No Apology Necessary: Vatican II and the New Apologetics
by Karl Keating
Nowhere in the 16 documents of Vatican II do the words “apologetics,” “apologist,” or “apology” appear. There are reasons for this. One is that Vatican II was summoned 10 or 15 years after the apparent demise of Catholic apologetics. The heyday of the modern apologetics movement had been in the 1930s and 1940s.
Those were the years of the greatest reach of the Catholic Evidence Guild and, not coincidentally, of the last Catholic literary revival. On the most popular level of apologetics were the widely read Radio Replies of Frs. Leslie Rumble and Charles M. Carty, whose three volumes were published from 1938 to 1942. A more elevated apologetics was found in works such as Arnold Lunn’s exchanges with prominent British non-Catholics: Is Christianity True? (with C.E.M. Joad, 1933), Science and the Supernatural (with J.B.S. Haldane, 1935), and Is the Catholic Church Anti-Social? (with G.G. Coulton, 1946).
These were the years when Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously brought in famous converts and when a parish in Harlem could grow from 318 to 6,500 members in just 14 years, the result of lay apologists going doorto- door and clerical apologists speaking effectively from the pulpit.
By the 1950s the apologetics movement had not just peaked but seemed to have ossified. Apologetics came to be identified with dry scholastic texts. The intellectual vibrancy that manifested itself during the Depression and the war years faded during the complacency of the Eisenhower years. Whatever its causes may have been, the change was undeniable. Apologetics had been in the spotlight in the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of the 1950s it was not just off stage but seemingly out of the theater altogether. At this juncture came Vatican II.
Engaging the World
Unlike most of its predecessors, Vatican II was an optimistic council, and in this it mirrored the dominant intellectual attitudes of its time. It looked toward an engagement with the world, not a retreat to the battlements. The Council of Trent had been a rearguard action, a belated call for reforms that should have been instituted a century earlier, and Vatican I, which might have turned into the first “modern” council, was cut short by political events. Vatican II was not convened in response to internal or external crises—not imagining a need for a council, many churchmen were surprised when Pope John XXIII issued his call—and the Council saw itself as proactive instead of reactive. By the time of Vatican II’s first session, apologetics had become, if not chiefly reactive, at least dull. There seemed to be no particular reason to give apologetics emphasis in conciliar documents.
Some concluded that apologetics had been relegated to the dustbin of ecclesiastical history: Whatever its utility in the past, it was unnecessary in today’s world.
Then Lazarus came out of the tomb. About two decades after the conclusion of the Council there arose what some (chiefly detractors) have styled the “new apologetics.” Like the Council itself, this revivified apologetics is proactive and optimistic. Even when defending Catholic teachings it takes usually an upbeat, even joyful approach.
One of the most optimistic things about it has been its remarkable growth. So far as I know, a quarter of a century ago in the U.S. there was exactly one lay-run apologetics organization that had any pretensions of having an outreach beyond its immediate area, and it was a oneman operation. Today there are hundreds of apologetics groups in America, and many of them exert influence across the country and even around the globe. The pattern is mirrored in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Was this resurrection of apologetics in any way attributable to Vatican II? While the Council fathers did not call for a renewal of apologetics per se, they did set out norms and issue requests that were consonant with such a renewal. After all, “who says A must say B.” When Vatican II called for an active laity, one grounded intellectually and spiritually in the faith, a laity that was urged to do its part in evangelization, certain consequences followed.
Truth Shall Prevail
Lumen Gentium noted that the laity “are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (no. 33). Laymen are called “to share diligently in the salvific work of the Church according to their ability and the needs of the times” (ibid.). Christ “desires that his kingdom be spread by the lay faithful” (no. 36). This spreading must be through the heart and through the mind. The faith is not just “spiritual”; it also is intellectual. Frank Sheed, the doyen of the apologetics of the prewar era, noted that you cannot prevent a man from trying to draw true conclusions from true facts. One might add that you cannot prevent him from trying to draw false conclusions from false facts: This is how errors propagate. If Christ’s kingdom is to be spread by the laity “in those places and circumstances” in which they have special competence, part of the job will be an appeal to the intellect, a giving of reasons for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). True facts will be contrasted with false facts; true conclusions will be set off against false conclusions. The Council was not interested in the laity passing along just any faith. It was interested in the laity passing along the true faith. That necessarily involves a displacement of errors and, at times, a spirited defense of Catholicism.
Some have said that apologetics remains unnecessary. All that is needed is the example of a life well lived. That will be enough to draw people to Christ. The Council fathers saw this as a partial truth. “The witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers to draw them toward the faith, or to the faithful to instruct them, strengthen them, incite them to a more fervent life. . . . At a time when new questions are being put and when grave errors aiming at undermining religion, the moral order, and human society itself are rampant, the Council earnestly exhorts the laity to take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge and in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 6).
Note that last line: “in the explanation and defense of Christian principles.” The “new apologists” repeatedly have defined apologetics as the effort to “explain and defend” the Catholic faith. This usually has not been done in a conscious effort to quote Vatican II, but simply is an obvious meaning of the word. While never using the term “apologetics,” the Council fathers talked about “doing” apologetics. The absence of the term is immaterial, just as the absence of “Trinity” and “Incarnation” from the New Testament is immaterial. Those mysteries are present in the sacred text, and apologetics is present in Vatican II, even if the “A-word” is not employed. Today’s apologists do not turn to modern conciliar documents to justify their existence. There is no need to. The justification of apologetics as a mode of action indeed can be found in the text of Vatican II, but, in a wider sense, its justification is found in its fruits: numberless conversions and reconversions, the faith better understood by millions of people (Catholic and non-Catholic alike), heightened interest in the history and heritage of the Church, and a laity eager to grow both spiritually and intellectually. The temporary eclipse of apologetics seems to have been just that—temporary. Apologetics today is going from strength to strength and once again is a vital component of evangelization.
E-mail this article to a friend
Karl Keating is publisher of This Rock magazine and writes from El Cajon, CA. This article first published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.