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On His Terms, Not Ours

“How can you go into that darkness, once you have known the light?” In deep anguish, my mother-in-law asked my wife and me this question when we told her we were going to enter the Catholic Church.

There was a time when the thought of becoming Catholics would have caused us even greater distress than our news caused her. But now we were near the end of a sixteen-year pilgrimage. We could finally see the Tiber ahead, and we were eager to cross. For many years we had known ourselves as seekers. Now we realized we were pilgrims. The difference? Pilgrims know where they are going.

Whatever its hidden roots, the seeking-which-was-a-pilgrimage began not long after Ruth and I married. While the initiative was largely mine, all those years we traveled together: reading, praying, discussing, at times arguing—always just between ourselves. Yet we never walked in lockstep. Sometimes one of us would go ahead, and the other would insist on a spiritual rest-stop. (I did most of the darting ahead and the chastened retracing of steps.) But we were always together. For that, we are forever grateful.

During much of our pilgrimage we knew that we were wrestling with the problem of authority. How does one know Christian truth with certainty? We saw with increasing clarity that this issue underlies all the divisions among the thousands of competing Christian traditions. We began to recognize that the issue of authority is at root a Christological question: What has God done in Christ to communicate his truth to the world?

The quest for ultimate doctrinal authority may arise out of psychological need. Some of our friends put this interpretation on our pilgrimage. They seemed to think I was the culprit, dragging my poor wife along on my ill-fated journey. “Ray, we always knew you had a need for the authority and structure you’ve found in the Catholic Church.”

What they said was true. It was true in a far deeper sense than they apparently meant it. With all our hearts we believe every human being needs the authority and structure of the Catholic Church. In our Episcopal years Ruth and I grew in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, loving him and trying to serve him. Fairly late in our pilgrimage we realized that we had accepted Christ on our terms, because we had no other. In every instance of moral decision or of personal belief, we were the final authority as to what we should do or believe. This is the dilemma of all non-Catholics.

The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and claims to speak for him under carefully specified conditions. Once the truth of that claim became clear to us, after a long and arduous search, we had no alternative but to submit to the Church’s authority. In that submission we knew we were submitting to Jesus Christ on his terms. No longer were we the final authority in matters of faith and morals. This submission is possible only in the Church Christ established and to which he gave his authority.

Looking back over the years we knew it was the Holy Spirit who long ago had put in our hearts this yearning for ultimate doctrinal and moral authority. It was in entering the Catholic Church that the yearning would know its fulfillment.

Now to the pilgrimage.

Its discernible beginnings lie in my vocation to ordained ministry. The first faint sounds of a call to the ministry came to me in a summer church camp before my freshman year in college. The sounds were so faint that when I entered a college of my denomination I had no clear vocational focus. I majored in history only because it was my favorite subject.

A sophomore course in European history introduced me to details of Catholic teaching. The two textbooks were written by Carleton J. H. Hayes, who was to be the American ambassador to Spain during World War II. (Only recently I learned he had become a Catholic while a student at Columbia.)

I began to learn about popes and monks and bishops and sacraments and interdicts and penitent kings standing barefoot in the snow. Hayes’s books gave far more detail about Catholic belief than the average history book. The Catholic Church was a fascinating subject, but I was not drawn to it by my study then: too remote, too utterly different from my Protestant world.

Even though entering the ministry kept coming into my mind, I never thought of praying for God to guide me. After all, it was my decision to make, or so I thought. (I thank God that he ignored my ignoring him!) In my senior year I decided to enter the seminary at my college.

In that same year came Pearl Harbor. Soon I realized that I could not sit in a classroom while my friends fought a war we all believed was necessary. After graduation I entered officers’ training for the Navy. I assumed that if I survived military service, and if the attraction to the ministry were valid, the attraction too would survive.

Almost all of my three years in the Navy I served as a communications and navigation officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific theater. We were at sea almost all that time, so in my off-duty hours I read widely and studied in preparation for seminary.

A chaplain on our ship put me in touch by correspondence with his former professor, Robert H. Pfeiffer, distinguished professor of Old Testament at Harvard Divinity School. Pfeiffer very graciously guided my study of his classic introduction to the Old Testament. My correspondence with Pfeiffer and friendship with the chaplain, himself a Harvard graduate, led me to choose Harvard Divinity School.

