THE URGENCY OF A NEW APOLOGETICS
Cardinal William Levada
April 29, 2010
I am grateful to Fr. Pedro Barrajon, L.C., for inviting me to participate in the International Congress “A New Apologetics for a New Millennium” with these remarks about the urgency of a new apologetics at the beginning of the 21st century. In my view, the proposal for a new apologetics is tied intimately with the call to a new evangelization which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II set before the Church as the principal task of her mission at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity.
I remember very well the privilege of accompanying our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to the United States and the United Nations in 2008. In Washington after he spoke to the American Bishops he engaged in a dialogue with them. He was asked “to give his assessment of the challenge of increasing secularism in public life and relativism in intellectual life and his advice on how to confront these challenges pastorally and evangelize more effectively.” During his response the Pope stated, “In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the church needs to promote at every level of her teaching – in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction – an apologetics aimed at affirming the truth of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason, and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin and for an authentic and fulfilling life.”
Some Preliminary Considerations
We can already infer from the brief remarks of Pope Benedict that apologetics has a double place in theology: it finds its place in fundamental theology, where the praeambula fidei contribute to the foundations of theological inquiry, and in pastoral theology, where theology is “inculturated” (to use a popular post-conciliar term) in preaching, catechesis and evangelization. In both of these areas apologetics has all but disappeared, but the need for it is perennial, as a look at the history of Christian thought shows. Hence, in my view, a “new” apologetics is not only timely but urgent from both the scientific and the pastoral point of view.
In the New Testament, the First Letter of Peter (3:15) provides the classic starting point for the project of apologetics: “Always be ready to give an explanation (or defense) to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. But do so with courtesy and respect.” The Greek word “apologia” means defense; in some recent English translation “explanation” is used. If apologetics was criticized and largely abandoned in the wake of the Second Vatican Council for being too defensive or too aggressive, it is perhaps because the admonition to proceed with “courtesy and respect” had too often been ignored. But the project of defending one’s faith, of explaining the reasons for belief, is a perennial one.
In his introduction to A History of Apologetics (1971), Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J., said he did not intend to write “an apology for Christianity, still less an apology for apologetics” (xvi). In this book Dulles examines the legacy of Christian apologists through the centuries: writers like the second-century Justin “the Apologist”, “Clement and Origen, Eusebius and Augustine, Aquinas and Ficino, Pascal and Butler, Newman and Blondel” (xv). In his preface Dulles writes:
“The goals and methods of apologetics have frequently shifted. The earliest apologists were primarily concerned with obtaining civil toleration for the Christian community – to prove that Christians were not malefactors deserving the death penalty. Gradually through the early centuries the apologies for Christianity became less defensive. Assuming the counteroffensive, they aimed to win converts from other groups. Some were addressed to pagans, others to Jews. Subsequently apologetics turned its attention to Moslems, then to atheists, agnostics, and religious indifferentists. Finally apologists came to recognize that every Christian harbors within himself a secret infidel. At this point apologetics became, to some extent, a dialogue between the believer and the unbeliever in the heart of the Christian himself. In speaking to his unregenerate self the apologist assumed – quite correctly – that he would best be able to reach others similarly situated” (xvi).
One of the classic masters of apologetics in England in the first half of the twentieth century, Msgr. Ronald Knox, a convert from Anglicanism, also embraced this double purpose in his life’s pursuit of apologetical writing: “This includes not only books in which he presents a rationale for the Catholic faith to those who do not hold it, but also many of his conferences and sermons addressed to Catholics, in which he seeks to help them better understand the faith they do hold” [M. Walsh, Ronald Knox as Apologist, pp. 12-13]. In his recent book The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George makes this point again: “Apologetics is important first of all within the Church herself. We need to give reasons for the faith not only to enlighten those who do not share it but also to strengthen those within the household of the faith” [p. 65].
Classical apologetics and the “preambula fidei”
To begin this section of my presentation, I want to appeal again to the master apologist Knox, who outlined the five basic questions of apologetics for his time as follows: “The existence of God, the Old Testament as prophecy, the Person of Christ, the New Testament as a reliable record, and the Church as authorized teacher” (Walsh, op.cit. p. 111).
