Keating for the Defense

Author: Tim Ryland


Tim Ryland

In a sense, Catholic apologist Karl Keating's road to Damascus was a church parking lot in San Diego, California. But unlike Saul of Tarsus, he wasn't struck down by blinding epiphany—just ticked off.

"I'd come out of church one Sunday and found the cars papered with anti-Catholic flyers from a local fundamentalist church," he recalls. "I was so annoyed I decided to write a counter-tract summarizing on one sheet of paper the whole corpus of Catholic thought." A pause. "Obviously, I had to use very small print."

That 1979 pamphlet marked the beginning of Catholic Answers, today the largest Catholic apologetics organization in the United States. "I guess I'm just contrary," admits 45-year-old Keating, who has touched millions with his writings, audio and video tapes, and personal speaking appearances. "I've never felt a calling. There's never been a particular [conversion] incident in my life. I have always been a reader and, I suppose, an arguer. When things came up about the Faith I suspected were wrong, I looked into them.

"First, I get their [fundamentalists'] materials to see what they're alleging. Sometimes they'll list Catholic sources, so I'll get those and find out if they're misquoting them. By now I have a sizable library, although you can get by with fairly little. You could handle probably 90 percent of all issues with a hundred books, if they were the right books." He mentions Frank Sheed, William Jurgen's <Faith of the Early Fathers, the Catholic Encyclopedia>. "But there are important things I haven't read yet, and a lot of peripheral stuff I <have> read I'll probably never need.

"When I distributed that first pamphlet I wanted to get a reaction. So I rented a post office box and chose the name Catholic Answers." He papered cars in the same church parking lot the fundamentalists had. I eating doesn't remember the specific topic of the tract, but the volume of response surprised him. The flyers spread far beyond the parking lot, and people from other cities as well as locals wrote requesting catalogues of Catholic Answers tracts. "I wrote back saying, 'Sorry, everything's out of print at the moment."'

Demand created supply and more tracts followed: "Fundamentalist or Catholic?"; "Saint Worship?"; "Anti-Catholic Whoppers." Keating wrote six tracts, then 12, then 24. During the early 1980s, although he was practicing civil law full time, Catholic Answers began to consume more of his time. "I'd send out a little order form—very small amounts of money involved, of course—but it was an enjoyable occupation. And I realized that people were interested in the question of the fundamentalist attack on the Church. So I began to write a newspaper series on the chief issues. I expected it to be about five weekly installments, but as I was getting into it I realized it would have to be longer, so I told the editor to expect about eight installments."

By the time Keating had finished, his series ran for 30 weeks in <The Wanderer>. The articles became the first draft of his 1988 book <Catholicism and Fundamentalism>, a perennial bestseller for its publisher, Ignatius Press.

August 1986 saw the advent of a monthly <Catholic Answers Newsletter> featuring Keating's didactic, lucid, and frequently witty writing. In 1988, with the blessing of his wife and young son, Keating finally abandoned his 12-year law career and went full-time into apologetics. He slowly added staff to help prosyletize and mail out Catholic Answers' growing catalogue of literature and tapes. In January 1990 the newsletter was folded into the monthly <This Rock> magazine, an engaging amalgam of topics such as conversion stories, refutations of Protestant doctrines (like <sola scriptura>), debate with apostates like the sedevacantists (who claim the papal throne is vacant), question-and-answer about Catholic doctrine, and monthly quotations from Church fathers.

Not content with armchair evangelizing, Keating embarked on debating fundamentalists in their own venues. The first of these debates was with Bart Brewer, a former Discalced Carmelite priest who had left the Church, married, and become a vituperative enemy of his former religion. "I don't hate Catholics," Brewer told me three years ago in an interview. "I hate Rome. Catholic people have been exploited, victimized and seduced by manufactured teachings. And they're not peripheral issues. We're talking about the primacy of Peter, papal infallibility, Church as interpreter of Scripture-<de fide> teachings."

