In 1 Peter 3:15, our first Pope writes:
“but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
In this article I will suggest 5 ways to “do it with gentleness and respect.”
1. Listen. Really listen.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone who wasn’t listening? At best, he was waiting for your lips to stop moving so he could unleash another set of reasons why you were wrong and he was right.
Don’t be that person. Listen to your opponent. Ask him questions. Be interested in him. Generally speaking, individuals don’t hold to a belief that they know to be in defiance of the truth. They have their reasons for believing it, reasons with which, though you can’t agree, you can sympathize.
I once had a Protestant tell me that Catholicism was arrogant because it claimed alone to possess the fullness of truth. Instead of responding with an argument as to why the Catholic Church is not arrogant, I simply said, “I see where you’re coming from. If Jesus Christ did not, in fact, establish the Catholic Church, and if the Magisterium is not infallible on matters of faith and morals, then I would agree with you.”
Showing your opponent that you are genuinely interested in his reasons for believing a particular thing will demonstrate that you are not there to “win a debate” but rather to converse with a brother.
2. What would it take?
Before launching into an argument with a non-Catholic, you might find it helpful to ask, “What would it take for you to become Catholic?” You might even show him what you mean by answering what it would take for you to leave the Catholic Church.
Many times I’ve said to Protestants, “If you could show me one Catholic teaching that sacred Scripture rejects, or if you could show me from history that Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church, or if you could point me to a pope’s infallible teaching that contradicts a previous or subsequent pope’s infallible teaching, then I would leave the Catholic Church.”
Your Protestant friend might respond by saying, “If you could show me a Scripture passage in which Jesus taught the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, then I would become Catholic.” Or he might say, “If you could show me that the earliest Christians after the times of the Apostles were Catholic and not ’Bible Christians,’ then I’d convert.”
If your Protestant friend allows you to respond, you will be able to direct your arguments accordingly and your discussion could become a prime opportunity to evangelize.
3. One topic at a time
A Protestant friend once asked me, “Why do you call your priests ‘father’ when Jesus, in Matthew 23:9, explicitly commands his followers not to call any man on earth ‘father?”
When I pointed out to my friend that St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, claims for himself the title “father” in the spiritual sense, and then asked my friend whether he was willing to admit either that his interpretation of Matthew 23:9 was incorrect or accuse St. Paul of sin, he asked, “Why do you Catholics worship statues?”
Non-Catholics often reject many tenets and practices of the Catholic faith. Therefore, it’s important that you stick to one topic at a time so as not to only partially address each objection without ever coming to a conclusion.
In this particular instance, I replied to my Protestant friend, “We can address your concerns about statues at another time, but if it’s alright with you, I’d rather you answer my initial question before we change topics. Then I’d be happy to share with you from the Bible why Catholics use statues.”
4. It’s alright not to know
Once I debated a Protestant minister who, when I offered texts such as 2 Peter 2:20 and Hebrews 6:4-8 to show that, according to the Bible, one can lose his salvation, said something to the effect of, “You know, you’ve got a good point. Would you mind if I spent some time in the Word, prayed about this, and got back to you next week?”
It was evident to me that this was a truly humble man who was concerned not about winning a debate but with the truth and following Christ. Though he did not change his mind on the matter, I gained a lot respect for him, and it taught me that confessing that you don’t know something is not a sign of weakness but of humility.
If a non-Catholic asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell him you don’t know. Don’t wing it, and don’t offer your best guess. Instead, humble yourself and simply say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
Just be sure that, if you do promise to get back to the person with an answer, you actually do it.
Recognize that the Holy Spirit, not you, converts hearts. Follow the advice of Peter who, before charging us to “always be prepared to make a defense,” tells us to “reverence Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Pray not only for the person you are speaking with, that he may come to believe the truth of the Catholic Church, but pray also for yourself, that you would be humble, loving, attentive, and respectful.
Remember that, as Fulton J. Sheen put it, it’s entirely possible to win the argument and lose the soul.