How I Got This Way
By Chris Robinson
Honest, I never meant to love the Catholic Church. I didnít even realize it was Catholic books I had been reading, until it was too late. . .
I think I was tricked by the One who has the most jovial disregard for human preferencesóthe One who delights in surprising us, opening our eyes to bigger views of Himself, and taking us out of our comfort zones.
How on earth did I get this wayórelieved and grateful to be received into the Catholic Church?
Evangelicals expect Catholics to become Protestants, but not vice versa. They tend to look bewildered when they discover that, while Iím actively involved in an evangelical congregation with my family, Iíve become a Catholic. They seem to feel awkward about further conversation. Iíve written this essay as Iíve tried to imagine what questions evangelical friends might like to askóif they felt comfortable asking.
My aim here isnít to persuade anybody else, but simply to describe what persuaded meóhow my attitude and thinking changed. My conversion didnít come from reading a few pages, so itís also difficult to summarize in a few pages. Iíve tried to keep this shorter, nonetheless, by avoiding long explanations of what Catholics believe and why, and sticking to my own story.
The trek began quietly around 1987 when I accidentally recognized that Catholics knew some good stuff. In many years as a committed evangelical, I had read the right books, listened to leading pastors, and had even taken graduate-level classes in theology while my husband, David, was in seminary. I taught inductive Bible studies, college-age Sunday School, spent several years as a missionary. It was while we were missionaries in Egypt that I happened to read some older-than-evangelical books which reached deeper into me than anything I had read before. I wanted to read more of those great old booksóand then it dawned on me that those authors were all Catholic.
It surprised me to realize I had been learning from Catholics. Years ago, when I had gone to Catholic Church with friends, I had been struck by the beauty of the liturgy, and surprised by both the clarity of the gospel and the apparent disinterest of most of the people around me. I hadnít meant to be arrogant, but I had assumed the Catholic Church was spiritually wasted; otherwise, why had God let the Reformation happen? Yet these Catholics whose books I had been readingóthey knew some stuff!
I realized I was ignorant about Catholics. In some ways it seemed like Catholics and Protestants were all descendants from a generations-old family feud, in which both sides of the family had gotten used to excluding each other, and most didnít even know much about the original dispute.
Questions sprouted. Are Catholics really Christians, or not? Some Catholics sure seem to know Jesus; is that in spite of the Catholic Church? What keeps Catholics and Protestants apart? If Catholics arenít really Christians, I thought, Iíd better find out and quit reading those old books!
So the first phase of exploration came partly from desire to know whether Catholic books were really "safe" to read, and partly from curiosity about Christian roots. But even more, I just wanted to know God better. If God was working in the Catholic Church but I failed to appreciate it, then I would not know Him as fully as possible. If God had a Catholic side, I didnít want to be guilty of closing my heart to that part of Him. I had an uncomfortable hunch that God might not be as separated from Catholics as we Protestants were.
I started reading church history. My initial belief was, roughly, that over time the Catholic Church had become irredeemably corrupt, and by Lutherís day God basically gave up and started over with the triumphant Reformation.
History challenged that view. The Church was indisputably corrupt, but as a movement, the Reformation appeared to have had as many social and political motivations as spiritual. It was a tangled time. Holy leaders had called for reform from within the Church, while others like Luther felt they had no choice but to jump ship. Theologically, Reformers differed with each other significantly about matters of doctrine and practice. The Reformation didnít seem so clean and pristineóso triumphantly directed by Godóas I had thought.
Reading beyond the Reformation... well, Protestant history seemed almost embarrassing, even when written by Protestants. Our track record over the centuries was no more stellar than the Catholicsí. Besides all the doctrinal disagreements, virtually every sin and fault we criticized in the Catholic Church had been repeated in Protestant history. We hadnít purified ourselves by getting away from Rome; the problem remained in us. The Catholic Church underwent many internal reforms, which Protestants didnít tend to be aware of. And it seemed clear that God continued to do wonderful things through faithful Catholics, although we Protestants usually didnít notice it.
My paradigm of the Church and her history began to wobble a bit. I hadnít grown up in a churchgoing family, but had spent time in several denominations and independent congregations. Over the years, with all the differing opinions I had vaguely wondered what Jesus had meant when He told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. Now I faced the puzzle: Protestant history didnít appear to validate a "Sola Scriptura" (Bible alone) view. Part of the legacy of the Reformation was Protestants splintering farther and farther from people they disagreed with over interpretation and application of the Bible. Yet it couldnít be that God had kept the roots of authority in the Catholic Church.