Ruth and I had been in college together, and we were married just before the war ended. When I was released from the Navy we moved to Cambridge, where I enrolled in the Divinity School. I soon learned that some of the faculty and students were Unitarian. Until then I had scarcely heard the word “Unitarian.” In my course work I made a fateful discovery. I, too, was “Unitarian.” In my college years and especially in my Navy years I had drifted imperceptibly into the Unitarian belief that Jesus was only a great moral teacher, nothing more.

My first theology course was taught by an elderly Dutch scholar with a very impressive name, Johannes Augustus Christopher Fagginger Auer. Without knowing it, I think, he did me a great favor by showing me the superficiality of what I actually believed.

One day, when in a reflective mood, he admitted to us in class, “It’s not an easy thing to come to the end of your life and not know whether there’s anything beyond death.” At that moment I realized that at most I had only a vague hope that there is something-a vague hope, but no assurance. Ruth had retained the Trinitarianism of her Protestant upbringing, but was not strong in her faith then.

After two or three months of pondering my own situation, I told the dean I had no desire to preach and teach Christianity if what I was learning in class was all there is to Christianity. Either I must pursue some other vocation or go elsewhere to inquire further into the Christian religion. I was thinking of transferring to Yale Divinity School.

The dean was gracious and seemed to try to understand my difficulty. Though himself a graduate of Yale, he recommended Ruth and I go instead to Union Theological Seminary in New York. He said that Union was a more “cosmopolitan” environment than Yale. After a trip to Union and a talk with several faculty, we decided to transfer there.

Ruth and I lived in the men’s dormitory, three floors of which had been given over to married students. We took our meals in the refectory. For three years we ate, slept, drank, and breathed theology. Theological discussion was the consuming passion of everyone at Union. We were immersed in the theological bedlam that is Protestantism: all traditions to some extent contradicting each other and all claiming to be based on the Bible.

Union was indeed “cosmopolitan.” Dozens of denominations and many competing theological approaches created a lively, fascinating environment. Ardent Barthians argued fiercely with equally ardent Brunnerians; Niebuhrians battled with Tillichians. But everyone, so far as I knew, was Trinitarian. At Union I heard Jesus Christ powerfully proclaimed. I became a believing Christian, and Ruth’s faith in Christ was greatly strengthened.

Amid this bedlam we thought we heard a voice of theological sanity. We began to learn about the Episcopal Church through one of my professors, who was an Anglican clergyman and a persuasive apologist for his tradition. (“Anglicanism” is a generic term to designate the Church of England and all its transplanted branches, such as the Episcopal Church in this country.)

The Episcopal Church holds that to avoid theological chaos, Scripture must be interpreted by tradition; in particular, by the tradition of the early Church. Here, we thought, is a church rooted in the past, in historical continuity with the early Church. Its theological approach seemed very sensible. We quickly came to love the Elizabethan language of the Prayer Book, the distinctive Episcopal architecture, the Englishness of the Episcopal ethos.

So we became Episcopalians. By this time I had completed my theology degree and a year of doctoral study at Columbia and Union. Ruth had earned a master’s degree at Columbia while teaching nursery school.

To prepare for ordination and life within the Episcopal Church, we moved to Alexandria, Virginia. For a year I attended the Episcopal seminary there and worked as a seminarian in a Washington parish. The Episcopal bishop of Washington ordained me to the diaconate and later to the priesthood in the National Cathedral. In Washington I served two parishes, one as an associate rector (pastor), the other as rector. Three of our children were born during our Washington years.

We were happy as Episcopalians, but we became increasingly aware of theological discord within the denomination. Anglicans claim they have no distinct theology; their theology is only that of the early Church. But there is widespread disagreement regarding what the early Church’s theology was. A distinctive characteristic of Anglicanism is what is called “comprehensiveness”: trying to embrace a wide range of differing and even contradictory theological opinions within one communion.

The longer we lived within the Episcopal Church and the more we studied its history, the more we saw its theological and moral fragmentation. (We deeply regret that in recent years that fragmentation has greatly accelerated.) Initially, at Union, we were attracted by the Anglican claim of “comprehensiveness.” Now we saw that term as a euphemism for “chaos.”

For generations Anglicans have boasted that theirs is “a bridge church.” That means they stand midway between Protestantism and Catholicism, partaking of the good features of both and rejecting the bad. I used to remind my colleagues that no one lives on a bridge. A bridge is only a means for getting from one place to another.

A ray of hope did shine on us for a time, a movement within the Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) known as “Anglo-Catholicism.” It is based on what proponents call “the branch theory.” This theory holds that the original “Catholic Church” is now divided into three branches, the Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Church of England. Anglo-Catholics claim that all three traditions are equally “Catholic.”

