As a lifelong evangelical Protestant, I am right now at a place I never thought I would be – standing at the door of the Catholic Church, planning to enter with my wife and kids at the Feast of the Assumption in August. How I got here is difficult to explain. As many Catholic converts have commented, “all roads lead to Rome,” which makes it hard to know where to start the story.
Before anything else, though, I must give thanks that I was raised in a Christian home. Because of that, I can’t remember a time that I did not believe that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and that on the third day He rose again from the dead. I also was always taught that I should follow Jesus no matter where He led. And, so, from that time to now, although there have been detours and a number of twists and turns, I’ve
had this sense that I’ve been chasing Him. It’s only as I’ve gotten closer to the Catholic Church, however, that I’ve felt that He–to an unimaginably greater extent–has been pursuing me.
I’ll start my story with one of my earliest memories of what it was like, at least for me, to be a Protestant–especially an evangelical one. I was in the sixth grade at a private, Baptist school. My family, however, was not Baptist at that time, and I had decided I did not agree with the Baptist (and Calvinist) doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints”–aka “eternal
security” or “once saved, always saved.” For a guy wired to enjoy debate (I eventually became a lawyer – which shocked a total of zero people who knew me when I was a kid), it was only a matter of time until I got into it with one of my teachers, and that’s what happened my sixth grade year. I marshaled all of my Biblical proof texts to demonstrate beyond all doubt that it was possible to lose one’s “salvation” after being “saved,” and then accosted my teacher. Poor woman – I don’t think we were discussing anything remotely concerning “perseverance of the saints” that day. It wasn’t one of my finer moments.
As I grew up, nothing really changed in my faith experience. Un-refereed doctrinal debate remained the order of the day–whether it was critiquing the minister’s sermon on the way home from Sunday services or jousting with other folks in a Bible study. These debates often would end with someone saying, “Well, this difference of opinion doesn’t really matter so let’s just agree to disagree.” It didn’t occur to me at the time to ask, “Then
why did we just waste the last hour fighting???”
All of this was done under the protection of the Protestant understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which meant, in practice at least, that each of us individual Christians had virtually unlimited authority to interpret the Bible for ourselves. I felt free to question everyone else’s positions, including my pastor’s, on pretty much
any doctrinal matter. And so, in Bible studies, we’d seriously debate whether we should insist on the doctrine of the “Trinity” because that word did not occur in the New Testament. One of the few topics generally off-limits, however, was the question of why only the 66 books contained in our Bibles were the ones that should be there. That those were the books that should be there – and no others – I accepted without question, along with the doctrine that the Bible was the sole ultimate authority for the Christian.
This whole system meant that folks even within a particular congregation were at liberty to disagree on any number of issues, and there was no authoritative way even of deciding which differences were important to resolve and which ones weren’t. If someone decided the difference was important enough, they’d just leave and find another pre-existing group of people that seemed to agree with them more than their old group, or they’d go rent their
own building and put a sign out front with the word “church” on it. Everyone would say that they thought this system was unfortunate, but none of the congregations I was in did anything about it. We just seemed resigned to the fact that the Body of Christ had been torn into a million pieces over doctrinal issues that most of us denied had any real significance. And yet, at the same time, the main point of going to church every Sunday seemed (at least to me) to be merely to learn more and more about doctrine, both in the worship service, which revolved around the sermon, and in Sunday school, so that eventually I could get all the answers right on some divine SAT test. What tended to get
lost in all this, of course, was the idea that living a virtuous life in my day-to-day existence was all that important in determining where I’d spend eternity.
Up until about the time I went to law school, none of what I’ve described so far seemed exceptional or particularly problematic to me. Around that time, though, things began to change. First, a few months before I started law school, my wife and I were married. As I would think many would attest, being married either changes you for the better or you end up miserable and married or miserable and divorced. From where I am now, it seems to me the difference for Christian couples is whether they come to the point where they
recognize the sacramental nature of marriage –that is, whether they come to see that Christian marriage itself is a means God uses to convey grace to us to help us reach heaven. In my case, God blessed me with Nikki, a wonderfully patient Christian woman who cares about following Him wherever He leads and always has had an intuitive sense that marriage is a sacrament.
So, when we discovered during law school that the Pill can cause abortions, there was no need to have a big debate on what we should do: we quit using it immediately. We, like so many other Protestant couples we knew, had not been let in on this little secret before we got married. Even though the more general question of artificial contraception remained an open issue for us, this was the beginning of our thinking on the subject. It will come up
again later in the story.
