A quarter century ago this year my wife and I entered the Catholic Church, receiving the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist for the first time on Easter Vigil, March 29th, 1997. It was the culmination of several years of searching, questioning, and studying. Both of us had been raised in Christian homes; both of us had graduated from Evangelical Bible colleges; both of us, in our early twenties, harbored a variety of theological, moral, and historical questions. (My first published article, in 1998, goes into that journey in some detail.)
Such journeys are not smooth, nor should they be. Ours was occasionally bumpy, even while it was often joyful, surprising, challenging, and frustrating. So, too, the 25 years following. My life, in a way, can be divided into two nearly equal halves: from my birth until my mid-twenties—when I married in 1994 and then entered the Catholic Church three years later—and then a quarter century as a Catholic. All statistics being equal (and by God’s goodness), I’ll have another 25 or so years in this world. And so I’ve been a bit more contemplative in recent months, a welcome state further encouraged by a move last summer “to the country”, away from the constant, mind-numbing buzz of city life.
As a young boy I had regular visits with an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lombard, who told me stories of growing up in Kansas City in the early 1900s. It was like learning about a faintly familiar yet quite foreign world, one without cars and with few of the comforts and distractions we take for granted today. The early 1990s, when I first began to study and learn a bit about the Catholic Church, doesn’t seem at first glance to offer the same dramatic contrast, but perhaps it does in certain significant ways.
First, my study of the Church was, for two or three years, almost entirely based in reading books. While the internet existed, it wasn’t a common part of life until a few years later—and social media was much further down the road. The digital revolution has obviously affected nearly everything; it has certainly influenced how we so often perceive “the Church” and her leaders, as well as her teachings, work, and daily life. Social media introduced an artificial but combustible compression of virtual interaction that has been, overall, a strange and potent mixture of exchange, provocation, tribal bonding, tribal butting of heads, and the endless flow of “stuff”. There is, without doubt, much good that has come from these technological changes, but I’m convinced that the fracturing throughout the dominant culture and within the Church has been accentuated and even driven by the digital waves crashing over us on a daily—hourly!—basis.
Secondly, I recall Mrs. Lombard once asking me (as we sometimes talked about Christianity), why Christians “hated sex”. I was confused, not only because I was just twelve or so at the time, but because I’d never been taught—even as a Fundamentalist Protestant—that sex was bad (rather, I was taught that sex was for marriage, and sex outside of marriage was sinful). She then said, “But doesn’t Genesis say that sex is bad? Wasn’t sex the first sin of Adam and Eve?” That led to a curious little Bible study between a young Fundamentalist lad and a gracious but biblically-illiterate octogenarian. And that conversation, cemented in my memory, was a precursor to reflection over the years about how so many of us live with (and according to) misunderstandings, falsehoods, stereotypes, and emotional reactions. (After Mrs. Lombard passed away, I found out that while she apparently did not own a Bible, she did have copies of The Kinsey Reports.)
Fast forward to becoming Catholic: I soon learned how not a few Catholics used contraceptives, accepted abortion, and supported “gay marriage”, which was befuddling to me in many ways. Yes, poor (or worse) catechesis was a big part of the problem, but perhaps even more daunting was the wholesome acceptance of a secularized notion of the person, aptly captured in recent years by the term “expressive individualism”. I was fortunate, in earning my Masters in Theological Studies, to be educated in an anthropology both Thomistic and personalist, which deepened the biblical anthropology gifted to me during two years at an Evangelical Bible College. Further, my studies as a young Evangelical imparted several related truths, including the vital Scriptural theme of covenantal fidelity versus pagan idolatry, which in turn laid the groundwork for a nascent appreciation of how a truly Trinitarian and Incarnational Christianity must be liturgical in worship and sacramental in perspective.
Put another way, I am more convinced that ever, after 25 years a Catholic, that the Church alone, as the Mystical Body of Christ, possesses the theological truths and metaphysical insights desperately needed by a culture and a world given over to a suicidal spirit. The world, we must remember, “was created for the sake of the Church.” And, “God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this ‘convocation’ is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things…” (CCC, 760). But all too often the Church is presented or treated by many Catholics as either a backwards human institution requiring constant overhauling (mostly based on scientistic ideology or sentimental clichés), or a glorious museum to be paraded as a sort of flashy showpiece rather than as the nexus of Divine-human communion.
