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Ten years a Catholic: Reflections in a time of controversy

I’m still motivated by the same principles that led me back to the Church in the first place: a desire for theological truth; a yearning to encounter Christ in the sacraments; and a longing to live, however inchoately, a coherent, Christ-centered life.

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This fall marks ten years that I’ve been a Catholic. More specifically, ten years since I returned to the Catholicism of my youth — my parents and I left the Church shortly after I received my First Communion. I spent the remainder of my childhood, college years, and early adulthood in Methodism, non-denominational evangelicalism, and Reformed Presbyterianism before my reversion in 2010 at age 26.

I heard a lot of things from Protestants at the time of my Catholic conversion. Some accused me of being impulsive. That’s somewhat true, as I have a tendency to move quite quickly once I’ve made up my mind about something (though in my defense I spent about a year seriously contemplating Protestant-Catholic debates because my best friend had already converted). Others suggested the decision stemmed from emotional instability following a bad romantic relationship. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, too; several months before I “swam the Tiber,” I had a pretty awful breakup with a girl, also a Protestant, whom I had hoped to marry.

Other Protestants offered more aggressive psychological and philosophical critiques of my decision. One friend told me that he believed that Protestants who convert to Catholicism have some sort of psychosis, aiming for a level of certainty that is impossible to achieve in this life. Another Protestant claimed that my entrance into the Catholic Church was only the first step in an epistemological crisis that would eventually lead me into agnosticism, and finally, atheism. The fact that I’m writing here for a Catholic publication at least puts the latter prediction to rest.

Recent controversies over Pope Francis have, however, led me to reflect on the claim that Protestants who convert to Catholicism have some sort of misplaced conception of the Church’s identity that will inevitably disappoint. As someone who has invested a lot of time in ecumenical conversations with Protestants of various stripes, I’ve constantly addressed misplaced conceptions of the Catholic Church. And, though I will refrain from naming names, I do wonder whether some Protestant converts to Catholicism have unconsciously or unintentionally misunderstood Catholicism, and even perhaps imported various problematic aspects of their Protestantism into their new lives as Catholics.

But, first, I should provide a few more details about my conversion, so that all relevant cards are on the table. Unlike many other Protestants who contemplate the possible legitimacy of Catholic teachings, my intellectual and theological study didn’t threaten or jeopardize my professional or familial well-being. Yes, I was a part-time student at a Reformed seminary, but I had a full-time job that was not related to ministry. Converting wasn’t going to have any detrimental impact on my bank account. I was also romantically unattached, and though my former-Catholic evangelical parents certainly weren’t thrilled with my conversion, neither were they hostile. I had plenty of Catholic extended family who celebrated my decision.

Many other Protestant converts to Catholicism are not so blessed. Converting often means loss of income and perhaps even vocation. I know former Protestant seminarians or pastors who abandoned ministry altogether in order to support their families, taking jobs selling used cars or furniture, or even starting their own businesses. I also know former Protestants who made the decision on their own, their spouses and children remaining Protestant, and even sometimes being demonstrably antagonistic towards the Catholic faith. Given these scenarios, I am inclined to be sympathetic to Catholic converts whose post-conversion life can often look pretty messy.

One of the more common trends I’ve seen in Protestant converts to Catholicism is a movement further and further into traditionalist forms of worship. For some, this simply means an embrace of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass, or a preference for the Novus Ordo in Latin. Others go so far as to embrace SSPX or some similar liturgically or doctrinally reactionary movement. One of the most common manifestations of this I’ve witnessed is to develop a strong antipathy towards the Second Vatican Council, our current pope, and most of the bishops. Such persons also seem more likely to harbor various conspiracy theories regarding the level of corruption and sexual scandal found in the hierarchy, and particularly in the Vatican itself.

Alternatively, one may also find Catholic converts who embrace what are labeled (often unfairly) the more “liberal” aspects of Catholicism. They talk much of social justice, the environment, and immigration, among other topics. Given the Church has offered extensive teaching on these very topics, there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with focusing on these. Yet it sometimes goes much further, such as believing the Church needs to make overdue changes to its teaching on sexual morality, including on homosexuality, divorce and marriage, or contraception. It can also manifest itself in a form of postmodernism that rejects any eternal, absolute truth that guides and limits the Church’s development of doctrine. This results in trying to make the Church conform to the culture, rather than trying to conform the culture to the Church.

