Popular Catholic Apologists Often Get It Wrong

John ArmstrongRoman Catholicism

Readers of this blog site know that I engage in open dialog and friendship with numerous Catholic priests and theologians. I have read Catholic theology for years and even taught it. I sometimes make critical references to the conservative right within evangelicalism, with comments to the effect that I am not convinced of the popular arguments employed by some conservatives. I have also made passing reference to the conservative right in the Roman Catholic Church. The danger in using these types of labels is that they can slander and misrepresent the views of truly wonderful Christian people. I don’t like them but sometimes they seem appropriate. Today was one such day for me

Now I bring this up because I quite often listen to Relevant Radio, the Catholic radio network in the U.S. I have actually gone so far as to meet several of the personalities associated with Relevant Radio through public forums and private phone calls. I think, for example, that Dr. Ray Gurendi is one of the finest practical Christian counselors I have ever heard, period. I find several other Catholic speakers on Relevant Radio quite compelling. Even when I disagree with them, as I do, they lift up Jesus and exalt the central core of mere Christianity well. They build up my Christian faith better than most all the pop-evangelical radio broadcasts if the truth is told. (The exception would be really good Bible exposition, which Protestants generally do much better than Catholics for obvious reasons.)

But, and I do not really enjoy saying this, there are times when certain Catholic apologists on Relevant Radio make me want to scream. I have heard Luther, Calvin and other historic Protestant figures so badly misrepresented that I just find the presentations hopelessly sectarian and spiritually fruitless. I listen to my friend Father Robert Barron preach the Scriptures at every opportunity I can find. I long to hear this kind of effective preaching in the wider Catholic Church. Then I hear some of the programming that I listened to today as I was shelving books in my basement library and I wish these Catholics would take the time to truly study theology much more carefully. You would think nothing meaningful has happened in the theological world in five hundred years if these voices are to be believed.

Today’s example came near 6 p.m. when an apologist named John Salza was answering questions from listeners. He so misrepresented the concept of "faith alone" that when one caller read him Ephesians 2:8-9, and then asked about faith alone in this text, he stuck on the word "alone" as if this is the sine qua non of the evangelical view of faith. Since the word "alone" is only connected to faith in one text in James, and there it is clearly used negatively as anyone knows who has ever been engaged in this debate, Salza insisted the case was closed. His argumentation was as bad as much of that used by Protestants that I have heard provide slam-dunk attacks on Catholicism. Serious Catholic writers and theologians are often as chagrined by this kind of presentation as I am, in fact more so. They will not say this quite so openly but they see the harm in reverting to this kind of polemical posture and also long for a better Catholic apologetic in public dialog.

I went to John Salza’s Web site this evening. He is a young man of 39 who drifted away from the Catholic Church and then came back after a stint among the Freemasons. His story is quite moving and presented very effectively on his Web site. Since John also read the evangelical polemical arguments against Masonry he saw the evangelical argumentation and felt that he also needed to study his own Catholic faith more deeply. (No problem with this at all.) This led him to personally study the Church Fathers, the medieval theologians, the Scriptures and both Catholic and Protestant apologetics, so he writes. By apologetics John seems to have in mind "defending the Catholic Church" against Protestantism, not primarily defending the Christian faith against unbelief. 

Now I teach apologetics, as most readers know, at the graduate college level. I use several texts. One is by Peter Kreeft, a noted Catholic scholar who was once a Reformed evangelical. I use handouts from Catholic sources and we study the Church Fathers. I also use Cardinal Avery Dulles on the history of Christian apologetics, a massive and wonderful book. One would never get the idea from my class that I am using apologetics to attack Roman Catholic positions, though I will happily discuss differences and my understanding of them with my students. I say this because I have become very tired of the brand of apologetics that I hear on Relevant Radio. It seems, to me at least, that about 85% of what I hear is about what is wrong with other Christians and churches and about 15% is really about the truly important issues regarding reaching unbelievers with the gospel. I doubt these lay apologists like John Salza would agree with me but this is not the path that will lead to either Christian unity or the wider work of the Holy Spirit in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ. I have known Protestants who seem stuck in the words and arguments of the 16th century. Sadly, popular apologists like John Salza seem stuck in the same time warp and argumentation. If I were a Catholic theologian, seriously trained and charged with defending the faith, I would do everything that I could to get people to read and listen to richer and better Catholic apologetics than what I often hear on these popular programs. It breaks my heart that in the attempt to keep Catholics faithful to their own church these speakers make it a regular goal to attack evangelical Christians and their biblical views. We could do so much better if we loved more deeply. (I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s excellent little book on brotherhood, which does a far better job of making necessary distinctions while also explaining why and how we are still brothers. The best John Salza could come up with today was the possibility that some of us evangelicals might actually get to heaven since we are ignorant of the true faith. Ah, such blessed ignorance I guess!)

John Salza’s Web site says that he is one of the most popular Catholic apologists on the Internet. He is presented as a strong proponent of the Latin Mass and of the restoration of various older church traditions. Sadly, John is a brilliant man (he is listed as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and also is a well-trained lawyer) but his brilliance is being used to attack Protestant positions on the Scripture rather than to promote Christ’s Kingdom. In the attacks that I heard today he showed very little ability to grasp adequately what a nuanced Protestant position really is all about. This makes me all the more grateful for our recent Catholic and Evangelical dialog with Father Barron and Father Baima.

There are two large radio voices for Christian teaching in Chicago. Neither one would touch what we did on September 16th when we approached them. (Father Baima was able to plug the effort through the hour he is given each week by the Chicago Archdiocese.) The reason for this unwillingness is almost identical. Both stations fear that an honest dialog that comes with such a public setting might actually open people’s minds to understanding both love and Scripture in new ways. I sometimes think Relevant Radio might be more open to a voice like mine than the evangelical stations but then after listening today I have to say, "I often seriously doubt it."

I will not give up. Love doesn’t quit, ever. Both Catholics and Protestants know this much and at least we can start there.