I was raised in a typical Catholic home. My parents were normal in every sense of the word. Mom made dinners and cleaned house. Dad worked long hours at the Philadelphia shipyard. Looking back I realize they were the salt of the earth. They couldn’t quote a Bible verse, but they lived the gospel.
My father took care of my maternal grandparents in their old age. My mother volunteered in our grade school. Both parents always seemed to be doing something for others. When not doing for others, they busied themselves raising five children. They taught us by example and by the stick. All of us preferred example.
I can honestly say I respected both of my parents. They had done their job well. It was because of this respect that I informed my father of my decision to leave the Catholic Church for the Presbyterian. My father had all the insights of Augustine, only I didn’t realize it. He told me I was making a big mistake in leaving the Church. He then made about the strongest argument I have ever heard for Catholicism. He said, “If the Catholic Church ain’t right, then it’s all bullcrap!”
I know my decision must have been painful for him, but my mind was already made up. I had made friends with “Bible-believing” Christians and “accepted the Lord as my personal Savior.” My hope was to persuade my father to do the same.
I had come to love Scripture. I was becoming aware of the beautiful and simple gospel message of Christ. The Catholic Church had somehow perverted Jesus’ teaching, I thought. I attended weekly Bible studies and read the Word daily. I always prayed for the Lord’s guidance before, during, and after Bible study.
As my Christian walk broadened, I made new friends, many times former Catholics like myself. It was an exciting time, as I attended Bible studies with people from other denominations.
It was during these studies that the differences within Christianity became bothersome to me. I had been studying Scripture vigorously for at least six years and thought my insights were the biblical ones. I by no means thought I had all the answers, but I felt I had at least learned the basics. But during a discussion of infant baptism I became aware that the basics were not so basic after all.
My Baptist friends insisted that one must be baptized as an adult. Infant baptism did not count, since the infant could not make a saving profession of faith in Christ. I found scriptural evidence for my position that infant baptism was permissible, as Paul taught that baptism replaced circumcision. Jesus healed people on the faith of others, so did it not follow that a baby could be baptized on the faith of another? The objections to my position seemed equally strong; nowhere in Scripture could I find clear and convincing evidence for a baby’s being baptized, yet there were many instances chronicling the baptisms of adult believers.
Baptism was just one area where my friends and I came to different understandings of Christ’s true teaching. There were areas of agreement also. We were, after all, “saved” from eternal damnation and were assured salvation by our mutually professed belief and acceptance of Jesus. I found comfort in this thought, and I supposed God would iron out all of the differences in the afterlife. Of course, discussion of that was also divisive: Some of my friends believed the soul remained dead with the body until the general resurrection.
I can remember intermittent contact with Catholics and other “unbelievers” during my “born again” years. Two contacts, though, stand out clearly in my memory. One was with a prolife gay man I met while involved in prolife activism. The best word to describe this fellow is “irreverent.” He sticks in my mind because, in his total disrespect for most things godly, he was able to jostle my thinking to make me look more closely into the history of the Bible.
He of course, wanted nothing to do with the Bible. I wanted the truth. I also wanted to know how to explain it. I felt that God could use me more effectively if I were informed. God must have a tremendous sense of humor; he used this gay skeptic to get me to explore the history of the Bible. I researched it from Protestant sources; the process whetted my appetite for the historical case for Christianity.
The other contact was with an elderly Catholic couple who lived on my block. I had been out of the Church for nearly ten years at the time I met them. Their sad tale of how their daughter had “fallen away” from the Church fell on happy ears. I delighted in telling them how I, too, was a so-called “fallen away” Catholic and was happy to be so. These people were kind souls looking only for clues to their own perceived failure. I should have been more compassionate, but I could not muster any compassion for the Church I saw as leading many, including my own family, into hell.
About this time I met another kind of Catholic. I was on my Presbyterian bus headed for a prolife march in Washington, D.C. My brother-in-law, also Presbyterian, and a few friends were on the bus too. We had a great time, singing hymns, lifting our hands and hearts to God, hoping to effect some change in our country’s acceptance of legalized butchery.
One fellow on the bus seemed out of place. He did not sing the songs, yet he was respectful. He was not overflowing with joy, but he exuded a peaceful sanctity. When the minister asked for silence to lead us in prayer, I knew. The man crossed himself. I thought, “He’s Catholic!”
“Catholic” had become for me a bad word. I thought of Catholics as ritualistic, non-biblical, Mary-loving statue worshipers who had very little understanding of Scripture or Christ’s Church. For the sake of being a good Christian witness, and probably to sour another Catholic on the Church’s unbiblical teachings, I struck up a conversation with this pleasant but misguided fellow. His name was Larry.
Larry was fat and jolly, like a young Santa Claus. He laughed easily, and I soon felt at ease with him. I began delving into his Catholic beliefs. Why do you follow the pope? Why do you need a priest to forgive sins? Why do you believe that Christ must be sacrificed over and over again?
Each question was designed to show him how the Catholic Church violated sacred Scripture. I told him the Bible was the sole rule of faith; we did not need man to tell us how to live. What need have we of man’s learning? And who did the Pope think he was, anyway, putting himself before the Word of God?
