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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