How I Got This Way
Featuring Chris Robinson/
January 18, 2011
Honestly, I never meant to love the Catholic Church. I didn’t even realize I had been reading Catholic books, until it was too late.
I think I was tricked by the One who has the most jovial disregard for human preference — the One who delights in surprising us, opening our eyes to bigger views of Himself, and taking us out of our comfort zones.
How on earth did I get this way — relieved and grateful to be received into the Catholic Church?
Evangelicals expect Catholics to become Protestants, but not vice versa. They tend to look bewildered when they discover that, while I’m actively involved in an Evangelical congregation with my family, I’ve become a Catholic. They seem to feel awkward about further conversation. I’ve written this essay trying to imagine what questions my Evangelical friends might like to ask, if they felt comfortable asking.
My aim isn’t necessarily to persuade anybody else, but simply to describe what persuaded me — how my attitude and thinking changed. My conversion didn’t come from reading a few pages, so it’s also difficult to summarize in a few pages. I’ve tried to keep this account shorter, nonetheless, by avoiding long explanations of what Catholics believe and why, and sticking to my own story.
How It All Began
The trek began quietly around 1987, when I accidentally recognized that Catholics knew some good stuff. In many years as a committed Evangelical, I had read the right books, listened to leading pastors, and even had taken graduate-level classes in theology while my husband, David, was in seminary. I taught inductive Bible studies, college-age Sunday school, and spent several years as a missionary.
It was while we were missionaries in Egypt that I happened to read some older-than-Evangelical books that reached deeper into me than anything I had read before. I wanted to read more of those great old books. And then it dawned on me that those authors were all Catholic.
It surprised me to realize I had been learning from Catholics. Years ago, when I had gone to the Catholic Church with friends, I had been struck by the beauty of the liturgy and surprised by both the clarity of the Gospel and the apparent disinterest of most of the people around me. I hadn’t meant to be arrogant, but I had assumed the Catholic Church was spiritually wasted; otherwise, why had God let the Reformation happen? Yet these Catholics, whose books I had been reading, knew some stuff!
I realized I was ignorant about Catholics. In some ways, it seemed as if Catholics and Protestants were all descendants from a generations-old family feud in which both sides of the family had gotten used to excluding each other and most didn’t even know much about the original dispute.
Questions sprouted. Are Catholics really Christians or not? Some Catholics sure seem to know Jesus; is that in spite of the Catholic Church? What keeps Catholics and Protestants apart? If Catholics aren’t really Christians, I thought, I’d better find out and quit reading those old books!
So the first phase of exploration came partly from a desire to know whether Catholic books were really “safe” to read and partly from curiosity about Christian roots. But even more, I just wanted to know God better. If God was working in the Catholic Church but I failed to appreciate it, then I must not know Him as fully as possible. If God had a Catholic “side,” I didn’t want to be guilty of closing my heart to that part of Him. I had an uncomfortable hunch that God might not be as separated from Catholics as we Protestants were.
Reading Church History
I started reading Church history. My initial belief was, roughly, that over time the Catholic Church had become irredeemably corrupt, and that by Martin Luther’s day God had basically given up and started over with the triumphant Reformation.
History challenged that view, however. Indisputably, there were problems within the Church of Luther’s day. But as a movement, the Reformation appeared to have had as many social and political motivations as spiritual ones. It was a tangled time.
Holy leaders had called for reform from within the Catholic Church, while others such as Luther had felt they had no choice but to jump ship. Theologically, Reformers differed from each other significantly about matters of doctrine and practice. The Reformation didn’t seem so clean and pristine — so triumphantly directed by God — as I had thought.
Reading beyond the Reformation … well, Protestant history seemed almost embarrassing, even when written by Protestants. Our track record over the centuries was no more stellar than that of the Catholics. Besides all the doctrinal disagreements, virtually every sin and fault we criticized in the Catholic Church had been repeated in Protestant history.
We hadn’t purified ourselves by getting away from Rome; the problem remained in us. The Catholic Church had undergone many internal reforms of which Protestants tended to be unaware. And it seemed clear that God continued to do wonderful things through faithful Catholics, although we Protestants usually didn’t take notice.
My paradigm of the Church and her history began to wobble a bit. I hadn’t grown up in a church-going family, but I had spent time in several denominations and independent congregations. Over the years, with all the differing opinions, I had vaguely wondered what Jesus had meant when He told the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth.
