Sunday, April 10, 2022

The End of Pop-Apologetics


The 1990s and early 2000s was the golden age of professional Catholic apologetics. If you wanted to get schooled about apologetics, you tuned into the Catholic Answers Live every afternoon. You read the tracts of Mark Shea, Karl Keating, and Jimmy Akin. You listened to the Al Kresta Show syndicated through Ave Maria Radio. You watched Fr. Mitch Pacwa on EWTN and owned sets of Fr. John Corapi's lectures on cassette. You probably owned several books and VHS tapes by Dr. Scott Hahn. These professional defenders of Catholic truth were the resources to turn to when you wanted to learn how to respond to objections to the faith, especially those leveled by evangelical Protestants.

If I had to bookend the period, I would say it began around 1988 with the publication of Karl Keating's perennial classic Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and went into decline around 2004-2006, the years the internet moved into "Web 2.0", the iteration of the Internet that generated masses of users participating in content creation on social networks, blogs, wikis, and media sharing sites. At the beginning of the era, Keating's book demonstrated the need for quality Catholic apologetics done professionally; on the other end, the rise of independent content creators in the wake of Web 2.0 empowered regular folks to publish their own apologetical materials and post it directly to the internet, bypassing the professional apologetics institutions like Catholic Answers. So we are talking about roughly an 18 year reign of the professional apologist.

This period and these people served us well for the time. When I was first returning to the faith after a youth of irreligion and a few years dabbling in Protestant Pentecostalism, it was the resources of Catholic Answers and its affiliated apologists that provided me with the foundations I needed to build my faith upon. And, as I have mentioned many time on this blog, I owe my return to the Church in a very immediate way to the lectures of Dr. Hahn, whom I will always consider to be one of my fathers in Christ. The role of these institutions and cadre of writers and speakers was important, especially during the 1990s when internet access was radically less than today and so many Catholics relied on print material and physical media to educate themselves. Had Catholic Answers not been there⁠—had this group of apologists not been active—the English speaking Church would have been much the poorer.

However, it is undeniable that the heyday of this kind of institutional apologetics has come and gone. Certainly there will always be a place for skilled, professional apologists—I just emceed an event this summer with Tim Staples and he was sharp as ever. These sorts of folks will always find open ears. I am talking rather about institutional, professional apologetics as a model for the delivery of apologetical content. That model has been shattered by the rise of independent content creators, just like Spotify disrupted the studio model of delivering music and Netflix destroyed the cinema model for distributing film. Today Catholics are much more likely today to seek apologetical content from independent content creators like myself or other bloggers than by turning to institutional channels. The professional apologist and their institutions are no longer the gatekeepers of apologetical content.

In order to survive in this new environment, the professional apologists began expanding their output to include other forms of content creation: blogging, podcasts, and social media. Some managed to handle this transition very well; Dr. Scott Hahn, for example, has maintained the same level of professionalism, humor, and humility he has always demonstrated. Others, well, it got...interesting. Once unleashed on social media, a fair number of these apologists—loosed from the oversight of professional editors or accountability to larger institutions—went down some rather unsavory paths. Some could not resist the temptation to wed politics to faith, devolving into obnoxious Catholic political pundits, while others became proponents of bizarre conspiracy theories; still others outed themselves as committed leftists, alienating themselves from the largely conservative fanbase that consumes apologetical content. And then there are those who revealed themselves to be completely unhinged: ranting, insulting, belittling, and attacking others on social media with a vitriol on par with the blue checkmarks on Twitter. 

Those who have gone down this path—and admittedly, it is not all, but still a fair amount—have fallen in the same pit that many have today, which is to assume one's positions are so secure, so unassailable, so self-evident, that those who disagree with you are not simply mistaken, but are morally bad. As someone who formerly admired and learned from these people, it has been extraordinarily disappointing to see them behaving like the worst of the blue checkmarks. I'm not calling anybody out by name, but we have all seen them lurking around in comboxes and Twitter feeds and Facebook threads, spitefully belittling people whose only offense has been to disagree.

Is this behavior a pathetic attempt to "stay relevant" by imitating their endlessly irritating secular counterparts, the "talking head" media class? Is it fueled by bitterness at having lost the exclusive "gatekeeper" role they once enjoyed? Is it resentment that their own ecclesial visions, which they once argued eloquently before rapt audiences and in the pages of Catholic periodicals, seems less and less persuasive? Is it simply that they were always mean people whose lack of charity was kept in check by editorial teams and publishers? It's hard to say, but it's been illuminating to watch.