This engagement with Brewer was a harbinger of the type of emotional attack Keating would encounter on the fundamentalist debate circuit. "He challenged me or I challenged him, I don't recollect," says Keating. But when the two men did debate, it was on Brewer's terms: at Calvary Baptist Chapel, where Mission to Catholics is headquartered; in front of his home congregation, with his minister as moderator; and using his format—45-minute presentations each, with Keating going first. The audience that night of June 24, 1986 was not what you would call evenly split. Of the 350 or so who attended, Keating estimates no more than 50 were Catholics.

Keating's presentation from the pulpit of the church touched on some of fundamentalism's weak points, emphasizing what he calls some of the more "egregious bloopers" of typical anti-Catholicism. "In retrospect," he wrote in his August 1986 newsletter, "I can't say whether most listeners were thinking about what I was saying or just marveling that a Catholic had no fangs." The audience was attentive and polite. From the front row Brewer listened without interrupting. It seemed to Keating perhaps he was getting through. When he concluded and traded places with his opponent, feeling a little guilty at having exceeded his time limit by five minutes, he was optimistic.

The feeling was short-lived. Brewer ascended the pulpit and, in true Baptist fire-and-brimstone fashion, began preaching against the Catholic Church. After several minutes of high-volume invective, someone behind Keating called out, "Amen, brother!" Soon Brewer's remarks were punctuated frequently by "Amens!" and "Hallelujahs!" He railed on. And on. "His screed was against the priesthood and the Eucharist," Keating says. "And it was really so vile that a priest who was in the audience got physically sick and had to leave the room." Brewer went on—the approving ejaculations from the congregation subsided—and on. The minister moderator made no move. Ninety minutes into his talk Keating's opponent had covered only three of his four announced topics, but several Catholics had had enough. They shouted him down. The moderator finally took Brewer's arm and pulled him from the pulpit.

Keating insisted on a few minutes to rebut some of his opponent's more bizarre charges (such as that Pius IX had three girlfriends while pope). "He [Brewer] spoke last and I was gathering my papers, and when I looked up there were scores of fundamentalists making their way toward me. I looked around to see if there was a place to dodge to. There wasn't, so I suppose I must have said a quick Act of Contrition. But then I realized they were all smiling and had their arms outstretched. And one after the next said, 'Thank you for not treating him the way he treated you.' I had a hundred or more crammed around me. I could see across the room at the far end my opponent was standing all by himself.

"Two years later I was in Los Angeles, in a church pacing the vestibule waiting for a talk to begin, and a man came up to me and said, 'I want to apologize to you, Mr. Keating.' I said, 'Whatever for? I don't think we've met.' He said, 'No, we haven't, but I was at the debate two years ago and I wanted to apologize for the way you were treated, the way your religion was mocked; but there were so many people around you I couldn't come up. I'm a Protestant but I'm not anti-Catholic. I want you to know that I consider you a brother Christian.'

"I was really moved that this man had seen a notice for this seminar in the newspaper and had come all the way over just to say that. It taught me a lesson—which I knew at the time of the first debate, but this underscored it—that charity is very important. And it's especially important for those of us who fall out of it a lot."

Keating's second debate in 1987 was against Peter Ruckman. (Ruckman's brand of fundamentalism holds that the King James version of the Bible is itself inspired and to use any other version or translation is grave error.) When the two men squared off, Keating remembers, "There was a man seated in the first row directly in front of Ruckman. When Ruckman spoke, the man held up a sign that said, 'Amen, brother.' When I would speak he'd flip the sign over and it said, 'Repent, sinner.'"

In the fall of 1989 Keating went toe-to-toe with Jose Ventilacion, a minister for Iglesia ni Cristo ("Church of Christ" in Tagalog, a Philippine dialect) before 3,000 Iglesia members and perhaps 500 Christians packed into a sweltering high school gymnasium. Iglesia is a true cult, according to Keating, because of the psychological control exerted over its predominantly Filipino members. Its leaders spend more time debunking Christianity than explaining Iglesia's own positions.

