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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I Became Catholic

I joined the Catholic Church from a Baptist and Pentecostal background during college, Easter Sunday 2007. Lots of Catholics leave the Church but not many Protestants come in, particularly if they're not marrying a Catholic.

So I'm often asked why I became Catholic, especially living in Wheaton where Catholics are few. This is kind of like being asked, "What makes you you?" We can do our best to give a nod to nature, nurture, and choice but we'll never be able to fully explore it.

That's true for me with my conversion and I'm discovering new 'reasons' all the time. And I acknowledge that accepting Catholicism was also a rejection of a lot of the Protestantism of my childhood. That being said, here are 3 main reasons I became Catholic.

1. The marriage of Faith & Reason. Many Christians still hold that scientific evidence isn't trustworthy since the Bible doesn't mention things like evolution. But Pope Benedict XVI said that faith and reason are never at odds. If you think they are, you're misunderstanding at least one of them.

The natural world and its laws are part of God's creation so how can we reject part of God? Let me quote Godspell's character, Galileo in saying,

When it comes to God, I find
I can't believe that he designed
a human being with a mind

he's not supposed to use.

As a young man in college desiring an honest faith, I needed to hear that.

2. Continuity with the past. Growing up in my Protestant church(es) I had the sense that 'true' Christianity came about with Martin Luther and the Reformation. The Early Church, of course, had it right and was perfect until corrupted by Catholicism (insert dramatic music here).

So many Protestants are left with at least a thousand year gap in which there were basically no 'true' Christians. But how could God allow that to happen?

J.R.R. Tolkien once described a mustard seed. It grows and changes over time and the grown tree looks nothing like the original seed because it's not meant to. This is the Catholic Church, he says.

No, there weren't titles like "pope" in 1st century Mesopotamia but these developments are okay and part of God's providence. God uses human agency. And logically, it made much more sense to me that God was always guiding the official teaching of the Church.

There was no thousand year gap of corruption. I accepted that God was there all along and the Holy Spirit has guided the development of Christianity at all times.

3. The emphases in Catholicism seemed truer. I don't wish to anger any Protestants but I really have issues with some emphases in Protestantism. They tend to be less focused on community and looking out and much more focused on the self and looking in. (Catholics, of course, have the opposite problem.)

A perfect example is the individualism found in many Protestant circles. It's just so American(!) and tends to give the gospel an American flavor, which I just don't like.

You get hints of this individualism in some Protestant language. "Have you read your  Bible?" "I  don't like the music at that church." "Jesus is my personal  Lord and Savior." No, he's not! Jesus is the savior of the World!

I think Protestants (and really all of us) can be so focused on our own faith life that we forget everyone else. I think this plays out in things like "church shopping", a phrase I'm convinced can only lead one to conclude that finding a church that suits you is the same as finding flattering pants for your body type.

I found in Catholicism an emphasis on action and not just faith. An emphasis on caring for the poor in all their forms. And I found a primacy of community over the individual.

In Catholicism I heard, for the first time, that we are meant to fit the Church (like a good pair of pants), and not the other way around. That still rings true to me.

Update: After receiving feedback from several individuals, I decided to clarify my reasons for converting and to offer "specifically Catholic" reasons for choosing Catholicism. Thanks to those who gave me feedback. And you can find Part 2 of this post here.


  1. I love this! Thank you for writing this. I agree with so much of what you wrote, but from the angle of a returning Catholic.

    1. Thanks, David! Some friends have pointed out that these aren't explicitly specific to Catholicism, which I didn't realize until after. I hope to do my next post on specifically Catholic draws (papacy, Mary, etc.). Glad it resonated with you.

  2. Ok, I know I comment on like all your posts, and it always seems like I am disagreeing all the time, but I LIKE READING THEM, OK? And I think this stuff is way too important, and I love you for bringing up these topics.

    I gave up a long time ago trying to find a denomination that "fits" me perfectly. I understand the desire for community and belonging, and I feel that I can get that at any church that welcomes me. But doctrinally I'm too skeptical to sign on with anyone I've encountered so far. I seriously considered the catholic church in 2005, but ultimately decided it wasn't right for me.

