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A Journey of Mind and Heart

Dr. Marc A. Pugliese
June 13, 2011 4 Comments

christ-pantocrator-ii_icon-smI was born in 1972 and raised in a practicing Catholic family near Philadelphia. When I was eight we moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, where I grew up and graduated from high school. I was baptized, went to CCD, and received the sacraments through Confirmation.

I remember my grandmother teaching me the Our Father as a child, and how I used to sit in Mass wondering who were the “men” in the Great Amen. I was religious from a young age. I remember praying often and pretending to celebrate the Eucharist with bread and juice. My parents have pictures of me reading the Bible as a child.

Then came along the teenage years, the stage of life that is disruptive for so many. I struggled with the issues confronting many teenagers: rebellion against authority, seeking greater independence and peer acceptance, and a new, strong, attraction to the opposite sex. I was bookish and began my junior high school years on the road to nerdhood, but I made a conscious choice to become popular and join the “in” crowd.

And that I did. By high school I was friends with the coolest group in school, went to parties regularly, and was enjoying the life of a sort of pre-collegiate frat boy.

Spiritual Crisis and Conversion

At the same time, however, I entered a spiritual crisis. A growing awareness of evil and suffering, the unfairness and difficulty of life, and the contradictions I found everywhere led me to rebel strongly against authority and grow angry at God. My shenanigans with my friends even led to a few scrapes with the law, so I ended up seeing a counselor.

Even so, my religiosity never waned. I read books on philosophy and religion, including Eastern religion. I started to form my own eclectic belief system as I mused with my more contemplative friends. Though my childhood faith was challenged and I was angry at God, deep down I knew God was always there. Sometimes I would lie in bed late at night crying out to him for help.

I went to the University of Delaware in 1990 with the goal of becoming a medical doctor and continuing my hedonistic lifestyle. I found friends who were likeminded. In my dorm were several Protestant evangelical Christians very zealous for Christ and reaching out to college students. At first my friends and I would mock them, standing outside of their meetings blowing cigarette smoke through the window screens.

One night in talking to one of them, who was also considering a career in medicine, I explained how I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. He used this opportunity to “witness” to me, sharing the gospel with me as he understood it. I had never before heard such a powerful presentation of God’s wrath toward sin, and of Christ’s death on the cross for me, even me.

He prayed for me — the first time I ever heard someone pray extemporaneously. The next night, instead of going out to party, I met with some of the Evangelical Christians in my dorm and “accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

My conversion to the Evangelical Protestant faith was dramatic. My life changed drastically as I took a 180-degree turn in my lifestyle. Instead of parties I went to Bible studies. Instead of going out on Friday nights I was at the Christian fellowship.

I became heavily involved with the Evangelical campus ministry known as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, started attending an Evangelical Presbyterian church, and became a Reformed/Calvinist Evangelical. I made all new friends and essentially cut off ties with old ones, both at college and at home. In retrospect I often regret how I treated my family members and old friends during this time, with such self-righteousness and lack of charity.

Seeds of Doubt

Unwittingly, though, I actually began the road home to the Catholic Church immediately after my conversion to Evangelical faith. My concerned parents had me meet with our priest, who tried to answer my litany of Protestant objections to Catholic belief and practice. More importantly, he put me in contact with someone who definitely could answer my questions.

Paul was a convert from an Evangelical background studying at seminary to become a Catholic priest. He had graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, having studied with the famous Evangelical New Testament scholar D. A. Carson. At Trinity he had converted to the Catholic faith and set out on the path to become a priest.

Paul (now Fr. Paul) met with me and knew the Bible as well as any of my Evangelical friends. He knew all the Protestant objections to Catholic teachings and practices, and he knew how to answer them with Scripture. He gave me much literature to read.

When I went back to college after Christmas break, I started asking questions of my new Evangelical friends. Paul had shown me many verses in the Bible posing serious problems for the system of anti-Catholic Evangelical Protestant theology that had been taught to me as “the clear teaching of the Bible.” (For a list of some of these questions and the scriptural passages that provide answers to them, see the box on page 11.)

In addition to these many scriptural questions I now had questions about Church history, tradition, the canon of Scripture, and much more.

My Evangelical friends tried their best to answer my questions, and I accepted many of their answers. Because I had just had a powerful conversion experience in an Evangelical setting, I immersed myself in the Evangelical and Reformed/Calvinist subcultures, accepting answers that were not really convincing while ignoring the unanswered questions. But the seeds of doubt were planted, and with more years of theological study and life experience they grew to full flower.