It is not hard to see how these basic questions presuppose and rely upon the preambles of faith, which have provided a necessary introduction to and foundation for theology at least since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, who dealt with them at length in his Summa contra gentiles. These philosophical conclusions – about the human power to know objective truth, about the existence and spiritual nature of the soul, about the existence of a personal God, and about the necessity of religion – were the necessary preparation both for theology and for practical apologetics.
My own preconciliar (Vatican II, that is) theology course “De Revelatione,” taught for his last time by Fr. Sebastian Tromp, S.J., in 1958, began with an introduction “de theologia fundamentali apologetica,” and proceeded along the classic lines to discuss the possibility and fact of revelation, and the testimony of Christ – his miracles and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies – that grounded the credibility of Christian revelation. I was ordained in 1961 and returned to Los Angeles to work in a parish and teach religion, including apologetics, to high school seniors. When I returned for my doctorate after the Council, I took a course on revelation from Tromp’s successor Fr. Rene Latourelle, S.J. In the span of those few years (from before to after Vatican II), the shape of the theology of revelation taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University had changed drastically, to the point where I think it is fair to say that apologetics no longer made an appearance in the theological curriculum. It is true, of course, that the directives for priestly formation continued to emphasize philosophy as a requirement for candidates for priesthood, and the praeambula fidei, especially as emphasized in Dei Filius of Vatican I, would normally be presented there.
The transformation of apologetics into fundamental theology was under discussion throughout the period before the Council. The late Professor Ralph McInerny’s book Praeambula Fidei illustrates the interesting development of this transformation among Aquinas’ spiritual and intellectual “sons” in the Dominican theological faculties. Moreover, at the Gregorian Fr. Latourelle preferred to speak of a “new image” of fundamental theology, since the basic issues of revelation and credibility remain part of the discipline. In a 1980 article he listed the following developments in theology that contributed to the changed status of apologetics: “renewal in biblical and patristic studies that found a much richer reality in revelation and faith,” and a “renewed ecumenical impulse that changed the often aggressive and polemical attitude of the old apologetics into an openness for dialogue” [cf. R. Latourelle, “Nuova Immagine della Fondamentale,” in: Problemi e prospettive di teologia fondamentale, Latourelle – O’Collins, eds. Queriniana, Brescia, 1980].
The “richer reality” contained in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (chap. 1) has been illustrated in comparisons between this conciliar text and the previous chapters of Dei Filius promulgated at Vatican I almost 100 years before. For our purposes I will offer this example, illustrated by excerpts from then-Prof. Joseph Ratzinger’s commentary on Dei Verbum written shortly after the Council (cf. the 5-volume Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, edited by A. Grillmeier and published in 1969).
Dei Verbum 6 explicitly cites Dei Filius, albeit in abridged form, with regard to the ability to know God by human reason: “The holy synod professes that ‘God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world, by the natural light of human reason (see Romans 1:20).” Ratzinger’s comments are pertinent to our question of a transition away from “classical” apologetics: “In 1870 people had started with the natural knowledge of God and had moved on from this to ‘supernatural’ revelation. Vatican II has not only avoided the technical term supernaturalis, which belongs too much to the world of physical thinking (however indispensable the term may be for the time being), but followed the reverse procedure. It develops revelation from its Christological center, in order then to present the inescapable responsibility of human reason as one dimension of the whole. This shows that the human relation to God does not consist of two more or less independent parts, but is indivisibly one; there is no such thing as a natural religion in itself, but each religion is ‘positive’, though because of its very positivity it does not exclude the responsibility of thought, but includes it. Vatican II had no reason to suppress this basic idea developed with such care by Vatican I; on the contrary, in dealing with the onslaughts of atheism it will have increasing importance” (vol. 3, pp. 179-80).
How prophetic those words are, when we see the likes of Richard Dawkins and his fellow apostles of the so-called “new” atheism addressing thousands on college campuses, with books caricaturing the doctrines and philosophy of the Christian tradition on the best seller lists. How ripe the times are for a new apologetics!
