The tale of my journey into the Catholic Church is a tale of growth — spiritual growth, psychological growth, and, most importantly of all, growth in an understanding of and capacity for Christian love.
I began my journey as a non-believer, raised by a very skeptical mother prone to scientism, and now I find myself an enthusiastic Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, with a calling to serve an academic community in that area. Much has changed in the intervening sixty years.
The home in Stow, Ohio, to which my parents brought me after my birth in 1958, was a mere two blocks from the local Catholic church, but to this day I have never seen the inside of that church. My parents were not only not Catholic, they were not even religious, except in that attenuated sense in which many people, then as well as now, felt obliged to profess some allegiance to vaguely Christian moral principles. That is not to say that they weren’t willing to live the sort of lifestyle that was consistent with religious belief as it was practiced in that time and place. My father was a manager for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, my mother was what was formerly called a “homemaker,” a woman who stayed at home, taking care of the house and the children while her husband worked his job. My father’s side of the family was Presbyterian, my mother’s Southern Baptist, but when I was growing up, my parents themselves attended church only very rarely. Christmas and Easter were celebrated in a secular fashion, with trees, lights and presents, baskets, eggs and candy.
A recurring theme in my story is the role of women in my faith journey, beginning with my mother. I vividly remember my mother teaching me the words to the Our Father when I was only about five years old. But I do not remember praying the prayer afterwards, nor did I ever observe her praying it, so to this day, I remain thankful for what seems to have been a gift of pure grace — a prayer taught for no other reason than the handing on of a prayer. She could not have known how important that prayer was to become for me.
My sister, who is fourteen years older than I, began to develop a religious sensibility when she was in high school. She became a charter member of a new Presbyterian church in Stow, Ohio. My parents were evidently impressed by her zeal, because that was where they had me baptized when I was three years old. Church attendance as such, however, remained sporadic, and I have very few memories of that church.
In November of 1965, my father died, quite suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 48. I was seven years old. The loss of a parent can be very difficult at any age, but for a child it leaves a gap that can never really be filled. My mother did not marry again, and my sister had already moved on to start life on her own, so my family had suddenly become the two of us. She had to get a job, so I became a latch-key kid. We moved around in those days, but we always lived within a block or two of my school, which made it easy for me to settle into a routine of going to school during the day and reading or (what was more likely!) watching television in the evenings.
My mother had married my father right out of high school, relying on his college degree in engineering to support their family. After his death, the limitations of the family model of the 1950s and 1960s and the rapidly declining earning power of the high school diploma were not lost on her. Although she worked very hard at difficult jobs that did not pay very well, she always saw to it that I was well educated and, perhaps more importantly, constantly encouraged me to develop and pursue intellectual interests. I had a fondness for reading and an intellectual curiosity about the world around me. Although my mother remained indifferent to religion, she had a profound sense of wonderment about the natural world that was itself almost religious, and certainly it was contagious: I became interested in astronomy and cosmology while in high school and devoured books about science that she happily bought for me. Really, just about any book was fair game for her; if I showed an interest in reading something that she thought was worth reading, she would get it for me.
From 1968 until her death, my mother worked as a secretary at Kent State University, where she was able to take classes with no tuition. She studied psychology and, to my surprise, religious studies. I don’t know what motivated her to take classes in either of those disciplines, but she began to read books by Carl Jung and Teilhard de Chardin. I glanced at the de Chardin books, but when I was 13, I was more interested in The Lord of the Rings, which in the early 1970s enjoyed a large audience comparable to the more recent Harry Potter phenomenon. Like many young people of the time, I found myself deeply captivated by the world created by Tolkien. But the backstory, outlined in some detail by Tolkien in an appendix to the work, prompted me to think about larger themes than battles and magic rings.One day...Mom brought me a set of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I...was not so detached from religion as to miss the rather obvious Christian overtones of the work.....For the first time, I began to take seriously the thought that… Click To Tweet
My mother was familiar with Tolkien because his work was popular on college campuses at that time, and she and I would talk about some of these larger themes. One day, to my surprise, she brought me a set of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I enjoyed reading these volumes and was not so detached from religion as to miss the rather obvious Christian overtones of the work. I was moved by the nobility of some of the characters, and of course the main arc of the story, was in itself quite powerful. For the first time, I began to take seriously the thought that there might be more to being and existence than just the observable, natural world around me. Without guidance, however, my thinking about these larger themes was haphazard and without direction, more like the fantasy worlds I was reading about than any sort of systematic investigation into the transcendent. But it was during this period that I began to consider the possibility that there is much more to life than what meets the eye or ear.
