When my conversion from atheism comes up in conversation, the first question is not usually what made me believe in God or even Christianity in general. Instead, it’s nearly always why I chose Catholicism in particular. At this point, I need to issue the following disclaimer: this is a difficult question to answer. Not because I didn’t have good reasons, but because focusing on the “reasons” doesn’t accurately portray the miracle of conversion. Like all conversions, I was ultimately drawn into the Church through the mystery of the Holy Spirit. In a way that defies easy explanation, Catholicism chose me as much as I chose Catholicism. An odd but miraculous mishmash of thoughts, insights, mixed motives, experiences, self-discovery, and grace ultimately drew me into the Church of Christ. Of course, knowing that the questioner seeks articulable reasons, I focus on the thoughts and insights part. And my one-line response is: because Catholicism is traditional Christianity.
Oddly, the origins of that insight predate any interest I had in Christianity. As an irreligious teenager, I had little real-life experience of Christianity. I was a first-class European history nerd, however, and so I knew Christian history pretty well. That gave me at least an academic grasp of the major doctrinal differences among Christians. And although I barely cared at first, it was clear to me that Catholics had the best claim to historical, institutional, and doctrinal continuity.
Reading about the Reformation in my AP European History course in high school was eye opening. Although I had read much about the Reformation before, I wasn’t particularly interested in the religious side of history, so nothing about it really sunk in. This time, though, it struck me that any Protestant denomination (even the inaptly-named “non-denominational” denominations) could be traced to a moment in history that, at a minimum, came after 1,500 years of Catholic Christianity. A Lutheran’s church was founded by Martin Luther in the 16th century. A Calvinist’s church was founded by John Calvin around the same time. An Anglican’s church was founded by Henry VIII a bit later. A Methodist’s church was founded by John Wesley in the 18th century, etc.
I knew, of course, that the Reformers claimed to be restoring traditional Christianity not revolutionizing it. While it would be many years before I discovered the early Church Fathers to completely dispel that assertion, I knew enough about early Christianity to know that this claim was specious. Even to my untrained (and very secular) eye, the first four hundred years of Christianity looked, sounded, and felt very Catholic. Why, in all my books on classical and ancient history, hadn’t I read about Christians like the Reformers, protesting against the sacramental system; Church hierarchy; devotion to saints; and monasticism? Why, instead, was I reading about bishops; proto-monks; doctrine-deciding councils; and the “special role” of the Bishop of Rome?
Even the disputes within the early Church sounded Catholic. Take, for example, the Donatist controversy about whether priests who had renounced their faith under Roman persecution could validly administer sacraments after returning to the Church. The early Church vigorously argued with itself over this question. But through it all, no one argued that the whole sacramental system was just a bunch of spiritual signs and symbols lacking any real power to confer grace. The Donatist dispute would have made no sense unless both sides took the reality of sacramental grace for granted.
I recently stumbled upon Wikipedia’s Reformation page and noticed two words that subtly betray the point fairly well: “The Protestant position, however, would come to incorporate doctrinal changes such as a complete reliance on Scripture as a source of proper belief and the belief that only faith, and not good deeds, bring salvation.” Doctrinal changes. Changes from what? Well, the teachings of the Mother that birthed the Reformers – that organic coalescence of universal Christianity that preceded the Reformation for 15 centuries that we call the Catholic Church. The Reformers were children of Catholic Europe, so it is no surprise that their successors continued to be inescapably haunted by their Catholic past. Think of the English Puritans who banned Christmas celebrations as unbiblical and moved to the New World because the Protestant Church of England was still too Catholic. It was as though Protestant Christians, moving through history, drifted further and further away from what was, love it or hate it, their Catholic roots.
The great Protestant convert John Henry Newman famously said that, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” From my distant, neutral, and secular perspective, I agreed. My thinking went something like this: if you have to be a Christian (and you probably shouldn’t), why wouldn’t you be a Catholic?
Just a few months later, that question moved beyond the purely hypothetical realm. Slowly abandoning atheism, I gave Christianity a fair hearing during my senior year of high school. And that was when the Catholic flood gates opened. “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment a man ceases to pull against it he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it.” I can’t provide a better description of this period of my life than those words from G.K. Chesterton. Delving into Christianity seriously for the first time, I never found a compelling reason to be anything but Catholic. Instead, I found all the reasons in the world: charity, beauty, love, saints, sacraments, wisdom, ritual, and culture all ordered in perfect harmony toward intimacy with God in a way that clearly designated the Catholic Church as the contemporary manifestation of that early Christian Church built upon Peter the Rock. For me, becoming Christian meant becoming Catholic.
(P.S. Some may be wondering: what about the Eastern Orthodox? The short answer is that such issues are better suited to a separate post. I deliberately omitted a discussion about the Orthodox because those who struggle to understand why someone would choose to be Catholic (whether secular or Protestant) would likely struggle equally with Eastern Orthodoxy. And for mostly the same reasons. The Catholic and Orthodox churches are usually perceived (justifiably) as being quite similar, even by most Catholics and Orthodox, so trying to tackle the matter here would result in an incoherent post. But for those who are interested, Fellow Word on Fire blogger Joe Heschmeyer wrote a good piece on Catholic/Orthodox issues here.)