Much to my surprise, Larry had a Bible with him. It was not the same as mine; it had seven more books-the “deuterocanonical” books, he called them. I had been taught by my minister that these were uninspired and that the Catholic Church had added these books to the Bible at the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent did give an infallible statement that the deuterocanonical books were part of the canon. Trent, however, did not add to the canon in doing so. Rather, this Council reaffirmed the teachings of the early Church. The Council of Rome (A.D. 382), the Council of Hippo (393), and the third Council of Carthage (397) had recognized the same canon over a thousand years earlier. In contrast to this, the Protestant canon cannot be found as an intact list in any Christian literature before the Reformation. Despite my revisionist view of history (the Council of Trent actually reaffirmed what Christians had always believed), my new friend was patient and kind. He answered carefully all of my challenges to his faith using the Bible! And he didn’t use those extra books to do it.
Although we addressed many issues that day, the one of prime importance was the idea of the Church. What exactly is the “Church”? It was this discussion of “Church” and the biblical properties of it that eventually led me to question my assumptions.
Larry showed me many verses describing Christ’s Church from the beginning. The Bible speaks unambiguously, depicting a Church “united” in “body and soul” (Acts 4:32). Paul likens the Church to “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). In Ephesians 5:30 he states that “we are members of his body, made from his flesh and from his bones.” (See also Col. 1:18.)
Larry reasoned that if Christ’s Church was his body, then it must be uniform. Scripture illustrates this beautifully: “There shall be one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus prayed for this uniformity, asking the Father that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22).
As a “born-again” Christian I thought that all Bible-believers had a unity in the Spirit of God. Somehow, I believed, God united us in our total love and devotion for his Son, but I did not see the need for doctrinal unity. The only doctrine I thought essential was sola scriptura, that the Bible alone was to be our guide. I thought that God led through Scripture and his Spirit; doctrinal differences seemed unimportant.
Yet here was Jesus praying for a unity far closer than the unity of my own body and soul. He wanted his body, the Church, to be one as he and the Father are one. After reading this verse and meditating on it, I knew that the Church must somehow be one. After all, Jesus, being God, must have had his prayer answered in its speaking. Scripture reaffirms this truth. “There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were all called into the one and same hope when you were called. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and God who is father of all, over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
My chubby champion of Catholicism was all too happy to point out that Scripture commands this unity: “Now I beseech thee brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1Cor 1:10).
After this discussion I was left wondering where I could find this unified Church. I knew from my Protestant, Evangelical experience that the many churches that hold the Bible as the sole rule of faith teach hundreds of contradicting doctrines, and yet I supposed that one of these churches must be the one that had the oneness spoken of in Scripture.
I conceded to Larry that Christ’s Church, by definition, must be unified. The beliefs could not just be similar, but must be one as Jesus and his Father are one. But I was not willing to accept Larry’s rosary-wrapped assertion that this unity could only be found in an authoritative teaching Church. I desperately pressed him a little more, telling him with assurance that it was the “God-breathed” Scripture that ultimately upholds the truth of the gospel message. Larry smiled and responded calmly, “It is the Church of the living God that upholds the truth and keeps it safe” (1 Tim. 3:15).
I could not believe it. There, before my eyes, Scripture was pointing to a Church that upheld the truth. As we studied Scripture more closely, I learned much more about this Church’s characteristics. I realized it was a teaching Church with real authority. Jesus’ words to his apostles emphasize their teaching ministry: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations baptizing them . . . [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Jesus gave this command to the apostles alone and not to the masses, illustrating the teaching ministry of those in authority and not of all believers. He ended this command providing assurance, saying, “I am with you even until the consummation of the world.” How is Jesus with us until the end of the world? My answer would have been in his Word, the Bible, and through his Spirit. While this is true, I now knew that Jesus is with us in his body, the Church.
Thus, somehow Jesus, the head and foundation of the Church, continues teaching the gospel through his Body. As all bodies are one, yet contain different parts acting for the whole, so is the Church.
I did not decide to return to the Catholic Church that day. Shaken but not converted, I became aware of the spiritual journey God was calling me to. I maintained a friendship with Larry, and he introduced me to the early Church Fathers. Surprised, I discovered that an authoritative teaching Church, which has been kept free from error by the Holy Spirit, had been with us from the beginning.
Christ made this promise to us in John’s Gospel: “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your mind whatever I have said to you” (John 14:26). Jesus also says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, he will be my witness. And you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset” (John 15:16).
Jesus through the Spirit of truth remains with his authoritative, teaching Church. Indeed, Jesus declares in John’s Gospel, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (20:21). It is therefore implied that as the Father sent Jesus with authority, so too is the Church sent with authority.
After years of study and prayer, I came to know that my church was not the Church that the Bible spoke of. Our sole authority was the Bible, yet the Bible describes a Church with binding teaching authority. (See Acts 15, Titus, 1Timothy, 2 Timothy, Matthew 18:15-17.) If any minister claimed to have the kind of authority the Bible speaks of, he would be ridiculed.