Spiritual journeys, if they are to be fruitful, ought not to be undertaken alone or in isolation. This is an insight that only slowly dawned on me as I began my own journey alone and in isolation. The Christian religion is a communal religion, a way of life that is practiced by a family that stands ready to help one another. I first began to see this when I was in college. Because of my mother’s employment, I, too, was able to attend Kent State University at very little cost. There I met a young woman to whom I became deeply attached, and she was a serious Christian — the first such person I had known close-up. It was from her that I began to learn the rudiments of what it means to believe in the Christian God. She was a Methodist, and I attended church services with her, but not on a regular basis — I simply was not all that interested in the services. But I found myself becoming ever more interested in the details of the religion. Because I was majoring in Classical Studies and learning Latin and Greek, I bought for myself a copy of St. Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures, known as the Vulgate. Trying to read it was more an exercise in translation than theology but combining that reading with discussions about religion more generally, which I was now having with the Christian students got me to thinking that transcendent realities might be more important than I had imagined. At this point, though, my interest in religion was still very theoretical and not very spiritual.
I eventually went on to graduate school in classics. My goal was to earn a Ph.D. and teach Latin and Greek at the college level. This meant leaving home and basically starting a new life in a new place. I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I enrolled in the University of North Carolina. I was used to hanging around with academics, but this was academics at a whole new level. I went from being a “big fish in a little pond” to being a “little fish in a big pond.” The other graduate students in my department came from high-powered educational backgrounds — schools such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, or Berkeley. I felt overwhelmed. But the other graduate students were very kind, and many of them were Christians and even Catholics.
At first, my interactions were mostly with students from other departments, because I was living in a dormitory for graduate students from all over the university. There I met another young woman to whom I became very attached. She, too, was a Christian — an Episcopalian. I was not at all familiar with the various denominations of Christianity, so I had no idea how different an experience it would be to go to church with her. The first time I attended with her, however, I could see that I was in a very different sort of environment. I was struck by the decorum of the liturgy, the beauty of the music, and the dignity and reverence of the words and gestures. I was drawn to this experience with feelings that were both compelling and yet unfamiliar to me. I was not entirely sure why the experience appealed to me, but I believed at the time that it was not a merely subjective reaction to an aesthetic experience.
I was then blessed to make the acquaintance of a person who would become for me the first, and probably the most important, spiritual director for my journey. The associate pastor for student ministries at the Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church was the Reverend Fr. Robert Duncan. He was a dedicated, faithful, and spiritual man, full of honesty and kindness, wit and wisdom. He had begun a program at the Chapel of the Cross called the Anglican Student Fellowship, a student group that met on Wednesday nights for Eucharist and fellowship. As far as I could tell, all the members of this group regarded Fr. Duncan with the highest esteem and saw him as a charismatic and remarkable leader. From my viewpoint, he was that and more; he was extremely intelligent in a gentle way, a person who could lead you to see things about yourself that you might otherwise be unwilling to see, and who could motivate you to aspire to higher and better things. He was always available for conversation about religious matters, and it was from him that I learned about the Church Fathers and the development of Christian theology.
Getting to know the Christian students in my department, I also had informative conversations with the Catholics. I was working towards my Ph.D. degree, writing a dissertation on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, and in my conversations with the Catholic graduate students, I discovered just how much Catholic theology was grounded in the thinking of Aristotle. It was at this time that I began to explore the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian and Dominican priest whose work was markedly influenced by ancient Greek philosophical principles, especially those of Aristotle. This reading, and my conversations with Fr. Duncan, persuaded me that I should commit myself to following Christ, and in 1981, I formally entered the Episcopal Church.
In spite of the fact that I found so much about the Episcopal church congenial, some nagging questions began to emerge for me as I continued to explore the theological foundations of the faith. In particular, I began to have serious doubts about the reasons for the separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII. In fact, most of the objections to Roman primacy from the Church of England and the Protestant Reformers struck me as politically, rather than theologically, motivated. Roman theology struck me as sound, both historically and philosophically. Moreover, I was not all that sure that the differences between Roman practice and the sort of Anglicanism I was involved in were all that great. In short, I began to feel that, if I had nothing to “protest,” I ought not to be a Protestant.
