Although WordPress lets us know how many folks visit our blog each day, it doesn’t let us know anything about our readers. As a consequence, I have no way of knowing if this post—whose aim is to help people who are investigating the claims of Catholicism and are thinking that maybe, just maybe, there might be something to them—will actually be read by anyone in my target audience. I’ll take my chances, though, and offer this post in the hope that it will be of use to at least some readers out there who are standing on the opposite bank of the Tiber right now–and wondering what the swim is like.
If you are someone who has begun to think there’s at least a chance Catholicism is valid, it would be natural to do a fair amount of purely intellectual investigation into the teachings of the Catholic Church and the rationales given for those teachings. To this end (if you’re like Nikki and me), you’ll spend plenty of time with the Catechism and books like Catholicism for Dummies (a great book, by the way), as well as on the multitudes of helpful websites out there (such as the Catholic Answers site) that set forth the Church’s teachings and the reasons for them. This endeavor, of course, is utterly necessary because, in order to accept Catholicism, one must believe that it is true, and getting to that point entails (among other things) satisfying the mind that nothing in Catholicism is irreconcilable with Holy Scripture or with reason.
The intellectual investigation of Catholicism, while clearly of great significance, is only one part of the picture, however, and (in my opinion) is actually the easiest part of the whole business. Learning about Catholicism is much like learning about anything else. It takes a certain amount of work, but there is a lot of good material out there that clearly, and straightforwardly, presents what the Catholic Church teaches and why. It’s only after a person has done a reasonable amount of this kind of investigation that the scary part of the conversion process begins to set in—the stage in which you start desperately trying to think of reasons not to become Catholic because the will is rebelling against the idea. This is the stage I want to concentrate on here.
First, in this stage of the process, I think it is helpful to read the stories of other converts. It helps you feel less alone. I also think you’ll be struck, as I was struck, at how certain themes recur with uncanny regularity. In this vein, I highly recommend picking up Blessed John Henry Newman’s Loss and Gain, which is a fictionalized account of Newman’s own conversion to Catholicism in mid-nineteenth century England. I, at least, was blown away by how the issues confronting the potential Catholic convert in Newman’s day were virtually identical to those of our own. Some of the conversations and situations recounted in the book could almost have been lifted from experiences Nikki and I had. It’s also worth checking out books like The Catholic Church and Conversion by G.K. Chesterton, Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn, and any of the others we’ve listed on our resource page.
These books, in addition to helping you feel less alone, will also help you feel less like you’re crazy. This was something I really struggled with myself. I kept asking myself, “Do I just have some kind of unhealthy need for certainty? Bunches of people I know and love don’t seem to have any problem with not having great answers to what’s so special about going to worship services on Sunday, what the point of having a minister is, etc. Maybe I’m just a nutjob.” Reading all these conversion stories, however, and seeing people struggling (throughout time and space) with the very same issues that I struggled with helped to confirm what I knew deep within me anyway–that it wasn’t “unhealthy” or a weird “psychological tic” to want compelling, non-confusing answers to basic questions about my faith.
Second, I think it’s important to be attuned to what I’ll call the “intangible” signs pointing in the direction of Rome. We’re not solely intellectual creatures, and I don’t believe that it’s possible to make it all the way to the Church on the basis of pure logic. For me, as I got closer to the Church, I could look back over the course of my life and identify specific friendships, events, and other circumstances that I had great difficulty explaining as anything other than the workings of God’s grace, leading me Home. I had a stark choice: either all of those circumstances were the product of extreme coincidence or God was calling me to the Catholic Church. And my belief in coincidence only goes so far.
As with the purely intellectual investigation of the Church’s claims, reading convert stories and looking for the working of the Spirit in the circumstances of your life will not make you Catholic. The last step is one of the will–or what Kierkegaard would call a “leap of faith.” That leap, like all leaps into the unknown, is scary. You aren’t certain that anything will be there to catch you. It’s at that moment, though, that you can rely on the promise of Scripture: “When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart.” He’s there waiting for you, and He’s not just some nice idea you can carry around in your head. Rather, He’s somewhere that (if you’ve been a Protestant your whole life) you’ve been told He can’t be–on the altar and in the tabernacle of every Catholic church–in the form of a tasteless wafer the size of a quarter. That’s how far our good and loving Savior has gone to meet you. He’s waiting–on the far shore of the Tiber.
 I understand that my statement that, in order to accept Catholicism as true, one must determine that it is consistent with both Holy Scripture and reason, may be somewhat controversial, as some might say that there is no need to test the truth of a religious system against reason. That assertion can’t be right, however. If it were correct, then there would be no use in discussing religious issues at all with people who don’t already share one’s own convictions. Religious dialogue assumes that reason forms a common ground for the discussion of competing truth claims.