    #1. Yes, I totally agree. I absolutely, unequivocally agree. I don't believe God created an explicable universe and then expected us to understand it only in mystical ways. But, I think this is actually my greatest qualm with the Catholic church. It seems that, historically at least, it's the Catholic position to cling to traditional models of reason until science/society more or less forces the issue. I don't think that simply trying to reconcile faith with reason is enough. They don't simply coexist or balance one another out. They are not antithetical!

    #2. I also find a healthy emphasis on tradition to be desirable. What I don't follow is your metaphor. If the current form "looks nothing like the original because it's not meant to," doesn't that fly in the face of tradition? I don't think it's fair to say the current church looks nothing like the original. On the contrary, it looks pretty similar. Changes like Vatican II still have heavy opposition in some circles. And besides, what is tradition if not an adherence to the past simply for the sake of appearances and, as you say, continuity? I do take some issue with the "God wouldn't let that happen" approach. Protestants love to use this argument to validate their favorite translation of the Bible. "God wouldn't let the meaning be lost in translation!" Um, guess what, yes he would. There have historically been all kinds of hilarious typos in editions of the bible, some which mar the meaning dramatically. I think God lets us make mistakes if he thinks we can learn from it. No, I don't think the Holy Spirit ever left humanity during the dark ages. I see plenty of evidence that he was at work in the lives of saints. But that doesn't excuse or invalidate the atrocities committed by the church which have yet to be admonished (that's another issue... not worth getting into right now).

    #3. This is pretty vague. What do you mean by "truer"? Don't forget that the Protestant tradition is not nearly as unified as the Catholic. While some denominations, like the ones you grew up in, place a heavy emphasis on personal or inner development, I think there are many that are actually more socially focused than the Catholic church. And there are certainly churches just as—if not more—focused on an action-based approach to caring for the needy and enacting positive change, albeit with less financial resources to work with.

    I know this post is pretty personal, so I don't want this to seem like an attack. I really admire you for having the strength of character to really commit to an idea and unpack it and understand it. In an era that promotes information and free thought I think the choice to join a church has got to be for doctrinal reasons as well as the more 'style' based reasons you've cited here.

    I would love to sit down with you sometime and talk about why you chose Catholicism over other denominations that. I know your choice was more nuanced and deeply thought than just what you've said. And maybe talking about this could help me figure out how to choose a denomination, assuming I ever should/can/will.

    1. I appreciate it so much! Thank you, thank you. I can understand your confusion on #3 too. I think I failed to explain that having a seed with the time to develop into a tree at all is "tradition". In the same breath I was trying to defend against the most common argument I've encountered against tradition, which is an odd combination of 'We can't know what Early Christianity *truly* looked like' and 'The modern Catholic Church looks nothing like what Christ had in mind/the Early Church.'

      I'd enjoy sitting down sometime too! You need to let me know if you make it to Chicago ever. Unfortunately I rarely make it to MI, let alone Lansing.

  3. philip,
    I think you have to start with changing the way you look at "picking" a Church. You say, "I would love to sit down with you sometime and talk about why you chose Catholicism over other denominations." The answer is incredibly complex for most converts, but it can basically be reduced into one statement: "I didn't pick the Catholic Church as a denomination among denominations; it picked me!" Or, to put it in somewhat equivalent and more practical terms: "I chose it because I don't believe in the concept of a denomination; I chose it in place of a denomination".

    Catholicism is like a mustard seed.It starts off with one ounce of faith that God would not abandon his Church, that when a medieval person or a member of the early Church says that he is in pursuit of holiness he really means it, that Christ wanted a Church where obedience actually meant something, and it grows inexplicably into a something so large that one can hardly find room for anything but it. In other words, unlike a denomination, which fits WITHIN a person's faith, the Catholic Church is something within which one's faith fits. Or, to turn it around entirely, we try our best to fit in it, not for it to fit us.

