F e a t u r e A r t i c l e
The Pleasures and Perils of a Catholic Apologetics Apostolate
By Dave Armstrong
Volume 15, Number 9
"Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:11–13).
My wife and I looked at each other with that expression of concern that husbands and wives share in inverse proportion to how much income they happen to be blessed with. This happened just last week, as it has many times over the course of our marriage. Being in ministry or having an apostolate (as Catholics generally describe it) presents its own unique financial, emotional, and psychological challenges, especially for a married man with four children.
Almost every time when we get to the point of worrying out loud about where the next dollar will come from and how we will pay the latest bill due, one or the other of us will hearken back to what God has done in the past when we were about to give up, and all hope of financial survival—that is, while being in full- or part-time ministry—seemed lost.
We can bear witness to the fact that God has provided our needs. We’re not in danger of cracking the Forbes 500, but our bills have been paid, we have a decent house, we’re healthy, and our family is clothed and fed. Time and again when we were at the brink of discouragement and disenchantment, money would come from somewhere, and we would feel ashamed at our anxiety and lack of faith. It’s happened so many times that we marvel at it and thank God for his tender mercies. I wish we had written all of these "saved in the nick of time" occurrences down. It would be quite a story.
Today it remains true that God provides the basic needs of his children. I am presupposing, of course, that able-bodied men and women are doing some sort of work by way of making a living (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). That said, our Lord Jesus himself, in his Sermon on the Mount, taught us that we should not be anxious about food, clothing, or the troubles that may come "tomorrow" (cf. Matt. 6:25–34).
The Catholic Church is oriented to celibate priests and nuns doing ministry and devoting themselves to the Lord with a minimum of distraction (cf. 1 Cor. 7). That is as it should be. Praise God for all these wonderful men and women who are "married to the Lord." We should all pray for them daily and express our gratitude for their work as often as we can. They are engaged in a heroic level of commitment for the sake of the gospel and the Church.
Yet there is also a definite place for lay ministry (of both single and married men and women) in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council placed particular emphasis on the laity in its Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem). The following passage provides a good capsule summary of the thrust of the Council’s teaching about the laity:
"Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating that tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen—each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning—to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church" (AA 2:6).
The Church has been blessed with great lay teachers and ministers, especially in the area of apologetics. In the last century, Frank Sheed and the Catholic Evidence Guild immediately come to mind, as do G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The growing, thriving apologetics movement in the Church today is populated by many lay apologists. Some are theologically trained former pastors (Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi); some are theologically trained non-pastors (Karl Keating); some are academics in other fields but also very skilled apologists (as the Anglican C. S. Lewis was), such as Peter Kreeft (philosophy), Jimmy Akin (philosophy), and Thomas Howard (English). Still others have no significant formal theological education (Mark Shea, Steve Ray, and many others; I fall into this category).
So there are differences in qualifications and areas of strength and specialties, but all of these men are laymen. I hasten to add that many of the current top apologists are priests and religious (Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Fr. Peter Stravinskas, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Mother Angelica). To the extent that all of these writers and teachers are engaged in spreading the faith and the gospel of salvation and the message of the fullness of Christianity found in the Catholic Church, they are engaged in ministry and an apostolate of some sort.
Charting the course
How does one determine such a vocation? I think it is largely like anything else in life: One finds that certain activities are enjoyable and interesting, and, with the aid of prayer and spiritual discernment and the counsel of others, discovers that this might be an area to be pursued as one’s occupation. I knew that I was called to a ministry of apologetics and evangelism in 1981, my last year of college. I started reading a lot and sharing what I was learning. I was a Protestant then, but the dynamics of vocation work the same way: I was being called by God to do a certain thing that not everyone can do. Soon I was involved in counter-cult ministry (my area of concentration was Jehovah’s Witnesses), campus outreach, and pro-life work.
I left a job as a quality-control technician at an auto-related company in 1985 to engage in campus ministry full time. I had been married for six months. This is the sort of course of action that makes people suspect mental illness or a serious case of financial irresponsibility. But Peter left his nets as a fisherman, and Matthew forsook his dreaded tax-collecting. It all depends on what God is calling you to do.
I did the so-called "radical" thing and followed my vocation as I discerned it, but does that mean that everything was fine from then on and that no difficulties occurred because I was right smack dab in the middle of God’s will (as we Evangelicals were fond of saying in one way or another)? Of course not. Again, we observe the instructive model of Paul. He certainly was called to be the greatest evangelist of all time and founder of several local churches, but he also was called to suffer for the Lord’s and the gospel’s sake (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7–10, Phil. 3:7–11).
In fact, my first attempt at full-time ministry proved traumatic and disappointing and, from a certain point of view, a total disaster. It lasted full-time less than two years. Somehow I survived another two and a half years part-time until I finally gave up. In the meantime we had been subjected to unjust accusations, misunderstandings, and almost general scorn (or so we perceived it) from our church community. A lot of that was due to false but pervasive notions of what "success" in ministry entails. In the Protestant world—shot through with pragmatist notions of "whatever works is right and good"—that boils down to lots of conversions as a direct result of one’s work, or growing churches. If you fail at these, your calling often becomes suspect.
