My father became a convert to the Catholic Faith and my mother rediscovered Catholicism (she calls herself a “revert”!) when I was about 5 years old.
Given the enthusiasm which accompanied their discoveries of the Faith, discussions about “why Catholicism makes sense” were common as I grew up, stoking my own personal passion for Church History and Apologetics. I was able to pursue these interests because our home is packed with great resources explaining the Faith for high school and college kids–some of them are here.
Thus, I was (relatively) well-prepared for the opportunities to defend the Catholic Faith when I attended graduate school at a secular state university and then at a predominantly Evangelical university. Most of the time, I have found myself the only Catholic (or should I say – the only practicing Catholic) in the classroom, workplace, study group, social gathering, what have you.
These discussions have taught me a lot about how to engage in congenial dialogue about, and also at times to defend in the midst of uncongenial attacks, the Catholic Faith.
And, I’m very pleased to say, in the process, I have built some very meaningful relationships and had some great conversations.
Here’s what I’ve learned that may be helpful for you, too.
- Know why you believe what you believe.
Many “cradle Catholics” have never questioned what they believe. They have accepted everything (or almost everything) they have been taught by parents, religious instructors, and priests–which may or may not always be accurate! In my experience, I’ve found that many people may be very well-catechized on the rules and precepts and doctrines and dogmas, but are still unable to explain to others “why they believe what they believe.” I’m not saying that everyone should be a canon lawyer or a theologian. But understanding the rational basis for basic Church teachings such as the Right to Life, the authority of the Church, the role of the Pope, etc., is ESSENTIAL. That way, you can explain to others that you do not “blindly obey what your priest (or pope) says.” (Yes, I have heard that precise accusation leveled at Catholics.)
Use the language of the people with whom you are “discussing.”
When I was first at a state university graduate program, I encountered non-religious folks, mostly, so I used reason, psychology, history, and the innate human yearning for God as the foundations of my arguments. In my current, predominantly Evangelical university, I use Scripture verses, instead, and can even discuss the history of the Bible itself. In short, base your arguments on the accepted beliefs and preferred intellectual approaches of the individuals with whom you’re conversing, so they can immediately understand and relate to what you are talking about.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You can also use your peers own strongly-held beliefs to your advantage. In both my graduate programs and current workplace, we frequently discuss the importance of cultural sensitivity and respect for the faith of others. Thus, I have taken this opportunity to educate my peers on the discrimination and misunderstanding many Catholics experience, and I have noticed a change in attitude toward Catholics in a few of these individuals.
Do not get defensive. Instead, go on the offensive.
The times I have become defensive, I have always regretted it. Do not let someone sidetrack you by throwing a bunch of accusations at your Church (or you). This is a favorite tactic because then the individual controls the conversation, while you frantically attempt to rebutt everything he or she said. If people get off track say something like, “I would be happy to discuss this separate issue next, but let me address your first question now.”
Additionally, go on the offensive. Ask the big underlying questions that will challenge your friend’s own assumptions and get to the heart of the disagreement. Instead of getting caught up in a fruitless debate in which Bible verses are thrown back and forth, I often simply ask, “OK, why is your interpretation better than mine?” or “Do you know where you got your Bible?” (HINT: Talk about the events leading up to the Synod of Rome in 382 AD to blow the mind of your Protestant brothers and sisters.)
Have you ever had an argument with someone and midway through it you realized the other person was right – but you didn’t want to admit it because they were so rude?
Don’t be that person who is right and rude. No one listens to that person. Although we are called as a Spiritual Work of Mercy to “instruct the ignorant,” the first Pope also was inspired to tell us to “do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). So, no matter how provoked you are feeling, do be kind and respectful. If you don’t do that, you are not giving God glory.
If appropriate, ask others to share more about any bad experiences they have had with Catholics.
When others share with me that they had a bad impression of the Catholic Church, I now immediately ask about their experiences. People will typically:
- Admit that they have never actually had a bad experience, but are repeating hearsay and stereotypes (which to be fair, we all have been guilty of doing, at times!).
- Share their bad experience. It is incredibly saddening to hear my peers say that they received a very bad witness from individuals who identified as Catholic. It is also upsetting to hear from people have grown up nominally Catholic or gone through the Catholic school system – and been taught practically nothing about the Catholic Faith! (One of my non-Catholic friends who went to Catholic school shared that no one ever explained to him what Holy Communion was and why he could not receive it. Appalling!)
When someone shares a bad experience with you, listen respectfully. Assure them that they have been heard. If appropriate, apologize for their bad experience. Explain that thousands of Catholics neither understand nor practice their faith. It is merely a cultural practice for them. However, remind them that there are thousands of other Catholics who understand Church teachings and strive to live them out. Even a lot of bad Catholics doesn’t make a bad Church. (Think about it: there are a lot of bad parents and kids, teachers, etc., but that does not mean that families, schools, and so on are bad!)
Remember: most people in reality do not actually dislike the Catholic Church.
Yes, you read that right. In fact, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said: ““There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” For the Catholic Church to be mocked and demonized, you’ll find it first must be misrepresented. But that’s only because most people you encounter simply do not understand the Church’s teachings, and they do not hear about all the wonderful charitable, educational, and spiritual works the Church has done throughout history and is still doing!
That is where you come in. Put a charitable, well-informed face on the Church many people so mistakenly hate. And beware of bitterness and anger in your own heart – it will spoil your witness as well as cause you needless suffering.
Dare others (and yourself) to seek the truth!
The point of any discussion or debate should be to get closer to the Truth. Just as a scientist conducts research to better understand a scientific principle, we should debate to better understand the truth about ourselves and God. Unfortunately, most of the time individuals simply want to prove the other person wrong. And, I’ll be honest, that’s the way I have often felt. I still need to remind myself to “swallow my pride” and actually listen to what the other person has to say.
