“Our team of elders met, and they decided unanimously to make you an elder.” I had wondered why my pastor wanted to get together with me one-on-one, and now I knew. How was I going to tell him that I couldn’t accept the position as an elder in our non-denominational church because I was convinced of the truth of Roman Catholicism? Instead, I told him that I was thinking about studying philosophy and wasn’t sure how long my wife and I would be in the area, but I would think about it and get back to him. Later, I wrote a letter that explained my convictions and asked my pastor not to make public the real reason for my refusal of the office. I was still working at a private Christian high school where my contract had not been renewed because I was converting to Catholicism.
The small council of school board members had called me in for a conference after I returned my contract with my own statement of faith instead of agreeing to those prescribed by the school. I was treated respectfully, but was ultimately told I was not being hired back for what would have been my fourth year. They asked me not to make my conversion public because a couple of months remained until the end of the school year.
To make the situation even more difficult, my wife, Emily, had stopped working to stay home with our two foster children, and she still wasn’t sure about how she felt towards my conversion. Unfortunately, I had not told her everything I was discovering about the Catholic Faith until I was almost completely convinced: quite a bomb to drop on the daughter of Protestant ministers. I was almost as surprised as she was that Catholicism turned out to be true.
I grew up in a nominally Catholic home in New Jersey and received all the Sacraments of Initiation. While we attended Mass weekly, my education in the Faith did not go beyond eighth grade, and I learned more about Catholicism from newspaper headlines and cartoons than anything reliable. My parents divorced when I was in high school, and my father subsequently told me that he was an atheist.
During the fall of 2001 and my sophomore year in college, I suddenly had the urge to learn more about what I thought was my Christian faith and, not knowing the difference, got involved in Bible study and meetings in a very large interdenominational ministry on campus. It was here that I entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I devoured Scripture and all the good books I could get my hands on. I quit drinking and began evangelizing my teammates. I led my mother and siblings out of the Catholic Church to one that I thought was more Bible-based.
After my sophomore year, I worked as a deckhand on the Block Island Ferry in Rhode Island, my parents’ home state before they moved to New Jersey for my father’s Broadway acting career. During my hours of free time on the ferry, I read, among other books, St. Augustine’s Confessions, where I found a lot of Scripture references to books of the Bible that seemed to be missing from my Bible. If I had really thought about it, this would have bothered me, but I put it out of my mind. But this issue of the Old Testament canon would come back to haunt me.
I also spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Emily, whom I had met the January before at a social event for our campus ministry. I was smitten with Emily, with my newfound faith, and with learning ever more about the Bible.
In the middle of my senior year, as Emily and I were planning our wedding and our year of ministry with her parents after graduation, I received an e-mail from a Catholic who had pulled my address off our ministry website. His e-mail was short and to the point: he simply wanted to know why I didn’t hold to the traditions of the Church, as Scripture instructs (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Sensing that he was trying to convert me, I wrote a long response, and so began an e-mail exchange that spanned ten months and consisted of over 40 e-mails, each one more than two pages in length. My debate opponent, Trent Beattie, now writes for Catholic publications. I like to think that I helped him to hone his writing skills … and his patience.
Unfortunately, we were speaking different languages. The main problem was that my “Protestant lenses” were so fastened to my face that it was impossible for me to imagine that I might be interpreting Scripture wrong or that I was “interpreting” Scripture at all. I assumed that my understanding of the Bible was the obvious and only understanding. As a result, I came away thinking that Catholics were heretics, because the Church taught that we are not saved by faith alone, and it accepts the teaching of the Magisterium as authoritative.
However, there was one thing that Trent pointed out which shook me a bit. He claimed that the Church Fathers were unanimous in affirming the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He cited, as one example, a quote from Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (5:2): “He declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body.” By this point, Emily and I had graduated (B.S. Physics), married, and were working with her parents and another couple with a ministry in New Jersey for college and professional athletes. I asked one of my mentors about this quote from Irenaeus, and he replied that the Church Fathers spoke so symbolically that we shouldn’t interpret them literally. Again, if I thought that through, it would have really bothered me, but I let it go. This issue, too, would come back to haunt me.