I read some biographies of respected Christians, including St. Francis of Assisi and John Hyde ("Praying Hyde"). While one was Catholic and the other Presbyterian, and they lived centuries apart, I was struck by several similarities, including: both were committed to celibacy, both were men of deep prayer, both bore various physical ailments with joy; both saw many instances of Godís miraculous intervention. Both seemed to have delighted Godóand yet there, in St. Francis, were all those Catholic peculiarities like devotion to Mary, and belief in transubstantiation, and submission to the Pope. I wondered if maybe God wasnít offended by those Catholic peculiarities as much as we Protestants were.
I moved on to explore Catholic beliefs. In addition to reading Protestant books about Catholic beliefs, I also actually read Catholic books about Catholic beliefs. It disturbed me to see that Protestant books consistently misrepresent Catholic teachings. I had thought that Catholic "prayers to saints" were an ignorant substitute for prayer to God, as if they believe the saints are equal to God or that God will not hear our prayers directly. I had thought that the notion of the infallibility of the Pope meant that Catholics think popes are sinless, and that everything they say is infallible. I had thought that the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by works, not by grace. Even many Catholics misunderstand what the Church teaches about such things, but once I realized what she actually teaches, I had fewer objections.
This brought on a sense of "deja vu". David and I were missionaries in a Muslim country. It was no easy task to talk with Muslims about our faith. They are sure they already know what Christians believe, and equally sure that Christians are wrong. Yet when Muslims state what they "know" Christians believe, there are lots of distortions. It almost seemed that the same thing was true with Protestants regarding Catholic theology. Just as one couldnít learn about true Christianity by asking a Muslimóeven one who claims to have been raised a Chris tianóit didnít seem that one could learn about Catholicism by listening to Protestants. Just as Muslims seemed predisposed to not truly "hear" what Christians believe, so Protestants seemed prone to misconstrue what the Catholic Church teaches. It is so hard for us to consider that the truth we know may contain some error, or at least may only be part of the picture.
So I tried to be open-minded as I considered the Catholic Churchís viewpoints. I looked again at the Catholic belief in "sola verbum Dei"óthe Word of God alone as authority, expressed through the Bible, through Sacred Tradition and through the Magisterium, the living Church leadership.
It dawned on me that Protestant beliefs actually donít come solely from Scripture. Without admitting it, they follow their own brands of Magisterium and Traditionóeach group having its own authoritative voice in interpretation of the Bible, whether itís John MacArther or R.C. Sproul or Jerry Falwell.
For example, baptism: is it a sign of individual faith, as believed by the Baptists, or a sign of the covenant, as Reformed folk believe? Should it be done by full immersion, as Baptists insist, or is it OK to sprinkle? The reason denominations disagree about this is because it isnít absolutely clear in the Bible. People hold to one view or another because they accept the voice of authority of their denomination, which is their form of "Magisterium", even though they donít call it that.
When I married my Presbyterian husband, my church background had been basically Baptist. I eventually became reconciled to infant baptism because I learned that the earliest Christians practiced infant baptism. Even though we didnít call it "the authority of Sacred Tradition," it had made sense to me that what the earliest Christians had consistently done with this sacrament, must have been all right.
Another example I pondered: the doctrine of predestination is believed, with variations, by those in the Reformed faith. Predestination is not an absolutely clear teaching in the Bible. If it were, the shelves of theological libraries would not be filled with books on the topic of predestination vs. free will. If you asked people in our Presbyterian church, I expect almost everyone would say they believe in the doctrine of predestinationónot because they fully understand it or can even articulate much about it themselves, but because itís upheld by the denomination and articulated by smart guys like R.C. Sproul.
This mind-boggling notion came: the Catholic "distinctives" were not unbelievable, any more than Christian beliefs in general. They were just unfamiliar. They seemed unacceptable because I had been taught they werenít true. I already accepted teachings from the Bible that offended non-Christians. My submission to those teachings didnít come because they made total sense but because I am convinced the Bible is dependable, and I also believe reality isnít limited to what I have personally experienced or what my little brain can comprehend. If the Bible clearly spelled out the Immaculate Conception, I would have believed it years ago, just as I believed in the Virgin Birth. I had changed my views on infant baptism due to sacred Traditionócould sacred Tradition also change my views on Mary? Itís really no more difficult to believe in the Immaculate Conception, if one believes in the authority of the Church, than it is to believe in the Virgin Birth, based on the authority of the Bible.