Now I faced the puzzle: Protestant history didn’t appear to validate a sola scriptura (Bible alone) view. Part of the legacy of the Reformation was Protestants splitting again and again from people they disagreed with over the interpretation and application of the Bible. Yet it couldn’t be, I told myself, that God had kept the roots of authority in the Catholic Church.
I read some biographies of respected Christians, including St. Francis of Assisi and John Hyde (known as “Praying Hyde”). While one was Catholic and the other Presbyterian, and they lived centuries apart, I was struck by several similarities. Both were committed to celibacy; both were men of deep prayer; both bore various physical ailments with joy; both saw many instances of God’s miraculous intervention.
Both seemed to have delighted God — and yet there were in St. Francis all those Catholic peculiarities such as devotion to Mary, belief in transubstantiation, and submission to the pope. I wondered if maybe God wasn’t offended by those Catholic peculiarities as much as we Protestants were.
Exploring Catholic Beliefs
I moved on to explore Catholic beliefs. In addition to reading Protestant books about Catholic beliefs, I also actually read Catholic books about Catholic beliefs. It disturbed me to see that Protestant books consistently misrepresented Catholic teachings.
I had thought, for example, that Catholic “prayers to saints” were an ignorant substitute for prayer to God, as if Catholics believe the saints are equal to God or that God will not hear our prayers directly. I had thought that the notion of the infallibility of the pope meant that Catholics think that popes are sinless and that everything they say is infallible. I had thought that the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by works, not by grace. Even many Catholics misunderstand what the Church teaches about such things, but once I realized what she actually teaches, I had fewer objections.
This brought on a sense of déjà vu. David and I were serving as missionaries in a Muslim country. It was no easy task to talk with Muslims about our faith. They are sure they already know what Christians believe and equally sure that Christians are wrong. Yet when Muslims state what they “know” Christians believe, there are many distortions.
It almost seemed that the same thing was true with Protestants regarding Catholic theology. Just as one couldn’t learn about true Christianity by asking a Muslim — even one who claims to have been raised a Christian — it didn’t seem that one could learn about the Catholic faith by listening to Protestants. Just as Muslims seemed predisposed not to truly “hear” what Christians believe, so Protestants seemed predisposed to misconstrue what the Catholic Church teaches. It is so hard for us to consider that the truth we know may contain some error, or at least may be only part of the picture.
So I tried to be open-minded as I considered the Catholic Church’s viewpoints. I looked again at the Catholic belief in sola verbum Dei — the Word of God alone as authority, expressed through the Bible, through Sacred Tradition, and through the Magisterium, the living Church leadership.
The Role of Sacred Tradition
It dawned on me that Protestant beliefs actually don’t come solely from Scripture. Without admitting it, Protestants follow their own brands of Magisterium and Tradition — each group having its own authoritative voice in interpretation of the Bible, whether it’s John MacArthur or R.C. Sproul or Jerry Falwell.
Take, for example, Baptism: Is it a sign of individual faith, as believed by the Baptists, or a sign of the covenant, as Reformed folk believe? Should it be done by full immersion, as Baptists insist, or is it okay to sprinkle?
Denominations disagree about this matter because it isn’t absolutely clear in the Bible. People hold to one view or another because they accept the voice of authority of their denomination, which is their form of “Magisterium,” even though they don’t call it that.
When I married my Presbyterian husband, my church background had been basically Baptist. I eventually became reconciled to infant baptism because I learned that the earliest Christians practiced infant baptism. Even though we didn’t call it “the authority of Sacred Tradition,” it had made sense to me that what the earliest Christians had consistently done with this sacrament must have been all right.
Another example I pondered: The doctrine of predestination is believed, with variations, by those in the Reformed faith. Predestination, however, is not an absolutely clear teaching in the Bible. If it were, the shelves of theological libraries would not be filled with books on the topic of predestination vs. free will. If you asked people in our Presbyterian church, I expect almost everyone would say they believe in the doctrine of predestination — not because they fully understand it or can even articulate much about it themselves, but because it’s upheld by the denomination and articulated by smart guys like R. C. Sproul.
This mind-boggling notion came to me: The Catholic “distinctives” were not unbelievable, any more than Christian beliefs in general. They were just unfamiliar.
