Why I Am A Catholic
(Or, Why the Rose Family Goes to Mass)
John Rose, August 15, 2009
On August 12, 2009, the four youngest children and I were received into the Catholic Church. Annie received Catholic communion along with us, for the first time in many years. We are blessed with many friends (Christian and otherwise) who take a sincere and warm interest in our spiritual well-being, as in fact we are interested in theirs. Some of these friends may be pleased with our step, and to these we offer here some reasons that may further encourage them or satisfy their curiosity. Some may be unsettled or even distressed, and to these we also wish to open our minds and hearts, to prevent our friendship from suffering any constraint. In this note we will do what can be done toward these ends in a brief, public, and impersonal way. More privately and personally, we remain (as always) your friends and companions under Christ and in this pilgrimage, and look forward to many more years of fellowship and conversation along the way.
First of all, understand that we are not abandoning for another faith the Christian conviction and devotion which (we hope) you have known in us for years. To quote our confirming pastor, Father Paul Donlan, this is not a conversion, but a reception from the front porch to the family room. (There was no re-baptism.) Over the years, God has deeply blessed our family by leading us to know and love Him, to flourish in the community of His friends, to participate in His work, and to grow as His disciples. These graces have prepared us to be in communion with the Catholic Church. This communion, which we have always felt as a spiritual participation with all Christians, is now more formal and explicit, because (as we believe) the Catholic Church is the pre-eminent institutional expression of Christ’s incarnational presence in this world. We are persuaded that this visible participation in the Body of Christ is therefore all the more a means of grace, which will bring us nearer to completion in God, in all aspects of our knowing, loving, community, participation, and growth.
We continue to thank our parents and other early mentors for bringing us to Christian churches where the Bible was open and the Gospel was preached. We bless the pastors and other leaders of the Christian communities which are our homes, past and present, and commend them for their faithful teaching of God’s truth. We honor our friends (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and otherwise) with whom we continue to “do life”, especially sharing the enterprise of home-schooling, for God’s glory in our children. And we continue to sit at the feet of the great Christian saints and teachers of history, especially the Church Fathers like Augustine, Athanasius, and Chrysostom, who have taught us by their example how to hold in highest regard both the Word of God and the Body of Christ. It is a deep privilege and joy to be in communion with the Church they habitually thought of as their Mother. Before all, we are grateful to God for patiently leading us into better understandings of His purposes.
Many of our spiritual blessings have come from our membership in Protestant churches, notably Saratoga Federated Church. I grew up in Federated, and one of Federated’s pastors (Harold Bussell) performed our marriage ceremony. Since then, Federated pastors have baptized all but one of our children, and I have been privileged to serve as an elder there for a number of years. I am proud to say that Federated shows many signs of God’s presence, notably reverence for the Bible (as God’s Word), a love for Christ’s disciples everywhere, and a determination to be a community of discipleship, of prayer, and of right living. More than that, I admit humbly that God has used Federated (as well as several others communities of Christian believers) to form my heart and my mind.
In fact, Saratoga Federated Church has been for us an excellent model of catholic Christianity. The term “catholic” (as a simple adjective, not the proper name Catholic) means “in accordance with the whole”, “complete”, or “encompassing”. In theology, the term refers to the wholeness of the Church and of the faith. One defining feature of catholic faith is insistent unity on essential points of faith, with friendly freedom of opinion on non-essentials. This quality of openness is what allows the Church to be as inclusive (i.e., catholic) as possible, even though Christians differ on many topics. It also allows the Church to be a world-wide entity, not merely a community organization. It seems to me that the most reverent churches (Protestant or not) are those which enjoy as much unity as possible with their Christian neighbors. This was a taste I learned at Federated.
But pure inclusiveness is formless; as Chesterton pointed out an open mind, like an open mouth, is useless until it closes down on something solid. It is in the end useless to talk about “unity on essentials”, if we never venture to define those essentials. So catholic faith also requires (by definition) a complete consciousness of the essential points of faith on which we must agree. Defining and teaching such things is hard and risky work, often skirted or put off, but ultimately rewarding. If we love God enough, and He gives us hope and courage, we will pursue that truth where it leads us, and it will lead us deeper into God. Such zeal for truth was clearly modeled for me by my parents, pastors, and mentors, and it led me (by God’s Providence) in a quest for the essentials of faith through my twenties and thirties.