With Newman, I was happy to call the Anglican tradition the via media — the “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism. I thought of Anglicanism as a happy medium until I actually started delving more deeply into the works of John Henry Newman. There, I learned that Newman, later in life, saw his conception of the via media as mistaken — a conclusion he reached after doing extensive research on the early Church Fathers.
Although Newman had given an account of his conversion in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, it was not that account that influenced me the most. Rather, it was his more technical work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This book explained, with remarkable clarity, how Christian doctrine, planted by Christ Himself in the Apostles, grew and developed through time, almost like a living organism. I found it impossible to believe that infallible teachings could ever change over time. If something is infallibly true at one time, it will necessarily be infallibly true at all times — but it is very clear that our understanding of The Way that is the life and experience of the follower of Christ has evolved in many ways since the beginning. To account for this, Newman showed how the doctrines of the faith adapt to circumstances without changing their essential, substantial content. So, for example, it is clear already in the texts of the New Testament that there are three central figures that must be accounted for in our faith — a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit — but the more complex understanding of those three figures as distinct Persons of a Unitary Trinity was not present in a direct and explicit way in those texts. Rather, it had to be made explicit over time, eventually finding concrete formulation in the Creeds and in the writings of the Fathers. The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, did not simply appear out of nowhere. It was already implicit in the complete and perfect Revelation that is the life of Christ, but it took the teaching authority of the Apostolic Tradition to discern it, to clarify it, and to present it to later generations of believers in a way that would be accessible in a variety of cultural contexts.The more I pondered Newman’s account of the development of doctrine, the clearer it became to me that the Apostolic Tradition had been preserved intact in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.... Click To Tweet
The more I pondered Newman’s account of the development of doctrine, the clearer it became to me that the Apostolic Tradition had been preserved intact in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and that the political motivations that I suspected were behind much Reformation criticism of Rome were actually innovations.
In Newman’s account, the Magisterium of the Church is like a living organism, something that grows and develops without changing its essential nature. This insight was, for me, a profound influence, but it was not the only one. The Church, as an institution, consists of her members, the individual persons who make up the Body of Christ on earth. In addition to the attraction I felt to the theology of the Catholic Church, I also found that the Catholics in my circle of friends constituted a kind of familial community, the beauty of which was difficult to resist. One of these in particular, Lisa Jacobs, was to become a very close friend and, eventually, my wife. Lisa had not been raised in a religious family, but when she came to Chapel Hill to study classics, she was already planning on entering the Catholic Church at Easter the following year. She was preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist), and as I accompanied her on her own journey, I was deeply impressed by her faith, which seemed to me pure and authentic, grounded in a simple and joyful love of God. If my theological conversion had been aided by Newman’s thought, my spiritual conversion was aided by Lisa’s moving example of a heart freely given to God. By the time Lisa was received into the Church at Easter of 1983, I had decided that I, too, ought to join the Catholic Church.
I took instruction from a Catholic priest in Chapel Hill, and on the Solemnity of Saint John the Baptist (June 24, 1983), was received into full communion with Rome. Although this was a big step for me, it was really just the beginning. Earlier, I noted that my first steps on this journey were largely “theoretical and not very spiritual.” This, I think, is the bane of many academics: too much head, not enough heart. In spite of Lisa’s example, I was still journeying in a largely theoretical way, and as I began to take my first steps along the via Romana, it was Newman who came to my rescue.
After finishing my Ph.D. in classics, I taught for a few years but was restless and unsatisfied with my work. My interest in philosophy had been growing all along, and it occurred to me that I would rather work on philosophical topics full time. So I quit classics and went back to graduate school, this time at Duke University, where I earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. In the course of my studies, I had occasion to read Newman’s magnum opus, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. This is his most technical work, dealing as it does with a field philosophers call “epistemology” — the systematic study of knowledge itself: what it is, how it is obtained, what its objects are, etc.