They seemed unacceptable because I had been taught they weren’t true. I already accepted teachings from the Bible that offended non-Christians. My submission to those teachings didn’t come because they made total sense, but because I am convinced the Bible is dependable, and I also believe reality isn’t limited to what I have personally experienced or what my little brain can comprehend.
If the Bible clearly spelled out the Immaculate Conception, I would have believed it years ago, just as I believed in the Virgin Birth. I had changed my views on infant baptism due to Sacred Tradition; could Sacred Tradition also change my views on Mary? It’s really no more difficult to believe in the Immaculate Conception, if one believes in the authority of the Church, than it is to believe in the Virgin Birth, based on the authority of the Bible.
I saw more parallels. It’s no more difficult to believe in the Assumption of Mary than in the assumption of Enoch or Elijah. It is no more difficult to accept the Church’s teachings about contraception than to accept the Bible’s teachings about sexual morality in general. It is no more difficult to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist than to believe in the Incarnation.
Notice, I didn’t say it’s easy to believe any of this. It goes against my human grain to put my trust in miracles I can’t absolutely prove, to live by unpopular standards, or to submit to authority beyond my little self. And yet, ever since the gospel first struck me as true, I recognized the importance of growing in my knowledge and practice of the truth, however inconvenient.
One of my favorite Bible teachers was fond of saying that we should always live in obedience to our understanding of the Bible, and that we should always hold our understanding of the Bible in an open hand for God to add to or correct. The question I now asked was whether authority rested solely in the Bible, or whether the authority of the Word of God came, as Catholics claimed, through the checks-and-balances of the Bible, Sacred Tradition, and the living Magisterium.
Again, Protestant history made the latter view seem more reasonable. The Catholic Church had succeeded in growing past so many of its own sins and blunders, while Protestants kept dividing in reaction to sins and blunders. The Catholic Church maintained its stand on the authority of the Bible, while most denominations weakened on that issue as generations passed.
Surprisingly, some issues were not difficult for me. Fairly early in my reading, for example, it made sense to me that there is a major difference between worship and veneration. I didn’t see any problem with veneration of Mary and the saints.
I also found the basic idea of purgatory surprisingly easy to understand and even biblical. As long as I could mentally let go of the assumption that “this belief/practice couldn’t be right because this is what Catholics think/do …”
A Closet Catholic
Eventually, with great uneasiness, I realized that Catholic theology made more sense to me than what I had learned as an Evangelical Protestant. I had quit “protesting.” I was a closet Catholic.
I doubted myself: How could I be persuaded by ideas that didn’t even interest my Evangelical friends, let alone persuade them? Scariest of all, David hadn’t shared my reading interest and hadn’t experienced the paradigm shift, and now we didn’t want it to be something that would divide us.
In the first years of our marriage, we had been unified in our sense of calling. Now we didn’t know what to do as missionaries since I had become Catholic-at-heart. David hadn’t read along with me in history and Catholic theology; now he didn’t want to read for the purpose of trying to talk me back into Protestant beliefs.
We ended up returning to the United States for a number of reasons, among them our inability to find an acceptable school situation for our growing daughters and, frankly, my own burnout. Some people from the mission suggested that my interest in the Catholic faith had been a subconscious way of trying to escape the difficulties of our mission situation. Once we were home from the field, they believed, my subconsciously motivated interest would naturally decline.
The quandary did go onto the back burner for several years. It was not easy to reestablish life in the United States after spending our entire post-college adult life — a total of thirteen years — preparing and then serving as missionaries. We were, in a sense, “wounded soldiers,” and it was disappointing that with few exceptions our Evangelical brothers and sisters were either too busy or felt too uncomfortable to help us heal. I got new insights into the story of the Good Samaritan when the people with the “right theology” tended to keep their distance from our pain.
In retrospect, I think we all tend to have dangerously oversimplified views of how God works in ministry and through leadership. When troubles arise that don’t fit the belief system — not only when leaders sin, but also when they show weakness or make unwise decisions — we tend to go into avoidance or denial. But at that point, on a personal level, I became angry and disillusioned over God’s permissiveness with all who call themselves Christians.