When Keating took his place on the platform, a large Iglesia man sat down nearby.

"What are you doing?" Keating asked.

"I'm your bodyguard," the man replied. "At our debates in the Philippines, people often charge the platform. I'm here to protect you in case that happens." No one charged him as he took on Ventilacion and five of his assistants for three hours, but Keating says he went through a lot of apologetical arguments and three quarts of water.

Several times over the years Keating has debated Dave Hunt, a well-known anti-Catholic writer whose books have sold in the seven figures. They last met in November 1994 in Detroit. Their ostensible debate topic: Whether the Church of the earliest centuries was the Catholic Church. Keating cites the event as an example of how frustrating such one-on-one exchanges can be:

"I argued that if you look back historically you can see all the Catholic distinctives in the early centuries: the episcopacy, the sacraments, the prayers for the dead, all these kinds of things. Hunt jumped from the New Testament to the Reformation to the Inquisition to the Crusades to the Holocaust, almost never alighting in the first three centuries of the Church, which was supposed to be the topic of discussion. I kept quoting from the Church Fathers to prove, for example, infant baptism. And finally he said, 'Well, the Fathers can't be trusted anyway,' so he just ignored them." This morning Keating has gathered the nine Catholic Answers staff members in the conference room to answer a reporter's questions. Although the group's original mission was to refute attacks from outside the Church, over the years it has evolved to respond to "an equally obtuse group of people: Catholics. Many don't know their faith," Keating says. "And you have to develop ways to explain it to them simply." To this end organization members have given hundreds of seminars in parishes throughout the country. "We may use as a hook dealing with the fundamentalist questions or Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism. But we're really talking about the Catholic faith and how to understand it. There's a real hunger among Catholics. They just want to know the basics."

Keating tells of a Catholic woman who wrote and said she and her friends started going to their parish RCIA program to bone up on the Faith. The course was taught by a nun, the parish "Scripture expert."

"This woman happened to be there the night they were talking about Scripture," says Keating, "and she said, 'Sister, we'd like to know what doctrines we're supposed to believe and what we're not as Catholics.'

"And the sister put her off a couple of times so she said, 'Sister, we want to know what's true and what's false.' And the nun said, 'Well, there's a truth for you and a truth for me.' And this woman wasn't satisfied, so she kept pushing and the nun's getting frustrated, so she thought she'd put an end to it by quoting Scripture. So the nun said, 'Well, after all, as Our Lord asked: "What is truth?"'

Keating pauses to let this sink in. "When I tell this story to audiences I say, 'What do you expect from a "Scripture expert" who puts in Our Lord's mouth the words of Pontius Pilate?' But that's the kind of thing people are stuck with throughout the country."

But isn't it discouraging to be dealing on a daily basis with problems like this that are so overarching they threaten the very existence of the American Roman Catholic Church?

"On a human level? Yes," chimes in James Akin, a staff apologist. "On a spiritual level? No. The 'new evangelism' the Pope talks about is directed primarily at Catholics and former Catholics. So it's exciting to be following the Pope's call."

"Look, we've all heard the horror stories," says Keating. "And yet as we travel from parish to parish, we hear good news that doesn't make headlines. We've become much more optimistic. There's a sense of hope. There is so much left to do."

That's the kind of thinking that keeps the staffers at Catholic Answers answering the phone and the mail and the orders for materials. "We average probably 150 pieces of mail a day," says Jennifer North, who has to sort through it.

"And we hear from people all over the world," Akin says. "A Jew in Israel. A Muslim in Africa. Lots of requests from Africa for materials, from Thailand and Singapore."

"And dozens of phone calls [each day]," adds Peggy Frye. Her role as receptionist puts Frye on the front line of what sometimes amounts to spiritual triage. "People are very grateful we're here," she says. "They don't know where else to go."