That quest led me to read many books and listen attentively to many sermons. For a time (and under certain pastors and authors) the theology of Calvinism appealed to me, especially in its stark simplifications and fierce devaluation of the incarnational. The “solas” of the Reformation captured my attention, especially “Scripture alone”. I imagined with satisfaction the direct connection I had with Christ’s teaching, mediated solely by the Scriptures as written by the apostles. The “solas” released me from any need for their spiritual successors, not even the successors who recognized and defined the trinitarian creeds, or the Canon of Scripture itself. I reckoned myself free from the interference of human opinion and from deceptive tradition. (There was no other kind of tradition, except harmless ones like Christmas.) I was not yet experienced enough to really question my own opinions or to distrust the retail traditions of fashionable preachers. And I had not yet met with anyone as truly stark and fierce as the second- and third-century desert fathers, or as wise as the Church Fathers.
But there were other teachers, and pre-eminent among them was C. S. Lewis, persuasive, charming, earnest, with that dismayingly offhand erudition. In my late twenties and early thirties, by God’s grace, I sat at his feet and read as many of his books as I could find. I watched Lewis apply theology to every major modern problem, and learned better to think Christianly. References piled up, which were to bear fruit later. I learned that there were writers that even the author of Mere Christianity looked up to, and specifically that there was a man named Chesterton who had written something called The Everlasting Man. (That is one book which I now teach to every young person who will sit still for me.) Eventually I came to an essay called “On the Reading of Old Books”. In this essay, Lewis calmly lays out the reasons why moderns should read non-modern books, such as St. Athanasius On the Incarnation. (That is another book I now commit to the young.) There are half a dozen reasons, each sufficient, and the main benefit is most compelling: It is to understand Christianity as a trans-cultural, trans-temporal movement of which you and I are a part in this passing modern moment.
The arguments were compelling to me. The way was clear; I read no more Lewis that day. Instead, I went to the nearest bookstore that had a good collection of Church Fathers, one Ave Maria Community Bookshop (on which be blessing). Although collected in a book of Lewis essays, “On the Reading of Old Books” is in fact the preface to a recent (and very good) translation of On the Incarnation. It was in stock. I sat on the floor comparing translations of Augustine’s Confessions and went away with a smooth-reading one by Hal Helms. (Thank you Hal, wherever you are.) Since that day, I have tried to follow Lewis’ advice of mixing a certain percentage of ancient (or medieval) culture and thought with my modern content. It has had the advertised result, of bringing me to appreciate the richness and depth of the Christian faith. I have met with (long-dead) pastors and theologians whose love and learning of Scripture has caused that Scripture to flow back out of all their writings. And in those teachers, I recognized many foundational elements of Christian orthodoxy. They taught me how to use and appreciate the Creed and the Scriptures.
Meanwhile, during these years, Annie and I were teaching our children. Some of our Protestant friends (still beloved) were received into Eastern Orthodoxy, and we had many conversations and read many books on the subject. I went through an Orthodox catechism class, but at the end, after prayer, discerned that God wanted me to continue “blooming where planted” at Federated. I worked on a similar discernment process regarding Rome, but was interrupted by a call from Federated to serve as an elder. (I am convinced that this call was providentially timed.) Though as elder I felt ineffectual, I tried to love Christ’s people and to pray for them. Occasionally hard questions of leadership would come up, usually moral ones; at these times I keenly sensed the difference between perennial Church and ephemeral culture. There is of course a great gap between the deliberate thought of the Church and the culture-bound precepts in secularized education, daily news, and entertainment. For both leaders and laity, if we lay aside the Church’s authoritative interpretation, the gap is liable to be filled by the shifting opinons of self, of strong personalities, of media figures, etc. I have realized that Scripture, though living, is mortal, in the sense that it can be pinched and pulled so out of shape that it seems to teach the contrary of its meaning. I think this realization is a turning point for many Protestants; at that point they either become agnostic, or (with the gift of faith which is God’s to give) they find and submit to a source of reliable interpretation, in the living traditions of Christianity. For me it was relatively easy, since my readings showed me an evident continuity from Christ and the apostles, through the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors, through the Reformers (who despite themselves were far more Catholic than most Protestants today), and into various present-day Evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic branches of the Church.
