American Catholics have grown accustomed, over the last 30 or 40 years, to the wonderful and moving stories of those who have converted to the Catholic faith, particularly from various Protestant denominations. Some of these stories have become quite well known, such as that of Scott and Kimberly Hahn, or Cardinal Avery Dulles; a Catholic reader might be tempted to think he knows all the twists of the classic conversion story by heart, and that no “swimming the Tiber” narrative could surprise and engage him at this point.
A recent book published by EWTN takes a new approach to the conversion story, and a new approach to apologetics. The book is The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony (EWTN Publishing, 2018). In this book, the author, Dr. David Anders, tells how he and his wife hit the lowest point in their marriage, and how through a discovery of the Catholic faith they were able to save their relationship.
Dr. Anders recently spoke with Catholic World Report about this book, the struggles of living in a healthy marriage, and his conversion to the Catholic faith.
Catholic World Report: How did the book come to be?
Dr. David Anders: I had been wanting for some time to write a book that would put some of the things that I do in my public presentations and my radio show in print, so that people would have another medium to access it. I was kind of casting around for the proper format in which to place that. Two things that I ruled out early on as possibilities: first, I did not want to write a straightforward book on apologetics, a sort of Q&A on how to answer common objections to the Catholic faith; that struck me as kind of “been there, done that.” For the same reason, I didn’t want to write a straightforward conversion narrative either, because that genre has been kind of beaten to death.
In conversation with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You should tell the story of how the Catholic faith saved our marriage.” As soon as she said it, I realized that was the ideal vehicle. I think it’s important to emphasize that when I set out to write the book, I did not intend to write a book on the Catholic doctrine of marriage, or marriage therapy, or how to have a good Catholic marriage, or anything like that. There’s a lot of those books, too. I really wanted to write a book that would be about Catholic history, apologetics, philosophy, but to show that these rather abstract (sometimes) theological or philosophical doctrines could make a substantive difference in a human life. And the sphere of life where we experience most of our trials and tribulations is our daily life. These are not just academic fetishes; these are questions of real moment, and have the capacity to radically transform the most intimate spheres of our activity.
I wrote it in that way, and people who have read the book told me, “I’ve never read a book like this. It doesn’t fit into any pre-existing categories.” So I had that in mind, and I actually began working on a manuscript several years ago, and then Sophia Institute Press (which now has a relationship with EWTN) approached me and asked I if would be interested in writing a book. I pitched the idea to them, and at first they thought that I was speaking about yet another Catholic marriage book. And I said, “No, you don’t understand what I want to do. Let me hash out the vision for you.” Then when they saw what I wanted to do, they said, “Now that’s interesting!”
CWR: Was it hard to write about something so personal? Were there times when you were writing, where you thought, “Maybe I should just write a straightforward apologetics book and not dig into these old wounds”?
Anders: I made a resolution early on that, in composing the book, I would not say any bad thing of my wife. Now, my wife is not innocent, we’ve both done things in our lives that we’re ashamed of; but I was not there to air my wife’s dirty laundry. So I preserve her dignity, I think, and that was my goal all the way through.
I feel like the things that I revealed about my own sins and woundedness are pretty banal, pretty middle-of-the-road, standard; the particulars are my own, but the problems are universal. I don’t think I said anything overly scandalous, other than that we all wrestle with despair, hopelessness, concupiscence, pride—these are the wounds of original sin that we all bear.
Now, there were a few points as I was composing the manuscript—my wife had veto power over every paragraph—that she said to me, “Oh, you’re not saying that.” She stopped me short a few times! And yes, I think a couple times I really did ask myself if I wanted to put something down in print. And I still wonder that sometimes: am I glad I put that down in print? But I will say, folks who have read it come to me and say, “Thank you for putting that in print,” because it really helped them.
CWR: The perennial question for every convert: growing up, would you ever have thought that you would someday convert to Catholicism, and that it would have such a profound effect on your life?
