I have been a Protestant minister for nearly thirty years, and what I am led to do is no small matter.
Most of my education, all of my professional and counseling skills, all of my years of sacrifice and hard work, and the little bit of security I've been able to provide my family are now squarely on the line because of my decision to convert.
I have enjoyed the affection of many congregations, and these final years in the pastorate have been the dearest ones to me because of their ecumenical dimensions, but for a larger truth I must walk away forever from the pastorate.
At the age of 48, when most family men are looking seriously toward an eventual retirement, I am about to turn my family's future security into one large and blurred question mark. I don't doubt that many will question my sanity.
I propose to lay my life before you in paper and ink. Behind all that I write is my prayer that some souls will be persuaded to forsake the atomized sectarianism that has cruelly victimized people like me and to embrace that unity of Christ's truthfulness which is with us as his sacrament in the world and to the world, the Catholic Church.
In two articles I will attempt to describe my victimization by Protestant Fundamentalism and relate how God's kind and providential hand has liberated me from that Pandora's box of sectarianisms while leading me in ordered steps from Fundamentalism into Anglicanism and then through ecumenism to the doorstep of the Church.
If I were asked why I am converting to Catholicism and forsaking the Protestantism of my youth and middle age, my answer would be simple and succinct: "I have found that God is God without any need of apology." What do I mean in saying "God is God" and that he doesn't need any man to apologize for who he is? Let's begin with the last part of this mini-credo.
Because we Christians rightly understand Jesus Christ to be the one Incarnation of God for all time and eternity, we join our faith with Paul in proclaiming that "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:19).
To see Christ is to see God; to know Christ is to know God; to love Christ is to love God; to serve Christ is to serve God. Christ could turn water into wine because he is the Creator-God. Those I grew up with agree that Christ is God (this is one of the fundamentals of Fundamentalism).
At the same time these people dislike hearing that it was wine that Christ produced from water, so they unwittingly apologize for God by insisting it was actually grape juice Christ had made. According to them, "God is against all consumption of alcohol." Jesus clearly said, "This is my body," but my Fundamentalist friends insist he meant, "This only symbolizes my body," since "God never would have instituted the Mass of the Catholics." Jesus promised, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt .16:18), but all my life I was taught the Reformation came along because the gates did prevail.
Of course this sort of thing is never said in such drastic words, but the neglect of church history between the end of the apostolic era and the beginning of the Protestant rebellion implied this sad belief, and we all understood the rationale behind this neglect to be the notion that "God never would have gone along with the development of Catholicism during this period."
What of Fundamentalism? What is it really? The term originally referred to Protestants who reacted against the modern biblical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They reacted with a mechanical view of biblical infallibility and inerrancy as well as a selectively literalistic view of scriptural interpretation.
The "fundamentals" of Fundamentalism are the beliefs this party rallied around. They were skeletonized versions of such dogmas as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, his physical Resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible (particularly the King James Version).
In reality they were only makeshift battle standards devoid of profound theological thought, mere orthodox slogans ripped out of the vibrant context of living Tradition.
For all the noise made by their late twentieth-century counterparts about believing all of the Bible literally, in actual practice present-day Fundamentalists adhere only to their favorite verses of Scripture (and those taken out of proper context). The real Bible of the Fundamentalists--that is, what is wielded in discussions--is typically unrelated verse pasted to unrelated verse in order to prove a pet argument.
It is important to realize that the spirit of this Fundamentalist mindset always has existed and always has blighted religion wherever and whenever it has appeared. Paul's admonition that "the letter kills" if isolated from the spirit behind the letter (2 Cor. 3:6) is a warning to those carried off by selective literalism and Scripture pasting. Most of the classical heresies had strong elements of this approach at their heart.
Arius proclaimed a kind of Fundamentalism when he railed against the Church's belief in Christ's divinity (his co-equality with the Father) by isolating and harmonizing those passages which emphasize Christ's humanity and ignoring or explaining away those which speak of his divinity.
Nestorius used similar methods in his preachments against the dogmatic designation of Mary as the Mother of God. Misusing Scripture to prove Mary to be only the mother of the manhood of Christ, he culminated his arguments by describing Jesus as containing two distinct persons, God and a man, and he did this with an array of proof texts which would impress a sectarian of any era.
