A Layman's Handbook for
Catholic Apologetics

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

May 2002
Revised, May 2004


Because of the articles that I have written, I have received many e-mail letters from Catholic apologists (men and women who are trained and organized to defend the Catholic faith). I have also received many letters from people who have been confused and distressed by things that they have been told by Catholic apologists. The purpose of this paper is to demonstate some of the kinds of things that these apologists say, and some of the methods that they use.

Dr. Eric D. Svendsen wrote a book called "Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Catholic Claims to Authority". You can order it by phone from Calvary Press (800-789-8175). This book deals with some claims of authority that are made by the Catholic Church. It also demonstrates some tactics that are used by some Catholic apologists. The book is backed by impressive scholarship, and at times it is humorous.

The following information is quoted from Chapter 5, "A Layman's Handbook for Roman Catholic Apologetics". It is used with Dr. Svendsen's permission. These are long quotations. In order to make them more readable, I am not using quotation marks or indenting the quotations.

Following the quotations (in a separate section), I will describe some of the kinds of things that I have run into when corresponding with Catholic apologists.

Dr. Svendsen has a web site. So does Jason Engwer, a colleague who is quoted by Dr. Svendsen. Information about these web sites is given below.

New Testament Research Ministries (Dr. Eric D. Svendsen)


Christian Liberty (Jason Engwer)




[NOTE: In the guise of instructing Catholic apologists, Dr. Svendsen demonstrates some of the approaches that they use.]

WELCOME TO Catholic Responses 101, the final word on how to answer Protestant and anti-Catholic objections to the faith of the One True Church! When discussing issues of authority with a Protestant, keep in mind the following guidelines:

1. The Roman Catholic Church is infallible!

2. All of the writings of the church fathers that can be marshaled in support of Roman Catholic beliefs should be marshaled in support of Roman Catholic beliefs. These church fathers, although perhaps not infallible in everything they teach, must be viewed as making up the ordinary magisterium.

3. All the writings of the early church fathers that seem to contradict these teachings fall under one of the following categories:

a. They are fallible.

b. They are heretical.

c. They are misunderstood and misinterpreted by Protestants (assume this last category unless one of the other two doesn't call into question Rome's infallibility).

4. No official Roman Catholic teaching has ever changed, and all Roman Catholic dogmas have been held unswervingly by the true Church throughout the centuries.

5. In the case of a Roman Catholic teaching that can't clearly be found in the early church, that teaching was nevertheless "held from the beginning" anyway; and, amazingly enough, it simultaneously "developed" over time.

6. Roman Catholics today who disagree with Rome's "official" teachings are in disobedience or apostasy. "Official" is always to be defined by the conservative minority branch of Roman Catholicism.

7. Just because there are disagreements among modern Roman Catholics as to the meaning of these "official" teachings, this does not imply that any official Roman Catholic teaching has ever changed. Always assume that the conservative minority interpretation of "official" Roman Catholic teaching is the correct one.

8. Not all popes were infallible in all they taught. Some teachings of popes were stated by them while they were speaking as "private theologians." Hence, any papal teaching that apparently contradicts current Roman Catholic teaching must have been made by a pope who was speaking as a "private theologian," rather than in his official role as pope.

9. Reiterate #1 above as many times as is necessary.

[This is followed by demonstrating what it would be like if Protestant apologists used the same techniques. For the sake of brevity, I have not quoted that material.]

How much easier our job as Evangelical apologists would be if we were simply to adopt the methodology of our Roman Catholic friends! Honesty, of course, compels us to move in other directions. This Roman Catholic apologetic methodology is perhaps at its worst in online Internet discussion forums. I have included below the comments of Jason Engwer, a colleague of mine and arguably one of the best online Evangelical apologists today. In his dealings with online Roman Catholic lay-apologists, he has made several humorous, yet insightful observations regarding the dubious methodology used to establish Rome's claim to authority over all of Christendom. Many of us who deal with Roman Catholic apologists on a regular basis regarding these issues can attest to the fact that what you are about to read is very real indeed! I leave you with Jason Engwer's list in its entirety:

1. We can't understand the Scriptures apart from the interpretations of the Roman Catholic Church, but we must interpret the Scriptures ourselves to discover that the Roman Catholic Church has been given this authority.

2. Roman Catholic doctrine is valid regardless of whether the apostles or anybody living near the time of the apostles taught it. If a doctrine such as the Immaculate Conception or papal infallibility is not taught by anybody in the earliest centuries of Christianity, and there's no evidence that the apostles taught it, and many early sources actually deny it, the doctrine should be believed anyway on the basis of a vague and unverifiable "development of doctrine."

3. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have been held all along by the Christian church, but it's unreasonable to expect Catholics to document this, because, after all, the beliefs didn't exist early on. They developed over time.

4. If the Roman Catholic Church teaches that a doctrine such as the papacy or transubstantiation has "always" been held by the Christian church, it's ridiculous for Evangelicals to expect Catholics to have to defend that claim. Instead, they should only have to defend the concept that something vaguely similar to the papacy or transubstantiation was believed early on. It's not right to expect Catholics to defend what their denomination teaches. They should only be expected to defend something that's vaguely similar to what their denomination teaches.

5. Even though Evangelicals advocate sola Scriptura [the belief that our faith is based solely on Scripture], and they don't claim that the church fathers were "apostolic successors," they're just as responsible as Catholics are to show that their beliefs are in line with those of the church fathers.

