On Fifteen Years a Catholic

Two issues then and two surprises later

(Photo courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew

(Photo courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.)“How can you join a church that tells you how to think?”

The question, uttered with equal parts puzzlement and anger, surprised me. In hindsight, it should have been about as surprising as an afternoon drizzle here in Eugene, Oregon, in early spring. The question—almost an accusation, really—was made one early spring day over fifteen years ago. It was said in the middle of an intense discussion about the reasons why my wife and I had, both graduates of Evangelical Bible colleges, had decided to become Catholic.

I’m happy to note, all these years later, that I have a good and healthy relationship with the man who made the remark. We both uttered strong words that day, but time and some further conversations—more calm and measured in nature—have brought peace, if not perfect understanding.

I’ve sometimes joked, in recounting the full story to close friends, that I came up with the perfect retort several hours later: “At least I’m entering a Church that knows what the word ‘think’ means!” It would have been a low blow, but it touches on two issues that continue to resonate with me, now fifteen years a Catholic, nearly every day in some way or another.

The Mindless Scandal

The first is the intellectual life. The Fundamentalism of my youth was, in sum, anti-intellectual; it looked with caution, even fearful disdain, on certain aspects of modern science, technology, and academic study. But it wasn’t because we were Luddites or held a principled position against electricity, computers, or space exploration. The concern was essentially spiritual in nature; the guiding concern was that televisions, radios, “boom boxes” (remember?), and movies were potential tools for conveying messages—often subliminal in nature—contrary to a godly, Christian life. The general instinct was, in fact, actually sound. Only the creators of “Jersey Shore” can deny the power and influence of popular culture, and then only with a smirk. But the permeating fear was rarely controlled, critiqued, and concentrated through rigorous thought and study. It was reactionary and highly subjective, and so it became a sort of rogue agent, undermining the most innocent activities: reading the Chronicles of Narnia, listening to any “non-Christian” music, or studying art or literature not including any overt references to “Jesus” and “the Gospel”.  

My time in Bible college proved helpful in many ways, as several of my professors were certainly not fearful of going outside the box, even—gasp!—assigning books by Flannery O’Connor and Gerard Manley Hopkins (there was also some reading of Augustine, but in an extremely abridged form). But for every question answered, others sprung up like dandelions, multiplying with maddening surety. When I read Mark Noll’s controversial bestseller, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), I was confirmed in many of the intuitions and thoughts I had mulled and culled over the years. Noll opened his book with this withering shot of lightning: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Readers can disagree on the level of hyperbole used; Noll, a dedicated Evangelical scholar, seemed dead serious in his assertion. “For a Christian”, he wrote, “the most important consideration is not pragmatic results, or even the weight of history, but the truth.” These and other statements rang true. I had become convinced, at a relatively early age, that if something is true and good, it must be of God.

The Need for Authority

Of course, how did I know what was “true and good”? Enter the second issue: authority. I won’t regale readers about the details of my struggle with sola scriptura. (Readers can catch a few of them in my 1998 account our journey into the Church.) Instead, I’ll skip to something I wrote in February 1996, from a list of “several points of consideration” I put down regarding the claims of the Catholic Church. “I have become increasingly convinced”, I wrote, “that the idea of sola scriptura is in the end untenable … Again, this does not render judgment on the inspiration or infallibility of Scripture, it just moves the question to a different arena—that of authority.”

Nearly every non-Catholic adult who chooses to become Catholic will admit, or least should admit, the centrality of the matter of authority. As a Fundamentalist, I had been fed the standard, Jack Chick-ean version of Catholic authority: bloody, despotic, dishonest, power-driven, and so forth. The hike from there to looking squarely and honestly at authority in the Catholic Church was lengthy, but one key mile post was studying St. Paul’s description in his first letter to Timothy of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). A passage by Abp. Fulton Sheen, written in the 1940s, sums up the matter quite well:

There is nothing more misunderstood by the modern mind than the authority of the Church. Just as soon as one mentions the authority of the Vicar of Christ there are visions of slavery, intellectual servitude, mental chains, tyrannical obedience, and blind service on the part of those who, it is said, are forbidden to think for themselves. That is positively untrue. Why has the world been so reluctant to accept the authority of the Father’s house? Why has it so often identified the Catholic Church with intellectual slavery? The answer is, because the world has forgotten the meaning of liberty.

