I recently read an article which sought to reveal similarities in the thought of two famous philosophers, one of whom was Catholic, the other a Deist (someone who denies that God continues to act upon the created world). The author’s stated goal was to show adherents of the Deist philosopher that they could come to see how Catholic thought was, in some sense, not dissimilar from their own. Curiously, the article presented itself purely as a philosophical exercise. However, it was really an exercise in apologetics, or the practice of demonstrating the reasonableness of certain beliefs. This specific kind of apologetics seeks to allow persons to come to acknowledge the beliefs of Catholics without having to radically change their own.
Since St. Paul at the Acropolis, the Church has sought to use non-Christian thought as a starting point or instrument to preach the truth. Possibly the greatest example of this is St. Thomas’s utilization of Aristotelian thought to teach theology. However, the above-described apologetics seems to be a fundamentally different project. St. Thomas used Aristotle because he believed that Aristotle taught true things. But what about the practice of adopting a system of thought not because one considers it true, but because it can be useful? Can one rightly adopt certain philosophical tenets in order to better reach a certain audience?
In one sense, yes. We do this all the time. We discuss the Faith differently with different audiences. We try and become all things to all people. One does not begin to teach the Faith to children (unlike seminarians) by opening with a discussion of epistemology. Instead, we seek to teach in a way that people will understand, assuming the level of our audience. Beginning with truths that our audiences agree on, we can move forward in understanding and knowledge.
However, there is also a mode of apologetics that does not seem to be acceptable. This would be to accept certain things that are false and gravely harmful in order to preach the Gospel. One should not assume the tenets of a materialist (someone who denies the existence of spiritual things) in order to preach the Gospel. It would be impossible to preach the fullness of Truth while failing to affirm the existence of such fundamental things as the immateriality of God, the angels, and the soul. It is similarly difficult to hold the doctrine of the Real Presence of the Eucharist by transubstantiation without a belief in the existences of substances or the reality of the physical world outside ourselves.
In our time, many philosophical truths that the Catholic Church holds to be rationally evident, such as the ability to recognize objective moral values, are no longer held by many individuals. There can be a temptation to try and tailor the Faith to fit these understandings. After all, it seems like we could be much more popular with the culture at large if we adapted the Faith entirely to their system of thinking. However, I doubt that the end product would much resemble the Catholic Faith. While we should seek to communicate effectively, this does not mean that the content of the Faith should be sacrificed in the process.
Apologetics should be moderated by a commitment to the fullness of the Gospel, practiced with the understanding that one is trying to convert the other via arguments based upon shared principles, without sacrificing anything fundamental. We cannot sacrifice truth and still preach the fullness of Truth. Instead, we should seek to communicate, person-by-person, the person of Jesus Christ and all that this entails. Although this takes on different modes, the goal remains the same. While we may wish to find common ground with all different sorts of groups in order to maintain a certain standing in society, certain truths cannot be abandoned for the sake of popularity. After all, the Faith is not even ours to begin with. So, is comparing systems of thought a true mode of preaching? Possibly (leaving aside questions of its limited effectiveness), but only under specific constraints and with the recognition that this form of apologetics must be guided by a special concern to maintain the Faith that has been handed on to us.
Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Philosophy and Grammar