In ten years as a Catholic, I’ve had little interest in either of these extremes. Yes, it’s true: one of the primary reasons I converted to Catholicism is because I was looking for solid theological and philosophical ground in which to plant my faith, as I began to perceive the intrinsically erosive character of the Protestant soil underneath me. The Catholic Church, with its unassailable magisterial authority, presented far firmer ground. Yet I also realized that in converting to Catholicism, done were the days when I could “church shop” or “theology shop” by finding the system of thought or practice that best conformed to my own interpretation of Scripture. If the Church declared something as infallible dogma, even if I had reservations (as I did, particularly on the Marian dogmas), it was up to me to obey and work on resolving those concerns.

Converting truly required a paradigmatic transition. My new ecclesial home had promulgated teachings on many subjects not only theological, but philosophical, social, political, and economic. Often there remained a grey area where one could debate or formulate one’s own opinions, but my thought had become far more circumscribed by a source claiming authority to offer infallible teaching on faith and morals. To take but one example, a truly Catholic conception of ethics in the public square must be highly suspicious of any utilitarian calculus that takes insufficient account of first principles or disregards important concepts such as double effect.

Thus, as I learned and navigated the beautiful complexity that is Catholic teaching and culture, I found myself in some senses becoming more “liberal” and in other senses becoming more “conservative.” I like to think that in all cases I was becoming more authentically Catholic. I also had no desire to find some special little reactionary camp of Catholicism that claimed to hold the high-ground over “lesser” members of the Church, perhaps by possessing some kind of secret, special knowledge. That smelled suspiciously Protestant. Catholic means universal, and from the beginning I presumed that meant my worship and study of the Church should embrace what the Magisterium has offered as the surest, most straightforward means of attaining holiness.

I’m not interested in being one of the Catholics who knows what’s really going on in the halls of the Vatican. Nor am I interested in being one of those who aims to pick apart everything Pope Francis says or does as proof of his secret Marxism or support for some clandestine cabal of sexual predators. Even if these are true, it would have little, if any impact on my day-to-day life as a Catholic. I do my best to avoid sin, I frequent the sacraments, I pray the rosary, I catechize my children, I try to learn more about my faith and grow as a disciple of Christ, and try to orient all of my life according to orthodox, Catholic principles. The daily goings-on in Rome or in the hierarchy have little, if any, effect on that.

I pray for and wish the best for my Holy Father. When Pope Francis preaches the Gospel and urges everyone to follow Christ, I listen. When he exhibits Christ-like behavior, I cheer him on. When he writes encyclicals, I read them, even if I find parts of them perplexing or frustrating. When he says and does things I find even more confusing or infuriating, I remind myself that papal infallibility doesn’t prevent the Roman pontiff from saying wrong or even ridiculous things. I try to get over such stuff quickly and return to commit to praying for him and for the Church. Let’s be honest, the body of Christ needs our prayers a lot more than it needs our “expert” analysis.

All this to say, in ten years as a Catholic, I’m still motivated by the same principles that led me back to the Church in the first place: a desire for theological truth; a yearning to encounter Christ in the sacraments; and a longing to live, however inchoately, a coherent, Christ-centered life. I’ve found all three, and have no intention of leaving, regardless of the next controversy to confront our Church. Whatever failures define the Church or our current pope, it’s my Church, and my pope. And, frankly, as a sinner, I know the failures of the Church represent just as much my own failures. That’s all the more reason to commit myself once more to prayer, the sacraments, and a holy life. From what I hear, that model has worked pretty well for the saints.


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About Casey Chalk 10 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

23 Comments

  1. Thank you for your perspective, Casey.

    I think all Catholics could gain from your rational, restrained approach, especially in parlous times like these.

    Heaven knows, God is patient with us. Perhaps we ought to afford Him the same courtesy.

  2. This is a wonderful expression of personal witness, worthy of being read more than once. But this reader pauses at (only) this: “Let’s be honest, the body of Christ needs our prayers a lot more than it needs our ‘expert’ analysis.”

    First, and agreeing with Casey Chalk on the priority of prayer, St. John Paul II/Benedict/Francis all insist that what the Church needs at this late hour is not better management, but saints. For example, in a comment not directed at any papacy, this from Ratzinger/Benedict: “What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management” (Ratzinger Report, 1985).

    Second, what then of those who are less than “better managers”? Not the Chair of Peter, but the career-climbing “Peter Principle”? What we might be hearing, instead of outsider “expert ‘analysis’,” might be the cry beyond the gates of other non-expert witnesses (like Chalk), who wonder if they’re being abandoned (or tossed under the bus!) by so-called “clericalism” or even a few hijackers.