It’s not just that the Western world has forgotten what it means to be human—it actively seeks now to destroy what is truly human. And it does so while blathering about “empowerment” and “actualization” and other nonsense, language that surely delights both Screwtape and his technocratic minions. Secularist power (that is, power in the service of an ideological “ism”) and individualistic passions can only be answered with Christ’s kenosis and Passion. But compromise with anti-human anthropologies has become quite ordinary within the Church; the Reign of Gay has rapidly moved to the Tyranny of Trans; capitulation is readily peddled as “mercy”, and the objective moral order is cut off at the knees with the dull blade of a false or ill-formed conscience. Catholicism in the West is often far more bourgeois than, well, Catholic. As Tracey Rowland has explained so well:
Bourgeois Christianity however does not fight on sacramental ground. It does not fight at all. It simply goes in search of Christian-friendly elements of the zeitgeist with which it might identify and market itself. It views ‘sin’ therapeutically and bureaucratically. It is either a mental health problem or the mis-use of decision-making authority to be countered by better policies and bureaucratic circumscriptions on the exercise of prudential judgment. Within bourgeois Christianity there is no cosmic battle, no demons and no angels. Sacraments, if they appear at all, do so as mere symbols and social-milestone markers. Proponents of a bourgeois Christianity have been, as de Lubac well understood, ‘overcome by a desire for conciliation that left them defeated before they had begun’. The ecclesiology that undergirds a bourgeois form of Christianity is inevitably a vision of the Church as a “People’s Republic”. Accommodation to the zeitgeist is more important than sanctity.
We hear a great deal about “reform”, which is perfectly fine and good. But when it comes to sanctity and fidelity, we must begin with metanonoia, or conversion. This is one reason why CWR has been posting a wonderful series of challenging reflections by Douglas Bushman on conversion. As he wrote in one of those essays:
Lent is the season of godly suffering, of participating in the suffering of Christ and also in the joy that lay ahead of Him and for the sake of which He endured the cross (Heb 12:2), thereby fulfilling the mysterious necessity of suffering and death in God’s plan of love for saving the world form sin, satisfying the Father’s love by taking upon Himself the just punishment of the sins of the world.
The great irony of the practitioners of the culture of death is that they are willing to kill almost anything—including their true nature and identity, the unborn, the aging, the truth—in order to avoid dying to oneself. Contra the self-emptying of the Incarnate Word, they desperately, even savagely, try to fill their empty and restless souls with power, pleasure, and politics. But St. Pope John Paul II, in the homily given the night that we entered the Church in 1997, explained that only by and through Christ’s death will we know, see, and live true life:
The many different themes which in this Easter Vigil Liturgy find expression in the Biblical Readings come together and blend into a single image. In the most complete manner, it is the Apostle Paul who presents these truths in his Letter to the Romans, which has just been read: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (6:3-4).
These words lead us to the very heart of the Christian truth. Christ’s death, his redeeming death, is the beginning of the passage to life, revealed in his resurrection. “If we have died with Christ,” Saint Paul continues, “we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:8-9).
The Resurrection is creedal and dogmatic; it is essential. The Creed, says the Catechism, “culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting” (CCC, 988; emphasis added). It is only the Resurrection, observed the late Stratford Caldecott, “that can show us the reality of creation in the Trinity.” These are dogmatic statements, and dogma is not a dirty word but is, as Dorothy Sayers famously insisted, the Drama. And yet, in my time as a Catholic, I have seen more and more Catholics expressing concerns and fears about dogma, abandoning dogma, and outrightly attacking dogma. But Dogma, wrote Fr. Romano Guardini back in 1950, in his classic work The End of the Modern World,
in its very nature, however, surmounts the march of time because it is rooted in eternity, and we can surmise that the character and conduct of coming Christian life will reveal itself especially through its old dogmatic roots. Christianity will once again need to prove itself deliberately as a faith which is not self-evident; it will be forced to distinguish itself more sharply from a dominantly non-Christian ethos. At that juncture the theological significance of dogma will begin a fresh advance; similarly will its practical and existential significance increase. … The absolute experiencing of dogma will, I believe, make men feel more sharply the direction of life and the meaning of existence itself.
Looking back, I see how wise and correct the Catechism is in pointing to “the organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas.” Dogmas are “lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.” (CCC 89). This is because Christ Himself is the source and author of all dogma; we might even say that Jesus Christ is The Dogma—the Truth, the Way, and the Life.
Which is why, regardless of difficulties and frustrations, I have never regretted becoming Catholic, for one should never deny or regret Reality.
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