Going Home (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt VIII)

At the beginning of November, I flew back home from Ireland, exhausted and emotional. On the way, I did what all emotional young women do. I journaled my angst. (And then I watched Fred Weasley die and that did not help.)

But this is what I wrote:

Passing over the Central Tablelands less than an hour from Sydney. And then I’ll be home. Home… It’s been an amazing trip. I’ve seen and done so many things, and it has all gone so smoothly. But I think I’d hoped there would be less questions, less anxiety & less longing. But I still have no idea. I still feel so lost. What am I searching for so intently? What is it? What do I feel is just out of reach? I have all this intensity, and yearning, and it’s not getting out. It’s just thumping around in my heart, pummeling me from the inside. God, what am I meant to DO? It’s not clear to me. Not at all. Trust me. Trust me. You don’t have to see the path. You just have to take that first step, and then the next one. Do you trust me, my daughter? Yes. No… I don’t know.

Which pretty much sums up where my mind was at. Somewhere between Crazytown and Idontknowville.

Coming back home to Australia was weird. I hadn’t been gone for long, but it was the longest time I’d ever been away from home, let alone without my family. I was still thinking about all this Catholic stuff in my head. And for the first time, I really started talking about it too. A lot, apparently. (I thought I was exercising great restraint but apparently it was all I could talk about.)

I was at the unfortunate point where I thought the Church was pretty much right. I could accept all of it: sacraments, Tradition, Mary, saints, good works, the whole lot. I figured I could even get my head around indulgences… maybe. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I was ready for all that. It was one thing to think the Church wasn’t wrong, it was quite another thing to think she was right.

Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter, 1482 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican)

Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter, 1482 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican)

So what about all those doubts and questions? I mean, the Catholic Church taught stuff that that I would never believe if it was up to me. But then… I already believed stuff I would never believe.

I didn’t have to understand the Immaculate Conception, indulgences, an all-male priesthood, or how the Mass was a sacrifice. Sure, they seemed heaps weird to me but on the weirdness scale, they paled in comparison to the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement or the Resurrection. There is no way – NO WAY – I would have come up with that stuff. Even with the Bible, I doubt I would have stumbled my way into the Trinitarian dogma of one ousia and three hypostatses. I mean, if I was a 4th Century chick with only a Bible, I would probably be an Arian. (I would also get myself a mad sarcophagi, provoke St Nick to see if he would hit a girl, and seduce every British centurion just to see if was actually The Last Centurion… but that’s probably besides the point.)

The real question wasn’t “what do I think of each and every issue?” The real question was “who has the authority to speak on this stuff?”

And that’s when it came back to the Bible.

As a Protestant, I believed that the Bible was the word of God and thus authoritative. But then I realised that I had no objective reason to believe that was so. My personal experience confirmed that these words spoke to me, and spoke the truth, but that was subjective. The Bible needed an objective authority.

I couldn’t even appeal to the Bible’s own words on its authority. Why? Because there is no inspired “table of contents” in the Bible. At no point does the Bible say what is supposed to go in it. If the Bible – the sole rule of faith – doesn’t even say what is supposed to be in the Bible… how could I trust what was in the Bible, i.e. the Bible?

To be clear, when we are dealing with final or ultimate authorities like the Bible, or reason, or science, or anything the best we can hope for is circular reasoning. If something is the ultimate authority, you can’t appeal to anything higher to confirm it – otherwise, that would be your ultimate authority. This is a feature of every belief system, religious or not. The problem of the biblical canon wouldn’t be a problem if there was the canon itself was equally inspired. But of course, according to sola scriptura, it can’t be. And so, as R. C. Sproul, a Protestant theologian and pastor, concluded the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books. 

First page of the Gospel of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 AD (The British Library, London)

First page of the Gospel of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 AD (The British Library, London)

Clearly, this is a problem. Yet Sproul’s logic is sound. The canon of the Bible is a product of the Church. But if, as Sproul and indeed all Protestants believe, the Church is fallible, then equally the canon must be fallible. But a fallible collection of infallible books is patently absurd.