Nearly 1,500 years after the founding of the Church the Protestant Reformers rebelled against the ancient faith by denying Christ's promises of his Church's infallibility--not necessarily in words, but in the action of breaking away from the unity of the Church and establishing a sect to take the Church's place. If the Church was believed infallible through the Holy Spirit's direction, then to break from its unity would be to break from the authority of God, and this could never be admitted by the Reformers.
Eliminating this orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit's guidance of Christ's people, they adopted the methods of the ancient heresiarchs by using favorite verses to establish their new form of Christianity. While the false teachers of earlier centuries implied the infallibility of their assorted texts (instead of the infallibility of the Church), the Reformers made this perverted understanding of selected verses into the foundation of their religious movements under a deceptive banner of sola scriptura.
(I recall an uproar at a church I once pastored when I preached on Jesus turning water into wine. Some upset parishioners took me aside and told me I mustn't mention that particular miracle again but should preach on those passages that depict the evil of strong drink. The Bible was to be set against itself with some passages ignored because other passages were found more agreeable.)
In a slavish literalization and near deification of their Bible-verse assemblages, they forsook the inspired approach to Holy Writ left by Jesus wherein Christ himself, not some proof text, was the center of revelation. The Catholic Christocentrism of the faith was exchanged for the bibliocentrism of the ancient heresiarchs, and the predictable disasters of sectarianism followed.
The Reformers advanced sola scriptura and a naive idea that every Christian could rightly interpret Scripture outside the context of the preceding 1,500 years of the Holy Spirit's guidance. What evolved was a many-headed Christendom at constant war with itself.
From sola scriptura could come only a confusion of sects and cults, each proclaiming "the Bible says." In due course Fundamentalism would work this mess into sundry expressions, each claiming to be the true New Testament pattern of things.
A little boy inherited this tragic disaster, and I was that little boy.
I grew up in a Baptist household where Fundamentalism was accepted as a matter of course but never overdone. My parents were good and hard-working people who honored their religion by raising their children to be morally straight and decent in their behavior.
While I was a boy my father seldom attended church, leaving it up to my mother to do whatever attending was to be done. Never was either parent guilty of forcing the children to practice their religion beyond decent behavior and attending Sunday school.
Possibly, had I taken their common-sense approach to it all, I would have grown up happily indifferent to the Fundamentalist preaching of those tender years. As it was, I grew up to believe things that would lead me to suppose the Baptists had rediscovered the long-lost New Testament Church and had gone further than men such as Luther and Calvin in rejecting the pope and his people. I came to believe that only my church and others like it could get people "saved" and into heaven and that only such churches (usually Baptist) really believed the Bible.
A great part of my childhood was spent trying to realize the elusive experience that Fundamentalists call "getting saved" or "being born again." While it was a perfectly reasonable thing to desire to go to heaven and escape hell, there always was something unreasonable about the means offered to that laudable end.
All of the preachers quoted verse after verse about "having faith in Jesus as your personal Savior." All were agreed on the efficacy of "going forward and repeating the sinner's prayer," but from then on it was anybody's ball game.
In our church some said, "Don't cuss, don't dance, don't go to movies." Some made exceptions for square dancing or Pat Boone movies. The poor Nazarenes had it tougher--no make up, no popular songs, no smoking or chewing, no mixed bathing at the swimming pool.
The Church of Christ out in the country didn't give a hoot whether you smoked or chewed, but Bible in hand its members condemned to hell any not immersed by a Church of Christ elder. All of them could quote verses showing these things were evidences of having faith in a "personal Savior."
In my church I went forward, repeated the sinner's prayer, asked Jesus to be my "personal Savior," and was immersed in the baptistry. My pastor assured me I was saved for time and eternity and would go directly to heaven when I died. How strange then that I still feared hell so morbidly and still felt "unsaved."
The revivals (evangelistic meetings) of those days didn't help either. If anything the evangelists made salvation sound easy, and the testimonies from older people at those meetings only made a little boy feel all the more doomed for his lack of faith and feeling. I would tremble imagining what hell would be like if I couldn't find faith enough to be saved before I died.
Fired in my imagination by the hellfire and judgment sermons of my childhood, I was to be found hour after hour searching the Bible for the magical solution the preachers called "just having faith and believing the Bible." While other children were out playing cowboys and baseball, I spent my time searching and searching for enough faith to feel "saved" and to escape hell.