I recalled many examples of committed Christians seeking God’s will and guidance who ended up doing all kinds of ill-advised things — and the results ranged from the pathetic to the disastrous. This brought me deep anxiety. For several years, my experience encouraged me to be a Deist; it was a major exercise in faith to trust that God was really involved in Christendom.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but believe in Jesus, so I couldn’t pitch Christianity and settle into Deism, much to my frustration. I didn’t know what to trust God for any more. I spent several years on the edge of cynicism, seeking to be content with simply trusting God, emptying myself of expectations.
Forgiveness and Conversion
In June 1997, somehow I received grace to forgive more deeply the Evangelical “system” that had wounded me. It’s a pivotal issue in the Christian life: our need to forgive other Christians who fall short and, beyond that, to be reconciled to God, who doesn’t go along with our simplistic expectations. Afterward I realized it took the same kind of grace for me to forgive Evangelicals as it would take anyone to forgive the Catholic Church for her faults.
Somehow I found myself with more courage to face how badly we sincere Christians botch things — and with clearer faith in God’s ability to work beyond human and institutional flaws. It was all the more obvious to me that God had never lost the Catholic Church.
I guess my conversion happened in three general phases: First, my heart recognized God at work in the Catholic Church and was drawn to Him. Second, my mind had to be satisfied that the theology was sound. Third — again, a heart issue — I had some hard lessons to learn about God and reconciliation.
Interesting timing: Shortly after that time of forgiveness, David asked if I would be interested in taking whatever class people take when they want to become Catholics. I think he was hoping that more exposure to Catholics would disappoint me and I would finally let go of this inconvenient interest.
My phone call to the local parish church led first to the discovery that our wonderful priest, Father David Dye, is also a convert from a Protestant background. From him, I learned about the Coming Home Network International, a ministry that helps non-Catholic clergy come home to the Catholic Church. I don’t know if you can imagine how alone I had felt in this whole process, how I had wondered at times whether it was God drawing me or whether I had “lost it.” At least if I had lost my mind and the Catholic Church looked like the true Church to me, I wasn’t entirely alone anymore!
The decision to become officially Catholic was still not a painless one. For every other step I had taken “in obedience to God,” I had received lots of encouragement and affirmation from Christians all around me. I hadn’t realized that approval had always been an important part of the bargain for me until it was missing.
There were many reasons why joining the Catholic Church would be impractical and difficult, but I didn’t think they were supposed to be my criteria for deciding. I worried because I did not want to divide my family, didn’t want friends to feel hurt or confused, and preferred to avoid misunderstanding and criticism. Yet I also sensed that God wasn’t worried — that He was delighted and even amused.
It’s a challenge to help Protestants understand, because Protestants change church membership for reasons different from mine: usually because of disagreements, disappointment, or even preferences in doctrine, practice, or music. From that framework, my decision can seem like a rejection or even a rebellion.
But my entry into the Catholic Church came because of what I grew to believe about God and about the nature of the Church. It was a response to the greatness and mystery of God — not a search for greener grass, but an acceptance of how big the lawn is.
At one point, our Presbyterian pastor told me, with characteristic warmth and concern, “We just can’t let you do this — we can’t let you join the Catholic Church!”
And I thought: The only way for me to not become a Catholic would be to believe again that God is smaller, and to shrink my heart in the process.
The friends who have reacted most negatively to my news have been ex-Catholics or those married to ex-Catholics. They sincerely feel that they did not find God in the Catholic Church and instead experienced guilt, manipulation, dead rituals, legalism, and so forth.
I understand the once-burned reaction. The irony is that I know folks from every imaginable Protestant background who express similar frustrations of their own. Again, I am convinced that the problem is not with the Catholic Church itself but with human beings. The Protestant movement seems to me, to some degree, to be a quest for a congregation and leaders who will not disappoint. We Christians so easily hurt each other as we stumble after Jesus; we can’t survive if we don’t practice reconciliation.
A Call to Unity
The Catholic Church rejoices over God’s work in Protestant congregations, even though she considers their message incomplete. She sees them as part of God’s family, as “separated brethren.” The gospel is powerful, and God blesses us as we submit to as much of it as we know.
In contrast, many nominal Catholics do not know or live the fullness of the truth that the Catholic Church teaches. It was a Catholic convert, G. K. Chesterton, who wrote, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it’s that it has been found difficult and left untried.” It is left untried not only by non-Christians but also by many of us who call ourselves Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant.
