I was received into the Catholic Church in February 1991, an event which as recently as a year earlier would have seemed to me absolutely inconceivable. Not much in my background would have indicated this surprising turn of events, but such are God’s ever-inscrutable mercy and providence.
Following a nominally Methodist early childhood, I rarely attended church throughout most of the 1970s and even dabbled in occultic practices. I converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1977, at the age of 18, after a severe depression in which the meaninglessness of life without Christ was made evident to me. Over a course of years I attended Lutheran, Assemblies of God, and nondenominational churches with strong connections to the “Jesus Movement,” a revival which was characterized by youth, spontaneity of worship, contemporary music, and warm fellowship. Many of my friends were former Catholics.
I knew little of Catholicism and regarded it as an exotic, stern, and unnecessarily ritualistic “denomination.” I had never been attracted to liturgy, and didn’t believe in sacraments at all, although I always had great reverence for the Lord’s Supper and believed something real was imparted in it.
I was never overtly anti-Catholic. Having been active in apologetics and counter-cult work (specializing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses), I realized that Catholicism was different from the cults in that it had correct central doctrines, such as the Trinity and the bodily resurrection of Christ. I considered Catholicism fully Christian, although inferior to Evangelicalism, and desired to dialogue with orthodox and articulate Catholics, but rarely got the chance.
For four years I was a missionary on college campuses and also got involved in the pro-life rescue movement. It became apparent to me that Catholic rescuers were just as committed to Christ and godliness as were Evangelicals. At rescues I began to “fellowship” with Catholics, including priests and nuns. Although still unconvinced theologically, my admiration for orthodox Catholics grew.
In January 1990 I started an ecumenical discussion group; it included three knowledgeable Catholic friends from the rescue movement. Their claims for the Church, particularly regarding papal infallibility, challenged me to plunge into considerable research on that subject. I thought I had found many errors and contradictions throughout papal history. Later I realized that the incidents I came upon didn’t fit into the category of infallible pronouncements as defined by the First Vatican Council of 1870.
In the meantime, I was reading Catholic books exclusively (and all the short Catholic Answers tracts), and my respect for and understanding of Catholicism grew rapidly. I began with The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, a nearly perfect book about Catholicism as a worldview and a way of life–perfect especially for a person acquainted with basic Catholic theology. I read books by cultural historian Christopher Dawson, Joan Andrews (a heroine of the rescue movement), and Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk.
My three friends continued to offer replies to nearly all of my of questions. I was dumbfounded by the realization that Catholicism seemed to have thought out everything. It was a marvelously complex and consistent belief system unparalleled by any portion of Evangelicalism.
Soon I became troubled by Protestantism’s free and easy acceptance of contraception. I came to believe, in agreement with the Church, that once one regards sexual pleasure as an end in itself, then the “right to abortion” is logically not far away. My Evangelical pro-life friends might have been able to draw the line, but the less spiritually-minded have not in fact done so, as has been borne out by the full force of the sexual revolution since the widespread use of the Pill began around 1960.
I was surprised to learn that no Christian body had accepted contraception until the Anglicans did in 1930. The inevitable progression in nations from contraception to abortion was demonstrated irrefutably by Fr. Paul Marx of Human Life International. The Teaching of Humanae Vitae, written by John Ford, Germain Grisez, and others, convinced me of the moral distinction between contraception and natural family planning and put me over the edge.
I now accepted a very un-Protestant belief, but still didn’t even dream of becoming Catholic. Yet I was falling prey to Chesterton’s principle of conversion: One cannot be fair to Catholicism without starting to admire it and become convinced of it. Meanwhile my wife, Judy, who was raised Catholic and had become a Protestant before we first dated, had also been convinced independently of the wrongness of contraception. She returned to the Church on the day I was received.
By July 1990, then, I believed Catholicism had the best moral theology of any Christian body and greatly respected its sense of community, devotion, and contemplation. Interestingly, up to this point I had changed virtually none of my theology. Moral issues and intangible mystical elements got the ball of conversion rolling for me and increasingly rang true deep within my soul–beyond, but not opposed to, the rational calculations of my mind.
