Friday, November 16, 2012

Ten Catholic Apologetics Works Every Catholic Should Know

I must confess that I have been chomping at the bit a little to write this post.  Apologetics, like it or not, is something that every Catholic must be familiar with.  Everywhere, from the workplace to the street to even the home, is a breeding ground for the hard questions.  If one is known to be Catholic, then they should prepare for really awkward and sometimes difficult questions.  For myself, I've been asked all kinds, and know very well that it helps to know your faith inside and out, so that one is prepared when those questions inevitably come.  In this spirit, I present the following ten works which, in this sinner's opinion, are some of the best apologetics works the Catholic Church has to offer. 

May they serve you well!

1.  St. Francis de Sales - The Catholic Controversy

Most know of St. Francis de Sales as the "Gentleman saint", but it seems that many do not know him as one of the most brilliant apologists the Church has ever had.  In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, St. Francis proved himself to be a formidable foe to Calvinism, almost single-handedly converting 72,000 Calvinists back to the faith.  The Catholic Controversy is a collection of the pamphlets he wrote whilst preaching amongst the Calvinists of the Chablais region in France, and is to me quite possibly the most powerful apologetic against Protestantism ever written, as well as one of the most stalwart defenses of the Church I have ever come across.  It is incredibly easy to read, engaging and magnificently crafted.  St. Francis continually appeals to history, to the Fathers, to Scripture, and ends up crafting a an apologetic work against Protestantism that in my mind, remains unmatched to this day. 

2.  Hilaire Belloc - The Great Heresies

Sadly, Hilaire Belloc has not gained the lasting popularity of his contemporary, G.K. Chesterton.  Perhaps this is because, in my experience, Belloc is much less humorous and witty, preferring to skewer his opponents with blunt truth and a treasure-trove of historical knowledge.  Nowhere is this seen better than in his work, The Great Heresies. The book is the antithesis of ecumenical in some respects - he narrows down the major heresies to just five, and the modern reader might be shocked by some of his choices.  But his work is tough, direct, and educated, pulling no punches.  It's a relatively quick read too.

3.  St. Thomas Aquinas - Summa Contra Gentiles

Mos t know Aquinas for his Summa Theologica - correct me if I'm wrong, but this work was designed to be used in the seminary, and not as an apologetic work per se.  The Summa Contra Gentiles, on the other hamd, was designed specifally for such a purpose.  As I have read it, this text was designed as a kind of field manual, as it were, for Dominicans working in Muslim lands and involved in disputes with Islamic philosophers and theologians.  This would be no easy task - if anyone out there has read some of the amazing work of Islam's great theologians, they will know that what I say has a bit of truth to it.  Regardless, the genius of St. Thomas is on full display here, and all specifically designed for use in apologetics and theological disputes.  Indispensable.

4.  G.K. Chesterton - Orthodoxy

Given the recent wave of Chesterton fanfare that seems to be sweeping across the world of the Catholic New Evangelization, it might seem too obvious to list his arguably best work.  But Orthodoxy is a bona fide classic of apologetics.  It can be appreciated by Christians of all stripes, and is at times prophetic in its denunciations of atheism and materialism.  His notion of the romance of orthodoxy, the excitement of riding at breakneck speeds along the straight and narrow path, is riveting.  A fantastic work.

5.  St. Edmund Campion - Ten Reasons

I stumbled across this little tome in the library of my university, forgotten amongst the more famous work of the saints, nearly drowned out by works on the Reformation.  St. Edmund Campion, as Catholics know, was a famous martyr of the English Reformation.  Captured by priest hunters, Campion was tortured on the rack, and eventually hung, drawn, and quartered - if you don't know what hanging, drawing, and quartering refers to, you don't want to. But before all this, he penned one of the most fantastic apologetics in defense of the Church and against the Reformation that has ever been penned.  It is, in many respects, much akin to the above work of St. Francis de Sales, but more concise.  Where St. Francis pleads and begs for reason, St. Edmund comes off as a kind of Christian Cicero (long after Lactantius earned the title).  If you are daunted by the length of St. Francis' work, then give this one a go - it deserves to be republished en masse. 