6. Even if a passage of Scripture says nothing about governmental authority, a succession of Roman bishops, etc., it's reasonable to assume that the passage is referring to a papacy. It doesn't matter if the "keys" mentioned in this passage (Matthew 16) can be interpreted in a number of ways. It doesn't matter if this passage says nothing about governmental supremacy. It doesn't matter if the passage says nothing about a succession of Roman bishops. As long as a passage uses terminology into which it's possible to read a Roman Catholic interpretation, then all of the Roman Catholic Church's claims to authority are thereby validated. This only applies to passages about Peter and Mary, however. You can't read these things into passages about Paul or John, for example. But if we're dealing with Peter or Mary, then the sky is the limit as far as speculation is concerned. You can claim that Matthew 16:18 teaches a papacy, Luke 1:28 teaches an immaculate conception, Luke 22:32 teaches papal infallibility, John 19:26 teaches that Mary is Mother of the Church and dispenser of all grace, etc. That there are many other possible interpretations of these passages, and that there's no way to validate the Catholic interpretations, is irrelevant.

7. The Roman Catholic Church can err and contradict itself as much as it wants to (anti-Semitism, selling indulgences, Popes and councils contradicting one another, etc.), yet still be "Infallible Mother Church." If anybody brings up these errors, we need to either "put the past behind us" or realize that every error of the Roman Catholic Church is "unofficial." There's no definite, consistent criteria by which to determine which actions of the RCC are "official" and which are "unofficial," but it's generally a matter of anything obviously erroneous being "unofficial." So we must wait to see whether the Roman Catholic Church is correct on an issue before deciding whether the Roman Catholic Church is acting "officially." The Roman Catholic Church is acting officially only when it's correct. And since the Roman Catholic Church has always been correct every time it's acted officially, we should be impressed with this amazing record of infallibility.



This is what Dr. Svendsen and Jason Engwer say. I would like to add a few observations of my own.

I've had many Catholic apologists write to me. I've had them authoritatively tell me things which sounded impressive at first, but on closer examination they just didn't hold water. I'll give four examples.

(1) For centuries, the Catholic Church would not allow the Bible to be translated into English. It was only available in Latin. I was told that this was irrelevant because the common people were illiterate. They were unable to read and write. They would not have been able to read the Bible even if it had been available in English.

That sounded impressive, until I remembered that during Mass, the priests read passages from Scripture out loud. Even people who can't read are able to understand what they hear. If the Scripture passages had been read in English, then they would have understood them. I did some research and learned that when the Bible was finally translated into English, people packed the church where it was available. Men who were able to read took turns reading it out loud, from sunrise until sunset, while the crowds of people listened.

(2) John Henry Newman was an Anglican churchman who converted to Catholicism. He eventually became a cardinal. I was sent a quotation from Newman, who said that anybody who understands church history will be a Catholic.

The Anglican church was formed when King Henry VIII decided that he wanted to be the head of the Church of England instead of having the Pope be the head of it. The Anglican Church separated from the Catholic Church for political reasons, not doctrinal ones. So I can understand how Newman, who was an Anglican, came to his conclusion. However, C.S. Lewis, who was also an Anglican, did not agree with Newman. Lewis was a brilliant man who read Greek and Latin fluently, and he was an expert on history. He remained an Anglican, in spite of the attempts of his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien to convert him to Catholicism.

Newman's statement has absolutely no relevance to the Protestant Reformation. Luther was a monk. Calvin was studying for the priesthood. Zwingli, Knox and Tyndale were priests. These men all studied Scripture, and they realized that many Catholic doctrines and practices were contrary to Scripture. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation separated from the Catholic Church for doctrinal reasons.

(3) I was told that there are 25,000 different Protestant denominations. That's a staggering number, and it would indicate widespread disagreement among Protestants. So I decided to check it out. I looked in the "Yellow Pages" of my city under "churches". It listed Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, a few cults, and 73 varieties of Protestant churches. Of the Protestant varieties, many are obviously variations of the same thing. For example, it listed nine different kinds of Baptist churches. That is a far cry from 25,000 different Protestant denominations. (I've written about this in my paper, "False Credentials".)

(4) Catholic apologists have been trying to get me to deny my own personal history. When I was in the convent, at first I was a postulant, which is an outsider hoping to be allowed to get in. Then I was accepted into my religious order. I was given a religious habit and a new name. I was a novice, going through a period of training and preparation before making vows. I lived in a "mother house" with other novices (new sisters), juniors (sisters who had made temporary vows), and a few seniors (sisters who had made permanent vows). The seniors trained us and took care of us. I was there for a little over two years. During that time, nobody ever said or implied that I wasn't a nun. None of my training classes ever caused me to think that I might not be a nun. I always thought of myself as a nun while I was there. And I have thought of myself as a "former nun" ever since I left.

Catholic apologists have been trying to tell me that if I didn't actually make vows, then I wasn't a nun. However, according to the "Catholic Encyclopedia," a novice who is a member of a religious order is a "regular" in the broad sense of the word. (A "regular" is a technical term for a monk or a nun.) So a female novice is a nun in the broad sense of the word. (If you want more information about this, then look at my biography. It includes the address of the on-line article in the "Catholic Encyclopedia".)

It is true that most nuns have made final vows. But it is also true that most carpenters and plumbers and electricians are not apprentices. Whether in the construction trade or in religious life, proportionately you have a small number of apprentices who are in the process of being trained, as compared to the large number of people who have completed their training.



I encourage you to link to this article. Because this it contains extensive quotations from another author's published book, I cannot give you permission to copy it. For the same reason, I am not making this article available for downloading. I strongly encourage you to get Dr. Svendsen's book.