In the spring of 2005, my in-laws, my wife, and I had the opportunity to audit a class taught by Dr. Peter Kreeft on the philosophy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I knew that Kreeft was Catholic, but I respected him because I had read an interview with him on the problem of evil and knew that he was well-respected by many Protestants. When we met him, I began asking about what Catholics believe regarding faith, works, and salvation, and he bridged the linguistic gap between Protestantese and Catholicese. He explained that Catholics often use “faith” in a narrow sense and “justified” in a broad sense, as James uses the terms in his Epistle. Essentially, “faith” refers to mere belief and “justification” means sanctification. Protestants almost always use “faith” in a broad sense, which encompasses full trust and obedience and “justified” to mean merely forgiven. After this first interview, I no longer thought Catholics were heretics, but I still had a long way to go before I actually respected Catholicism. One important lesson I learned from this was that I had to evaluate Catholicism, or any system of thought, based on authentic sources, and I could not necessarily trust information on Catholicism from people on the street, ex-Catholics, Protestants, or the press.
After that spring, my wife and I took jobs teaching at a private Christian high school, which, ironically, is the same high school from which Peter Kreeft graduated, but I continued to read philosophy, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton — a dangerous combination for anyone who wants to hold on to his Protestantism.
It was in this stage of life that I fell in love with philosophy and started learning how to think critically about things like the nature of the
human person, existence, morality, and God. I also realized that, perhaps, Catholicism couldn’t be that crazy after all, since clear-headed writers and teachers such as Chesterton, Tolkien, and Kreeft were Catholic, and Lewis, though not Catholic, adhered to some doctrines that were more Catholic than Protestant, like the Eucharist and purgatory.
In fact, it was Lewis’s description of purgatory that helped me to accept it as at least possible because I had previously thought purgatory was where people earn forgiveness for unconfessed sins — an idea that obviously contradicts the truth that forgiveness cannot be earned. (Where I got that strange notion is beyond my memory. Our phantom sources and their resulting unconscious biases are our worst enemies in the pursuit of truth.) But when I learned that purgatory is a “cleaning station” before entering the purity of heaven and that there is nothing in Scripture that directly contradicts this idea, I accepted it as a possibility, although highly improbable, because I did not see it clearly taught in Scripture.
That “possible but improbable” stage did not last very long. Philosophy struck again. As I read Plato and Aristotle, I was forced to grapple with the nature of identity, humanity, and ethics, and I realized that I will not be perfect at my death but will be perfect in heaven. Therefore, it makes sense that there is an interval of some sort where I go from an imperfect, not completely virtuous state, to a state of perfect virtue. All of this, of course, is with the assistance of divine grace, without which we are literally nothing. Purgatory, it turned out, was actually not improbable.
With this newfound understanding of our created nature and virtue, the sacraments made more sense to me as well. Sacraments are means of grace, where God communicates His divine help toward our sanctification. Again, I did not think it was true, but the idea made sense in theory.
The issue that took me further on my journey than the other issues was the teaching on Transubstantiation. I ran into a couple of places where Lewis makes reference to the reality of Christ’s Presence, and I came to realize that none of my arguments against the Catholic dogma came directly from Scripture. Instead, my argument was based on “reason” along with a figurative interpretation of Christ’s words in John 6 and at the Last Supper. I had no positive statement from Scripture which stated that the bread and wine do not become the Body and Blood of Our Lord. As for “reason,” the metaphysical description was completely consistent, at least as consistent as the Incarnation, which was even more mysterious. I was forced to realize that Scripture alone could not settle for me the right teaching about Communion.
So, I decided to see what the Church Fathers taught on this issue. It only made sense that I should look to generations of Christians who immediately succeeded the Apostles for some guidance. I was faced again with the quote that Trent had put in front of me, as well as the unanimous testimony of the other Church Fathers, and this time I was reading them in context and with some philosophy under my belt. If Chesterton, Lewis, and philosophy were like sledgehammers to my Protestant mindset, the Church Fathers were a wrecking ball — as so many converts have already testified.
But, thought I, why trust the Church Fathers at all? Why should I place my faith in them? Wasn’t that tantamount to violating sola Scriptura, the most important of all exegetical principles? And then it hit me: why sola Scriptura? Isn’t sola Scriptura itself a method of interpretation? And where is sola Scriptura taught in Scripture?
I began looking into the arguments for sola Scriptura and found some arguments from outside of Scripture and very few, not very good arguments from inside of Scripture. The arguments from outside of Scripture violated the principle of sola Scriptura and, thus, were inadmissible, but the ones from inside of Scripture were based on what looked to me like “reading the principle into” the passages, like the often-cited 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which does not teach sola Scriptura when read carefully. In those verses, Paul does not say that Scripture is sufficient for theology and dogma. Instead he says that Scripture is useful for activities that make a man thoroughly equipped for good works. In context (and I have learned that context is always very important), Paul had referred twice in that same letter to his oral teaching as the norm for sound teaching (1:13; 2:2), so he could not have been teaching sola Scriptura. In the end, I found sola Scriptura to be an extra-biblical principle and, therefore, self-refuting.
