Knowing Enough History to Defend It: Catholic History and Apologetics

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Catholics should be prepared with at least a brief reply to commonly cited events and issues in the Church’s two millennia past. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, we need to be Catholics “who know so much of history that (we) can defend it.” We might not be able to change someone’s mind when she asks us about why the Church was so mean to Galileo, but at least we can demonstrate that we know our history. If she’s not willing to listen to a dissertation-length explanation, a few points might help her understand better. The fact that we know may impress her, open the door to more friendly conversation, and grant an opportunity to witness the reason for our joy in being Catholic. This article offers some guidelines and hints for answering these historical questions.

One advantage any Catholic starts with when discussing our history is the position of the Catholic Church as a historic, unique institution. Our Founder entered human history at a definite place and time, established his Church upon St. Peter and the Apostles, and promised to protect and guide it until the end of time, when he returns. With the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to inspire it; yet he left imperfect humans to lead it as his representatives on earth. St. Peter had denied him thrice before his death on the cross; all but St. John had abandoned him during his Passion. Upon them, he founded the Church and gave them authority.

So the Church is distinctive among institutions in the history of mankind: it is human and yet divine; perfect, yet in need of reform; holy, yet made up of sinners; infallible, yet led by fallen, fallible humans. That’s a hard concept to express to someone outside the Church—sometimes it’s hard for us inside the Church to remember it.

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Photo selected especially for Cathy and Paul

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