I look back upon my stolen childhood in tears, not because hell is a light matter nor because our salvation is unimportant, but because they are eternally important concerns and Fundamentalism could offer only the barren rocks of "the Bible says" for a child's spiritual hunger. Yet in all this and perhaps in spite of all this I cannot doubt that heaven is full of compassion for the little victims of Fundamentalism and that a gentle and loving providence is there to lead children to the truth that can set us free.
It is a happy providence of God that, except for the most puritanical of Protestant sects, Christmas emerges to some degree in most congregations. Once more a vestige of ancient Catholicism is permitted to cheer even the most somber caves of Fundamentalism. As I recall those Christmases long past, I fondly remember the beautiful life-like nativity scene my father built for our front yard.
Every year people would flock to that display. They would stand in rapt silence and gaze at the marvelous scene. On those cold, wintry nights I'd look out the windows at the cars and the crowds and sense something otherworldly in the reverence of the people, many of whom belonged to congregations which had no use for statues and holy mystery.
As I grew older I quietly stood outside and dared to imagine things my church had little time for, wonderful things not of "the Bible says" variety, but assuredly at the heart of that dear book. During this time of wonderment I happened to walk into the local Catholic church and, although I didn't understand everything I saw and heard, the blessedness I sensed at my father's nativity scene seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the building. I was overwhelmed with beauty, a beauty that was holy and right.
Spending a few dimes, I purchased a pamphlet on Catholicism from the rack and devoured its contents that very night. In my boyish enthusiasm I wrote the kindly Paulist missionary who authored the tract and for months thereafter basked in the warmth and light of the faith he so patiently shared with the excited fellow I was.
For every "the Bible says" argument I'd heard and could parrot in response to his Catholic witness he returned overpowering words of peace and love, and for the first time in my life I learned it was possible simply to love God as the saints love him. Vistas of faith broke upon my consciousness, revealing at once the narrow drabness of my sectarian abode and the vast cathedral God could build in a loving and obedient soul.
How beautiful to learn that God was to be loved and treasured, that Christ's birth, death, and Resurrection were the sure signs of his love for us sinners, that in fact he loved us so much that he is present in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass.
My heart was deeply touched to learn of the Virgin's concern over the centuries for Christ's people, of her well-documented visitations to Earth, and of the noble and true friends called saints who were praying for me and who would teach me by holy example to love God wholeheartedly.
For those brief months my attention was turned away from the obsession of getting enough faith to feel "saved" and onto loving God in his goodness, onto following Christ with his army of saints and angels with a childlike willingness to bear whatever cross he might give for this life. I was decidedly happy and had every intention of becoming a Catholic, but soon enough this "Christmas of the soul" was shattered for me by well-intentioned and very alarmed adults.
In all fairness to my father and mother, their initial intervention was only an appropriate act of parental responsibility, and I certainly would have intervened as a parent of a ten-year-old, given the gravity of what I proposed to do. The real damage came from other adults, particularly preachers, who in typical sectarian fashion regaled me with tales of the Inquisition and the Antichrist.
Long before Chick Publications spun their lurid comic book stories of papal plots and "Romish" skullduggery, I would hear it all, for it had been kicking around since the Reformation, and Fundamentalism had embellished it grotesquely by the time it reached my young ears.
In the years to come I would be offered a wide range of such claptrap from the older citizens in the community and from ex-Catholic preachers. From that first glimmer of Catholicism's ancient light I was plunged into the unwholesome depths once more of "the Bible says."
Greensboro had a strong chapter (klavern) of the Ku Klux Klan early in this century, and at least one of the town churches hosted a service for them. When immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe came to work the coal mines, our area was flooded with hate material aimed at "those Catholic foreigners," and much of that ill-will died out only when that generation died out.
The animosity lived on and was evident in 1959 when most of the Fundamentalists in my high school graduation class angrily protested to the principal over a picture of Pope John XXIII posted by one of the social studies teachers on his bulletin board. (A compromise was reached, and the teacher posted a picture of Billy Graham on his other board.)
Today I understand Newman's complaint in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua:
"I read Newton on the Prophecies, and in consequence became most firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, St. Paul, and St. John. My imagination was stained by the effects of this doctrine up to the year 1843; it had been obliterated from my reason and judgment at an earlier date; but the thought remained upon me as a sort of false conscience."
