The Difficulty of Catholic Apologetics and the Broad Problem of Evil

In my time of reading books, listening to lectures, and writing my own thoughts on how to present the truth of Catholicism, I have had to give a long and hard look at some arguments, whether they be from Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, or atheists, that can be honestly said to qualify as a legitimate threat. It seems to me that there are times where the only way for Catholicism to actually avoid getting touched by the fire is through a process of self-serving re-categorizing of what is changeable versus unchangeable – way after the fact—even from decrees that have grandiose appeals to the authority of Peter. The critic of Catholicism seeks to simply find when and where her claims to coherent continuity are falsified. The method is quite simple. Just go back into the historical record, in either Scripture or history, and draw out the doctrinal changes and reversals. It has become common place for the Catholic to simply throw down the card facing up with the portrait of St. John Henry Newman, or to appeal to the fact that infallibility is only limited to strict conditions.

 It can appear as if what is happening here is that the Catholic Church has the power to look back and decide when it no longer matters (ultimately) whether she was wrong or right, per concept, in her historical teachings and practices. As an analogy, it would be like getting 19 out of 20 questions wrong on a test, but then being able to serve yourself with the legal authority of going back and reconfiguring the cost and worth of each question such that the 1 question you got right is worth 99% of the test’s grading value and the 19 questions you got wrong are only cumulatively worth 1%, leaving you with close to an A+, a 99% A.

The numbers here are completely legitimate, and the mathematics works out just fine. Assuming you can prove you have the legal authority to do this kind of thing, the process would be completely valid. However, there isn’t a soul in the world who isn’t going to scratch their heads at the sight of it. Here I think Catholic apologists need to understand how this would cause inquirers to hesitate on accepting the Catholic religion. I’m not saying to send everyone home. But a certain level of understanding is due.

Now, I am not saying the parameters of what is going on with the recent revisions on the integralism (Dignitatis Humanae), usury, capital punishment, or what-have-you is perfectly matched with the analogy I just gave. In fact, I’m most certain that they are not a match. Nevertheless, this is the appearance that can be given, and I think it’s safe to empathize with folks who have a difficult time seeing the persuasiveness of that kind of a justification.

Now, lest the Orthodox and the Protestant reader who is bubbling up with anticipation of what might be decided next gets too excited, there is a great deal of the same meal being served at their tables. And so they have to eat the same issues on a variety of subject matters. In fact, the Protestant side is essentially framed, ironically enough, from the power to be able to constantly reformed – semper reformanda. The Protestant reforms saw the mirage of a purified, re-historicized, and restored Christianity… but what soon came, together with whatever else was a joyous liberation, was an onslaught of skepticism – not just with regard to the ecclesiastical tyranny (which the anabaptists still saw in the Lutherans, Calvinists, and especially the Church of England) that could only be pacified by democratic congregationalist polities (hello, American Christianity), but with the very Bible itself! I am not that old, but I’m old enough to have seen the terrible experiences of faithful Bible believing Protestant in what became of the original Seminaries in the United States. Today the collapse from orthodoxy is just assumed, expected, and normalized. Whether the Protestant lived in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries, there was always present, if not near to the side, a conflict about whether what we believe is really true, after all, and whether this piece or chunk of Christian fundamentals can be re-categorized into the non-essential folder. Thank goodness, the “Fundamentalists” held the line. Any way you look at it, there is no ecclesial paradise wherein to relax on this side of the fence.

Of course, the Eastern Orthodox absolutely deny the principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, and yet they have a difficult time managing to intellectually swim in the depths that almost all scholars do in examining the absence of certain Orthodox dogmas in the early tradition of Christianity. They might slam their fists down in the sand and insist otherwise, but I don’t see any competition pound-for-pound according to the rules of debate. The best of the scholarship within Orthodoxy nowadays are doing precisely what the Protestant criticism of the 18th and 19th centuries did – create a Newman theory, or a theory of development. You still have Orthodox folks who proclaim at the rooftops that they don’t have such a thing, but I suspect any seminarian studying in the major Orthodox seminaries (either here or in the homelands) will tell you otherwise. These Orthodox fundamentalists still manage to gain a following from the mirage of unchangeableness and primitive antiquarianism, as if the Apostles themselves can be practically imagined as the Byzantine Apostles. Oh, I know they would never utter such a thing, but you can almost get that impression.

