By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today column
In last month’s column, I used a personal experience to illustrate the limited scope of personal knowledge. Knowing is fundamentally a communal project that, especially in matters of faith, is almost always tentative and partial. I concluded by observing that no one of us has the whole picture and that humility is a necessary foundation for evangelization.
For this follow-up article, I juxtapose apologetics as practiced in our American Catholic context and the place of apologetics relative to evangelization in Church teaching. Apologetics and evangelization often are conflated, so I think it is important to address this topic squarely.
A basic definition of apologetics is found in 1 Peter 3:15, which indicates that we should be ready to explain why we have hope and to do so with “gentleness and reverence.” This mindset is compatible with evangelization but, unfortunately, popular apologetics today is often in a polemical style that seems satisfied with simply “proving” people wrong. Evangelization, on the other hand, is sharing the joy of a personal, loving relationship with God.
Here’s a general layout of the American Catholic cultural landscape around evangelization and apologetics: I searched the websites of 11 Catholic publishers for books on apologetics and evangelization and tallied between these 11 publishers 503 books on apologetics and 482 on evangelization. I expanded my search to Amazon.com, which turned up more than 3,000 results for “Catholic apologetics” and 366 results for “Catholic Evangelization.” A search on Google videos turned up 209,000 results for “Catholic apologetics” and 222,000 for “Catholic Evangelization.”
This stands in contrast to Church teaching, which shows a decided emphasis on evangelization. In the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council, the term apologetics is never used while the term evangelization is used 38 times. In the two most prominent papal documents on evangelization since Vatican II (Evangelii Nuntianid, 1975; Evangelii Gaudium, 2013), apologetics is used once in Evangelii Gaudium (paragraph 132). I am not aware of any papal documents in the same time period on apologetics. The index for the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has no entries for apologetics and 12 entries for evangelization. Similarly, in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, apologetics has no entry in the index, while evangelization has 11. Finally, in the Directory for Catechesis from the Vatican, apologetics has one entry in the index, while evangelization has 51 entries.
The number of times a word is or isn’t used never tells the whole story but it can give a general view. In our American Catholic cultural context, there seems to be an equal emphasis on apologetics and evangelization. But this basically equal emphasis on evangelization and apologetics is not borne of Church teaching. Instead, as apologetics is lived out, it seems interwoven with the polarization that we are experiencing within and outside the Church.
An apologetics rut has formed in the trail of a decades-long internet and popular apologetics book culture, and we find ourselves stuck in it. On a personal level, I was attracted to apologetics in my late teens and early 20s. I found something appealing in the certitude of black and white answers, the bold confidence of popular apologists and their seemingly sure-footed command of Church history and Scripture and the convenience of one-liners to take the upper hand in disagreements. Eventually, this appeal eroded away — the great and powerful apologists were just men behind the curtain. It became clear, as the saying goes, that apologetics is “giving the right answer to the question nobody asked.”
In my own life, where apologetics once stood, evangelization took its place. Evangelization is the mission of the Church. If we want to get evangelization right, we need to take a long step back and examine the landscape of our collective and personal assumptions. Evangelization involves investing deeper in relationship with one another and God. It involves knowing that we are on the journey together and that answers to the longings of our hearts are discovered not alone on the internet or in a book, but together as we walk through life.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)