About a decade ago, when I was Archbishop of San Francisco, I was invited to give a lecture at the Jesuit University of San Francisco; I chose as my topic “Toward a New Apologetics.” When I was preparing for the talk, I called Cardinal Avery Dulles to ask if he had ever fulfilled his desire to follow up his volume on the history of apologetics with a companion piece on the theory of apologetics, which would present the tasks, methods and prospects of apologetics in the light of the needs of the contemporary church. He said regretfully that he had not. Now that he has been called home to God, he has left that project to others. But the usefulness of such a work for a renewed apologetics seems undeniable.
The shape of a new apologetics
What would a new apologetics look like? From the above, I hope I can take for granted that it will have its scientific basis in a renewed fundamental theology, where faith and reason, credibility and truth, are explored as necessary foundations of the Catholic Christian faith. But the faith must always be newly thought through when it has to engage new situations, new generations, new cultures. Here are a few suggestions that can provide some points for reflection about the “new” apologetics ever more urgently needed in our times.
In October of 1999, Pope John Paul II addressed his brother bishops making their ad limina visit from western Canada, inviting them to engage people of today in a dialogue which embodies four indispensable qualities – clarity, humanity, confidence and prudence. He suggested that these should mark the project of a “new apologetic”.
Pope Benedict, in his 2008 meeting with the clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, said that for him “art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” He calls the Saints a “great luminous trail on which God passed through history.” About Christian art and music, he suggests that “in a certain way they are proof of the truth of Christianity: heart and reason encounter one another, beauty and truth converge …”
In addition to these thoughtful observations about a new apologetics provided by Popes John Paul and Benedict, it seems right to mention such American pioneers of the new apologetics as Scott Hahn and Frank Keating; I want to cite in particular Cardinal Francis George’s long-standing interest in contributions to the subject: he writes (again in The Difference God Makes), “During the Synod for America , I suggested that an integral part of the new evangelization must be a new apologetics – a loving and nondefensive but nonetheless clear response to the arguments against the Catholic faith. These include arguments raised on the one hand by those who misrepresent God’s Word by reading the Bible as a code, and on the other hand claims by others that all religions, but especially Catholicism, are an illusion that destroys personal happiness and critical scientific intelligence” (p. 65). He goes on to observe, “In the face of triumphant human reason at the end of the nineteenth century, the First Vatican Council taught that faith is not irrational. Ironically, at the end of the twentieth century, the Church is saying [e.g. Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio] that faith must rescue reason from its own self-inflicted wound of skepticism. … A new apologetics must therefore be grounded in a philosophy that grants the sciences their rightful autonomy but not a hegemony; it must make use of a philosophy that is open to contemporary concepts, especially those that promote an appreciation for human subjectivity and for the centrality of human freedom in our experience. In an effective apologetics, reason finds itself strengthened in its dialogue with faith, and vice versa” (p. 71).
To the above I would only add these reflections of my own, conscious that today’s task requires an ever greater coherence between faith and life by the one who “gives an explanation or defense” of his belief and hope in Christ.
A new apologetics for the new millennium should focus on the beauty of God’s creation. For this apologetic to be credible, we must pay greater attention to the mystery and the beauty of Catholic worship, of a sacramental vision of the world that lets us recognize and value the beauty of creation as a foreshadowing of the new heavens and the new earth envisioned in 2 Peter and the Book of Revelation. We must not hesitate to bow to the ground in reverence and take off our shoes when we stand on holy ground.
The witness of our lives as believers who put our faith into practice by work for justice and charity as followers who imitate Jesus, our Master, is an important dimension of our credibility as dialogue partners in a time of a new apologetics. Our solidarity with our fellow citizens, whose sense of responsibility may be partial but real – expressed in causes for the environment, for the poor, for economic justice – is important. At the same time, our ability to articulate the full vision of truth, justice and charity is essential to ensure that such witness and action is not just a passing phase, but can make a lasting contribution to the creation of civilization of love.