  3. Thank you Casey for your – dare I say it – truly ‘Catholic’ voice of sanity, amongst the ongoing maelstrom of reaction masquerading as ‘analysis’ of this papacy. I am not familiar really with trends amongst our brethren recently returning from Protestant communities, but you clearly know what you are speaking of. There is now definitely a where ‘all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ thing going on within the US church currently. Undoubtedly, the ‘progressives’ have much to answer for. Their excuses vis-a-vis the barbarity of legalised abortion has contributed mightily to all the ongoing toxicity.

    I would suggest however that along with every teaching, action of the church and papacy being interpreted either through the post-Vatican II battles over meaning, and/or/both the irreconcilable bipartisan nature of US political discourse, another factor undoubtedly is a sort knee-jerk magisterium, empowered by ‘real-time’ social media. Catholics (and Catholic commentators especially) should perhaps learn to avoid this temptation like the plague. A refocus on the Confirmation gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, temperance, right judgement/prudence, esp. might help. Pax.

    • What a well-written article, and although I am a “cradle catholic”, it expresses my own personal sentiments exactly. I also have not been able to be at ease with either of the two “camps”, and think what we need more in the church are saints, not managers or analysts.

  4. Seeing traditional Catholicism as “reactionary” and as one of two extremes is a fundamentally flawed mindset. Traditionalism is simply historic Christianity; liberal Catholicism is simply paganism disguised as Christianity. There is no moral equivalence between them.

  5. Thank you Casey. I am a revert to the faith as well. I find the current pope very puzzling and I can relate to your frustrations with his unorthodox comments in the media especially in regard to sexual ethics. Praying for him has eternal value both for him and us as well!

  6. Quite a story.

    It would be interesting to know what books you have found helpful, both before and after your conversion, and how they helped you.

    • Hi Mr. Flynn,

      Thank you sir. The books I’ve found helpful regarding Christianity/Catholicism would fill a library (I suppose they do, my own, haha). A short list of some of my favorite authors (books would be too many to list) would be, in no particular order, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Louis Bouyer, Scott Hahn, John Henry Newman, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales, Ed Feser, John Paul II, Lawrence Feingold, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor. There are plenty more, but these writers have all been very influential for me. in Christ, casey

  7. It has been ten years since you started to “reidentify” as a Catholic. Probably most Protestants call themselves Christians, but they are NOTHING like the first Christians (i.e. Catholics) as Holy Scripture describes them. As such the institution that identifies itself as the Catholic Church and follows Francis is NOTHING LIKE the institution that was the Catholic Church as late as the pontificate of Pope Pius XII.

    The rot is deeper than you seem to admit (with your talk about “conspiracy theories”), and hopefully that doesn’t lead to your eternal undoing. You may scoff, but the “aggiornamento” started with John XXIII. (It is relevant to note that one tradition is that a pontiff is never to take the name of a prior antipope. There was an Antipope XXIII in the 14th and 15th centuries.)

    What must be remembered that outside of matters which clearly pertain to faith and morals it is important to rationally and rigorously seek and weigh the evidence. One can’t be too careful in considering the facts, and one must not be lead astray by fallacies of irrelevance such as ad hominems, genetic fallacies, and arguments from incredulity. If there is one thing certain, it is that human beings are capable of deep depravity. A second certainty is that darkness always hides from exposure and hates it. The fact that not many people believe something (even if it seems “crazy”), doesn’t mean that they are wrong when considered along with these facts.

    There are psychological forces at work here. Groupthink, pluralistic ignorance, preference falsification, “the spiral of silence,” informational cascades, peer pressure, cowardice, etc. offers persuasive evidence that to unthinkingly go by the majority is NOT good policy.

      • @Carl

        You are talking like one of my close relatives. Have they contacted you? I do frequently visit them. Perhaps they discovered that I comment here.

        I don’t consider myself infallible. If you have had contact with a particular relative of mine you would know that there are quite a few uncounted (AFAIK) people that believe as I do. They may not be as outspoken, but I believe that they are praying hard for the world to change for the better.

        Our Lady of Fatima said that in the end her Immaculate Heart would prevail.

        There is evidence that true Catholics and any traditional “Catholic” look-alikes are currently feared by certain corrupt elements. Resistance is not futile, and it doesn’t take much to cause the powerful fear. I suspect that the demonic “public enemy number 1” “inspires” the wicked to attack with vehemence those who appear to him to be making some small success in winning souls to the true Church or to a life of greater virtue or truth.