Throughout college I was heavily active in InterVarsity as a Bible study leader and on the executive committee. Periodically, though, I would “challenge” my friends and even the InterVarsity staff leaders on problems with the Evangelical Protestant tradition and the evidence supporting the Catholic faith. In fact, two good friends of mine in InterVarsity started investigating the Church through the influence of the Italian grandmother of another Catholic convert to Evangelical faith whom one of them was dating. Although a strong Reformed/Calvinist Evangelical, I found myself to be a ready apologetic resource in defending the Church, her teachings and her practices.

The adult lay staff members of our InterVarsity chapter became so concerned with our “unhealthy and ill-advised” interest in the Catholic Church that they arranged for us to meet with professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, a Reformed/Calvinist Evangelical seminary in Philadelphia, to “keep us on the right path.” Leaving Westminster that day, one of the InterVarsity staff members said to me: “Just don’t become a heretic, Marc.”

I responded: “How do you know that you’re not a heretic?” It took several years, but eventually both of my friends and their families converted long before I returned to the Church. One of them is now a faculty member at Notre Dame.

Life As an Evangelical

Despite growing knowledge of the theological problems with Protestant faith, my Evangelical Calvinist faith was cemented through involvement in InterVarsity and Reformed Evangelical churches throughout college. I must say that my time as an Evangelical was greatly beneficial to me spiritually. The pietism of the American Evangelical tradition put God at the center of my life and led me to a personal, daily walk with the Lord.

I had experienced a genuine conversion experience with real repentance, and I sought a life of holiness. I prayed more than I ever had before. I read the Bible cover to cover many times.

I took an avid interest in Scripture, theology, apologetics and Church history. My preeminent interest in dealings with others was their spiritual condition. I identified myself first and foremost as a Christian, before any other self-defining epithet.

Eventually I decided to do graduate theological work after college. I earned Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from two Evangelical, Reformed seminaries in the Philadelphia area, one of which was Westminster. I also met and married there the love of my life, Laura. Our first son, Dominic, was born while I was at Westminster.

Laura had been raised as an Evangelical Protestant, had undergone a conversion experience as a teen, had “backslidden” in college, then had returned to a faithful walk with the Lord after college. She had even done overseas missionary work. We courted and married. I introduced her to Calvinist teachings, as she had come from an Evangelical tradition that was not Calvinist.

One of several powerful spiritual experiences happened to me during this time. My wife and I visited the old “base house” for one of the missionary groups with which she was affiliated. When we entered the house, I experienced an indescribable spiritual feeling, a strange mix of fear and tremulous awe with a profound love and peace.

I had experienced this feeling before in certain Catholic contexts, such as Catholic churches, schools and hospitals. It intensified as we visited the chapel in the base house. Utterly mystified, I could not fathom why this experience, which had previously been confined to Catholic settings, was happening in an Evangelical missionary building. But upon touring the building, I learned it had previously been owned by a religious order of nuns, and that the renovated chapel once housed the Most Blessed Sacrament.

An Inward Struggle

From early on in our relationship, Laura and I had discussed the problems with Reformed theology in particular and Evangelical Protestant theology in general. I also had presented to her the case for Catholic faith. Even so, we became heavily involved in a Reformed Evangelical congregation, where we   seemed to be the exemplary young married couple as we engaged in ministry and I attended seminary.

Several times we explored doing overseas missionary work. While outwardly we were the epitome of what that tradition and subculture valued in a young couple, few knew of our inward, years-long struggle with the claims of the Catholic Church to be the true Church. There was not a year in our more than ten years of marriage as Evangelicals when we did not seriously consider becoming Catholic, in her case converting and my case returning to the Church.

In seminary the problems we had with Evangelical belief were only exacerbated. From my early days as an Evangelical I had been aware of the many differences in interpreting the Bible and the plethora of Protestant groups all claiming to have the “correct” biblical teaching. This awareness intensified at seminary as we studied various Protestant traditions and their interpretations of the Bible.

Through my history classes I quickly realized that all allegedly “Bible only” groups actually had an extensive extra-biblical tradition for interpreting the Bible. This tradition was influenced by specific ways of reading texts and ways of explaining uncomfortable passages that don’t fit with the system. It was also heavily determined by historical, social, political, theological, and philosophical factors. In many cases Protestant traditions had surreptitiously adapted the traditional teaching of the historic Church.

