One of the wonderful parts of summer ministry is meeting new people and hearing each other’s stories. For me this also involves a certain challenge: in telling people who I am it invariably comes out that I have studied for the Episcopal priesthood but converted to Catholicism. This almost always prompts the difficult but reasonable question, “What made you convert to Catholicism?” Now I find myself in the company of blessed Cardinal Newman, who responded to a similar inquiry at a dinner party by saying that it was not something one could propound “between the soup and fish courses.”
Unfortunately, this question is never asked of me during a multi-course dinner, so I usually offer some inadequate or superficial answer that satisfies the questioner but never satisfies me. How does one answer such a question about important decisions or moments in one’s life? If I asked a recent acquaintance why he married so-and-so, wouldn’t he give the same kind of stumbling and vague response? The problem is that some answers cannot be Tweeted: more than 144 characters are necessary!
That being said, I do think there is a reasonably simple answer, although not everyone understands it at first. One day I simply woke up without a reason not to become a Catholic. This may initially sound strange because usually one requires positive reasons for converting to a faith, but I do not think this is true in regard to Catholicism. There is a certain asymmetry in traditions of Christianity; leaving out those ancient Churches which are no longer in full communion with Rome, there are Catholics and Protestants. And of course you can’t be a Protestant unless you are protesting something. As Methodist theologian D. Stephen Long has said: “Protestantism needs an object against which it dissents for its own identity. If there were no papacy, no tradition, no doctrine, no common moral teaching against which to protest, it would lose its identity.”
Unity in the Protestant traditions is arguably based on being against some doctrine or teaching; it is based on something negative. Unity in the Catholic Church, according to the Catechism, is based on something positive: the Triune God who is her source. As St. Clement of Alexandria says: “What an astonishing mystery! There is one Father of the universe, one Logos of the universe, and also one Holy Spirit, everywhere one and the same; there is also one virgin become mother, and I should like to call her ‘Church’” (CCC 813).
Richard John Neuhaus had some of these same suspicions and intuitions on his way to Rome:
The great confessional Lutheran theologian Peter Brunner regularly said that a Lutheran who does not daily ask himself why he is not a Roman Catholic cannot know why he is a Lutheran. That impressed me very deeply. I was thirty years a Lutheran pastor, and after thirty years of asking myself why I was not a Roman Catholic I finally ran out of answers that were convincing either to me or to others. And so I discovered not so much that I had made the decision as that the decision was made.
In John 17 Jesus prays to his Father not only for the disciples, “but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Unity, grounded in the Triune God, is to be shown and expressed in One Church; any external divisions need reasons. And after a long journey of questioning and searching, thinking and praying, I simply woke up without any good reasons against the Catholic Church. Conversion to the Church was not one of personal choice; it was more like the weights around my feet being removed so that I could float to the surface from the deep waters—freed at last to find natural ecclesial rest in the Catholic Church.
None of this is to say that there are not good and holy people and parts to other churches, denominations, and traditions of Christianity; I would not be in the Catholic Church without their aid, even in spite of their aims! And of course, being related to Christ and the Triune God, the Catechism recognizes that these groups are related to the One Church:
The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter (CCC 838).
Nevertheless, when all the reasons for protesting cease to have compelling force, the only honest choice, or better, action, is to return to the Unity of the Catholic Church. Thanks to God I did, and in the words of Neuhaus: “I have never looked back, except to trace the marks of grace, of sola gratia, each step of the way.”
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Land of Cockaigne (detail)