I’m not sure when it began. The impulses stretch back over many years. But one question I clearly recall was asked of me by a good friend I worked with at Harvard, who had grown up Catholic and who knew that I wasn’t. Her question was simple, honest, and sincere. “So Jim, when you travel and visit another city, how do you know which church to go to?” I have never forgotten that question. Yes, which church? The one on that corner, or that corner, or that one? And though my friend is a wise and thoughtful adult, her question struck me as one that might also be asked by a child in whom there is no guile and no pretense and no inhibition. (Thank you, Maria.)
I would say that my Protestant boat really started to take on water when a Catholic friend of mine challenged me on the issue of Sola Scriptura. (I’ll let you look that up if you’re unfamiliar with it.) My friend also happens to be a Harvard-educated professor of Classics (don’t hold that against him), and when early on in an email to him I pitched my tent on this doctrine he kindly replied, and referred to Sola Scriptura as a “completely indefensible position.” I’ll return to this, as for me it was pivotal. The great undoing. The elephant at coffee hour.
My introduction to the Catholic Church was largely through the minds and hearts and writings of English Catholics and converts, most of them ridiculously good authors: Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, John Henry Newman, and others. But the Americans showed-up too: Walker Percy, Richard John Neuhaus, Thomas Howard, Flannery O’Connor. Arguments from mind and heart. Earthy and poignant and humorous. Reason mingling with transcendent considerations and intrusions. Quite a recipe. And one I found arresting.
As I read many of these conversion stories, one obvious “problem” that I had was, why were so many smart people becoming Catholics, often at great personal and professional cost? And as I’ve mentioned, many of these were British, so it was a decision for them made at additional cost, living in a historically and “officially” non-Catholic (arguably anti-Catholic?) national culture. Surely they were smart enough to finally finagle their way around the Catholic Church, or to at least elude the arguments until any immediate considerations disappeared into the London fog. But I am grateful that many of them could not and would not finally dodge the questions. But why even engage at the level of a Knox / Lunn correspondence debate (“Difficulties” - Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn) in a world that claims it doesn’t matter? Unless for them it did. And unless for us, in fact, it also does.
But allow me a detour… it hasn’t been all sweetness and light. There are many adjustments for a Protestant (especially an Evangelical Protestant) to make after entering the Catholic Church. For example — and there are strong and notable exceptions to this — but my experience is that many Catholics are lousy singers, mostly because they choose not to sing. Come on people, you can do it. (Haul in some Lutherans or Baptists to assist…). And maybe if you stood there without folding your arms across your chest you could manage some better breath support. Are you trying to be uninterested? In all honesty it’s the apathy on the part of many, rather than the failure to sing, that is most puzzling.
And the homilies. Ugh. Again, some notable and fine exceptions, but most Catholic homilies (sermons) ride the edge of insulting one’s intelligence as they plow fresh furrows of sentimentality and group-hug love, often focused exclusively on the marginalized, as anyone knows that economic is the only kind of poverty. And the jokes… seriously? Were I a middle-schooler I would still cringe with embarrassment. But it has not always been this way. It will take you several lifetimes to read and enter into the lives of the great Catholic saints and preachers, to say nothing of the scope and substance and richness of countless Catholic writings over the centuries. You needn’t look far.
And then there are the Mass obligation folks — they show up, but there are many other places they’d rather be. To illustrate: Early in my days of Catholic exploration I spent a summer weekend on Cape Cod with a good friend and decided to attend a Mass. I forget if it was a Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but one thing will stay with me, and I mention it also as advice — If you ever attend Mass on Cape Cod in the summer, whatever you do don’t block the exit doors during the final hymn, because you will die. Why the hell don’t they finish the song? What’s wrong with these people? It’s a stampede after half a verse, if that. Gotta get the hot dogs on the grill I guess. Crazy stuff, to say nothing of the bumper cars scene in the parking lot as they all burn rubber to get out of there. Good grief.
But you see, they might just be stupid. Stupid like me. They might just be completely unaware of what they possess in this Church into which many of them were born. And many… many have not taken the time or made the effort to find out. That is their loss, and mine.
Ok, I got that off my chest. But, lo and behold, here I am in the Catholic Church, with (literally?) nowhere else to go.
And I couldn’t be more grateful.