There is an unfortunate tendency within modern-day Catholic evangelism to present the faith as a sort of Protestantism Plus. “We’re all Christians. We all worship the same God. We all revere the same Scriptures. We all are seeking to love Jesus. It’s great that you’re a Christian, but Catholicism is the fullness of Christianity – we have all of the seven sacraments that Christ and the apostles gave us! It’s such a gift!”
Such a statement is problematic for several reasons, but the root problem is not often addressed. The fundamental error is one of not doctrine, but the mindset and strategy of both the apologist and the potential “convert.”
The majority of people today subscribe to a seemingly self-evident framework when seeking to convince someone of the truth of their position. The sales strategy goes something like this: find what is good about position A, note the areas in which position A and position B are already in accord, and present the additional benefits of taking position B.
It seems as though it should work. After all, who would deny himself the best and settle for the mediocre middle ground? Unfortunately, how human beings should act is often entirely different from how they actually do act.
A couple of years ago, as a new breastfeeding mother, I had the opportunity to live out a real-life case study.
I was strongly in the pro-breastfeeding camp, and I noticed something quickly: no matter how gently I defended my decision, the majority of women I spoke to who chose to formula-feed their children were very, very, very offended. No matter what I said, these mothers were unable to hear about the benefits of breastfeeding without assuming I was calling them inferior mothers.
One day, a twelve-minute YouTube video popped up in my recommended videos titled “Breast Is No Longer Best.” The clickbait worked, and the wisdom therein has stuck with me ever since. The breastfeeding educator’s main argument was that breastfeeding is obviously the natural biological standard by which we must measure all infant feeding and that by pointing out the “benefits” of breastfeeding or saying “breast is best,” we are de facto granting that artificial feeding is the baseline by which we must judge the outcomes of infant feeding choices.
As uncomfortable as it may be to say so, the fact of the matter is not that breastfeeding statistically “makes babies healthier.” It is that artificial feeding statistically makes babies sicker!
This same granting of a false baseline is exactly what we see with so many Catholic evangelists. It grants Protestantism the baseline by presenting Christianity as a hazy concept from the get-go, some vague idea of “we all agree on Jesus.” This concept of Christianity is antithetical to Catholicism as the one true Church…and essential to broadly defined Protestantism!
I realized that the sales strategy I laid out above, whether in apologetics for breastfeeding or Catholicism, is poor. It is particularly poor because it seems so self-evidently reasonable that it is easy to fall into.
For as long as I continued to discuss the minefield of infant feeding, I chose to hold to another sales strategy, and I have sought to use that same mindset when defending the Catholic faith: gain a firm understanding of why position B is correct, mentally note the areas in which position A is genuinely in agreement with position B, boldly go on the offensive in areas in which position A is not in agreement with position B, and present the ways in which position A fails to meet the baseline of position B and is therefore inferior.
This may sound clinical, or, in the case of discussing infant feeding, harsh. To the contrary, I believe that it is an act of genuine charity to aid others in making truly informed decisions on important matters, even when it opens us up to retaliation.
If a new mother struggling to nurse through a painful breast infection is told, “Well, your baby might miss out on a few extra benefits of breastfeeding if you quit,” is she likely to be resolute in following her intentions to breastfeed? Is she likely to stand fast when her mother begs to take a turn feeding her grandchild? When she finds herself in a public place with a screaming baby who refuses to latch?
If a Protestant who wants to follow Jesus Christ wherever He leads is told, “Well, you might miss out on a few extra sacraments if you don’t become Catholic,” is that person likely to keep seeking the whole truth or settle for “good enough”? Is that person likely to give up his career as a Protestant pastor? To give up peace with his obstinately Protestant wife?
Following truth is hard. It’s brutal at times. It’s painful. And it’s made even harder when well meaning people seek to undermine the importance of doing just that by telling us, one way or another, to settle for the middle ground.
Furthermore, for those who choose to place emotion over intellect in guiding their will, there is little that can mitigate the hurt they feel when their choices are criticized. While this does mean we must be charitable and patient, it does not mean we must choose protecting feelings over defending important matters of truth when these two things conflict.
Soothing broken and wounded hearts is important. Understanding is important. Gentleness is important. But nothing – nothing at all – is more important than the eternal salvation of precious human souls made in the image of God.
May our evangelism and apologetics ever be guided by this ultimate truth.
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.