    I would invite you to take a more than superficial look at the historical reality of the Church. At the time of Copernicus (who didn't really have a solid model for understanding a heliocentric solar system) and Galileo, the Church was mainly opposed Galileo's science and not his faith. In fact, many of those who favored leniency for Galileo are now recognized as saints. And the very first people to purchase Galileo's new and improved telescope? The Vatican Observatory, which still exists today. The Church's knowledge of science has never claimed to exceed the world's knowledge, and it tends to grow at about the same rate. And yet, I have never heard of the Baptists or Lutherans having a 500 year-old astronomy program. Catholicism does not see reason and faith as antithetical, but as complementary revelations of the same God of truth. It's global and universalizing tendency tends to get it involved in every academic discussion, because it pursues every truth with abandon.
    As for the Church's atrocities...I am yet to see a religion commit atrocities. I do not believe Islam knocked down the twin towers, but men. Still, many of the "atrocities" committed by men of the Church can only be considered such in a modern context; at the time they were called "war", which the Church has always detested, considered in itself. Men fight wars, not the Church, especially when you consider how many decent Churchmen have fought wars against each other.

    1. Clayton, I'm not at all following your reasoning here, but I appreciate your taking time to respond to my thoughts.

      I don't understand how you can say that Catholics reject the notion of denominations unless you believe that members of other churches apart from Catholicism are not followers of Christ. It is not a matter of fitting the church into oneself, it is a matter of remaining true to the personal revelations which God has given each of us. I cannot, in good Faith, become a Catholic because I believe that my relationship with God reflects ideals that the Catholic church does not uphold. That doesn't mean that God doesn't want anyone to be Catholic. The Catholic model works for some people, and I think it is God's will that those individuals worship Him as Catholics. I simply don't believe that He wants that for me.

      I appreciate that you obviously don't see science and religion as antithetical. But the very fact that you must say that reason and faith are "complimentary" shows that you believe they are not one and the same. I believe that faith is very reasonable, and that acts of scientific discovery can be faithful, spiritual acts. I'm not asking the Church to become a research institute. But I am asking that it not be skeptical by default, and that has historically been the case.

      As for the atrocities, I don't see how the Inquisition or Crusades (among other acts of violence) can be "contextualized." Again, that's another debate.

      Lastly, I do not understand why you are making the distinction between "people" and "religion." What is religion if not the organized efforts of man to carry out God's work on Earth?

    2. I think Clayton is trying to make the point - rightly - that Catholics hold that The Church IS The Catholic Church and to emphasize a difference in mindset that many Protestants look for religion to fit them when we are called to fit religion/The Church/spirituality/The Divine Reality, whatever you'd like to call it. God wasn't made for man; man was made for God.

      Currently I'm trying to find a way of reconciling "personal revelation" with "fitting the church" as you put it. There are dangers and validity to both. We can't exist outside of Christianity as if we know better than 2,000+ yrs of men and women coming before us. At the same time our religion(s) may not prepare us adequately with the language for our own experience. At some point we have to say the words of Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." But what happens when we accept what we should stand up to or when we stand up to what we should accept?

  4. My Dad was Catholic for the first thirty-some odd years of his life and my grandparents never changed faith, so I have a deep and abiding respect for the Catholic Church. One of the things I most admire is its unity of doctrine and purpose. I'd be interested to hear sometime if that was among your compelling reasons to investigate Catholicism. One of my biggest hang-ups with evangelical denominations is that there generally doesn't seem to be a coherence of doctrine or practice even within congregations (much less across them). However, I will agree with Philip in saying that my (albeit superficial) exposure to and understanding of Protestant faiths would suggest that their congregations are more community-oriented than those of their Catholic counterparts. That's a perception of mine that may or may not actually reflect reality, but I see the Catholic church as being more worldwide (again, something I admire) while many other Christian faiths emphasize the local (which is extremely important in its own right).

    And you quoted Godspell, so: win.

    1. I knew you'd like the Godspell quote, haha.

      I do appreciate the doctrinal coherence in Catholicism. I suppose I'd put that under the heading of "Tradition" or "continuity with the past."

      That's an interesting observation about community. I think a sort of practical community is done much better in Protestant churches. You go and people want to meet you, learn your name, invite you in and make you feel welcome. But the mindset, to me, is still very individualistic. They see themselves as autonomous and free to break away from that local community and find another at any time. Catholics are the opposite - horrendously bad at practical community but having a communal mindset. At least that's my take.