In a 1983 address to the bishops of Latin America, Pope John Paul II, very much in line with the missionary élan of the Second Vatican Council, called for a New Evangelization—a proclamation of the Gospel that is new in ardor, new in methods, and new in expression.
While this call remains as urgent as ever, I can verify, on the basis of over twenty years of ministry in the field of evangelization, that a vitally needed aspect of the New Evangelization is a New Apologetics—a revivified defense of the Catholic faith. Innumerable studies over the past ten years have confirmed that people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it. These concerns remain crucial stumbling blocks to the acceptance of the faith, especially among the young.
I realize that in some circles within the Church, the term “apologetics” is suspect, since it seems to indicate something rationalistic, aggressive, condescending. I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytizing has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally sensitive explication of the faith—giving a reason for the hope that is within us, as St. Peter exhorts (1 Pet. 3:15)—is certainly necessary. The term “apologetics” is derived from the Greek apologia, which simply means “bringing a word to bear.” It implies, therefore, giving a reason, providing a context, putting things in perspective, offering direction. And people today are hungry and thirsty—not just for friendly companions, but for a word from the Church.
What would this New Apologetics look like? First, it would engage new audiences. By far the fastest-growing “religious” group in the United States is the “nones”—that is, those who claim no religious affiliation. In 1970, only 3% of the country self-identified as nones. Today, that number has risen to 25%. When we focus on young people, the picture is even more bleak. Almost 40% of those under thirty are nones, and among young people who were raised Catholic, the number rises to 50%. This rapidly growing audience of nonreligious men and women—atheists, agnostics, and former Catholics, especially—should be the target of the New Apologetics.
Secondly, it would take new approaches to presenting the faith, which engage not only the mind but the whole person. It would utilize the new media, find “seeds of the Word” in the culture, engage the imagination, joyfully champion what orthodox Catholicism stands for, and perhaps most crucially, lead with beauty. Especially in our postmodern cultural context, commencing with the true and the good is often a nonstarter. However, the beautiful often proves a more winsome, less threatening path. And part of the genius of Catholicism is that we have so consistently embraced the beautiful—in song, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and liturgy. All of this provides a powerful matrix for evangelization.
Thirdly, it would take inspiration from new models. Catholicism is a smart religion, and another one of its great virtues is that it has a rich and deep theological tradition. Taking Mary as its model, Catholicism “ponders” revelation and seeks to understand it, using all of the intellectual tools available. A New Apologetics would follow great ponderers of the Word such as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Chesterton, Lewis, and many others in order to meet pressing objections to the faith.
Finally, a New Apologetics would confront new issues, especially the kinds of questions that young people are spontaneously asking today. These would include queries about God’s existence, the Bible, the meaning of life, and especially the relationship between religion and science. For many people today, “scientific” and “rational” are equivalent. And therefore, since religion is obviously not scientific, it must be irrational. Without for a moment denigrating the sciences, new apologists have to show that there are nonscientific and yet eminently reasonable paths that conduce toward knowledge of the real. Literature, drama, philosophy, the fine arts—all close cousins of religion—not only entertain and delight; they also bear truths that are unavailable in any other way. A renewed apologetics ought to cultivate these approaches.
We find a template for this New Apologetics in the story of Christ’s conversation with two erstwhile disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13– 35). Jesus walks with them in easy fellowship, even though they are going the wrong way, and he gently asks what’s on their minds. But this invitational approach aroused questions that called for answers. Jesus then taught—with clarity, at length, and in depth. How wonderful that, recalling Jesus’ great apologetic intervention, the Emmaus disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
This collection of essays from many of today’s leading Catholic thinkers and evangelists offers, with considerable clarity and panache, a bold first step in the direction of this renewed vision for apologetics. My hope is that it helps to inaugurate a new era of intellectual vigor for the Church, one in which an army of apologists both walk and talk with those on the road, offering—with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:16), but also boldness and intelligence—a reason for their hope. This, I trust, will set wandering hearts on fire.