So it looks like all Christians are faced with having to deal with explaining the problem of discontinuity in the face of the promises of continuity that issued forth from the mouth of Jesus (Matt 28:18 – “I will be with you always”) even when, from time to time, it might make us blush a bit from all the wiring, re-wiring, categorizing, re-categorizing, defining, re-defining, adjusting, and re-adjusting of just what the criteria of falsification really is after all. At the very least, I think if we are going to speak and concede the existence of “magisterial reversals” (and here I mean where a concept that holy mother Church adopts for X years, decades, centuries, or millennia can be gradually found to be, in fact, erroneous), we should at least recognize that this is a minor cause of embarrassment. I don’t think it really matters, at the end of the day, if we avoid being a casualty in the explosion. Sometimes even survival still comes with a cost.

Before I end, I should say something to the reader who has been following the message and finds themselves standing before a scorched earth. Who, Erick, stands to gain? Wouldn’t all this go to the score board of the non-Christian, to the unbeliever? Not really. The problems within Christianity, like the problems outside of Christianity, are ultimately traceable to the problem that no one avoids – the problem of evil itself. The best minds of the Christian world have told us that the reason why we can be rational in believing in a good, infinite, and all-powerful God while it appears as if the most wild and unexplainable evils happen right under his nose (indeed, he knows of it eternally before they even happen – actually, he is present to each moment outside time) is because in His infinite wisdom, He can see the good He has that will come after all the permissible evil runs its course for all of world history. This is a very strong rebuttal to the world’s strongest objection to theism.. and yet it never seems to satisfy us. As Bishop Robert Barron aptly shows, the rebuttal of the Christian is airtight and extremely intellectually compelling, but it often fails to satisfy our emotional frustration over being a witness to God just watching down from above while all this goes on. That is, if we were mere computerized robots only programmed to download data, the intellectual response of the Christian against the atheistic argument on the problem of evil is completely without flaw. However, we are human beings made with an intellect, a will, a capacity to know good and to decipher the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anything which obstructs or threatens to destroys these rights we condemn and fight against no matter what the cost.

I imagine that the same frustration that the human creature will have when he or she ponders these things is analogous to the Christian who ponders the enormous amount of evil and limitation that has plagued Church history. Even more so, the Orthodox and the Catholic who pronounces so well on the adornment of continuity through 2 millennia wherein massive changes have occurred. What that means is leaving Christianity because of having to deal with certain unexplainable and unanswerable problems will only land you in the world of dealing with the still larger problem of the problem of evil, and so you really don’t have a “safe space” where the frustrations are going to go away. And if that is true, then the Catholic or Orthodox who wants to leave for Protestantism also doesn’t have a place to breathe with 99% oxygen, regardless of the mirage that semper reformanda makes everything better.

In conclusion, I would say then that the presence of having to explain the needed and essential continuity in the midst of certain discontinuities is not the big bad wolf that it might be presented to be when we see that just about every human being is going to have to find it in him or herself to withstand the presence of evil anywhere you go. I think St. John H. Newman was way ahead intellectually and he still speaks today for all who can muster up the courage and fortitude to actually read him and re-read him. But even then, what I am not saying is that there are no falsifying criteria that if met would not defeat Catholicism. On the contrary, even Newman admitted as much: “ I grant that there are ‘bishops against bishops in Church history, Fathers against Fathers, Fathers against themselves’, for such differences in individual writers are consistent with, or rather are involve in the very idea of doctrinal development, and consequently are no real objection to it; the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of Heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered; but till I have positive and distinct evidence of the fact, I am slow to give credence to the existence of so great an improbability.” Why has God allowed there to be confusion, change, and even, perhaps, “magisterial reversals” in the fallible mode of the Church’s economy? The same answer Christians have given to the general problem of evil is your answer.

1 thought on “The Difficulty of Catholic Apologetics and the Broad Problem of Evil

  1. I think that this can explain the ecclesiological implications of all of the more negative scriptural references against the credibility of Peter and the Apostles. That is that from time to time the Magisterium will merely appear to have fallen from the faith and even appear like Satan. But, not actually having fallen from the faith and actually being Satan. The gates of hell will not prevail, but nevertheless it will still appear very close to prevailing. So, we see this happening throughout the ugly events of Church History, the confusion, the appearance of discontinuity when in reality it is in line with either development of doctrine or a reversing of some position that was always of the non-infallible, changeable category of things (e.g. local ordinary/authentic magisterial teaching, majority theological opinion, or discipline). I think it would help for the next Ecumenical Council to codify how these negative scriptural references apply in the Church’s governance, both the Petrine ones and Apostolic college ones.

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