Now, I was a hermit crab without a shell. I considered myself a denominational agnostic, but I was searching. The one thing I knew I had to focus on was truth. Joining a church or denomination based on anything else would be intellectual dishonesty and a sin against reason. My reading of the Church Fathers made Catholicism look like it had a good shot at truth, but I still had one last issue in mind: Mary. The doctrine of her sinlessness, in my mind, contradicted Paul’s declaration in his Epistle to the Romans that all have sinned (3:23).
It was now a year after our first class with Dr. Kreeft, and I happened to be auditing another class, this time on Plato and Aristotle, so I asked Dr. Kreeft about this apparent inconsistency. He simply pointed out that Paul could not have meant that every single human being has sinned, because Jesus Himself was a human being. Since there was at least one implied exception to that passage for Jesus, room was created for other possible exceptions, like Mary.
With all of my logical objections swept aside, I was still not convinced. There were a lot of interpretations of Scripture out there. What separated one from the others? Ultimately, I knew that it came down to one thing: authority. Who or what had the authority to teach the truth about God, Jesus, and the Bible?
It was during this same spring of 2007 that Emily and I took in our first two foster children, whom we adopted three years later. Emily decided to stay at home with these children while I continued to teach math and work as a class-level dean at the Christian school. I still had not told Emily much about what I was discovering. Life was stressful, and I was still somewhat unreasonably confident that Catholicism would turn out to be false, so there wasn’t much need to inform her of the details. In the summer of 2007, I enrolled at a nearby university to begin work on a second bachelor’s degree, this time in philosophy, and I started work that very summer as a part-time student.
In searching for perspective and continuing to read Chesterton, I happened upon an essay of his which describes the Christian religion as a procession that has statues and scrolls and canopies and other religious items. In the context of this simile, the Protestant Reformation consisted of snatching away only some of the scrolls and condemning the rest as nonsense, which made less sense than condemning the whole procession. But the proper place for the scrolls is in the procession, in the context from which they came. This picture made a lot of sense in my mind. I just had to find out if it was accurate.
Since the Church teaches the authority of the Pope, I thought it would be easy to find a contradiction between two Councils or papal statements. Then I would be able to write off Catholicism and get on with the rest of my search. But alas (or perhaps I should say, “Hallelujah!”), despite two thousand years of writings and dogmatic teaching from the Magisterium, I found no contradictions.
Throughout this time, I was also finding arguments from Scripture for a lot of Catholic teaching, but most importantly for the role of the Church in teaching authoritatively, like the two passages in 2 Timothy already mentioned, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, and 1 Timothy 3:15. The latter calls the Church the “pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
I was forced, again, to consider the Church Fathers. Time after time, I was faced with affirmations from them about Church teachings: the Pope, the authority of the Magisterium to interpret Scripture, the Eucharist, the role of Tradition, the Mass, and even the Old Testament canon. In fact, I discovered that the New and Old Testament canons were agreed upon at the same councils (the Councils of Hippo and Carthage), and the Old Testament canon was that of the Roman Catholics. Regarding the role of Tradition, Irenaeus (again!) even goes so far as to say, “What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” (Against Heresies 3:4:1). I distinctly remember reading St. Justin Martyr’s description of what Christians did on Sunday mornings and thinking to myself, “That’s the Catholic Mass! They really didn’t make it up; they’ve been doing it for 2,000 years.”
As I wondered more about the issue of the Old Testament canon, it occurred to me to wonder about the New Testament canon. I tried to base everything on the Bible, and I was trying to figure out how to correctly interpret the Bible, but where did the Bible itself come from? How did I, personally, know that the New Testament canon included the right list of 27 books? It dawned on me that I was almost completely reliant upon the Church Fathers and early Councils. Every time I pick up the Bible, I am trusting the witness of those first generations of Christians. Without their writings, there would be no way to distinguish between the books in our New Testament and the New Testament Apocrypha. So, as a Protestant, I implicitly put all my trust in the Church Fathers for the New Testament itself, but I rejected without reason their testimony regarding just about everything else. A Protestant could argue that the Church Fathers got it wrong because their teaching contradicts Scripture, but I realized that this was not true; they only contradicted the Protestant interpretation of Scripture, and Protestants did not have a coherent way of ascertaining the canon without the Church Fathers. Chesterton’s image of the procession came back in full force. For anyone, not just Protestants, to accept all the books of the New Testament as God-breathed, but not be Catholic, was inconsistent.