Through it all I devoutly believed that God's guidance would never let me go. In hindsight I can see that guidance when I recall that for every poisonous drop of anti-Catholic humbuggery I ingested the Lord fed my spirit with examples of Catholicism's holiness.
When I was told Catholics could not find salvation in their religion, the psychic damage of such a lie would be assuaged on a subconscious level every Sunday night while mother and I thrilled to the dramatized lives of the saints on the Graymoor Friars' Ave Maria Hour broadcasts.
Try as some might to persuade me that the Catholic clergy were a motley lot wheeling and dealing in ignorance and superstition as enemies of biblical knowledge, every Tuesday night I would be dissuaded from such foolishness as my father and I hung onto every eloquent phrase spoken by Bishop Sheen on his Life is Worth Living telecasts.
I couldn't put it into words then, but now I can say our Fundamentalist preachers came off rather shabbily beside that Catholic bishop who was so well versed in both the Bible and Thomistic thought. The accusations that Catholics lived in dread of their priests never could stand up, even in a child's mind, to the obvious devotion and regard Catholics had for their Church and the near reverence displayed toward their pastors' calling and learning.
Were Catholics devoid of real love for Christ? I was told they were because of their love for Mary, but I could not help but look up to so many of them whose lives demonstrated holy-minded peace.
Pity the youngster who is cowered by the Fundamentalist mentality and its taboos on clean fun.
There is a suffocating atmosphere which seems to surround those who take Fundamentalism at all seriously, and, sadly, I would be just the sort of youngster who would do this. Terrified as I was by the anti-Catholic horror stories, I fled to my sect determined to follow the puritanical lifestyle preached by our pastors.
Many examples come to mind, but one stands out. I recall as a boy seeing our pastor standing on the river bank, pen and tablet in hand, writing the names of all Baptists entering "that floating den of iniquity of a showboat." A harmless and rather campy melodrama was playing inside.
Denied to me was the loving and merciful God and his saints and angels. In their place was a glowering portrait of a deity who hated movies, cards, and dancing, a cruel being who held out the offer of heaven much like a carrot on a stick for a stubborn mule.
He was never a God who could be loved, even though one of Fundamentalism's favorite lines is "for God so loved the world." He was a celestial tyrant who used this "love" much as a spoiled child uses tantrums--to get his own way.
My predominant thought once more became, "How can I know I'm going to heaven and not to hell?" This was my inward torment. Have faith in Jesus? Be baptized according to this or that sect's method? Believe although you don't feel? All of this over and over again during my childhood and into my teen years dogged my every step, making me miserable.
I tried memorizing Bible verses, went forward in whatever revival I visited, sought the so-called "second blessing" of the holiness sects, and sought speaking in tongues in Pentecostal meetings. Yet for all this I could never find what others testified to, the absolute assurance of entry into heaven upon death.
It went on like this until I reasoned at age fifteen or sixteen that perhaps if I'd become a preacher of this elusive salvation Christ would rescue me with a personal realization of what I preached. By the time I was seventeen my abilities to stir congregations with revivalistic sermons was well known in the region, and it was a "given" that I would become a Baptist preacher.
This was heady stuff for a lad who couldn't g.asp how to "have faith" in Jesus. In time I convinced myself I was saved for sure because so many were coming forward in the meetings I was preaching.
As the concerns over hell receded further to the back of my consciousness, and with the assumption of my first pastorate at age nineteen, my great concern became "how to build a large following" with my preaching and public relations abilities. What had been concern for the souls of men degenerated into the typical Fundamentalist ego-trip into which many evangelists stumble.
By the time I became a full-time pastor (as still a teenager), I had become a self-centered and calculating young man who loved to kid himself by mistaking the popularity of his preaching talent for some sort of special blessing from God. In all of my success I concluded I was among the elect.
I look back on that young ecclesiastic cad and wince at my behavior and at the hypocritical life I led with Fundamentalism as my intoxicant and the acclaim of tripling church attendance as my notion of heaven's favor upon my person. (Many of us have found Fundamentalism's mindset to be a victimizer in much the same sense that an alcoholic finds drink a victimizer or a compulsive gambler finds a racetrack a victimizer.)
Soon enough this sham would be shattered as the denomination that called me into service demanded that I begin college and seminary, for there is nothing deadlier to a proud Fundamentalist preacher boy than a good theological education.