I had been taught that the Reformed/Calvinist tradition was the “correct” interpretation of Scripture. Yet all such traditions had a litany of “uncomfortable” biblical passages whose apparent meanings blatantly clashed with the theological system. These passages caused discomfort to adherents of the system and had to be “explained” in order to fit into the tacit theological system.

Frequently I had seen pastors and teachers “explain” these passages in some counterintuitive, tortuous way, in order to make them fit with their theological system. This approach often amounted to telling us the text does not mean what it clearly appears to mean. I started to see the gaping but usually unrecognized hiatus between the text of Scripture and the theological system we were told to believe as “what the Bible teaches.” Under the cover of being taught “only what the Bible teaches,” I had been taught a complex theological system and tradition that was by no means clearly derived from a simple, prima facie reading of the Bible.

I began to see that the sola scriptura notion was not adequate. I still recall how one of my professors strove to be faithful to sola scriptura despite the fact that the Bible itself contained no list of the books to be included in it. He shocked me one day when he said the best we could say is that we “have a fallible collection of infallible books.”

Scripture and Catholic Teaching

As I learned more about the teaching of the Catholic Church, I saw how the apparent meanings of these texts corresponded to Catholic teaching. For example, I learned that the contents and theology of the Deuterocanonical books (what Protestants call the “Apocrypha”) informed much of the New Testament. New Testament authors made explicit allusions to these books, and the passion narratives of the synoptic Gospels are heavily reliant on a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon. (Compare Rom 1:18–32 with Wis 11:15–15:17; Heb 1:2–3 with Wis 7:24–26; and Wis 2:12–22 with the synoptic Passion narratives). I also found that cardinal Christian doctrines such as creation ex nihilo and the eternal conscious punishment of the damned (which are unquestioned by most Protestants) are taught only in the Deuterocanonicals (see 2 Mc 7:28; Jdt 16:17).

When I learned about modern academic biblical scholarship, the already serious problems of interpretation exponentially increased for me. Evangelicals and fundamentalists use very little of the findings of modern academic biblical scholarship to understand and interpret the Bible. The seminaries I attended stressed meticulous analysis of the words and grammar of the original Hebrew and Greek texts for understanding the Scripture. While they taught much of the modern scholarly findings behind the biblical texts, including theories about authorship, oral and written sources, dates, original audiences, historical contexts and reasons they were written, this was done so in order to “refute” them.

In retrospect I was taught ad hoc and implausible ways to reject most modern biblical theories wholesale on the grounds that they were “unbelievers’ attacks” on the Word of God. I myself resisted the findings of modern biblical scholarship for a long time. But eventually the evidence was overwhelming and, as with so much else in my return to the Church, I started being honest with myself.

As I did so, I found that modern biblical scholarship helped me understand the Bible much better, and that the interpretations I had been taught as an Evangelical were far from the meanings of the original authors. What Paul himself meant by terms like “faith,” “works of the law,” and “justification,” and what John meant by “eternal life,” were very different from what I had been taught to understand these terms meant.

The already difficult problem of correctly interpreting the Bible became a nightmare. Would Jesus have left His Church in such a difficult position in understanding the Bible? Would He have left us to grope for the truth ourselves, without His assistance?

Protestant objections to Tradition and the Magisterium’s authority frequently appeal to how Church leaders are finite and sinful. One day it occurred to me that Protestants believe God used finite and sinful people to write the Bible, but that the result was the infallible and inerrant Word of God. If this really happened in one case, with the Bible, then we must at least admit the possibility that God could do it again or in an ongoing fashion (through Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching).

I also learned that the Church’s understanding of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in light of modern biblical scholarship was the most intellectually satisfying and the “highest” view of scripture as the Word of God once one makes a legitimate use of modern biblical scholarship. Liberal Protestant theories essentially downplay or deny the “divine” side of Scripture, while fundamentalists and Evangelicals merely dismiss the findings of modern biblical scholarship altogether.

Insights From Church History and Philosophy

Church history was also an eye-opener. I quickly saw that from the early Church through the late Middle Ages, almost all Christians were Catholic in their theology and practice. The distinctively Protestant doctrines were novelties in the history of Christianity, but the Protestant Reformers’ claims that the Catholic Church had apostatized was as old as Gnosticism.

I also saw how Protestant theology was heavily influenced by the medieval philosophical movement called Nominalism — which was ultimately rejected by the Church — and the spirit of the newly emerging period of modernity. Nominalism rejected the use of philosophy in theology that had been practiced so fruitfully in the High Middle Ages. It stressed supernatural revelation alone, distrusted reason and philosophy, and denied that God, the primary Cause of all things, works through creatures as secondary causes.