Whatever it's cause, it is clear that the age of pop-apologetics is over.

7 comments:

Gab said...

But enough about Church Militant.

Boniface said...

@Gab, this has no relevance to Church Militant, because Church Militant was never part of that apologetical movement during that time, and Voris has always been his own thing; he's never been beholden to some other organization.

J. said...

This is a very interesting trend. Karl Keating retired into self-publishing, Jimmy Akin has a heavy focus on his "Mysterious World" podcast, Matt Fradd saw the writing on the wall and left CA to do his own show, and so on. Trent Horn is pretty much still doing straight apologetics, but he's one of the few, and his approach feels nearly outdated in his requests for formal debates.

There are dozens of Catholic commentators making videos on YouTube and running podcasts, these days. Some of them are clearly of higher quality than others, and far too many can scarcely string a coherent sentence together, and yet somehow they still manage to retain a large viewer base. Some run into censorship problems on their given platforms and simply disappear without a moment's notice. Many of the priests who briefly gained popularity in traditionalist circles vanished when the FSSP told them to remove their sermons from the Internet.

Blogging is nearly obsolete as a content delivery system. People want to have a video or audio file running in the background while they're at the gym or working from home. Few have the patience to read even something as short as this post.

I note all this not to approve or disapprove of the changes, but simply to wonder if we have indeed reached a new status quo, or if we are likely to see another major shift in the coming decade. The Catholic defense and affirmation of the Faith can take all manner of shapes, but lone wolves seeking the approval of various AI-driven algorithms are unlikely to see great and lasting success.

U said...

Mark Shea for sure has revealed himself to be a leftist lunatic.

Nick said...

It is sad that blogging has died out, because there is something to be said about people who have reflected upon things and have new ideas to share. But blogging became a sort of "mill" where people felt they had to publish several times a month, even daily, when such "production" isn't sustainable and eventually leads to mediocrity (compare the Heresy of Americanism where Leo spoke of the presumed right to publish whatever one feels like).

The era of Pop-Apologetics had its place, but it was dangerous in that it had 'controlled the narrative' in regards to what kind of answers/doctrines people were allowed to hear and discuss. Places like Catholic Answers was sliding into mediocrity and a sort of Capitalist machine of non-stop publishing, until independent content creators came around and forced CA to stop the mediocrity, higher higher caliber speakers (e.g. Christopher Check, Coffin), and actually be willing to discuss the more controversial subjects that had largely been suppressed due to fear of the local bishops banning CA or losing subscriptions. Obviously, issues like Tradition(alism) were off-limits for CA, until they were forced to breach these issues due to Traditionalist Blogs gaining traction.

My dream has always been to take the average practicing Catholic away from simplistic theological responses, especially against Protestants, to more exegetical and in-depth looks at key texts which Pop-Apologetics have been 'too afraid' to look into and discuss, such as Romans 4, and any number of "Protestant verses" where the standard Pop-Apologetics response was to 'counter with a Catholic verse' rather than actually address the Protestant text. It's not very sound methodology, nor very convincing, if a Protestant is appealing to Romans 4 and the Catholic 'responds' to every Pauline passage by turning to James 2:24. This gives the false impression that Protestants 'own Paul', which is an absolute disaster in apologetics strategy.

Boniface said...

What a great comment, Nick. Thanks for the insight

Marissa said...

There are still us 35+ers, I think, who enjoy the blog form, especially non-monetized blogs that still date their posts and show them sequentially. I hate those monetized blogs when you can't tell what date the entry is posted, presumably for SEO purposes. It's all about that dollar! Seeing it from the women's side, a lot of these Catholic "content creators" and "influencers" are a mixed bag at best. A few are very good and instead of monetizing posts they create books or videos to make money. I appreciate that, much like this blog, and I have bought books from here to support it (and others).

Any coherent culture that might have been limping along in the 90s is completely done for. There won't be any more big dogs in any Catholic media, I think. I question even how much apologetics is necessary in a society where rational thought is increasingly ignored or maligned. I think posts like the previous entry and others in this blog are more convincing to the masses who are suffering without God and purpose in life.