6.  Origen - Contra Celsum

Some eyebrows might be raised at this selection - why would I ever suggest a lengthy apologetic by Origen?  Who could ever relate to this now?  Actually, Origen's brilliant apologetic against the pagan attacks of the philosopher Celsus deals with many of the same objections made against the faith today.  Origen was trained in the same school of philosophy (Platonism/Neo-Platonism) that Celsus was, and absolutely skewers him in every manner possible.  Everything admirable about Origen is on display here - his understanding of Scripture, his keen intellect, his brilliant philosophical and theological skill - all these are brought to bear on a Platonist philosopher who should have known better.  Yes, Origen made some mistakes - so did every other theologian.  It doesn't mean that this work isn't essential, especially for understanding the early objections against Christianity that, for some reason or other, continue to be propagated to this day. 

7.  Bl. John Henry Newman - Apologia Pro Vita Sua

To be honest with you, I have actually found this very popular work very hard to get into.  And yet, it merits inclusion on this list simply because it is a brilliant account of a Protestant's struggle in coming to terms with the historical faith of the early Church.  We see the same struggle, I think, in the many Anglicans who are "crossing the Tiber" and coming into the Church for the same reasons - it is no surprise, I would think, that they seem to hold Bl. John Henry Newman as their patron.  Newman's account of his conversion to the Catholic faith is a difficult one - he is often harried and attacked, and even ostracized because of it all, but throughout it, he cannot deny his convictions.  Some consider this work a modern-day equivalent to the Confessions of St. Augustine.

8.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons - Against Heresies

This work is the key text to go to when confronting the errors of Gnosticism that have trickled down through the many centuries of the Church to our day and age.  One can see watered-down Gnosticism all over the New Age section of the bookstore for proof - and if the New Age is anything, it is most certainly not "new" in any sense of the word, but simply a Frankenstein's monster of rehashed heresies from ages ago, regurgitated in diluted form.  St. Irenaeus' work acts as a compendium of all heretical sects up to his own time, as well as functioning as an incredible witness to and defense of the Catholic Church. 

9.  St. John Eudes - The Admirable Heart of Mary

Though some might suggest St. Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary as one of the best Marian apologetic works, I would go earlier and bring forth St. John Eudes' work as the best witness to the Church's position on the Blessed Virgin.  St. John Eudes has an understanding and knowledge of Tradition and the Fathers that I find is not as present in de Montfort, and it is this which makes his work on Mary the most solid.  Every statement in the book seems like it would send a hardline Protestant into a frenzy of hurling accusations of all kinds at him, and yet Eudes continues on as if it were common knowledge. He quotes not only from the major figures of medieval scholasticism, but mines the Councils and the Church Fathers for the support he needs to back up every word.  His understanding of Mary is incredible, and hence this work would do well to be known more by Catholics, who invariably have to contend with accusations of idolatry and "Mariolatry" all the time. 

10.  St. John of Damascus - Three Treatises On the Divine Images

When Christian art was subject to attack by the iconoclasts of the 8th century, the most venerable St. John of Damascus arose to defend the Church.  We see the same kind of iconoclastic notion in the theology of the Reformation still today, and I think Catholics would do well to read St. John's defense against such attacks.  To be sure, the early centuries saw an occasional attack on the use of images and art in churches, especially in the case of the sometimes over-zealous St. Epiphanius of Salamis.  But with St. John of Damascus, one of the very first scholastic theologians along with Boethius in the West, we see a defense made of the use of art and images in worship that is insurmountable to assault.


  1. Several of these texts are available as free MP3 files at .

  2. Great suggestions. I read Orthodoxy and the Summa. Now, I will take St. Francis.

    And keep writing posts like this, do not be afraid.

    On apologetics, he is not Catholic, but I love On Guard by William Craig.

    Pedro Erik

    1. Hey Pedro,
      I own On Guard as well - great book. Craig is excellent at making incredibly complex ideas very simple to understand. I found it interesting that his main sources, from what I can tell, for his philosophy are mostly Leibniz and medieval Islamic philosophy (nothing wrong with that either - Avicenna and Al-Ghazali were pretty brilliant thinkers).


  3. Oh, I have read three of these but with I had them all!

  4. Thanks for this information! What timing. I recently obtained 'The Catholic Controversy' and do not see an impramatur or nihil obstat. How do I know that it's legit? I'm really concerned now after seeing 'Orthodoxy' on this list. It's a fascinating, heady, humorous read but I'm wondering how theologically accurate it is. Don't we have to be knowledgeable theologically if we expect to defend Catholicism?
    This stuff is hard! Thanks in advance for assistance.

    1. Hi,
      I just checked my copy and you are correct. That said, he is a Doctor of the Church, and I've come across nothing unorthodox in his writings. Do check out a more competent and knowledgeable authority just to be sure, but I would bet a billion pints of Guinness that the work is entirely orthodox.