Anglo-Catholics believe that theological disarray within the Episcopal Church is caused by Protestant influences. The solution is to adopt “Catholic” ways in liturgy and (to an undefined degree) in theology. The touchstone of doctrine becomes the “Catholic” faith of the early centuries-“Catholic,” they insist, not “Roman Catholic.”

For half a dozen years or more we identified with the relatively small Anglo-Catholic movement. I taught my parishioners and anyone else who would listen that Episcopalians are “Catholics,” not Protestants. During these years we moved to Texas, where I served a newly-formed parish, and three years later to Oklahoma, where I was chaplain of an Episcopal elementary and secondary school. One of our sons was born in Texas and another in Oklahoma.

This Anglo-Catholic ray of hope finally gave out. We recognized that as a movement Anglo-Catholicism (like Anglicanism) is essentially, inescapably Protestant. The appeal to the faith of the original “Catholic” Church, like the appeal to the tradition of the early centuries, is futile. There is no one to say what that faith is, or what that tradition is, or what that tradition says about Scripture.

We had to admit that each individual decides for himself, or chooses a clergyman who will decide for him, what is “Catholic” and proceeds accordingly. There is no visible entity to which the Anglo-Catholic can point and say, “That is the ‘Catholic Church’ to which I belong.” That “Catholic Church” is only an abstraction.

In the last century John Henry Newman tried desperately for years to convince himself and others that they were part of the “Catholic Church.” Eventually he recognized that his “Catholic Church” was only a “paper church,” existing in the imaginations of himself and other like-minded persons.

Now where to turn?

Like most Anglo-Catholics, we looked on Eastern Orthodoxy with awe, an awe largely born, I later learned, of misunderstanding. The Anglo-Catholic logic regarding Orthodoxy goes like this. “Rome denies that our church is ‘Catholic.’ [That is, Rome-and also the Orthodox-reject the branch theory.] But Rome does admit that the Orthodox Churches are ‘Catholic.’ [Today I know this is incorrect.] Therefore, the Orthodox tradition is living proof that one can be ‘Catholic’ without having to be a ‘papal Catholic.'” We wondered, “Is Orthodoxy the answer to our seeking?”

At this stage of our journey, as a chaplain I had summers free. A generous friend and benefactor made possible our family’s spending several summers at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. There I studied in the Episcopal graduate school of theology.

In our first summer in Sewanee, a well-known Byzantine scholar offered an introductory course in Eastern Orthodoxy. Ruth and I saw this opportunity for me as purely providential. I found the course and the work on a required research paper to be intensely interesting. I decided the paper should be the basis of a graduate thesis in theology. Both Ruth and I were drawn to Orthodoxy by our reading and study. But there was ambivalence in our thinking about the Eastern Churches. The Orthodox ethos is utterly foreign to Americans. Whatever its ethnic background, an Orthodox church is a very different world to those raised in this culture. How could we, an Okie and a Texan and our five children, ever be truly at home in any of these other cultures?

More and more, the essentially ethnic nature of the various Orthodox traditions stood out in our thinking. No other Christian tradition is so deeply rooted in a particular culture as are the several Orthodox churches.

All the Orthodox churches have been ingrown for centuries. None has evangelized any significant part of the world in recent centuries. Their spread to this country and elsewhere has been due almost entirely to the immigration of Orthodox people from their various homelands. Not one of these ethnic churches has demonstrated universal appeal.

Orthodox theologians agree that an ecumenical council is their highest authority. Yet in over 1,200 years they have never conducted one. Now that there is no Christian emperor, who can convoke a council for them? If the patriarch of any of the ethnic churches presumed to call for an ecumenical council, he would be opposed immediately as having asserted unauthorized jurisdiction over the other churches.

But most importantly of all, Orthodox churches have no real solution to the problem of doctrinal authority. The bishop, they say, speaks for Christ, and the ecumenical council is the ultimate authority, and conciliar decrees can be called infallible only after they have been “received” by the whole church, but there is no way of determining whether and when that has happened.

From within the Catholic communion we now can see other fundamental problems in the Orthodox churches. First, the term “Orthodoxy” commonly designates the Orthodox churches as a whole. But both “Orthodoxy” and “Anglo-Catholicism” have this in common: in differing degrees, perhaps, both are abstractions.