The other thing that happened about this time was that I first read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. I’d first heard of Chesterton from the Protestant apologist Ravi Zacharias while I was in college, and I will always be grateful to Dr. Zacharias for introducing me to the man who turned my faith upside down. When I finished Orthodoxy for the first time, I
recognized that Chesterton’s faith was not my faith, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. So, over the next decade, I read and re-read Orthodoxy trying to figure out what I was missing.
Eventually I learned that Chesterton had become a Catholic some time after writing Orthodoxy, but I didn’t immediately grasp that the book makes absolutely no sense outside the context of the Catholic faith. I can now see that what most fundamentally shook me was that Chesterton spoke with the conviction that he was speaking for more than himself–not on everything, but certainly on the important things. None of my Protestant ministers or the Protestant authors I read (including C.S. Lewis) sounded like that to me, and I mean that without disrespect to them. They’d often have very good things to say, but it was always apparent (and often even explicitly stated) that they were only speaking on behalf of themselves. Chesterton, on the other hand, at the beginning of his book disclaimed that he was even going to describe “his” philosophy but rather would only attempt to explain the philosophy in which he had come to believe. He said he could not call it “his” philosophy because “he” did not make it. Rather, God and humanity
made it, and it made him. I eventually came to understand that, as a Protestant, I couldn’t say that about myself.
My encounter with Chesterton pointed out to me that, when it came down to it, my doctrinal positions were simply “mine.” For example, I rejected Calvinism, not because the Calvinists didn’t have an argument, but because I, on my lonesome, didn’t think the Bible in its totality supported the Calvinist position. (I still don’t, by the way, but that discussion will have to wait for another time.) I also knew that my acceptance of the Biblical canon was supported by very little. If I was going to be a thorough-going Protestant and
take the Protestant understanding of the “priesthood of the believer” seriously, then I didn’t see how I could avoid taking it upon myself to determine which books (out of all the ones ever written) were divinely inspired and which ones weren’t.
This enterprise of constructing my own canon fell apart when I co-taught a Sunday school series on the development of the canon in the early 2000s. I quickly saw that it wasn’t obvious, even to the earliest Christians, exactly which books should be in the Bible. And if it wasn’t obvious to them, how could it be obvious to me? All of this led me to another question: did God really intend for each individual Christian to decide for themselves whether the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas–books that were on the early Church’s
short list for inclusion in the canon–should be in the New Testament or not? That just didn’t seem to square with how the Church described in the New Testament settled doctrinal issues. As described in Acts 15, that Church held the Council at Jerusalem to settle the question of the Judaizers. It didn’t say, “Well, everyone, just figure it out for yourselves.”
Now I’m guessing that some of my readers may be thinking: “No, no, Jason, you’re being unfair. Protestantism isn’t nearly as subjective as you’re making it out to be because there’s plenty of stuff that Protestants accept as settled. For hundreds of years, the overwhelming majority of Christians have accepted the Bible (at least the New Testament) we have today and doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. That’s the stuff that’s really important.” I’ve given this argument a lot of
consideration, and I just don’t see how it holds water. For starters, where do we get the notion that the truth of Christian doctrine comes down to a “majority” vote or a “consensus” of opinion? Isn’t it possible that the alleged “minorities” who denied the “orthodox” understandings of the Trinity and the Incarnation were right? If so, then it could be that the “majority” got their way simply because they had more power. But, if that’s the case, then we can’t be sure they were right. It is a fundamental Christian precept that “might does not make right”; otherwise, we’d have to reject what Jesus had to say about the last being made first. Also, if we determine what constitutes the real essentials of Christianity by majority vote or consensus, how do we determine the appropriate universe of people to poll in the first place? Is it everyone who simply says they’re a Christian? That doesn’t seem right. Lastly on this point, even if we accept the “consensus” or “majority”-type approach to determining Christian truth, doesn’t that also point us towards Catholicism since the vast plurality of self-identifying Christians in the last 2,000 years have been Catholic? So, even if we play the numbers game, it seems to me that comes out in favor of Catholicism as well.
Also, I think it is impossible to deny that the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” within Protestantism means exactly what I’ve suggested above — that each of us is on our own to figure out Christianity from the ground up. It makes no sense to me to say that a Christian can simply accept that certain doctrines are Christian doctrines because the early visible Church decided them and then, at the same time, assert that that Church was a
fallible Church that eventually fell into utter doctrinal apostasy. As an example of this argument, R.C. Sproul (among others) has suggested that the Biblical canon is a “fallible list of infallible books.” With all due respect to Dr. Sproul, that idea is nonsense, and it means that there could be other books floating around out there that should be in our Bibles. But, if that’s the case, the Protestant assertion that the Bible alone is the ultimate
authority for the Christian must be rejected. If we can’t even be sure the books we have in the Bible are the only ones that should be there, how can we insist that those books alone are the ultimate Christian authority?
