I was raised in a family that considered churchgoing very important. But we were not theologically orthodox, even by the standards of most Protestant denominations. My father was the cause of this unusual combination, for despite being a skeptic in religion, he always valued the social aspects of church attendance.
So in the small and medium-sized Ohio towns where we lived, my family attended services of various Protestant congregations, and at one point, I went to Sunday school at a Methodist church practically next door to us. For a short time, my father even conducted his own Sunday services in our home. Then later, when I was about six or seven, we started to attend a Unitarian congregation in a nearby city, whose teachings were more to my father’s liking.
When I was about ten, however, we left the Unitarians — I think because of quarreling among the members and the presence of eccentrics among them, such as flying-saucer devotees. We began to attend the Episcopal Church instead. My father was attracted by the dignity of the service and the music, by the comparatively intellectual character of the clergy and members, and by the undogmatic emphasis of the Episcopal tradition.
Into Atheism and Theism
When I was young, say from about age four to eleven, I had a vague notion of God. On one occasion, I believe, I equated Him with a large piece of farm machinery that was parked near our house. As I approached adolescence, I began to wonder whether there was a God or not, but had not the slightest notion of how to find out.
By around the age of thirteen, I had concluded that there definitely was not a God, and I considered myself an atheist. During this period, I underwent the Episcopal confirmation ceremony. I had had some hesitation about being confirmed, but my father urged me to do so, because of his belief that it was important to belong to some church, even if one did not believe what it taught.
I remember in the tenth grade, during the moment of silent prayer at the beginning of the school day, consciously not praying, indeed attempting to do homework. But the homeroom teacher told me I had at least to sit there and do nothing if I did not want to pray. (This, of course, was in the public schools!)
Then during the next year everything changed. As far as I can remember, this is the sequence of events.
I read something about the Anglican writer C. S. Lewis in some Episcopal publication that my parents received. Though I remember nothing about the article in question, I remember thinking that since Lewis was both a Christian and an intellectual, perhaps I should investigate whether Christianity might actually be true.
Also about this time, my brother gave me a gift certificate for a local bookstore as a Christmas or birthday present. I used it to buy two books, one of them John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. I don’t think I had ever heard of Newman before, but I was attracted by the Latin title, since I was studying Latin in school.
Reading this book naturally put into my mind not only the idea of conversion, but the entire question of our relationship with God and of seeking the truth about His revelation. But the first decisive moment came in a different and unexpected way.
I have implied that, though a skeptic, my father had a great interest in religion. His library of several thousand books included a fairly large religion section. In fact, I think it was the one section for which he bought or acquired more new books than any other.
One day he brought home a book of some meditations by a Protestant minister. I took a look at it, as I usually did with whatever new books he brought home. One of the first meditations in the book was about the existence of God.
It included some simplified versions of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. But in my state of knowledge at the time, that was enough for me. I can still see myself at the bottom of the stairway, in front of a glass bookcase, reading this book, with the realization suddenly coming to me that God did indeed exist. It was obviously a stupendous event in my life, even if I did not fully realize its importance then.
Becoming a Christian
As significant as this event was, it had not yet made me a Christian, only a theist. I was working part-time after school, and I began shortly afterward to have discussions with a Protestant woman at work. I told her I believed in God, but not in Jesus Christ as His Son. She told me to pray to God, that He would show me the truth of the matter, and I began to do so.
One stumbling block was that I did not understand the idea of the Incarnation — namely, how God could be both Creator of the world and yet present in it in the flesh. I got the idea from C. S. Lewis, whom I had then begun reading, of a playwright writing himself a part in his own drama. Although obviously this analogy is not a proof of anything, at the time it sufficed for me, and I accepted that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and began to consider myself a Christian. This was around January of 1968.
When I was a baby, I had been “baptized” in the Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. But it was impossible to discover what form of words had been used or what the minister’s intentions might have been. I realized that I had a duty to be baptized, but I was afraid to ask or do anything about it.
After a few months, however, without even praying (I was too ignorant!), God changed my heart and gave me the courage to approach our Episcopal minister at the parish we were then attending about Baptism. As a result, I was conditionally baptized in July of 1968 in the presence of my family.
About this time, my father acquired another new book on religion, entitled Liturgy and Worship, published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, an organization in the Church of England. This book was a high-church survey of the Anglican liturgy and necessarily included a considerable amount of theology. I read it, and, thanks be to God, this work gave a direction to my religious life that ultimately brought me to the true faith.