In any case, I tried as an elder and as a part-time Western Civilization instructor to share what I was receiving. I taught various essentials of the faith, especially the Creed and other classic doctrines taught by the ancient masters. From Augustine, I learned that the Creed was a pre-eminently valid and useful summary of Scriptural doctrine. I also learned from him that the ancient Church was Catholic, with a large letter “C” (and that there were other corner churches even in his day, of varying value). By reading Calvin’s references to Augustine, I learned that Calvin only understood (or quoted) the predestination side of Augustine’s brain, and was blind to (or conveniently omitted) the free-will side; this is an important point, since Augustine is Calvin’s primary interpretive authority. From Justin, I learned that the Church was eucharistic and liturgical even at its founding. From Chrysostom I learned new ways to read and apply Scripture, even the difficult parts that we skip over nowadays, such as those with mystical or moral implications. From Athanasius I learned about the fall of mankind, in terms that complemented Augustine’s account of Original Sin. In fact, his little book on the Incarnation is a fountainhead of sound theology to me. I learned to respect Augustine and Athanasius as very different men who yet united in the task of advertising the Church’s settled consensus, of the sixty-six book list that comprises the Bible. Still guided by Lewis and also Chesterton and Belloc, I moved forward to an acquaintance with Boethius, Anselm, and those two greatest medievals, Aquinas and Dante. These teachers taught me to love the Church in all its historic, trans-cultural, catholic, orthodox, and evangelical grandeur. I wanted to be as fully a part of it as I could. Much of this discovery process was shared with my family, for when I restarted my discernment process, I found they were doing so with me (and were ahead of me).
For those still reading, I thank you for your kindness. The rest of the story is simple. I finished my terms as elder, and continued my discernment process. One of my settled prayers to God for about ten years now has been “show me where you live”. God has answered my prayer; He has shown me, literally and visibly, that He lives (still and always) in the visibly Catholic parts of His Church. How could it be otherwise? If we are truly the Body of Christ, that Body cannot be primarily invisible; it must be a visible presence. I have traveled in thought across the world and found (as Chesterton and Lewis might put it) that the far reaches of my desire lead me into the homely neighborhood church. With its unfashionable but oddly functional decorations and rites, it faithfully harmonizes with the hearts and minds of brothers and sisters scattered over ten thousand miles and two millennia. I once learned a tendency to look down on such things as “only human”, “merely traditional”, “not spiritual”, but have come to see that in doing so I am looking down on the humility (as well as the hidden glory) of Christ’s own Body. I see no superior spiritual alternative to the enfleshed tradition of Catholic Christianity. For me, the fundamental truth of such things is that the Spirit of God dwells, pre-eminently, in the Body of Christ, and that this Body is itself (as what any body should be) physically incarnate. Moreover, it must be (as the Creed emphasizes) “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”. Looking around for such physical bodies yields a short list of candidates: The Western and Eastern Catholic communions, various other episcopal bodies, notably the Anglican communion, and various abstract and changeable groupings of the thousands of Protestant communities. Once formed, this list resolves (for me, as a member of the European and American west) to the Catholic Church, as centered in Rome. And so here we are.
Much more could be said, for the Church starts with a Word of about a million letters, the New Testament of Christ and his apostles. And it has developed through a continuous institutional and cultural history of two millennia. (That, by the way, is far longer than any other institution, an indication of something more than human.) Even within our own family’s parochial experience, our engagement with the Great Tradition has led us (like many of our friends) to many debates, investigations, and adventures. It was not easy to get where we are. Ever since the Pharisees who debated with Christ, and Arius and Marcion and Donatus and Pelagius, there has been a steady procession of detractors and deformers, eager to give reasons to abandon various aspects of the Faith. The most clever of them seize on weaknesses of the Church, claiming to amend the Church by unmaking some part of it. Sometimes they stand alongside (or confuse themselves with) true-hearted reformers, mingling true and false arguments together. So it is that many arguments against Christianity have arisen over the years, including those against specifically Catholic doctrines and practices, and are found mixed with arguments against subchristian doctrines and practices sometimes found in the Church. For example, arguments against idolatry are routinely mixed with arguments against icons, even though the two practices have been clearly distinguished in Church teaching (e.g., by John of Damascus against the iconoclasts). Indeed, making such distinctions is of prime importance; as the Church has found repeatedly, confronting such challenges leads to a clearer orthodoxy.