One last thing to address a typical Protestant argument regarding this authority issue: I do not believe that invoking the “guidance of the Holy Spirit” saves the Protestant position. Everyone calling themselves Christian always says that what they’re doing is at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and it is often diametrically opposed to what someone else says they’re doing at the prompting of the same Spirit. The problem with this, of course, is that God cannot contradict Himself: He is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.”
I began to wonder, if God is good (and He is) and if He loves us (and He does), why would He leave us with a system like this where Christians can never settle any question with finality? It also prompted me to think again about how the Gospel tells us that those who heard Jesus were amazed by Him because He spoke with authority–unlike the teachers of the law. It seemed to me, though, that the Protestant system was the same system that existed prior to Jesus: no one really had the ability to say anything definitively because
everyone else had the right to respond, “Well, that’s your opinion!” How could that be, though, if the Church is the Body of Christ in the world? If Christ spoke with authority, doesn’t His Church need the ability to do so as well, at least on the core of doctrine regarding faith and morals that binds Christians together? This free-for-all also seemed inconsistent with Christ’s promise that we would know (not forever guess at) the Truth and that the Truth would set us free. John 8:32.
All of this began to hit me on a more personal level about five or six years ago, again with regard to the issue of artificial contraception. My wife and I were trying to reach final resolution on this issue and were perplexed by the guidance we received. We were told artificial contraception (except for techniques that could cause abortions) was OK because nothing in the Bible explicitly prohibited it — so it was a matter of “Christian liberty.” On the other hand, we read Protestants who made the case that using artificial contraception was not Christian, based on their reading of the Bible. Those were two mutually exclusive positions: someone had to be wrong, and the “Bible alone” didn’t answer the question.
It was in the context of researching the artificial contraception issue that I first considered Catholic doctrine on a matter that affected my personal life in a significant way and that would have a profound and immediate impact on my life, my wife’s life, and the lives of our children — both born and unborn. And it involved everything I’ve talked about so far regarding how we interpret the Bible and the question of who gets to determine the Christian answer on the most critical issues of faith and morals–the individual,
autonomous self or the Church.
What I discovered was that Catholic teaching on the use of artificial contraception was profound and resonated with everything I had been taught and believed about the preciousness of human life. How could God, if He is good and if He is love and if He is the source of life itself, not give us one answer on this issue that goes to the heart of how new human beings enter the world–and an answer we could be sure was the right answer? The
Church’s position made so much sense and was so consistent with everything I believed about God’s love for us (which I’ll discuss more in another post) that I began to wonder how the Catholic Church explained its other doctrines that I’d always rejected. It also struck me that the Catholic Church, with the exception of some Protestant fringe groups, was the only significant institution that had stuck to its guns on this issue, when all the Western world went mad for artificial contraception in the 1960s.
Thus began a years-long investigation of the teachings of the Catholic Church. What I discovered utterly surprised me. All of my Protestant assumptions and prejudices were completely wrong–whether the issue was the Mass, the Eucharist, the other sacraments, the celibacy of the priesthood, the papacy, or (that ultimate stumbling block for many Protestants) the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. I plan to write more on these issues later so here will make only one last point which, in a way, takes me back to where I
As I said at the outset, all of my life, I’ve had this sense I was chasing Jesus, but I felt at the same time like I hadn’t found Him in His fullness. Sure, I’d had glimpses of Him because He is Truth itself so any truth I learned brought me closer to Him. But last summer I discovered and experienced that He is with us in a much fuller and realer sense than I had
ever imagined possible–because it was then that I went to Mass at our local parish for the first time. When the priest raised the host and said, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is My Body, which will be given up for you,” and the bells rang, I knew that I had found what I had been searching for and what God, in His grace, had been leading me towards–Christ Himself in the Eucharist. And to that, I can only respond: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You. But only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
 If you’re a Rich Mullins fan, listen to “Creed” some time. You’ll hear his paraphrase of this concept he got from Chesterton: “I did not make [what I believe]. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” Rich Mullins sadly died in a car accident in 1997 on his way to a concert. Had he lived, he would have received his First Holy Communion as a Catholic the weekend of that concert. http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=58497
 John 8:32 became a key driver in my journey towards the Catholic Church, and I think it is no accident that, when I first met with the priest conducting my Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (“RCIA”) classes and he gave me his business card, this verse was on it.