From reading this book, I got a sense of the Church of Jesus Christ as a visible, corporate, and institutional Body, with a liturgy and sacraments and a faith handed down from our Lord and the Apostles. I never had the common Protestant Bible-only approach to Christianity. As a result, I was put in a position where I could begin to assimilate many Catholic truths.
Besides Liturgy and Worship, my father also had several Catholic books in his library, including the Baltimore Catechism, Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics, G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and others. During this time, I read Knox, a former Anglican minister who had converted and become a Catholic priest and prolific author. I also read much of the catechism, and a bit of Chesterton. These books taught me much Catholic doctrine and helped me think clearly and avoid some of the common errors in religious thought in our culture, such as the notion that religious truth is personal and subjective or that it exists entirely to give us psychological comfort in this world.
Additionally, these books enabled me to avoid misconceptions about what the Catholic Church really taught. I continued to read C. S. Lewis, from whom I learned much, not so much by way of actual doctrine as of an attitude toward religious truth that has always stood me in good stead: Lewis never compromised on the fundamental supernatural outlook essential to any form of Christianity, nor did he allow his reader to forget the ever-present issue of salvation or damnation.
There is no mushy Christianity with Lewis. In addition, he provided me with a sufficient intellectual underpinning for adherence to Christian faith so that I never had any serious intellectual difficulties in college or graduate school.
From the time of my baptism as an Episcopalian until 1976, I lived as an Episcopal layman, attended a college (nominally) affiliated with the Episcopal denomination, was married in the college chapel, and worked as a parish religious education director. I read a considerable amount of high-church Episcopal theology, including the ten-volume series of dogmatic theology written by Dr. Francis J. Hall (1857–1932), sometimes called the Anglican Summa Theologiae. From this latter, I learned considerable Catholic theology, though in one important matter, as I will relate below, I was seriously misled.
Although for part of this time, especially when I was an undergraduate, I was involved in several pan-Protestant prayer groups with no particular denominational affiliation, I was careful to keep my theological thinking more or less high-church. I never received communion from a minister I did not consider to be in the apostolic succession.
Considering the Catholic Church
I continued in this situation until I was forced to consider carefully the claims of the Catholic Church because of actions by the Episcopal denomination. Specifically, I was disturbed when the ordination of women as “priests” was authorized by the General Convention, the governing body of the American Episcopal Church, in the fall of 1976.
Before discussing this issue, however, I should say something about what I thought of the Catholic Church during my ten or so years as an Anglican. Obviously, from the examples of Newman, Knox, and Chesterton, the idea of conversion from Canterbury to Rome was quite familiar to me during all those years. In fact, for many years, the Catholic Church had been very attractive to me.
I was a high-church Episcopalian who adhered to the so-called “Branch Theory” of the Church. This is the notion that the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church is made up of three more-or-less coequal branches: the Anglican, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Roman, with at most a primacy of honor given to the bishop of Rome. Though I considered myself already Catholic, then, many aspects of the Church of Rome and of Catholic life appealed to me.
In a sense, Rome was a temptation to me, a temptation specifically to accede to her without a sufficient intellectual conviction, because of various cultural or populist reasons. I was attracted, for example, to the Catholic Church because she contains such a wonderful mass of humanity, the poor of so many nations, colors and cultures, not just the upper-middle classes of English-speaking countries.
In 1975, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I encountered the externals of Catholic culture for the first time. I immediately fell in love with the Spanish culture, with its buildings, its art, its people, its life. Twentieth-century New Mexico could hardly be called a Catholic culture in its fullness, but enough of the externals of the faith remain so that it helped to build up in my mind this image of the Catholic Church.
One of the most memorable things I saw was an exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico of colonial religious art from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. Here I saw religious art as a living and popular tradition, for the exhibit included a few paintings done well into this century, pictures depicting answered prayers. One painting, for example, might show someone lying on a sickbed with others praying and perhaps a saint above receiving the petitions. The next panel might show the invalid up and about again. These were paintings done by or on behalf of families living in New Mexico in the twentieth century to commemorate some actual answered prayer. Here was Catholic culture alive and well and part of the lives of ordinary believers.
But something else in Santa Fe, which at the time created perhaps an even bigger impression on me, involved less authentic Catholic art. I mean the rosaries and plastic statues of the Infant Jesus of Prague for sale at the Woolworths on the plaza. Here again was a sign of the matter-of-factness Catholics felt about the faith. Though doubtless for Woolworths it was simply a means of making a buck, for one brought up in a Protestant culture, it was a revelation. I had never seen anything like it, and it delighted me. Here was further evidence — to me, refreshing — that among Catholics religion was not something to be put in a little box, something separate from life, something so special that it was almost unreal.