So it is also, on a tiny household scale, for us. After investigation, we are unlearning some of our Protestant objections, and instead learning to encounter the Real Presence of Jesus in the elements of the Eucharistic celebration, to accept the dispensation of grace in signs and sacraments great and small, to commune with the heavenly cloud of witnesses as with our earthly brothers and sisters, to remember the things of God by the use of icons, to admire the special holiness of the Virgin Mary, to give due honor to those in Christian authority over us, including the Bishop of Rome, to confess to God in company with a wise presbyter (i.e., a priest) our deep struggles with sin, to have a robust reverence for human life and sexuality as created by God’s choice and not ours, to appreciate the promise of a Purgation after death, and to make new use of the devotional treasures of the Church, including the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary, the Act of Contrition, and the ancient liturgies and hymns.
We are familiar with the various objections to all of these things. As a group, many objections are based in the reductionism of the “solas”, in a manichean distrust of the flesh, and in a discomfort with spiritual authority. The details are complex, but the overarching counter-principles are perhaps easily stated: In counterpoint to the fiery purifying “solas” of the Reformation we find intellectual completion in the “both-and” richness of the Catholic worldview, which expects and defines complementary roles for both spirit and flesh, God and man, Scripture and tradition, reason and mystery, symbol and spirit, remembrance and sacrifice, grace and works, eternity and time, providence and free will, fasting and feasting, marriage and virginity, saints and sinners, individual and institution.
In reply to the self-disembodiment of those who murmur “the flesh profits nothing”, we point out the simple humanity of Jesus himself, we observe his delegation (of teaching, miracles, baptisms, evangelism, sufferings, martyrdom, almost everything) to his very human friends, and (of course) we tremble at the deeply and scandalously flesh-ridden mysteries of the Incarnation, Eucharist, and Atonement. The flesh profits very much, when it is God’s flesh, and the flesh of those living self-offerings in whom He dwells.
Finally, it is clear (to the devoted Christian) that all spiritual authority comes from God through Christ. It is at first enough to rest there, and to use the Bible as a faithful witness to Christ’s teachings and commandments. But God’s Word proves (perhaps only to those whose hearts are soft enough) that Jesus and his apostles were in the habit of sharing and delegating their authority, to preach and teach, to act in Jesus’ name, to rule and serve the Church, even to forgive or retain sins. And such activity is clearly evident continually through history, starting with the most ancient post-biblical records (Irenaeus, Justin, Polycarp, Ignatius). Even in this modern day, even though the actions of Christians have been at times chaotic and even shameful, that authority is uninterrupted. (Though two millennia is a lot of time to make mistakes in!) The Reformers suggested that the authority somehow perished and was superseded by the pure application of “Scripture alone”. But, as all of us have seen by direct experience, Scripture generally requires a trusted human teacher to interpret it. And (with love, despite the convictions of some who are dear to us) it is presumptuous and error-prone to ask the Holy Spirit for personal revelations about Scripture, while rejecting the Body of Christ in which the Spirit dwells. With God’s help, we must wisely choose whom we will trust.
Although God’s Word (as the foundational tradition from Christ’s apostles) contains everything required for salvation, God has so arranged matters that His Church, living and teaching in every age, is indispensable to the application of that Word in the lives of the faithful. It is therefore the duty (a quite familiar duty) of each Christian to seek out that teaching authority which applies to his own case, and submit to it in honor of Christ. We have always believed that this quest for rightful authority ends at the throne of Christ. We have also come to see that the throne is flanked by Christ’s apostles, whose task it was to give us the New Testament. Looking further, we see that the questing pilgrim must also reverence the early Church who ordered our understanding of Scripture, in the Creed and Canon. Finally, we have come to believe that (at least in the West) this road also leads through the episcopal successors of Peter and Paul, in Rome.
A final note on Rome and “church shopping” is in order. We do not claim that the Roman Catholic Church is perfect from every point of view; we claim (and this is everything!) that it is desirable as the objectively visible Body of Christ. But then, we have never picked a church community based on its supposed perfections or comforts for us. (As the old-time preacher said, if you find the perfect church, stay out or you’ll mess it up.) The Body of Christ has always been the object of our devotion and love, regardless of its local form. As we have followed our Master, we have earnestly asked Him, “Where do you want to place us?” His answer to us is “meet me in Rome”. We think it is starting to feel very much like home.
John, Annie, and the children
Copyright (c) 2009 John R. Rose