And guess what? I find that when I genuinely try to listen, when I allow myself to be challenged, and when I am open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I am a better debater and have much more constructive conversations. I can better avoid misunderstandings and preserve friendships. Sometimes, I even have to admit that I need to learn more or that I am wrong. However, those times add to my witness because they prove that I actually am seeking the Truth, thus building my trustworthiness.
I am also grateful for the challenges my non-Catholic friends have given me on certain matters of faith that I did not know much about. I will admit what I don’t know–and then I’ve learned to enthusiastically dive into a research project in order to learn more about the topic instead of feeling defensive.
And guess what? Every time I have done this, I have found the Catholic Church to be “dead on” in its teaching on that particular matter of faith. In short, never be afraid of learning more!
I often challenge my friends (and once an hour-long acquaintance on a bus), “Are you actively seeking the Truth?”. Don’t forget to ask your others (and yourself!) that, too. It’s a powerful question and not asked enough.
Emphasize common ground.
This cannot be said enough. After an intense debate, sometimes you need to lighten the mood and say something like, “Well, I’m glad we all believe in ______!” (Of course, be really certain it’s something your opponents believe in!)
If you can’t think of anything relevant you believe in, use one of my catchphrases, “Well, I’m glad that we are all seeking the Truth.” (Of course, some might not be, but this statement may remind them to do so!)
Many people feel upset after a debate, and the last thing they want to do is discuss common ground (myself often included), but this is still very important – especially when one is arguing with a fellow Catholic or a member of another Christian denomination. We need to band together; the last thing we need are bitter divisions between us!
FOR THE RECORD: I have been reminded to do this by the behavior of courteous people with whom I have debated. So, don’t forget to learn from the people you disagree with, even if it’s just brushing up on your interpersonal skills!
Express appreciation (if your conversation remained civil).
Yes, I am telling you to thank people for arguing with you. I love to jokingly commend people who are agreeable arguers by saying: “Thank you for disagreeing without being disagreeable!”
This shows that you are not afraid of civil debate and open to listening. It “leaves the door open” if someone has more questions (often presented as challenges) about the topic. It preserves friendships and soothes any hurt feelings. Sometimes, I even give a blanket apology in case I accidentally hurt someone’s feelings.
Don’t be afraid to stand alone – but also get support.
People are going to regularly mock and deride your lifestyle and religion. Most of the time, they don’t even realize how hurtful they are being; it’s generally pretty much accepted nowadays to demean Catholics. People are not going to understand you. People are going to be uncomfortable around you. People are even going to greatly dislike you. This can be really hard. (And, I suspect that it may get even harder since I’ve actually been relatively sheltered thus far in my life.)
Hey–aren’t we supposed to be a “sign of contradiction” to the world (Luke 2:34)? I have to learn to be OK – and even take some joy in – “standing alone.”
However, whatever you do, GET SUPPORT to help you have this courage and fortitude! At my first graduate school, there were very few young Catholics in the area, and, due to my demanding job at the time, I didn’t have time for the 30 minute drive to the Catholic young adult group in the area. Instead, I struck up a 5 minute conversation with another young lady whose reverent behavior I noticed in the local Church. When I learned she was new to the area, I immediately requested her number and suggested we meet for lunch after Mass the next week. Later, my new friend thanked me for my unusual request because she too wanted some local Catholic companionship, and we were able to support each other at our weekly ”breakfast dates” during the year we both spent in the area.
Be a witness, in deed as well as in word.
Once, a friend of mine and I had a passionate debate over a sensitive moral issue. I was very concerned that my (perhaps unnecessary) boldness had caused me to lose a friendship. I was relieved when he told me that I was one of the least likely persons he knew to say something hurtful, ending the conversation on a pleasant note. I realized that had I not behaved charitably in my previous interactions with him, the argument might have ended a very different way…
People care about how you live your life. This is the most important part of your witness. Don’t forget the words of Christ: “This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Once again, Jesus said it directly and clearly!
You’ll be surprised whom you touch–and may never know others whom you have reached.
I am young and have had limited experiences, but I have already been wowed by the great privilege I have had to help influence a few friend’s perspectives on Roman Catholicism (and Christianity in general).
I recently had a conversation with one of my peers in which she told me that I had influenced her to give Catholicism “another look.” I was very surprised since we had clashed a few times in a class we both attended. She went on to share that she had strongly disagreed with many of my viewpoints, but admired that I spoke my mind. Then she told me something more: One of our class assignments was to attend a religious service of a different faith and report on our experience. This young woman was influenced by my witness to attend a Roman Catholic Mass!
She shared that she had enjoyed the service and “felt good” when she left. Is this young woman on the way to becoming Catholic? Perhaps. I don’t know. However, she now understands Catholicism better and probably holds a more positive view of it. Maybe she will even now defend my faith with the same passion with which I witnessed her defend her own beliefs.
And who knows: maybe the Holy Spirit used me simply to plant the seed, giving the task of watering it to others.
A good Catholic Bible is essential. My Dad gives each of us this Bible when we are confirmed–lots of great notes, a topical appendix, and other materials about Catholic dogmas, doctrines, and practices. I know that I also need to have resources around to answer my questions and those of others (much easier in an informal environment than trying to search the internet) so get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church here, and **BEST BY FAR** have these Beginning Apologetics books in your dorm room. These easy-to-read, short booklets are life-savers and both my sister and I have taken a set off to college! You can brush up on the facts of your faith in a jiffy on a lunch break, reference them quickly in an intense debate, or give ‘em away! Discussions are referenced to the Bible, the Catechism, early Church writings–and solid logic! Perfect college “back to school” send-off gift!