Today, at least weekly, I go to Mass by myself. On rare occasions my husband or daughters come with me, but they really don’t “like” Catholic Mass, so it’s usually just me. Becoming Catholic was my decision, not theirs.
Until the past couple of years, at least weekly, I attended worship services at the PCA congregation where my husband has become an elder. I did some volunteer work at my parish, but most of my volunteer work was at my husband’s church, and I looked for ways to serve where the doctrinal differences were not an issue. Like any congregation, it has its flaws, but I know God is at work there and I was happy to cooperate.
I followed this arrangement as long as our daughters were young enough to live at home, and for a few years after that, until a terminally ill family member came to live with us. At that point, my husband and I were empty-nesters, and with someone at home who needed care, I just didn’t have enough time to continue to attend both churches. Now, I attend Mass and my husband attends his church, and occasionally we accompany each other.
Catholics ask if I’ve heard anti-Catholic teachings in my husband’s congregation. The teaching pastors there rarely say much about the Catholic Church in their sermons, but when they do, it’s nearly always disappointing: a replay of misinformation passed to them by teachers they trusted. A few times over the years, I’ve approached afterwards, sometimes face to face and sometimes in writing, to question and to offer more accurate information.
These have been good conversations. Once, I respectfully asked the senior pastor to consider halting attempts to represent what the Catholic Church teaches, unless or until he was able to put a significant amount of time into reading what she actually teaches, not books by Protestants about what she teaches. He hasn’t granted that request, but it was still good to request.
Catholics ask if my husband has any significant interest in Catholicism, and the simple answer is, so far, no. He serves well in his congregation, and I think his impression is that God has enough for him there.
Talking About My Faith
Catholics ask if my Protestant friends ask me about the Catholic faith, and the answer is no, only rarely. Perhaps they are uncomfortable asking, perhaps they think I would be uncomfortable being asked, or perhaps (what I think is most likely) they just have enough on their minds already and it doesn’t occur to them. I’ve been Catholic for so many years now that when we meet new people, they seem to assume I’m a cradle Catholic.
Still, over the long haul I’ve had many great conversations, as well as a few that didn’t go well. A few people are positively curious about the Catholic faith; a few others have strong negative reactions to the subject.
Over many months, one Protestant friend asked me lots of good questions about my new Catholic faith, thought about the answers, kept coming back with more good questions. I had the honor of being her sponsor a couple of years later when she decided to become Catholic, and not too long afterward, her husband took that step as well.
On the other side, there have been a few discussions in which I realized the other person perceived me as pushy and insensitive, when from my perspective I had only been speaking with enthusiasm about what is dear to me, and had meant no judgment of them. Real-life opportunities to learn humility.
In all the years of my journey into the Catholic Church, there wasn’t anyone trying to force it on me or actively convince me. I was curious about it, I asked questions, and along the way I met Catholics who warmly listened and responded. Since I’ve become Catholic, I love talking about my faith, I love being asked about it, and I love seeing people’s surprise when they realize Catholic faith is more beautiful and reasonable than they had realized.
Catholics ask how my husband has responded to Catholic apologetics. In general he has expressed frustration over the apparent “triumphalism” of many Catholic converts and apologists. I agree that Catholic apologists sometimes sound like they think they’ve got all the answers, that Protestants just aren’t thinking clearly, and so on. Attempts to use humor in apologetics can particularly end up coming across as cutting and uncharitable.
But David and I have also talked about the phenomenon that whenever people speaks with passion about what they believe and why, whether they are zealous about religion, politics, or vegetarianism, it can easily be heard by people of other viewpoints as arrogant, condescending, narrow-minded. People with opposing views often speak at and about each other, in ways that distort and insult.
What is it that enables people with different viewpoints to be able truly to hear each other without distortion? What enables people to express their views without provoking the defensiveness of their hearers? The best I know to do is to try keep letting go of anything within myself that could keep me from truly hearing another person, and to try to speak about my convictions in a way that communicates respect.
One of the things I love about Mother Teresa is that people who disagreed with her beliefs still knew that she loved them. Hey, Mother Teresa, please pray for me, that the same can be said of me!
Chris Robinson works in educational technology at a small college in metro Atlanta. Her husband, David, also works in educational technology.
This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011). To order the book, click here.