A bishops’ meeting in Atlanta and nuns on a bus tour may be in the news, but the Catholic Church is not reducible to press releases and competing headlines. It’s a body united to Christ, with laity in it as well as priests, religious sisters, and others in consecrated life. It’s a body of people praying, trying to live a call to something eternal in the temporal world. And it means something: a commitment to teaching and learning, evangelizing and serving.
Austen Ivereigh is co-founder of a group called Catholic Voices, established in the United Kingdom before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit there in 2010; I’ve played a role in helping to establish it in the United States. Ivereigh is the author of How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues, and he talks with me about how to do just that. – KJL
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Pope Benedict has appealed to the laity to “put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum.” The archbishop of Los Angeles has asked us to be “leaders for moral and civic renewal.” That means being clear and effective in communicating, with rational arguments, on issues of religious freedom, pluralism, the family, and marriage. John Henry Newman encouraged Catholics to “know their creed so well that they can give an account of it.” But don’t you need a degree, really, to do justice to any of this?IVEREIGH
: Catholic Voices tends to attract people who can think on their feet and have a certain intellectual confidence. An onlooker may detect a suspiciously large number of degrees among them, but no, you don’t need one. And intellectuals aren’t often the best people for this work. Some of our best Catholic Voices — in the U.K., Ireland, the U.S., and Mexico, where the project has so far taken root — are people who would not consider themselves academic. Being able to communicate in compelling, ordinary, human language — to translate
— is much more important in this work. In his famous essay on Christian apologetics, C. S. Lewis says that “if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of really having understood your meaning.” It’s a skill that editors and journalists have, more than academics.
So while I think intelligence is necessary — an ability to look beyond the surface and see what’s behind the arguments and language being presented — it’s the other things that make for the kind of lay people Newman dreamed of and Pope Benedict has called for: a humility that leaves room for the Holy Spirit; a capacity for empathy; a willingness to speak from experience rather than theory. This is about removing misunderstandings, explaining ideas, making connections with other values, and demonstrating the timeliness and relevance of Christian concepts. It’s about opening doors, building bridges with contemporary culture, and engaging people; and much less about demonstrating the reasonableness or internal consistency of the Church’s teaching.
I think that kind of apologetics belongs to a previous, more rationalist era; it’s still necessary, but today’s culture calls for a different approach. There are many people out there who feel called as Catholic communicators; I’m sure of that. And I’m equally sure that they come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds — again, our project has shown that.
Catholic Voices is all about giving them permission to step forward and equipping them with the oxygen tanks and the masks so they can dive out into the deep. The divers themselves are diverse.
LOPEZ: If you have to encourage people to “be compassionate,” as you do in How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice, doesn’t Catholicism have a pretty big problem? Like missing the Christian part?
IVEREIGH: This is one of our hardest tasks: to contribute vigorously and passionately to public debate while stepping out from the frame which sees the Church as condemning and deploring. It’s a deeply misleading, even offensive, frame: The reality is that the Church is a fount of compassion. It’s perhaps the quality that people who become Catholic detect most strongly in us. We’re a warm, forgiving, joyful people. So why do we seem to be communicating the opposite? I have some suggestions in the book: We are dealing with serious issues; we feel defensive; we have imbibed the idea that we are saying “no” to people, to modern society. And I have some suggestions for how to step outside that role. First, we should always point to a positive vision — we are affirming something — even when we are opposing something. I really think we have to work harder, as a church, about what we want, what we stand for, what we promote. Being “a church that says yes,” as Cardinal Dolan puts it, means thinking through what we’re saying “yes” to. Second, we need to be good listeners and naturally empathetic. That empathy comes from having taken the time — as I demonstrate in each chapter in the book — to understand the value behind the criticism of the Church, which is usually a Gospel value; and to relate to it. Once people see we have understood their core concern — their positive intention — they are more likely to listen to us (this is safe to try at home). And last, yes, be compassionate: Feel others’ pain, relate to their anger, recognize their experience. Compassion builds trust; and trust allows people to listen.