I had now found biblical, historical, and logical support for the teachings of the Church, and as I saw how all of these teachings fit together, I began to see, bit by bit, the beauty of Catholic dogma. Most impressive of all was how everything radiated from and pointed to Jesus Christ. All of the sacraments, saints, morality, and rituals had appeared to be obstacles to Jesus, but I found that they were all signposts or glass windows that were gifts from Jesus, revealing something more about Him, and ultimately pointing back to Him. Every aspect of the Church, including its teaching, is a lens to be looked through to the very source of everything good, true, and beautiful: God Himself, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in One. My critique of all the externals was like blaming the road sign for not being the destination.
The last step for me came when I had to decide what to do about going to church. I thought that I could be Catholic in my theology but still go with my wife and kids to our current church. After all, it was “non-denominational,” right? I knew that they still taught and held to an interpretation of Scripture that was at odds with what I considered true. But that was not enough to force me into a Catholic church.
It did not take long for me to realize how utterly foolish it was of me to believe Catholic teaching, and therefore believe that Jesus Himself is literally, truly, concretely present in the Eucharist, and yet stay away from the Catholic Church physically. The awesome concreteness of our faith hit home for me, and I had to go where Christ was.
This, of course, meant explaining it all to my unsuspecting wife. I don’t remember how I began the conversation, and I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but it was awkward. I heard my wife expressing the stock objections to Catholicism with which I had once agreed. But I had now learned a whole new way of looking at those things, and it was hard to convince her. She was not as theologically interested as I was, anyway; she wanted to see Catholics with a vibrant faith before she could consider conversion.
So, in the fall and winter of 2007 and 2008, we found a community of Catholics who actively shared their faith and seemed to have genuine relationships with Jesus. Not long after, our marriage was convalidated; I went to Confession, and I received the Eucharist for the first time with at least a modicum of understanding regarding Whom I was receiving. In the spring of 2010, my wife finally joined me at the table of Our Lord.
Since then we became involved in RCIA and a mom’s ministry in our parish. We fostered and adopted another sibling pair and, after being told that we were infertile and would most likely not have children apart from artificial interference, we had three biological children while ignoring the advice from the fertility doctor. That adds up to seven kids in our family.
My next concern, in the early spring of 2008, had to do with my job. I knew there were people of other Protestant denominations teaching at the school, but no Catholics. So, I asked the principal about the possibility of Catholics teaching there. He said that, unfortunately, they could not have Catholics on staff. When it came time to sign our contracts for the next school year, I included my own vague statement of faith. Soon afterwards, I was called in to a small council of board members. The results of this discussion were related at the beginning of this story.
It was not easy dealing with the loneliness of leaving our non-denominational church community or trying to answer the myriad of misunderstandings and warnings that our friends and family expressed regarding our conversion. Many of those conversations simply went unfinished for the sake of our relationships with those people and some involved tears and strained voices. But all the while, Emily and I ached for those we knew and loved to experience the same beauty and depth we had encountered in Catholicism. Several years later, my mother returned to the Church.
Thankfully, the Lord has provided me the opportunity to teach high school physics, an occupation that I have come to love and which places me in a unique position as an example of the harmony between faith and science. I also have the opportunity to run the philosophy club and discuss philosophy with my students as we explore the foundations of scientific thought. After finishing my B.A. in Philosophy, I earned a M.A. in Education, and I am working on a M.A. in Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
In an effort to share the beauty that I have discovered in Catholicism, I have written several small works. Some are available on Amazon.com. Two introductions to philosophy, one of which is a brief, informal introduction to philosophy for Catholic teenagers, will be published this spring through En Route Books and Media. I share and defend my faith on YouTube (DonecRequiescat and Whoa Quotes), and our family makes weekly Gospel reading and reflection videos for children (MisterD418). Several people have come to me, after learning about my conversion, to learn more about Catholicism, and some of them have started the process of “coming home.” It has been a pleasure to walk alongside these friends as they discover the beauty of Catholicism. As one of them recently said to me about his own experience, “I am constantly falling more in love with my Catholic Faith.” For me, that is an ongoing truth.