One Surprise: The Bad

We entered the Catholic Church on March 29, 1997, Easter Vigil at Saint Paul Catholic Church in Eugene, Oregon. It was a joyful night and I can say with complete honesty I have never regretted becoming Catholic. But I have been surprised a few times as a Catholic. Two surprises stand out; they also, in a way related to the two points above, stand together.

As an Evangelical, I was very familiar with “church splits”. I endured my first as a four-year old (our family and several others left the local Christian and Missionary Alliance assembly) and my wife and I stopped attending our last Evangelical church while it was in the middle of a dramatic split. I soon learned, as a new Catholic, that “splits” aren’t really part of being Catholic. I also learned that disgruntled Catholics, especially those upset about Church teaching on sexuality, authority, and the priesthood, don’t always leave the Church; on the contrary, they often simply try to take over the Church. And by “Church”, I mean both the local parish and the Church as a whole. My first big surprise, then, was finding out that while I (and many other former Protestants) had spent months and years working through Church doctrine and moral teaching, we were entering a Church apparently dominated and largely run, at least in practical terms, by Catholics complaining incessantly and obnoxiously about Church doctrine and moral teaching.

Moving toward and then into the Church, I wasn’t unaware of such problems. But the sheer scope of the situation was confounding. It helped that I had a relatively low view of the human state; I didn’t expect pews full of Catechism-quoting saints. But I had hopes that most of them knew about the Catechism and had some desire to live holy lives. And so the farmer boy arrived in the city.

It’s not surprising that Catholics sin. It is surprising how some Catholic insist certain sins are not only sins in name only but are actually virtues in disguise!  It’s not shocking that many Catholics misunderstand the nature and mission of the Church. It is shocking how some Catholics deliberately distort and misrepresent the nature and mission of the mystical Body of Christ. It is not scandalous, per se, that many Catholics don’t have a close relationship with Jesus Christ. But it is scandalous when Catholics insist they don’t need Christ or his Church in order to be Catholic.

A case in point is the recent statement released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about the status of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The CDF noted its serious concerns with long established patterns of “corporate dissent” indicating LCWR leaders often “take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.” In fact, from its founding in the early 1970s, the Conference has thumbed its corporate nose at a host of Church teachings, including papal authority, the male priesthood, sexuality and contraception, the uniqueness of Christ, and so forth. It is the height (or depth) of irony that the LCWR site has this quote from Margaret Brennan, IHM, President from 1972 to 1973: “One danger for us is that we may become legitimators of society’s commonly held values.” It ceased being a danger long ago, perhaps even before the quote was uttered. The CDF also highlighted the deep influence of radical feminist theology within the LCWR, and the undermining of the fundamental and “revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.” Details!

To judge by the mainstream news, the Vatican has been forcibly removing old nuns from convents and shuttling them to live beneath bridges and overpasses in southern Utah. One headline declared, “Vatican targets US nuns’ reps”; another darkly stated, “Vatican condemns American nuns for liberal stances”. None of this surprising, of course, as the secular media is fixated on sensationalism, conflict, and opposition to traditional Christian teachings. You won’t see a headline stating, “Vatican offered LCWR a chance to save itself from self-inflicted death.” It would not fit the narrative, even if it fits the facts: the average age of LCWR women religious is at least twice that of those women religious in the CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious). Instead there are delicious sound bites, such as when Sister Simone Campbell, head of the lefty Network (named directly by the CDF), tells NPR it’s all about out-of-touch men in the Vatican who “are not used to strong women” and then blithely—arrogantly, really—says:

Women get it first and then try to explain it to the guys who – I mean, as the women did to the Apostles. So, we will try to explain it to the guys. We’ll keep up our roles from the Scriptures.

Because every good Scripture scholar know that what Mary Magdalene and the other women did, to their eternal credit, was publicly thumb their noses at the Apostles’ teachings and actions!