There is no entity, no institution to which one can point and say, “There is Orthodoxy.” There is no “Orthodoxy” there are only separate Orthodox churches. All hold basically the same faith, but they are not organically united. Indeed, jurisdictionally they are divided. In a given city in this country one may find two or three or more different Eastern churches, each with its own bishop. But where is “Orthodoxy”? As the Eastern churches gradually separated themselves from Rome, under the influence of powerful Eastern emperors, they became more and more subservient to the secular authority in their countries. This is the problem of “caesaro-papism,” which has characterized the life of the Eastern churches ever since they began to break with Rome. The communist secret police’s admitted control of the Russian Orthodox Church for generations is only the latest example.

Earlier I referred to the Anglo-Catholic opinion that Rome regards the Orthodox churches as “Catholic.” This is incorrect. Vatican II documents, for example, always refer to “the eastern churches,” never to “the Orthodox Church,” and certainly never refer to Orthodox churches as being “Catholic.” True, they do have Catholic sacraments and hold most of the Catholic faith, but they are in schism from the Catholic Church.

Now to resume our story.

Again, it was “back to the search.” We loved the Lord Jesus, we wanted to be in his Church, we wanted to do his will. Where should we look next?

Almost before we dared ask the question one more time, we knew the answer: Rome.

Frequently, in television coverage of baseball games, the camera will focus several times alternately on the pitcher and the catcher, just before the pitcher throws across the plate. The catcher signals for a certain pitch. The pitcher shakes his head, waits for another signal, then another. Finally, when he gets one he likes, the pitcher winds up and delivers.

How many signals from the Holy Spirit dared we turn down? But Rome? Idol-worshiping, power-hungry, priest-ridden, thought-controlling Rome?

From our upbringing and from our seminary training we imbibed all the prejudices, all the stereotypes. But these had to be put aside. We already knew the outlines of Catholic teaching from our Anglo-Catholic days. Now we admitted to ourselves we had to listen to the details of Rome’s claims. Our reading and discussion resolved most of our objections, which were almost entirely based in misunderstanding.

The last major hurdle between ourselves and submission to Rome was the papacy. We read Newman’s Apologia avidly and devoured Meriol Trevor’s two-volume biography of Newman in large bites. Our journey was much like his, though on a small scale. We saw ourselves as pygmies trying to following a giant. We continually invoked his prayers in our behalf. We received much help from what may be the best single book about the Catholic Church, Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism. 

Sixteen years after beginning our search for the full truth of Christ we admitted to one another that we had to submit to Rome. Neither of us really wanted to be a Catholic, but God’s call was unmistakable. We submitted to his will and eventually to his Church.

Our decision had to be kept secret to spare embarrassment to the school of which I was chaplain. Each week for months we drove to another city to spend an evening in instruction by a Benedictine monk whose friendship has been a rich blessing to us. With his help I began seeking employment to support our family. We knew that God never leads anyone down a blind alley. We cast ourselves as completely as possible upon his mercy. Then doors began to open, and the way became clearer.

The day we were received into the Church, Ruth and I wanted to have a party in our home. The problem was that we had no one to invite. Our Episcopal friends were either greatly saddened or resentful. We did not know any Catholics. But we had our party: Ruth and I, our children, the two priests who received us, and, Ruth reminded us, the angels and archangels.

On the third day after our family was received into the Church, I went to early Mass in our parish church. As I knelt in the pew after receiving Communion, the words suddenly came to me, half-aloud, in a burst of joy: “Now I’m ready to die!”

For seven years I was a layman in the Church. During that time we moved to Milwaukee where I completed course work for a doctorate in theology. Back in Oklahoma, I taught and worked for the diocesan educational department and completed my dissertation. Then came a move to San Diego to join the theological faculty of a Catholic university. While teaching full time, I was ordained a permanent deacon in the Church and entered law school at night.

Several years after passing the bar I was preparing to begin part-time practice, which I intended would become full-time after I stopped teaching. Then the Church announced the Pastoral Provision for this country. Under its terms, married Catholic laymen who had formerly been Episcopal clergy were allowed to apply through their bishops for a dispensation from the rule of celibacy and for ordination to the priesthood.

My application was the first to be sent to Rome, though not the first one acted on. Thirteen months later my bishop received a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, telling him the Holy Father had approved my being ordained. Several months later, after a series of written and oral exams, I was ordained to the priesthood. That was twelve years ago.

Each time I stand at the altar, at least once the thought suddenly comes, “Can this be real? Am I a Catholic priest, offering the Holy Sacrifice?” Then comes that blessed answer: “Yes! Thanks be to God!”

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