Despite these trials, I remained convinced that I was called to this work. At the time of the disintegration of my Protestant campus and pro-life ministry in late1989, I had no idea what lay ahead in my life. I felt like a total failure—I was 31, after all, and had no idea what else I wanted to do with my life—and was disillusioned, disenchanted, and cynical (not toward God but people in the Christian community). It was a mystery. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t even try to. I went through an existential crisis of sorts.
But God is omniscient and outside of time, so he knew that I would convert to Catholicism almost exactly a year after that and start writing and doing apologetics in the Catholic Church and eventually—after many more years of trials and frustrations and immense disappointments—become a published writer and author, able to make my writing available to all via the Internet. I suspect that my own particular journey, filled with joys and equally strong disappointments, is rather typical.
The laborer deserves his wages
The main "problem" to be solved in any apostolate is how to obtain enough money to live. There are many valid approaches to this problem, provided one seeks the Lord and discerns which is prudent and best for his situation. I can think of five different ways of "fundraising":
1. Full-time ministry in total dependence on God to provide through financial donors—without asking, or with minimal solicitation.
2. Full-time ministry made possible by overt solicitation through various means.
3. Part-time ministry with livelihood obtained by other full-time means of employment.
4. Full-time ministry with livelihood at least partially obtained by other part-time means of income (the "tentmaker" category).
5. Full- or part-time ministry made possible by being on staff with a Catholic organization that has funds at its disposal.
Unfortunately, apologists such as myself are not usually afforded the "luxury" of being able to pursue our calling full-time, freed from financial worries. It simply doesn’t work that way, because the "product" we offer is not a tangible good. It is a spiritual good or benefit, which ought to be valued more highly than it is but in fact is often not valued, at least not to the extent that people are willing to support it financially. This is the central dilemma for the person in ministry. If he is indeed called, others will recognize this at some point. But that doesn’t translate automatically into financial support.
Thus, large lay ministries or individual lay apostolates such as my own usually are forced to or, by necessity, choose to engage in direct solicitation. This is perfectly proper in light of the biblical principles of "the laborer deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7) and "those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14).
It is my belief that apostolates such as Catholic Answers or the various radio, television, and Internet outreaches are entitled to and deserving of financial support, because they are educating Catholics and bolstering their faith. People who are helped, and those who believe in the high importance of such work, should support it by sending donations.
Some few engage in ministry without overtly soliciting funds, but this is a hard road. My usual modus operandi is simply to make my need known and let the chips fall where they may. I have survived only through royalties from my books and articles. In fact, in 2003, my income consisted almost equally of royalties and donations. Without either source of income, my ministry wouldn’t have been possible.
A second chance
I found myself in full-time ministry once again almost by default. I lost my job in December 2001 (two weeks after my daughter—our fourth child—was born) because the company I worked for went out of business. I had been doing ministry on the model of the third option above for over ten years.
Two months before that I had self-published my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, after having been turned down by several publishers; it has since been published by Sophia Institute Press. My web site had been online since March 1997, and I had a number of published articles in magazines, so my name was known somewhat by virtue of this exposure.
I decided to make a plea on my website to people who believed in what I was doing just to see what would happen. People responded generously; many sent donations that month, and I was on my way to a full-time writing/evangelization/apologetics ministry. It remained full-time until June 2004, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that additional income was needed. I had been willing to take on additional work as needed. But our needs had been provided for up until then, so it wasn’t necessary.
Now it looked like the Lord was moving us in a different direction: the "tent-making" option. So now I deliver newspapers for about three to four hours a day seven days a week. Like Paul’s tent-making, this makes my apologetics work possible without having to solicit funds, but I still need royalties and donations to meet my bills and debts. And I have a lot less time and energy to write papers and books and web site and blog posts.
Paul is practical about all this: "If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?" (1 Cor. 9:11). He makes it clear that Christian workers are entitled to their wages provided by those who believe they have been helped by these workers. At the same time, he himself chose to not press this "right": "But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision" (1 Cor. 9:15). He wanted to "make the gospel free of charge" (1 Cor. 9:18). Paul was supported by the churches, but he also supported himself by making tents (cf. Acts 18:3). Thus he taught the obligation and principle but recognized the reality.
Apologetics and teaching ministries in the Catholic Church are important. The goal and driving inspiration of apologetics, rightly understood, is to build people up in the faith, to better understand the relationship of reason and revelation and the Christian life, to be more confident in sharing it with others, and to grow spiritually in the Lord.
Everyone needs encouragement and needs to pay bills and "bring home the bacon." If you can’t offer financial support for Catholic apostolates, please pray for those in ministry—priests and religious first and foremost, but also laymen. Apologists are on the front lines, taking on those who oppose our faith and offering answers to the harshest critics and most serious criticisms. It’s exciting and rewarding work, but it is often not easy and frequently accompanied by various temptations and struggles.
I know from firsthand experience that prayer and encouragement are crucial to my own determination to continue this work. I am sure it is the same for other apologists. I wish, then, to offer a strong expression of deep, heartfelt thanks and gratitude to all of you who have supported our work (financially or otherwise), on behalf of all my fellow apologists. We literally couldn’t do it without you.
Dave Armstrong’s web site is www.biblicalcatholic.com. He is the author of A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (Sophia Press, 2003). He writes from Detroit, Michigan, where he lives with his wife, Judy, and their four children.