Someone may object: “But wait! you said there was already ‘too much head, not enough heart.’ How can a book like this help you now?” Newman draws an important distinction in this work between two ways we can assent to something with certainty, and this distinction helped me immensely. We can assent to ideas “notionally,” or we can assent to them “really.” Notional assent is the sort of mental assent we give to general ideas and concepts, such as “All human beings have equal dignity.” The certainty we feel about this kind of assent comes from proofs or logical demonstrations. Real assent, in contrast, is that sort of mental certainty we obtain by experiencing something directly for ourselves, independently of anyone’s proofs or logical demonstrations. As a philosopher, I was already familiar with many attempts to “prove” the existence of God by means of logical demonstrations. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, and many other writers offer such proofs. But believing in God is not as simple as finding a logical demonstration of His existence. There are plenty of those, but there are also plenty of atheists. Logical proofs might sometimes compel something like notional assent, but they cannot compel real assent.
What I have discovered in the years since my conversion is that belief in God — full-bore, radical belief of the sort demanded of the disciple — is not something that one can learn from a textbook, but rather is something that one must experience. I have learned many things about Christianity in the years I have been on this journey, but I am still learning precisely what it is to be a Christian, because I am still living The Way. I compare this growth in real assent to matrimony. Lisa and I were married in July of 1989, and I can attest that on the day of one’s wedding, one feels a delight that is probably unmatched by any previous sense of delight. On that particular day it may be difficult to imagine one’s love for one’s spouse growing any greater or deeper. After thirty years of marriage, however, I think I am not the only married person to have discovered that love does indeed grow ever deeper and more profound with time. As much as I was enamored of my wife on the first day of our married life together, I would not trade what I have with her now for that first-day infatuation. On our wedding day I certainly believed that I loved my wife; now I know that I do, and I know it from a kind of direct experience that I could not possibly have had that first day.
So, too, with faith in Christ and the love to which we are called as followers of Him. When we first come to believe, we are in some sense “infatuated” with the Church — her teachings, her liturgies, etc. Over time, however, as we grow in faith, we come to see that something else is demanded of us. It is not enough to love the Church’s teachings, one must live them, for when it comes to the sort of love that is demanded of us, to love is to live in a certain way.
This was brought home to me in a dramatic way a number of years ago, when I had to have surgery for a torn retina. I was terrified that I was going to lose my sight, and the surgery I needed seemed pretty scary, too — a lose-lose sort of situation. But, thankfully, it went well. My surgeon had expert skills and she had lots of help in the operating room. Indeed, one nurse actually held my hand throughout the procedure, giving me a sense of calm that even the sedatives could not produce. After my recovery, which was complete, I pondered the fact that so much good was done in that room on my behalf. I pondered also the fact that, had I not needed help, that good would not have been done. In His providence, God is able to bring good out of what is otherwise bad. This underscored for me the extent to which we need one another, we are here for others, not only to help those who are in need, but to be helped by others when we are in need ourselves. This is the great mystery of self-sacrificial love: our lives are not our own, they are not for us, but for others. In this way, we are icons of Christ Himself, who gave Himself utterly and completely for our sakes, expecting nothing in return.Most parents learn that, if you attach expectations to your love, then you are not only looking for disappointment, you are also not really loving. Click To Tweet
So, in order to live that sort of life more fully, I entered formation for the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, and was ordained a Deacon in December 2016. The canonization by Pope Francis, on October 13, 2019, of John Henry Cardinal Newman, confirmed that path for me. His patronage is particularly relevant to my work as a professor of philosophy, because contemplating his life and works keeps constantly before my mind the necessity of letting things develop: time is grace. Working with college students is a pretty good way to model the faith and at the same time to learn patience, empathy, and even self-sacrifice. I now live my love in a way that I could not have done before — either because I did not have enough experience and, hence, not enough empathy, or because I had not been given the opportunity to give myself to others. One learns this same lesson from parenthood, I suppose. Lisa and I have two children, Michael and Olivia, to whom we have given nearly half of our lives, expecting nothing in return. Most parents learn that, if you attach expectations to your love, then you are not only looking for disappointment, you are also not really loving. But this can be a difficult lesson to learn, especially for parents with overly high expectations. Loving children for exactly who and what they are can take time and experience. This journey, therefore, is one that is ongoing — indeed, it ends only with death, when we are no longer merely journeying but have arrived. Aristotle once remarked that we should count no one happy until he is dead, because only then will we be in a position to look back over the whole course of a person’s life to see whether he had lived well. For the Christian, the only way to determine whether we have lived well is to look over the whole course of our lives to see whether we have loved well.