One of my friends, tiring of my constant rhetoric about Catholic “errors” and “additions” through the centuries, suggested I read Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This book demolished the whole schema of Church history which I had constructed: that early Christianity was Protestant and that Catholicism was a later corruption. (Unlike most Evangelicals, I placed the collapse of Christianity in the late Middle Ages rather than in the time of Constantine.)
Martin Luther, so I reckoned, had discovered in sola scriptura the means to scrape the accumulated Catholic barnacles off of the originally lean and clean Christian ship. Newman exploded this notion. The real question is whether the ship will arrive at its destination. For this purpose sacred Tradition acts like a rudder, absolutely necessary for guidance and direction. Newman brilliantly demonstrated the characteristics of true doctrinal development, as opposed to corruption, within the visible and historically continuous Church instituted by Christ. I found myself unable and unwilling to refute his reasoning, and a crucial piece of the puzzle had been put into place. Tradition had become plausible to me.
Thus began what some call a paradigm shift. While reading the Essay I experienced a peculiar and quite intense feeling of reverence for the idea of a Church “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Catholicism was now thinkable, casting me into a crisis. I knew that the Church was visible and suspected that it was infallible as well. Once I accepted Catholic ecclesiology, the theology followed as a matter of course, and I accepted it without difficulty, even the Marian doctrines–highly unusual for a Protestant.
My Catholic friends had been tilling the rocky soil of my stubborn mind and will for almost a year, planting Catholic seeds, and now, to their surprise, the seeds began to sprout. I had fought the hardest just prior to reading Newman, in a desperate attempt to salvage my Protestantism–much as a drowning man kicks most furiously just before he succumbs.
I continued reading, now actively trying to persuade myself fully of Catholicism. I went through Newman’s autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, through Tom Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough, which helped me appreciate the genius of liturgy for the first time, and through two books by Chesterton. At this time I had the privilege of meeting Fr. John Hardon, the eminent Jesuit catechist, and attending his informal class on spirituality. This gave me the opportunity to learn from a scholarly, authoritative Catholic priest and a delightful and humble man.
After seven tense weeks of alternately questioning my sanity and arriving at exciting new discoveries, the final blow came in just the fashion I had suspected. I studied a large portion of the six-volume biography Luther, by the German Jesuit Hartmann Grisar. This convinced me that the foundational tenets of the Reformation were tenuous.
I always had rejected Luther’s conception of predestination and his notion of the total depravity of mankind. Now I realized that if man had a free will, he did not have to be declared righteous in a merely forensic, abstract sense, but could participate actively in his redemption. By being justified he actually would be made righteous by God.
I learned many disturbing facts about Luther; for example, his radically subjective existential methodology, his disdain for reason and historical precedent, and his dictatorial intolerance of opposing viewpoints, including those of his fellow Protestants. These and other discoveries convinced me that he was not really a reformer seeking the pure, pre-Nicene Church, but rather a revolutionary who created a novel theology.
Now I was unconvinced of the standard Protestant concept of the invisible, rediscovered Church. In the end, my love of history played a crucial part in my forsaking Protestantism, which tends to give very little attention to history. The inattention is necessary if one is to reject Catholicism in good conscience.
Now it became an intellectual and moral duty to abandon Protestantism in its Evangelical form, but it was not easy. Old habits and perceptions die hard, but I refused to let mere feelings and biases interfere with the wondrous process of illumination which was overpowering me by God’s grace. I waited expectantly for one last impetus to surrender myself fully. The unpredictable course of conversion came to an end on December 6, 1990, while I was reading Cardinal Newman’s meditation on “Hope in God the Creator” and in a moment decisively realized that I had already ceased to offer any resistance to the Catholic Church. As in most converts’ experience, an icy fear had set in early on, similar to the cold feet of premarriage jitters, but in an instant this final obstacle vanished and a tangible sense of emotional and theological peace prevailed.