Anders: Heavens, no! I would have thought it more likely that I would fly to the moon. You cannot imagine how inconceivable the possibility of becoming Catholic would have been to me for the first 30 years of my life. Would Reagan have become a communist? It was another planet, no way. Absolutely not.
CWR: Over the course of writing the book, did you come to any new realizations about the Sacrament of Matrimony, about your marriage, about the Catholic faith?
Anders: The biggest benefit to me personally in writing it was honing my ability to articulate some of the truths that I had come to intuitively adopt; in particular, the chapter on family life and parenthood was very helpful to write. I don’t talk about any of my children personally in the book; I was going to leave them out of it altogether. I did talk about my failures as a parent and how I came to understand the role of parenthood in the communication of virtue and things like that. That was something where, even before my conversion I knew a lot about Catholic doctrine, but I had no lived experience of Catholic family life. And that’s not the kind of thing that an author like St. Thomas or St. Augustine is going to write about. St. Augustine, of course, wrote an autobiography, but it’s certainly not an autobiography about an exemplary Catholic childhood.
So I remember, after I’d been Catholic for a few years, I contacted a local deacon that I respect in my own diocese, and asked him to lunch. I said, “You’ve got good, Catholic grown children. Please tell me how you did it. Explain to me how to be a Catholic dad. I don’t have any model, and I don’t have a book that lays it out for me.” I won’t say I answered that question in writing this book, but that was one chapter where I did a lot of thinking and honed some of the practical wisdom that I’ve gained from other Catholics about how to put all these things in practice.
I think when I wrote the chapters that dealt with the questions of canon law, and validity, and sacramental versus natural marriage, I spoke to several canonists to make sure I had all my ducks in a row. I’ve always been exercised by the question of someone who is in a marriage that is presumed to be valid but later found to be invalid, and how many annulments the Church does in fact grant (of course the number has skyrocketed over the last 50, 60, 70 years), and how many people would possibly be in invalid marriages and never know and never call that into question. That began to trouble me with respect to the question of the reality of grace. If there are so many people who are running around in marriages that are potentially invalid, what does that mean concerning the effects of grace in their life, especially if they are operating in good faith.
I brought this up with a very, very, very sharp canon lawyer friend of mine, who said “Remember that we don’t ever judge the question of grace.” It’s not that validity is irrelevant to the question of grace, but we leave grace up to God. We judge the question of validity, but we’re not going to presume on the question of grace. And that was a helpful distinction for me.
CWR: There is a very powerful moment toward the end of the book: those three important words, “I forgive you,” which contrast with the “I hate you” moment at the beginning of the book. What would you like to say about what helped you and your wife get to that point?
Anders: The journey was different for each of us. The commonality, however, was the confessional. The confessional is the place where we continue confronting our own brokenness and woundedness, and we’re drawn back over and over again into the mystery of Christ and the reliance on his grace, and to the possibility of healing and redemption even in the midst of suffering. These great Catholic truths that we, by God’s grace, allowed to work on our souls, ultimately drew us to see ourselves and our relationship in a new light. I think outside the ministry of the confessional, it would never have happened.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Anders: I am grateful for the witness of my parents. They did not raise me Catholic, but they did raise me with a very strong belief in the indissolubility of marriage. When you are validly married, you sign up for life, and how you feel about it at any particular stage is beside the question. You’ve made a vow, you’ve made a promise, for better or for worse. I know in my own life, I never doubted for a second that my parents would be faithful to one another until death, no matter what. No matter what. And that provided a stability and a solidity in my life that is incomparable.
Many children today do not group with that solidity, with that rock of assurance that whatever else happens, mom and dad are there for one another and for them. And I believe I know why: I believe that it is because people have forgotten that the purpose of marriage is not for my own self-aggrandizement or gratification, or pleasure, or happiness, but to serve something that is bigger than myself. And that something may even require (probably will require) me to experience suffering and self-sacrifice. But only the Catholic faith gives us a framework for making that kind of self-sacrifice intelligible, for making it worthwhile. Because it locates it on the horizon of eternity, and not merely within this temporal sphere.
(Editor’s note: This interview with originally posted at CWR on June 24, 2019.)
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