Peggy Frye knows whereof she speaks. Several years ago she was an Evangelical wanting to know about the Church, but with no idea of whom to talk to. "I picked up the phone book," she recalls, "and looked under 'Catholic."' Catholic Answers was the first listing. So she called and talked with Rob Flynn, a former staff apologist. "He was very patient and took a lot of time with me on the phone. And then after that, I came to the office with my Bible and Rob sat down with me in the conference room and we went over my objections one by one. But it was a struggle. I was mired in <sola striptura.> Everything I had learned as a Protestant was being challenged."

After six months of wrestling with her preconceptions about everything from saint worship to the Immaculate Conception—and in spite of persecution from friends and family—Frye was confirmed a Catholic in February 1992 She kept in touch with the organization, and when the receptionist position opened last August, she jumped at the chance.

"I'm so excited to be a Catholic," Frye says. "There is such a need for our Protestant brethren to come to know the fullness of faith." Typically, when a phone call asking for help comes in, it is referred to one of four apologists: Keating, Akin, Mark Wheeler, or Father Ray Ryland. But sometimes when they are all busy, Peggy herself will offer counsel.

What types of phone calls do they field? Fr. Ryland—an Anglican convert turned Catholic priest who has taught theology at the University of San Diego and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio—gives a recent example. "A young woman called, a mother of five, who thinks she has AIDS. She is going to get the test results back this week. She wanted to know how she could accept forgiveness. And I get calls all the time from local people being beaten down by their pastor or the religious educator in their parish, who want to know what they can do."

"I took a call from a 19-year-old homosexual man," says Keating. "He feels drawn toward the Church but feels it is no place for him until he has his homosexual tendencies more under control. Recently he's joined Courage [a national Catholic homosexual support group preaching chastity], even brought his former boyfriend along, and he wanted to talk about that. He called out of the blue. So many callers seem to simply trust the people here."

One day last year Wheeler fielded five calls about contraception, all from young married people who had become convinced that Catholic teaching on the subject was true but were worried about their spouses' reaction. Four of them were men.

"We're always working with a lot of people who are entering the Church," says Akin. "Every Easter we have dozens of them being confirmed." Akin rubs his hands as he contemplates the prosyletizing possibilities of the computer epoch. "There are so many potential converts on-line," he says. Catholic Answers has its own site on the World Wide Web and, after an imminent upload of new tracts, Keating claims theirs will be the most extensive Catholic site available. After a recent Internet relay chat, Akin says he received off-line e-mail from a Dutch participant, a former Catholic who was leaning toward the Orthodox Church but, after reading a <This Rock> article by Fr. Ryland refuting the claims of Orthodoxy, had rejoined the Roman Church.

Catholic Answers is, quite literally, a labor of love. No one's getting rich. Controller Phil Lenahan, for instance, was financial vice president of a $300 million division of the Fleetwood Corporation (a Fortune 500 residential construction company); he quit the fast track last year to help the struggling apologetics business stabilize itself. "In fact," Keating says, "I could make a better living giving talks and writing by myself. But I think the organization can accomplish much more than one person." Sources of company income include (in decreasing order) donations, product sales, magazine subscriptions, mailing list rental and honoraria from speaking and seminar appearances.

"My philosophy from the beginning has been that there's a problem with people leaving the Church," says Keating. "If it's a lay problem, it will have a lay solution. And if we're giving the kind of answer that's required, God will bless what we're doing and lay people will support us. This may be why we're on pretty good terms with bishops. We have never asked them for money."

This article was taken from the Spring 1996 issue of "Sursum Corda!" Published quarterly and mailed in December, March, June and September by the Foundation for Catholic Reform. Send all subscription requests to "Sursum Corda!", Subscription Dept., 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Ft. Collins, CO 80524. RATES: $26.95 per year.