest. That, in essence, is the task of apologetics: to use human reason to show what we believe is rational, either by demonstrating it as true or by refuting objections to it.

Style or tone are also important when it comes to doing apologetics well. Effective apologetics cannot be done in a defensive spirit, in which we mock, belittle or jump on those who question, challenge or even attack our beliefs.

Remember what Peter wrote: we are to explain and defend ourselves with gentleness and reverence. It’s not about winning an argument; it’s about loving someone else, the person you are in conversation with. As the saying goes, “A mind changed against its will is of the same opinion still,” and I have certainly found this to be the case in my own experience.

When we are in conversation with someone who’s challenging our beliefs, our goal is to explain and share the beauty and truth of Catholicism. Our motivation, then, is our love for God and His truth and our love for our neighbor, and we need to use a style that communicates that truth and beauty and reflects our motivation. Mocking and attacking are obviously not the ways to do so, but neither is an overly aggressive, argumentative approach. Remember the saying: honey catches more flies than vinegar.

May we, with gentleness and reverence, seek answers to our own questions and to those from others, and in so doing, draw closer to Jesus as lifelong Catholic missionary disciples through God’s love.

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Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of Adult Discipleship and Evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.