Most Catholics I know personally have only the vaguest notion of the Patristic writings. I suppose most Protestants will start out the same way, then when a Catholic apologist recommends the writings all they can think is that “you’ll have to convince me on your own, don’t expect me to make it easy for you and do your reading for you".
But supposing they have heard of the fathers before? What do people think?
The descriptive title of “Fathers” can be difficult for those who would call no man father, it can almost discredit them before a page is turned.
Perhaps it is useful to refer back to a popular mythology impressed upon many non-Catholic Christians (Protestants and some groups that arose out of the Protestant culture).
A common feeling is that shortly after the Apostolic age the church was derailed and became apostate, some people peg the time of conversion of Constantine or just afterward as the date, others much earlier.
The Patristic age was going strong at that time and so Christian writings of the age are automatically discredited. Some people are totally unaware that there were enough literate Christians of the age to write such a vast body of work. Some people posit a theory that there were “secret” Christians keeping the “true” faith from persecution by the “official” corrupt church, these publicly available documents would not reflect the “true” church.
Some people will think that the writings were faked. The existence of some spurious material has served to reinforce that notion.
Finally, the Fathers of the Church are a very diverse bunch, and they did have differing opinions on some things. The teachings of the Fathers are harmonious with each other, of course. But they didn’t agree about everything all of the time. What makes them so special is that they write in a manner that makes it clear that they assume certain doctrines that modern Catholics and Orthodox also take for granted (like the Real Presence, for example). But one could proof text the writings of some Fathers, together with some Gnostic writings and draw a very different picture of the early church.
Any Catholic that wants to quote the Fathers, had better actually read them, and not just excerpts. It will make ones arguments stronger if all of the quotable quotes are read in context. Be prepared to spend the rest of your life at it!
In Christ Always,