An apology for apologetics
Recently, I've seen a number of Catholics taking what seems to be needless abuse for engaging in apologetics. What I would like to do is to clarify the purpose (or really, purposes) of apologetics in Catholic thought, because it seems that many people don't perceive these aims, and thus fail to see the point of the exercise. It is thought to be needlessly polemic, triumphalistic, unintellectual, or the like.
First, I consider it important to distinguish two classes of apologetics: apologetics of natural reason and practical apologetics. I distinguish these classes to separate not their methods but rather their objects. In both instances, one uses rational means to dispose someone toward the truths of faith. But in the former case, what is sought is to answer difficulties in rational thinking in essentially the same way that one answers any other sort of error or mistake. In the latter case, one is appealing to wisdom, judgment, and the principles guiding one's practical life to provide someone with a motivation or disposition to accept theological truth.
With respect to apologetics of natural reason, the goal is essentially to promote clear thinking about the subject regardless of its theological implications. It is not even essential that one address explicitly theological matters, except insofar as those matters are intrinsically grasped according to the particular science of one's interest. The operative assumption is that there is no such thing as "double truth," so knowledge is true no matter the means by which one knows it (although one does well to remember Scott Carson's warning about exactly what kind of knowledge one actually has before jumping to hasty conclusions).
I have found in my own experience that these apologetics of natural reason are perceived as more gentlemanly and genial, simply on the basis that one confesses the limits of one's own natural reason. Particularly for people who doubt the capacity of natural reason, this is frequently perceived as an admission that we all might be mistaken. That might be a bit misleading, because a Catholic theologian in the tradition of natural theology likely believes that he is not mistaken (and indeed, that the universe is ordered precisely so that what he believes could not even possibly be mistaken). But at least mistakes can be innocent in such a system, since obtaining truth is a difficult and laborious task and correcting error even more so. Consequently, even those who know the right answer will still need to undertake the effort to work through getting someone else's knowledge level to the same point, and that encounters all the typical complications of pedagogy. In the end, one can be innocently wrong.
This doesn't mean that apologetics of natural reason cannot be polemical if some religious belief happens to entail an error of reason. In those cases, it would be the case that someone would be arguing that no reasonable person should hold the belief and that every person that does is mistaken to do so. But since numerous reasonable people have held beliefs that were wildly mistaken without realizing it, this would at best be accusing someone of a mistake into which a large number of intelligent people had fallen, which seems less insulting. Some people will find even that suggestion offensive, as if the suggestion that a movement with as much history and as many adherents as, say, Protestantism could be based on some notion that is fundamentally (although not obviously) foolish were itself absurd. On the other hand, calling views with which one disagrees foolish is part and parcel of scholarly correction, and so long as one accepts the discipline, it is difficult to complain.
Practical apologetics, however, are a different matter. Practical apologetics is quite intentionally directed at the person (or at least at a class of like-minded persons). It is more or less an argument why you personally, not some abstract ideal of a human being but you as a concrete individual with your particular experiences, should be motivated to question or doubt the adequacy of your own beliefs that might be obstructing your conversion. It is an aporetic approach that diagnoses real obstacles.
In many ways, this process resembles my wife's field: health education. There might be a nearly-unlimited amount of education available, but when it comes down to it, getting people to change their behavior based on the information is far more difficult than simply collecting and disseminating the information. One has to see a need, to feel a motivation, to perceive the importance, in order for there to be a change in one's life. One of Dr. Prejean's favorite models for this process is the transtheoretical model (TTM), also known as the "Stages of Change" model, which was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente. A brief summary of the stages illustrates how an effective change-producing strategy proceeds.
As in health education, practical apologetics often is received as unwelcome advice. It is often perceived as too personal or too judgmental, even if the person understands the reasons why someone means well. Suggesting that someone make better eating choices, stop smoking, or exercise is rarely welcome advice. And even if the advice is good, no one with any sense would pretend that rectifying that behavior is easy even if one knows the obstacles that one's current behavior presents to one's health. In practical apologetics, there is also the difficulty that the proper disposition of the will only comes through grace, which is an added complication even beyond the ordinary difficulties associated with changing behavior. These factors combine to make practical apologetics a task just as intensely personal, impossibly frustrating, excruciatingly tedious, and nearly thankless as any other effort to try to get people to change for the better. But when the harvest is not just the health of the body but the health of someone's soul, one can hardly measure success in any better way.
Perhaps the healthiest way (forgive the pun) to look at practical apologetics is seeing it as directed at the excuses people give for not being Catholic. It basically argues from the perspective that, given the hypothesis that the Catholic Church were who She claims to be, would your objection be legitimate, or would it be an excuse? Would it be a true doubt, a real demonstration of known contradiction, or is it a mere difficulty that can be solved? Can that hypothesis be so convincingly refuted that you are assured that it is false? Obviously, no argument in Heaven or on earth would suffice to show that the Church is who She claims to be, because what She claims to be is something beyond the grasp of human reason. But the question is whether someone can be so confident in whatever disagreements they have that they cannot possibly be persuaded otherwise.
In that sense, practical apologetics is not an attempt to create the reasons for conversion (which it could not do in any cases) but to attack the strength of those beliefs that create habitual resistance to conversion. Are you sure that the Fathers did not teach the dogmas of Catholicism, when those dogmas rightly understood? Are you sure the Reformers understood the Fathers or the Scripture better? Are you sure that their response was justified and that it was correct? Are you sure that your claim of divine authority for your beliefs can be sustained? Are you certain that the Church is not who She claims to be? These seem to be reasonable sorts of arguments for practical apologetics.
I suppose there are people who consider it a worse affront to their human dignity to have their bad habits criticized than for someone to keep their silence. But it is difficult to think that such people merely intend to lord some sort of triumphal superiority over others. More than likely, their own spiritual lives have been saved, they feel fortunate to have been saved from danger themselves, and they do what they do because they care about others' lives. In that light, I can even understand why Protestant apologists do what they do, although I wish they could be more realistic about it. For me, the analogy would be to people who fall for medical quackery because it "worked for them." That's all well and good, but it doesn't provide any real explanation of the effect or any good reason to justify the claims. I wish that Protestant apologetics could make some effort to engage in the sort of scientific argument that I described above. I doubt that it is coincidental that thoroughly unscientific arguments like intelligent design and presuppostionalism frequently gain traction in the sort of intellectual environment that routinely makes such arguments in the place of real justification. At any rate, I think there is no cause to cast aspersions on apologetics generally, but only on the irrational sort of apologetics that does not proceed in the reasonable way that I have outlined above.