I saw more parallels. Itís no more difficult to believe in the assumption of Mary, than in the assumption of Enoch or Elijah. Itís no more difficult to accept the Churchís teachings about contraception, than to accept the Bibleís teachings about sexual morality in general. Itís no more difficult to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, than to believe in the Incarnation.
Notice, I didnít say itís easy to believe any of this. It goes against my human grain to put my trust in miracles I canít absolutely prove, to live by unpopular standards, or to submit to authority beyond my little self. And yet ever since the gospel first struck me as true, I recognized the importance of growing in my knowledge and practice of the truth, however inconvenient. One of my favorite Bible teachers was fond of saying that we should always live in obedience to our understanding of the Bible, and that we should always hold our understanding of the Bible in an open hand, for God to add to, or correct. The question I now asked was whether authority rested solely in the Bible, or whether the authority of the Word of God came, as Catholics claimed, through the checks-and-balances of the Bible, Sacred Tradition and the living Magisterium.
Again, Protestant history made the latter view seem more reasonable. The Catholic Church had succeeded in growing past so many of its own sins and blunders, while Protestants kept dividing in reaction to sins and blunders. The Catholic Church maintained its stand on the authority of the Bible, while most denominations weakened on that issue as generations passed.
Surprisingly, some issues were not difficult for me. Fairly early in my reading, it made sense to me that there is a major difference between worship and veneration. I didnít see any problem with veneration of Mary and the saints. I also found the basic idea of purgatory surprisingly easy to understand, and even biblical. As long as I could mentally let go of the assumption that "This belief/practice couldnít be right because this is what Catholics think/doÖ."
Eventually, with great uneasiness, I realized that Catholic theology made more sense to me than what I had learned as an evangelical. I had quit "protesting"; I was a closet Catholic. I doubted myself: how could I be persuaded by ideas that didnít even interest my evangelical friends, let alone persuade them? Scariest of all: David hadnít shared my reading interest, hadnít experienced the paradigm-shift, and now we didnít want it to be something that would divide us. In the first years of our marriage we had been unified in our sense of calling. Now we didnít know what to do as missionaries since I had become Catholic-at-heart. David hadnít read along with me in history and Catholic theology; now he didnít want to read for the purpose of trying to talk me back into Protestant beliefs.
We ended up returning to the U.S. for a number of reasons: among them, our inability to find an acceptable school situation for our growing daughters, and frankly, my own burnout. Some people from the mission suggested that my interest in Catholicism had been a subconscious way of trying to escape the difficulties of our mission situation, and that once we were home from the field, my subconsciously-motivated interest would naturally decline.
The quandary did go onto the back burner for several years. It was not easy to reestablish life in the U.S. after spending our entire post-college adult lifeóa total of thirteen yearsópreparing and then serving as missionaries. We were, in a sense, "wounded soldiers", and it was disappointing that with few exceptions our evangelical brothers and sisters were either too busy or felt too uncomfortable to help us heal. I got new insights into the story of the Good Samaritan when the people with the "right theology" tended to keep their distance from our pain.
In retrospect, I think we all tend to have dangerously oversimplified views of how God works in ministry and through leadership. When troubles arise which donít fit the belief systemónot only when leaders sin but when they show weakness or make unwise decisionsówe tend to go into avoidance or denial. But at that point, on a personal level, I became angry and disillusioned over Godís permissiveness with all who call themselves Christians.
I recalled many examples of committed Christians seeking Godís will and guidance, who ended up doing all kinds of ill-advised thingsóand the results ranged from the pathetic to the disastrous. This brought me deep anxiety. For several years my experience encouraged me to be a deist; it was a major exercise in faith to trust that God was really involved in Christendom. And yet I couldnít help but believe in Jesus, so I couldnít pitch Christianity and settle into deism, much to my frustration. I didnít know what to trust God for anymore. I spent several years on the edge of cynicism, seeking to be content with simply trusting God, emptying myself of expectations.
