It’s Not Just a Book, It’s a Brand
Following the footsteps of his mentor and employer Bishop Robert Barron, Brandon Vogt hopes to build his own brand of Catholic evangelism. Already, this Catholic wunderkind (just 31 years old!) has established himself as a bestselling author, popular Catholic speaker, and marketing guru—read the resume on his website to learn more. Instead of taking the intellectual’s route writing books on apologetics and theology like his wunderkind buddy Trent Horn, Vogt exerts his intellect in repackaging the faith for the 21st century.
In order to do this, each of Vogt’s new books or articles all serve as samplers, or gateways, for his comprehensive program. Like other prominent Catholic speakers, like Matthew Kelly or Taylor Marshall, Vogt hopes to combine his talents of business with his love of the Church in order to draw in a larger audience interested in practicing Catholicism and consuming his products.
Unlike Kelly and Marshall though, Vogt’s self-promotion tends to take away from the quality of his products. This is perhaps the main problem with his newest book/bait Return, which addresses a critical need in the Church, but does so in a way that feels somewhat artificial and at times incomplete—since he obviously wants to move the reader to browse the “resources” at his website handily posted in the margins of practically every other page. While one might argue that a reader should not expect so much from a give-away book anyway (fair enough), Kelly’s and Marshall’s free promotional books do not read this way, but stand independently on their own merits.
This aspect of Return does more than just clutter up the book’s formatting with tacky plugs, but also dulls some important points of Vogt’s analysis. However, before examining these few faults, one should examine the book’s many virtues.
The Secret to Bringing Them Back
Return’s greatest virtue is its relevance: the children of Catholic families have been leaving the Church in droves, and Catholic parents need to bring them back. Vogt reviews the depressing statistics of religious decline, with 6.5 people leaving the Church for every new person entering. The picture becomes even bleaker when one looks how few Catholics actually practice their faith and understand and follow the Church’s teachings.
Vogt swiftly addresses the common responses to this problem, which range from baseless optimism (“Oh they’ll come back when they marry or have kids”), unconstructive defensiveness (“Well I sent them to Catholic schools, and made sure they got their sacraments!”), to utter despair (“It’s too late. I’ve failed, and they’re never coming back…”). Contrary to these common assertions, these lost sheep can return to the fold, but it will take work on the part of the parent to do it.
After he uses this first section to define the scope and nature of the problem, Vogt lays out a plan for the willing parent to follow made up of digestible subsections and illustrative anecdotes. It seems intricate, but one can summarize his plan in few words: become a better Catholic and build a close relationship with your child. In this way, this section of Return acts as a shorter version of Matthew Kelly’s popular book, Rediscover Catholicism.
Without directly blaming the lax practices and utter ignorance of most adult Catholics, Vogt makes the obvious points of praying more, fasting more, and learning about Catholicism. It is not enough to show love and pick strategic moments in which to talk about religion—though he has tips on how to do this—but to confront objections and dispel them with strong arguments for the faith and living a disciplined Catholic life. Sure enough, Vogt has his own resources that can help, but he also gives solid directions in the book on how to “equip” oneself.
In the final section of the book, he gives abridged yet sufficient responses to the many, many objections people will make for not staying in the Church. For those accustomed to reading apologetic works or even Catholic articles, they might not find anything new here; but for those who do not, or those wanting a review, it works as a handy reference.
The Problem With Being Too Nice
Overall, Return achieves its goal: it is a very effective, helpful tool for parents bringing their children back into the fold. However, it does not show the whole picture, and Vogt errs in trying too hard to be Mr. Nice Guy.
While he does go into detail about the problems and losing Catholics, he avoids examining all the causes for this. True, sex scandals, the rise of secular culture, and militant atheism have done their part to break down God’s kingdom, and negligent parents who outsource their duty as parents to Catholic schools and CCD programs have also contributed, but he fails to mention the elephant in the room—the Church herself.
Perhaps because he had to secure so many endorsements from so many popular clergymen and Catholic lay leaders (which are all listed in small font for the first three pages), Vogt never seems to question the stupidity and hippy-dippy nonsense that afflict so many parishes. A lapsed Catholic could have a saintly parent, a burning passion for Jesus, and encyclopedic knowledge of Holy Scripture and the Catechism, but he may falter when his neighborhood church blares cheesy music, fumbles with the liturgy, and seems more interested in raising money for autumn fests than raising souls to God.
In abandoning tradition, many churches in America have made themselves ridiculous, and this has led to the exodus that Vogt et al. hope to reverse. Even though Vogt will admit that one might need to go “parish-shopping” to find the right fit for the wayward child, he could be more frank about how this is a big problem for many fervid Catholics hoping to deepen their faith. Sadly, he chooses instead to sell his credibility by including an already dated section that suggests using Pope Francis’s celebrity and liberal theology as a selling point.
Like most apologists, he also gives too much legitimacy to the excuses people make for leaving the Church. Following his advice, a parent will work themselves into knots in explaining moral theology for their lunkhead son who really is just really addicted to pornography and videogames. In his effort to not judge, Vogt omits an important point for parents, or anyone, hoping to bring people to Mass: as one becomes a better Catholic, one must become a better human being altogether.
Aside from these shortcomings, Brandon Vogt’s Return offers timely and timeless advice on the fine art of evangelization and apologetics. For those desiring an accessible primer on how to go about sharing the joy of gospel and building up God’s Church, they will find much to appreciate in this book.