No, religion was a part of life. Why? Because God, the Virgin, the angels, and the saints were all as real, and as close to us, as the other things Woolworths sold, such as soap, clothes hangers, or underwear. In The Belief of Catholics, Ronald Knox speaks of this popular side to Catholic piety:
There is among Catholic saints a familiarity which seems to raise this world to the level of eternity. There is among Catholic sinners a familiarity which seems (to non-Catholic eyes) to degrade eternity to the level of this world. The point is most clearly demonstrated in connection with that attitude toward religious things which we call “reverence.” For good or for evil, the ordinary, easygoing Catholic pays far less tribute to this sentiment than a Protestant, or even an agnostic brought up in the atmosphere of Protestantism. No traveler fails to be struck, and perhaps shocked, by the “irreverence” or “naturalness” (call it what you will) that marks the behavior of Catholic children wandering about in church. (From chapter XIII, “The Air Catholics Breathe,” online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHRIST/BELIEF.txt)
I found other aspects of Catholic life attractive as well. For example, while a senior in high school, the reading of Richard Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism began in me a lifelong passion for the social teaching of the Catholic Church. All these things were attracting me to Rome during my years as an Anglican, although I tried to keep the emotional pull of Rome separate from my intellectual considerations about conversion.
I don’t remember how many times I seriously considered conversion before I actually did convert. But I know there were at least two times, one in the summer of 1972 and the second during the subsequent winter. The first time I talked at some length with a seminarian friend of mine (now a priest of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio) and the second time with a priest resident near my undergraduate college.
This latter priest turned out to be a modernist. His remark that, now that they had successfully demythologized Scripture, they would begin to demythologize dogma rather put me off. I didn’t speak any further to him.
About this same time, during the first semester of my senior year (fall 1972), I wrote a paper for an English history class on the question of the continuity of the Church of England with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. I remember being shocked when I discovered that those who had assisted Henry VIII in setting up the Church of England regarded ultra-Protestants such as Calvin as their friends and co-religionists. So much for the Branch Theory in the 1540s!
However, my Episcopal professor suggested that instead of looking at the intentions of the Anglican founders, I should look for how much of Catholicism (as he and I understood it) managed to survive the Protestant Revolt, despite what Cranmer and his colleagues may have desired. This satisfied me and helped keep me in the Episcopal denomination for another few years.
The crisis, as I said, came after the General Convention’s authorizing of the ordination of women in the fall of 1976. I knew that this was entirely against Christian Tradition, and for a short time, I even edited and published a little periodical, The Newsletter on Women’s Ordination, in opposition to the idea. The Sunday after the Episcopal Church voted to allow it, my wife and I attended Sunday services as usual.
This was almost the last time that I attended an Episcopal church as a worshipper. The following Easter we journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, to attend an Episcopal parish that had rejected the General Convention’s action, and a few other times in the next year we went to Episcopal churches for special reasons. But my days as an Episcopalian were essentially over.
Many Episcopalians were opposed to what the denomination had done, and almost immediately began organizing breakaway groups. Had there been one convenient to us, we would have joined. We would have also considered attending an Eastern Orthodox parish.
Practically speaking, though, the only parishes of my great Three-Branched church convenient to us were Roman Catholic, and since I believed that it was our duty to attend the eucharistic sacrifice, my wife and I began attending Catholic Mass. This didn’t make me a Catholic, but it did allow us to learn about natural family planning (the lack of knowledge of which had in part prevented me from more seriously considering Rome in the past). It also caused me to think that perhaps I should seriously investigate the Catholic faith.
The Question Is Settled
I made the decision to undertake this investigation the following fall when we were living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We began instruction at a local Catholic student center, but it was staffed by modernist priests who were later expelled by the bishop from the diocese. However, because of my earlier reading — including some of what I learned from the Episcopalian writer Francis Hall — I was not corrupted by the instruction. In fact, I argued with my instructor, particularly over the teaching in Humanae Vitae, which I had come to accept.
I didn’t attempt to find a better Catholic parish because I didn’t know any existed. I had read so much in the secular press about dissent in the Church that I thought it wasn’t worth the trouble to look for one. It wasn’t until several months after we became Catholic that we discovered an excellent parish, St. Agnes, not far away from where we lived. And, in fact, a few months after we became Catholics, we left the student center to attend St. Agnes.