In June of 1997, somehow I received grace to more deeply forgive the evangelical "system" which had wounded me. Itís a pivotal issue in the Christian life: our need to forgive other Christians who fall short, and beyond that, to be reconciled to God who doesnít go along with our simplistic expectations. Afterwards I realized it took the same kind of grace for me to forgive evangelicals, as it would take anyone to forgive the Catholic Church for her faults. Somehow I found myself with more courage to face how badly we sincere Christians botch thingsóand with clearer faith in Godís ability to work beyond human and institutional flaws. It was all the more obvious to me that God had never lost the Catholic Church.
I guess my conversion happened in three general phases: first, my heart recognized God at work in the Catholic Church and was drawn to Him; second, my mind had to be satisfied that the theology was sound; thirdóagain, a heart issueóI had some hard lessons to learn about God and reconciliation.
Interesting timing: shortly after that, David asked if I would be interested in taking whatever class people take when they want to become Catholics. I think he was hoping that more exposure to Catholics would disappoint me, and I would finally let go of this inconvenient interest. My phone call to the local parish church led first to the discovery that our wonderful priest, Fr. David Dye, is also a convert from Protestantism. From him, I learned about the Coming Home Network, a group of former evangelical clergy who have come home to the Catholic Church. I donít know if you can imagine how alone I had felt in this whole process, how I wondered at times if it was God drawing me or whether I had "lost it". At least if I had lost my mind and the Catholic Church looked like the true Church to me, I wasnít entirely alone anymore!
The decision to become officially Catholic was still not a painless one. For every other step I had taken "in obedience to God", I had received lots of encouragement and affirmation from Christians all around me. I hadnít realized that approval had always been an important part of the bargain for me, until it was missing. There were lots of reasons why joining the Catholic Church would be impractical and difficult, but I didnít think that was supposed to be my criteria for deciding. I worried, because I didnít want to divide my family, didnít want friends to feel hurt or confused, and I also preferred to avoid misunderstanding and criticism. Yet I also sensed that God wasnít worriedóthat He was delighted, and even amused.
Itís a challenge to help Protestants understand, because Protestants change church membership for different reasons than I did: usually because of disagreements, disappointment, or even preferencesóin doctrine, practice or even music. From that framework, my decision can seem like a rejection, or even a rebellion.
But my entry into the Catholic Church came because of what I grew to believe about God and about the nature of the Church. It was a response to the greatness and mystery of God. Not a search for greener grass, but an acceptance of how big the lawn is. At one point our Presbyterian pastor told me, with characteristic warmth and concern, "We just canít let you do thisówe canít let you join the Catholic Church!" And I thought, the only way for me to not become a Catholic would be to believe again that God is smaller, and shrink my heart in the process.
The Catholic Church rejoices over Godís work in Protestant congregations, even though she considers their message incomplete. She sees them as part of Godís family, as "separated brethren." The Gospel is powerful, and God blesses us as we submit to as much of it as we know. In contrast, there are many nominal Catholics who do not know or live the fullness of the truth which the Catholic Church teaches. It was a Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, who wrote, "Itís not
that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, itís that it has been found difficult and left untried." It is left untried not only by non-Christians but by many of us who call ourselves Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant.
In my case, joining the Catholic Church hasnít meant leaving my familyís congregation. I participate in the Catholic Church on my own, while continuing worship, fellowship and service with my family. It might surprise people to hear that Catholic Church leadership encourages me to do this since my family is not Catholic. Fr. Dye even told David that if I get divisive, he will be Davidís advocate and get on my case.
The friends who have reacted most negatively to my news have been ex-Catholics or married to ex-Catholics. They sincerely feel that they did not find God in the Catholic Church, and instead experienced guilt, manipulation, dead rituals, legalism, and so forth. I understand the once-burned reaction. The irony is that I know folks from every imaginable Protestant background who express similar frustrations. Again, I am convinced that the problem is not with the Catholic Church itself but with human beings. Protestantism seems to me, to some degree, to be a quest for a congregation and leaders that will not disappoint. We Christians so easily hurt each other as we stumble after Jesus; we canít survive if we donít practice reconciliation.
Well, thatís my story of how I got this way, from evangelical to Catholic. If my affiliation concerns you, perhaps you can be comforted if you believe the Catholic Church hasnít done serious damage to folks like Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi. Whatever your opinion, I hope you will pray for me, and I will pray for you: that we will follow Him with trust and courage, as He calls us all to unity in Himself, to be His presence on earth.