I realised that if I wanted to believe the canon was correct, then I had to so on the authority of the Church. The Church didn’t create the canon, but she did recognise and confirm it. That is still an exercise of authority. As we well know, a lesser authority cannot confirm a higher one. Therefore, the Church has to be at least as authoritative as Scripture because it was the Church who decided what was and wasn’t Scripture

I had thought that if I accepted the Church as authoritative then I would have two sources of authority. Actually, if I didn’t accept the Church as authoritative then I wouldn’t really have the Bible either. I mean sure, I could go on using it and loving it but there would be no objective reason for me to do so. The Church and the Bible are a package deal. St Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.” (St. Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei, 5,6:PL 42,176.) I did it the opposite way around. I believed the Gospel, and only afterwards realised that I needed the authority of the Catholic Church to do so rationally.

I still remember the night I realised this. It was one of those hot, sticky summer nights and I didn’t sleep a wink. I just tossed and turned, trying out different ideas and trying to find any way to preserve the canon of the Bible without conceding the authority of the Church to set the canon. I couldn’t find a way.

The next day, my friend Monica gave me the Compendium of the Catechism. I told her that I had the most awful feeling I was about to become Catholic. She tried to empathise with my distress but honestly, she seemed a little too delighted. About ten days later – and much sooner than even I imagined possible – I had made the decision.

I got down on my knees and told my Father that I wanted to go home.

I was going Home.

Home.

It was crazy. But then, as I was quickly discovering, the Catholic Church is crazy.

She is an enigma. Like her Lord, she “is in history, but at the same time she transcends it.” She has both a human and a divine element. It is only with the eyes of faith that we can see her “in her visible reality” with all her triumphs and failures, her sinners and her saints, “and at the same time in her spiritual reality” as the Body of Christ, the pilgrim people of God, and the “bearer of divine life.”

The Lord opened my eyes to see that. The thing is that the Church, the Body of Christ through history, is as much of a miracle as any healing or exorcism or calming of storms. To believe in the Church, as the Nicene (and Apostles’) Creed says, is an act of faith. It’s an act of faith to see all her screw-ups and scandals – all her obvious humanity – and still be able to see, at the same time, that “spiritual reality”.

“For the Catholic Church is the extension of Christ’s Life on earth; the Catholic Church, therefore, that strange mingling of mystery and common-sense, that union of earth and heaven, of clay and fire, can alone be understood by him who accepts her as both Divine and Human…”

Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

And finally, we are getting to the heart of the matter. This “strange mingling” is the logic of the Incarnation, the logic of Christianity. It is both/and, not either/or.

That was the mistake of the Reformation. It is the mistake of every heresy. It’s not that the Reformers were completely wrong, they were right about a great deal. (As Chesterton says, “A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”) But they took truths and, isolating them from the lived Tradition of the Church, made them absolute truths. They made them sola truths, when in fact they are wedded truths.

 The Church is all too human, as Protestantism says, but she is also the “sign and instrument of salvation.”  (CCC, #780)

It’s the Bible and Tradition. It’s faith and works of love. This is the logic of Christianity, for ours is a faith of paradoxes and the impossible made possible. The paradox that Infinite Deity can become human, that the death of one man secures redemption for the whole world, that fishermen can become Apostles, that the Spirit dwells in jars of clay, that human scriblings can be the divine Scriptures of the Lord, that in dying to ourselves, we are born again to new life.

And that a two-thousand year old, scandal-ridden, hierarchical institution can also be the mystical Body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It’s crazy but then, so is her Lord.

It was this “logic” that led me into the Catholic Church. I didn’t actually deny anything I believed as a Protestant, or “lose” anything. I just got more. I just followed the logical implications of what I already knew, and I ended up Catholic. I took the first step, and then another one, and then the one after that. Initially, I couldn’t see the path but soon, I recognised it. I saw that I was heading home.

And I was ecstatic.

I had gotten back to Sydney two months earlier but finally, after twenty-two years… 

I was going Home. 

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8 responses to “Going Home (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt VIII)

    • Thanks Jess, you always have the loveliest things to say! (Also, I LOVE your cartoon-avatar thingy. I know you’ve had it forever but every time I see it, I’m still like, “that is cool.” 🙂

  1. Pingback: Laura’s story | All Along the Watchtower·

  2. Good Post Laura, you know cradle Catholics go through a similar awakening to the wisdom, reason and absolute – place to be-ness of the Catholic Church. Its like they are home, but don’t always understand it until they get older…
    (yep, cute avatar jess)

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