A dialogue about the meaning and purpose of human freedom is essential in today’s culture. If freedom is directed toward reinforcing the individualism of a “me-first” culture, it will never realize the potential offered by the One who made us in his own image and likeness as free to respond to the great gift of divine love.
We need to pursue the dialogue with science and technology. Many scientists speak of their personal faith; yet the public face of science is resolutely agnostic. Here is a fertile and necessary field for dialogue. Teilhard de Chardin attempted an apologetics for the world of science with great imagination, though not entirely successfully. Surely the new millennium will offer new opportunities to expand this key dimension of the dialogue between faith and reason. And among the questions that most need attention today is that of evolution in relation to the doctrine of creation.
A new apologetics can also learn from the “old” apologetics. I recently reread C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, a staple on university campuses (at least in the English-speaking world) since I was in school. This classic apologetics began as a series of radio lectures broadcast during World War II. I asked myself why the BBC had chosen to offer such broadcasts, when they make no mention of the war. My answer – I know not whether it is correct – is that people in those desperate years yearned to make sense of the death-dealing guns and bombs, the shortages and the sacrifices. They needed the opposite of “desperation” – they needed hope!
I found interesting the principal theme of Lewis’ argument for God and Christianity: the innate sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, as proof of a divine author. Here again is a key theme for apologetics: the longing for the good, and its related themes of a natural moral law and of the validity of human reason common to all humanity. For Lewis, as for today’s apologetics, an important sub-theme was a right understanding of human sexuality.
Finally, a new apologetics must take into account the ecumenical and interfaith context of any dialogue about religious faith in a secular world. I do not agree with those who suggest that the time for a specific Catholic apologetics has passed. But questions of spirit and faith engage all the great religious traditions and must be addressed with an openness to interfaith dialogue. Similarly, our ecumenical progress has shown us the many gifts we share in common with fellow Christians: the Anglican C.S. Lewis is but one, even if outstanding, example. Our apologetics will only be strengthened by common witness and testimony with our fellow Christians about the purpose of God’s revelation in Christ, for our own lives and for the world in which we live.
As I reach my conclusion, I turn once again to Cardinal Dulles. In preparation for a new publication of his Testimony to Grace, the story of his conversion to Catholicism, Dulles drafted a new Afterword called “Reflections on a Theological Journey”. One section of this reflection seems especially apropos here.
Dulles wrote, “Many Catholic theologians, unclear about the importance of the faith that comes through hearing, have been reluctant to align themselves with the call to proclaim the Gospel. Conservative protestant groups, although they have a conception of the Gospel that I would regard as very inadequate, are far more committed to the task of evangelization. Having drifted away from the missionary commitments of their forebears, Catholics are only beginning to catch up with Pentecostal and Biblicist Protestants. Yet the Catholic Church, with its rich intellectual and cultural heritage, has resources for evangelization that are available to no other group. We need a more outgoing, dynamic church, less distracted by internal controversy, more focused on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, more responsive to the Spirit and more capable of united action” (p. 139).
How we might hope and pray with Cardinal Dulles that as we imitate the zeal of some of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters in proclaiming Christ, we might be able to share with them the riches of the Catholic and universal tradition of faith in Jesus Christ. This seems especially important to enable Catholics to counter an often over-simplified appeal made by so-called “sects”.
The call for a new apologetics for the 21st century does not, in my view, amount to a “mission impossible”. The spirit of contemporary society is skeptical of truth, of the claims to know the truth, even – or especially – of truth revealed by God. The relativization of truth is not the necessary precondition of real dialogue; the desire to know the other in the fullness of his or her humanity is. Thus it should be possible after all to find the truth of the mind and of the heart in just such a dialogue where there emerges what Christians have learned to be the mind and strength and heart and soul of the Gospel revealed in Jesus: that God is love, and that our creation in God’s image and likeness makes all humanity able to love God above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves. For this is the challenge given to apologists throughout the history of the Church: to let people know the reason for our Christian faith and hope with all courtesy and respect (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).