I was not ready to rejoin the Catholic faith. My wife was firmly entrenched in the Presbyterian system of worship and belief, and we had a child to consider. I continued to study Scripture, as had become my habit-only now I studied with an eye toward finding clues that would help me identify the authoritative, teaching Church that I now knew the Bible described. As I read with this in mind, I found more and more verses that shook my previously hardened views.
The hardest thing to let go of was my deeply held belief in the Bible as the sole rule of faith. In fact, the Bible specifically denies it is the sole rule. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “We charge you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother who lives irregularly and not according to the traditions received by us” (3:6). Where are those traditions to be found? The same letter provides the answer: “Stand firm and hold the tradition you have learned, whether by word of mouth or letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
These verses troubled me deeply. I approached many ministers to ask for an explanation. If the traditions were to be found in the word-of-mouth teachings as well as Scripture, then the Bible was not the sole rule of faith! Most ministers squirmed through the problem by pointing out that the Bible had not been completed at the time of this writing, but, upon its completion, the word-of-mouth teachings were no longer necessary. Besides, the argument would go, who can tell us what those word-of-mouth teachings actually are?
This explanation did not ring true because, if the Bible is entirely inspired, all of its verses are valid, pertinent, and true. Scripture proclaims this basic truth about its inspiration: “All Scripture is inspired by God and can be profitably used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding peoples’ lives, and teaching them to be holy” (2 Tim. 3:16). So all verses, being inspired, teach a truth about Jesus’ gospel. I asked, “Where does the Bible teach that, after its completion, the word-of-mouth traditions became obsolete?”
An awkward silence followed my inquiry.
My study of early Christian literature troubled me. I found witness after witness proclaiming the truth of the Catholic gospel. Not one early writer defended, even remotely, the concept of sola scriptura. To the contrary, the Fathers were uniform in their testimony to a visible, authoritative Church, established by Christ to be the only vehicle for the salvation of mankind. Indeed, Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the early theologians, wrote in the early fifth century, “I for my part would not believe the gospel, unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me to it.” My own father’s theological insights returned to my consciousness. The concept of sola scriptura could not be found anywhere in Church history until nearly fifteen hundred years after Christ, in Wycliffe’s time, on the eve of the Reformation.
Still, old habits die hard. I continued to search for a scriptural passage that clearly taught the doctrines I wanted to believe. The second epistle to the Thessalonians was troubling, as were the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus, but I did not want to abandon my whole theology.
Believing that I had missed something in my studies, I approached minister after minister, asking them to find that elusive verse that teaches the Bible is the sole rule of faith. Nobody ever did. The best these fine men could come up with were Bible verses assuring us about its inspiration and excellence. Sola scriptura was always read into these verses, but never taught explicitly.
I now know that the verse cannot be found because it does not exist. God never intended man to be ruled by a means that cannot be applied in a practical or standard way. If the Bible were the sole authority, then salvation would evade the illiterate, the unintelligent, and most of those who lived before the printing press made the Bible readily available. Truth is to be found in both the written and oral traditions passed down from the apostles. I am now dumbfounded that this truth evaded me for so long.
The Bible speaks plainly and naturally about the necessity of the living, oral traditions one would expect to find in a living, breathing Body, the Church. “You have heard everything that I teach in public; hand it on to reliable people so that they in turn will be able to teach others” (2Tim. 2:2). The Acts of the Apostles teaches us that the earliest Christians “remained faithful to the teachings of the apostles” (2:42). This faithfulness occurred long before the Bible’s completion, so they must have been faithful to oral teachings.
Many other Scripture passages support the importance of the oral teachings: 2 John 12, 3 John 12, 1 Peter 1:25, Luke 10:16, Romans 10:14-16, 1 Corinthians 11:22 and 15:3-11, to name a few. The Bible actually tells us “there are many other things Jesus did” that were not recorded (John 21:25). Yet Jesus assures us that his word will never pass away. So where can these unrecorded things be found? I knew Scripture taught they had not passed away.
I knew what had to be done. I had to seek a church that held to the oral teachings and Scripture as the rule of faith. The earliest churches all maintain a tradition not evident in Protestant churches. The Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic Churches maintain nearly identical traditions based on Scripture and oral teachings. What led me into the Catholic Church instead of these others? Besides a predisposition to Catholicism (my family of origin remained Catholic), I realized that unity in worship and belief is found first and foremost there. The Catholic Church is the only candidate still holding fast to the ultimate oral and scriptural teaching. It is founded on the rock of Peter, who was given the keys of authority to lead the Church. All of the early Christians recognized the Bishop of Rome as the leader of the Church. It is he who is Christ’s pillar of unity for his Church. The Catholic Church alone possesses him, and she alone was present from the beginning.
My reconversion has been difficult. My wife remains Presbyterian, as does our eldest child, who was ten years old at the time of my reentrance into the Church. Our three youngest are being raised Catholic. This has caused considerable hardship, as one might imagine.
We have moved away from our previous home, but I was lucky enough to bump into the elderly Catholic couple mentioned earlier. They were ecstatic that I had returned to the Church; the woman told me she had never stopped praying for me since our earlier discussion. I know the communion of saints was at work here. Their own daughter has yet to come home.