What the media also won’t say (again, understandably) is the situation with the LCWR is about a crisis of faith that has been festering and spreading for decades as an affront to genuine Church authority. One result of this crisis of faith is, I think, a laity weary, numb, angry, or simply confused. How to make sense of it? Stepping back as much as possible, one can situate it somewhere in the stream of parasitical, self-loathing, and self-righteous pseudo-religiosity that may be best defined as “modern, pantheistic-secularist liberalism”. Its heaven is earth; its authority is self (wrongly identified as “conscience”); its goals are horizontal (“social justice”); its rhetoric is both morally charged and completely bankrupt. “When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong,” opined the endlessly opining Joan Chittister about the CDF statement, “you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral.” This is the same woman who praised and eulogized the radical, lesbian, Church-hating Mary Daly, saying Daly’s work “was an icon to women”. She fails completely, by any decent standard, to comprehend the meaning of “immoral”.

But this, I’ve learned, is the way of heresy within the Church, going back to the very beginning (think, for example, of Paul’s fight for the Galatians): to abuse trust and power, to misuse language, to undermine genuine authority, to dismiss essential truths, to claim the morally superior ground, to be a victim but never a martyr, and to distract and deflect at all costs.

The Second Surprise: The Good

This past Thursday marked the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the Chair of Peter, despite the assurances of the usual suspects with unusually suspect intuition. This was a moment of great joy for me; Cardinal Ratzinger had long been a favorite theologian and author. His books helped me in becoming Catholic and they’ve helped me in becoming a better thinking and, hopefully, better living Catholic.

But, of course, just as the narrative about the LCWR presents disobedience as goodness, the narrative about Benedict XVI has often been as follows: an angry, narrow-minded, Nazi-sympathizing reactionary is now Pope, and he is intent on dragging the Church back to the dreaded Dark Ages. Perhaps some of this utterly banal silliness could be forgiven in the first week following the election. But since then it has reflected unlearned arrogance (a media specialty), or petulant and personal smearing (a media delight), or slovenly regurgitation of falsehoods (a media habit). Or all three (a media trinity).

I won’t bother with an apologetic. Simply read the man’s writings. And if you haven’t read the recently published collection, Fundamental Speeches From Five Decades (Ignatius Press, 2012), which contains a fabulous talk given in 1970, when then Fr. (and Professor) Joseph Ratzinger was just about my own age now, forty three or so. The talk was titled, “Why I am still in the Church”. It begins with a nuanced and thoughtful reflection on the confusion faced by many Catholics in the years after the Council, which Ratzinger described as “this remarkable Tower of Babel situation”. He noted some Catholics wish to make the Church into their own image, reflecting their desires and goals, not those of the Church herself. Behind all of the struggles over what the Church “should be”, Ratzinger said, is a “crucial” point: “the crisis of faith, which is the actual nucleus of the process”.

Then, answering the question implicit in his talk’s title, he said:

I am in the Church because, despite everything, I believe that she is at the deepest level not our but precisely “his” Church. To put it concretely: It is the Church that, despite all the human foibles of the people in her, gives us Jesus Christ, and only through her can we receive him as a living, authoritative reality that summons and endows me here and now. … This elementary acknowledgement has to be made at the start: Whatever infidelity there is or may be in the Church, however true it is that she constantly needs to be measured anew by Jesus Christ, still there is ultimately no opposition between Christ and Church. It is through the Church that he remains alive despite the distance of history, that he speaks to us today, is with us today as master and Lord, as our brother who unites us all as brethren. And because the Church, and she alone, gives us Jesus Christ, causes him to be alive and present in the world, gives birth to him again in every age in the faith and prayer of the people, she gives mankind a light, a support, and a standard without which mankind would be unimaginable. Anyone who wants to find the presence of Jesus Christ in mankind cannot find it contrary to the Church but only in her.

And therein lies the answer to the question that opened this essay, the question presented to me not long before I became Catholic. How could I join a Church that tells me how to think? How could I not join the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the household of his Father, infused with life by her soul, the Holy Spirit? How could I think—or desire, or choose, or will—to do otherwise? And how can I, given the grace to be a Catholic, not stand up for my mother, the Church? “Because she is our mother, she is also our teacher in the faith” (CCC 169). She teaches us how to think because, alone, we know not how. Or why. Or Who.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.