        Along these lines it is appropriate to recall a number of truths shared by Catholic G.K. Chesterton. One is that people in the past were certain that they knew the truth, but weren’t certain about the state of their soul. It is the reverse nowadays: people are uncertain that they can know, but they are very certain that they are virtuous. The latter is obviously not Catholic.

        He also noted the difference between liberals, conservatives, and Catholics. Liberals have soft heads and soft hearts. Conservatives have hard heads and hard hearts. Catholics have hard heads and soft hearts. I think that these are relatively self-explanatory. One must be both doctrinally intolerant and have charity towards all and malice towards none.

    • Shawn,

      Well, it would depend on what majority we’re talking about, no? If we’re talking about going with the majority of the saints, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me!

      • @Casey

        Even saints aren’t infallible, unless perhaps they happened to be a pope and they fulfilled the requirements. At some point, I am sure that St. Vincent Farrier followed one of the antipopes during the Western Schism. That doesn’t mean that he was guilty, but he was in error. For those with greater access to information, culpability is much more likely. Ultimately, one is only answerable to one’s properly formed conscience.

        I would say that most saints – if you could talk to them now – would be horrified by a vernacular “mass” with the priest facing the people. They would also be appalled by the extremely immodest dress of self-identified “Catholics.”

    • Great insight Casey into your reversion to the Catholic faith. You made a wonderful point in regards to those who have converted, is that seem to continue their search and gravitate towards traditionalist forms. This reminds me so much of Dr. Taylor Marshall.

  8. I enjoy reading “conversion” stories, although I wish Mr. Chalk had provided more detail about what REALLY caused him to jump ship back to the Catholic Church. I am a recent Catholic “returnee” myself, having absented myself from church for many years after the sudden death of a loved one. It is a joy to be back and I count those absent years as time wasted in my relationship with God. For those who enjoy conversion stories too, I highly recommend the book ” Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn, which tells the story of his conversion from Protestantism. It is an emotional tale worth reading. The story of his attending his very first Mass is a wonderful one, and worth the price of the book.

  9. Recently I have read some mother’s remark that there are only two things about their children future to afraid: drugs and religion.
    Casey’s article shows precisely this murky waters of religion: accusing protestants, broken families, …

  10. Thank you for a great article. I, too, try to live a balanced and peaceful Catholic life. While I consider myself theologically orthodox, when asked if I am a conservative Catholic, I respond that I am a fully alive, whole-hearted, faithful Catholic. I consider live to be precious from conception to natural death. But I hope I am also pro-life with my mouth and words, so as not take aim with them and annihilate another person. By not finding fault with Pope Francis and praying for him, we can show God we are not counting the cost of our trust and love for Him. Easy to love and trust Him when we get our way or the pope or Vatican we want. Our true colors begin to show when we don’t.

  11. I also reverted to Catholicism after spending 20 years in evangelical Protestant churches. I read my way back without talking to a single Catholic person about it. It started with a question some people asked me because they knew I was a former Catholic. I looked into it and got back to them, but in doing so it brought up a lot of other questions which led me to 8 books from Ignatius Press, which led me to more questions, more books, asking my evangelical pastor for clarification, which didn’t clarify anything actually. But by then I was in a spiritual crisis and Protestant slants did not make sense. So I kept digging for a year for answers, and bought more books. Finally during Sunday School one day, I realized I no longer believed what Protestants believed. I believed what the Catholic Church taught, which meant I had to leave. It was painful at the time. My Protestant involvement was my whole world. I told my pastor. He wrote me a letter saying that becoming Catholic put my soul at risk. I rather thought it was the other way around. After reverting, I kept buying Catholic books and now have over 800.

  12. This is my story Casey, as a cradle Catholic I in my teens sought the true religion, only to serve God as He wills and not how man wills. I began to study only pre Vll books. I found many treasures along the way. I fell in love with the perfect Bride of Christ, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I was always attracted to the SSPX because they follow the Church as She has been for 2000 years as Christ has willed it. Today it is being recognized that they are not reactionaries after all. They have been right all along. Thanks to Archbishop Vigano, he has exposed the Modernists and has called for Vatican ll to be laid aside. He does not do it as a reactionary but gives sound theological background and the facts. Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against His Catholic Church, He didn’t say hell wouldn’t try, because try, hell certainly has and is doing. The SSPX is one of the main threats to hell. Had the Modernists not taken over Vatican ll there would be no need for the SSPX today. But Modernists did take over the Council and today we have a perfect gem in the Society of St. Pius X, which is not man but God himself.

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