The study of Metaphysics has to do with matters such as the nature of being and of first causes. A significant point in my journey came when I discerned a fundamental metaphysical assumption of Protestant thought, also taken from Nominalism, in distinction from the historic Catholic metaphysical assumption.

The Bible stresses God’s activity in the world and in salvation. This is the motivation for the Reformed/Calvinist brand of Protestant faith with which I had been affiliated. The Bible also makes much of the existence and activity of creatures, including the role of humans in their salvation.

Medieval scholasticism, the philosophical system perhaps epitomized in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, developed a metaphysical view that there is no competition between God’s existence and activity on the one hand and creaturely existence and activity on the other hand. God is not something “in” the world of creatures so that He must “compete” with creatures, such that “either God does it or His creatures do it.”

The Nominalism in which the Protestant Reformers were trained opposed the scholastic ideas and methods of the High Middle Ages. It sought simpler explanations for philosophical problems. It was an epiphany when I realized that in their efforts to exalt God’s glory, the Protestant Reformers had “brought God down” to the level of creatures so as to perceive a competition between God and us, especially in salvation.

Wrongly feeling compelled to choose between either God or creatures, the Protestant teachers naturally chose God, whence their well-known slogan, soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”). In their thinking, God does everything in our salvation, and we do practically nothing. They were rejecting the traditional Catholic view that in one sense God does it all, but in the creaturely realm we do it all — there is no competition.

As I pondered this matter, I saw how in Scripture and philosophy, as creatures infinitely different from God we must receive all our knowledge and experience of God through other creatures, never directly. The Word of God in the Bible is still in human concepts and languages, and God’s fullest revelation to us was His becoming a human being, Jesus Christ. Grace and truth of necessity always come to us through a created medium of one sort or another. This is the incarnational and sacramental principle at the heart of the Christian faith, made abundantly clear in Catholic teaching.

When I realized the Protestant metaphysical mistakes of a perceived competition between God and creatures, leading to a denial of the sacramental principle, I found the lynchpin upon which all Protestant objections to Catholic teaching hinged: the real activity of creatures and human beings in salvation. This mistake in their thinking lies at the root of their objections to free will, works, merit, the sacraments, the saints, the Church, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the archetype of the Church.

My Return to the Church

My return to the Church may seem primarily intellectual. Yet this is not the case. As an Evangelical I was taught that most Catholics are not “real” Christians because they did not look, act, and talk like Evangelicals. Nevertheless, in college, throughout seminary, and during my years in Evangelical churches, I gradually came to see that Evangelicals have just as many problems as Catholics with regard to personal sin and unfaithful members.

I also came to realize that much of what I was taught to view as the evidence of “really knowing Christ” in Evangelical practice was merely an Evangelical subculture, including a mandated vocabulary and ways of behaving — not necessarily evidence of a genuine spiritual life. Before and after my return to the Church, I have encountered many, many committed Catholics who are holy and who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ, even though they don’t use the Evangelical lingo and think according to Evangelical categories.

My wife and I also came to value Catholic moral theology, for which no real parallel exists in Evangelical Protestant teaching. We were impressed by the Church’s corporal works of mercy throughout history and into the present, works of charity such as hospitals and schools. These institutions address not only the spiritual effects of sin but also the physical and material effects.

Some Protestant groups have engaged in charitable works to various degrees, but these works pale in comparison to what the Catholic Church has done over the centuries. Love incarnate, in individual Catholics that we knew and in the Church as a whole, was perhaps for us the most powerful testimony to the truth of the Catholic faith.

After seminary, in the throes of theological and spiritual confusion, I completed a Ph. D. in theology from Fordham University, which is Catholic and Jesuit. After I began teaching, my wife and our oldest son, Dominic, entered the Catholic Church, and I returned to the Church. Our second son, Gabriel, was born and baptized in the Church.

I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders on that day in 2006 when I received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in sixteen years. Since then our faith has only deepened intellectually and practically. We’ve seen miraculous answers to prayer when invoking the intercession of the Blessed Mother.

Above all, receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist has been our greatest experience. I now have the joy of teaching theology at a Catholic university and cannot imagine anything else I would rather be doing.

Dr. Marc A. Pugliese

Dr. Marc Pugliese teaches theology at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky. He and his wife, Laura, have been married for fifteen years and have two sons, Dominic (15) and Gabriel (8). Dr. Pugliese recently published his first book: The One, the Many, and the Trinity: Joseph A. Bracken & the Challenge of Process Metaphysics (Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

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