Our instruction began in the fall of 1977, but by December, I was still completely undecided. Consequently, the priest recommended that we take our Christmas vacation to more seriously consider the matter.
Though I knew that the key to the entire question was the attitude of the early Church toward the papacy, I actually had read little of the Fathers, except for Augustine’s Confessions. So, among other things, I did some reading in the Fathers and other early writers, from a book of excerpts of their writings. I was shocked to find the following passages:
For this church [i.e. Rome] has a position of leadership and authority; and therefore every church, that is, the faithful everywhere, must needs agree with the church at Rome; for in her the apostolic tradition has ever been preserved by the faithful from all parts of the world. (St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3, I)
The other Apostles were, to be sure, what Peter was, but primacy is given to Peter, and the Church and the throne are shown to be one. (St. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Catholic Church)
That Supreme Pontiff, that Bishop of Bishops, issues an edict … (Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 1)
(I should note that even though this last quote, written when Tertullian had become a schismatic Montanist, was derisive of papal authority, it does witness that in his time — writing in the early third century ad — such titles and authority were already claimed for the bishop of Rome.)
The above quotes surprised me because none of them had been cited by the Anglican writer that I mentioned, Francis Hall. He had been indefatigable in gathering quotations from the Fathers and others on behalf of doctrines and practices that high-church Anglicans accept, such as the seven sacraments or the Church as a visible corporate body. But on the question of the bishop of Rome, he had been strangely selective, and therefore misleading. He had quoted only a few odd statements that supported his point of view on Rome.
In any case, reading these quotes was enough for me. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I accepted this fundamental principle of the Catholic faith and thus the entire corpus of Catholic belief.
I still did a little reading after that, but the question was essentially settled. That is, since I now recognized that the true Christian Church was gathered in communion with the successor of Peter, I did not need to debate separately such articles of faith as the infallibility of the pope or Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption. It was enough to know that those Christians who were grouped in the true Church had authoritatively defined these dogmas.
All this occurred in January of 1978. A few weeks later, on February 12, my wife and I were received into the Holy Catholic Church at Christ the King Chapel.
From my standpoint now as a Catholic, I realize that the “Anglo-Catholic” branch theory of the Church is profoundly contrary not just to the Fathers, but to the New Testament itself.
The kind of unity that St. Paul continually appeals to and, in fact, practices, as he travels among the various small congregations of Catholics in Asia Minor and Greece, has nothing in common with the “unity” supposed in the branch theory. Moreover, as others have pointed out, of the three supposed branches of the Church, both the Roman and the Eastern emphatically reject this theory, while among Anglicans, most are indifferent to it, with only a small group of “Anglo-Catholics” accepting it.
One other point I will mention. Sometimes when people, either Catholics or non-Catholics, ask me what I was before becoming a Catholic, they say something like, “Oh, an Episcopalian; well, that’s not very different.” And in fact there is something to this. As an Anglican, I did believe most of Catholic doctrine.
But there is one thing that is quite different: All Protestants, including “Anglo-Catholics,” basically make up their own religion. That is, those Protestants who profess to believe only the Bible can decide for themselves just what the Bible means or how to interpret a difficult passage. And if they choose to follow a particular pastor or evangelist on some disputed point, still, they themselves choose which pastor or evangelist to follow. The decision is in their own hands.
This is true also for high-church Anglicans. Although as an Episcopalian I professed to follow the Fathers of the undivided Church and the traditions common to Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople, still I decided exactly which dogmas or moral points were universal and thus binding on all Christians. I decided when the testimony of the Fathers was sufficiently unanimous.
Even if I followed an author I thought was sound, it was my decision which author to trust. Despite the fact that I believed I was following an objective authority outside of myself, I essentially made up my own religion. The ultimate source was still within me.
This was no longer true once I became a Catholic and accepted the authority of the Church’s Magisterium — and it was the biggest difference I noticed after becoming a Catholic. My reaction to finding the locus of authority outside myself was like my reaction to having cold water thrown over me on a hot day: a bit of a shock, but very refreshing.
I suppose that some people might regard this last statement as evidence that Catholics are glad to abdicate thinking for themselves and like to be told what to believe and do. Any orthodox Catholic knows that this is not true. The refreshment I felt at no longer having to make up my own religion was the refreshment that comes from beginning to learn a bit of humility, as well as from leaving off a job that was never meant to be mine in the first place.
Of course, this does not mean that I denigrate reason. In fact, among Catholics, reason is likely to be more esteemed than among any other group in the world. But true and genuine authority is in no way contrary to reason, but rather its friend and ally.