To Apologize

After three years of teaching high school Apologetics, I believe I understand the concept.

The idea of going into a full-out debate about religion, is a little frightening to me, even with a Theology degree and three years of teaching experience.  My fear is partly because I don’t like tension-filled debates; I prefer discussions.

Outside of the classroom, I have had three notable theological discussions in the past year.  They were good experiences because I had started thinking that I teach a class while I have little practical experience with the matter.  Now I am realizing that I do have experience and it happens more often than I realize.  My three “big” discussions were memorable because of the length of time spent talking as well as the breadth of material covered.  Yet a similar experience happens on a more frequent basis–when my students, friends, or family ask a question and I attempt to explain the Church’s teaching on the matter.

Nearly as important as knowing the theological answer is one’s disposition.  I don’t claim to do it perfectly, but I try to listen to them and to not become offended when their belief differs from mine.  While I do want to make my points clear and provide good arguments for my beliefs, I don’t need the other person to feel trapped or badgered.  If I wouldn’t like to be backed into a corner, then I try not to do the same to the other person.  It isn’t being two-faced if you approach issues differently with different people.  My discussions on abortion are incredibly different based on if they are with my immediate family or my students or with a woman in front of an abortion clinic.  The varied people and places required customized responses.  In most situations, there is no one-size-fits-all response, as convenient as that might make things.

I could be wrong about this last assertion, but I believe Apologetics works best when it comes in the context of a relationship.  It is possible to give a talk to a group of strangers and have someone change their heart because of that talk.  But in one-on-one Apologetics, it seems crucial that there be some sort of relationship with the person, a sense of trust that the other person (though they might be wrong) is entering into this discussion out of love and not a desire to just win.  Our family and friends might be some of the most difficult people to engage in conversation, but I think it could be some of the most fruitful.  In my conversation with a friend, we were able to challenge each others positions without becoming offended.  Why?  Because we were able to see that the other person respected us and desired our good, even if they were presenting something contrary to my own beliefs.  The result was a beautiful discussion that still makes me marvel.  I left the conversation knowing that I hadn’t completely changed her mind, but rather had given her food for thought.  Walking away, I wished that more in our country could have debates like this.  Not devoid of emotion necessarily, but filled with reasons for belief and presented freely with the understanding that the other person would not attack me for my beliefs.  It is my mental model for how Apologetics can be done.

Even if you do not have a doctorate in Theology or have the ability to quote Scripture off the cuff, you should be engaging in Apologetics.  In the simple truths of explaining why Catholics do what we do.  We engage in Apologetics by striving to live the Christianity that Christ proclaimed–with humility, gentleness, self-control, love, boldness, zeal, and a willingness to suffer persecution for the sake of the Gospel.  And we engage those around us, in our imperfect, unique, striving-after-more ways.  You might be the only Gospel someone encounters.  Live it well.

You Do Not Belong to the World

“If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” 
 -John 15: 18-19
The last two days of the semester, I decided to discuss areas where the culture and the Church are at odds.  I knew this would result in a list of topics that often are discussed with passion and heat.  The areas where the Church has a politically incorrect stance that is unforgivable according to moderns.  Overall, the days went well, I believe.  My goal was not to incite riots, but to try to have them apply 12 years of Catholic education to what they will undoubtedly encounter in their secular lives.  
On the board they listed as many of the “controversies” they could think of and then we democratically narrowed them down to the top five.  The top five list varied greatly between the different class periods, but a recurring topic was gay marriage.  Then they brainstormed the common reasons our culture has for defending the stance it holds on these topics.  We narrowed this list of reasons down and I assigned one reason to each group, some reasons taken by a few groups.  In the groups they were supposed to come up with ideas for how the Church might respond to these specific reasons.  It wasn’t a matter of finding an encyclical or Catechism reference, but of applying what they’ve learned for years to specific questions and concerns.  I believe the idea is a great one (of course, I came up with it) but the method needs some creative tweaking.  
The different groups then tell the class how the Church might respond, we discuss a bit, and then move to the next topic.  It isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the topics, but rather, an opening to begin the discussion of applied theology.  Theology that leaves the written page and textbooks and enters authentically into the human experience.  I don’t believe it is a stretch to do so, but it requires practice.
In my last class period of the day, we only got to discuss one topic.  I knew it would be heated because after five months of classroom time, I’ve come to know some of the different personalities of my students.  I knew who would be upset and I wasn’t looking forward to being seen as a backward bigot.  But if I truly believe what the Church teaches, I must refrain from presenting it in an apologetic manner, unless we mean the art of apologetics.  The order was not kept but turned into a class discussion, one I fought to not have dissolve into chaos and arguments.  I was partly successful.  
I approach the topic of gay marriage with the mentality that I love the Church and I know the Church loves me.  That is not how the culture proceeds.  To me, it seems that the culture looks to hate what the Church teaches, and sometimes feels surprised if there is an area of agreement.  A few students were content to use phrases to challenge me and sit snugly surrounded by their group of like-minded friends.  I tried hard to choose my words carefully, hoping they would convey truth and love with gentleness.  
In the end, I’m not certain I changed any minds or influenced any of them.  There came a point with ten minutes left of class that I decided to salvage what I could in a speech I’ve given different years to my out-going seniors.  I asked them to consider the Church’s motivation, even if they disagreed with her teachings.  Is the Church really holding onto these beliefs because she wants to control people’s sex lives?  Is she doing this because she loves to be hated?  No.  I challenged them, in the midst of their disagreements to consider that perhaps the Church teaches what she does out of love and because she believes it is true.  If Jesus was not met with popularity and instant agreement on His teachings, it would make sense that the Church would face a similar fate.  
The room was quiet and attentive, even if some of them were perhaps raging inwardly, plotting how they would present my intolerance to their parents and friends.  Of course, I hope they don’t hate me, but that is out of my control.  In a conversation with another Theology teacher earlier today, we spoke about how it isn’t our responsibility that the students accept or live the Truth, but it is our responsibility to teach what the Church teaches.  I believe, that with great imperfection, stumbles, and ignorance, I have done that.  So I take comfort in knowing that my minimal discomfort today, a little drop in the oceans of pain others have experienced, is united to the sufferings Christ bore.  
“Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  –John 15:20a