My parents belonged to a nice, normal, mainstream Protestant Church. I accepted what I learned at home and in Sunday school — and still do, to a great extent.
It’s not so much that I rejected the faith I was brought up in, as learned that it’s a small piece of a much larger reality.
The area I grew up in was virulently anti-Catholic.
Lurid rants about the evils of the Catholic Church got me curious: how could an organization so wicked, so corrupt, be allowed to exist in a civilized society?
More to the point, why couldn’t I see evidence of generation-spanning evil plots? As a malign overlord, or scheming occidental Fu Manchu analogs, the Vatican seemed to be singularly ineffective.
My curiosity was aroused — not much, but enough for me to have a sort of ‘In Basket’ in my mind for facts about the Catholic Church. Facts, not assertions: I knew the difference between the two before I left my teens.
Decades passed, and eventually I became a Catholic.
There was a woman involved: my wife. I didn’t sign up with her church to be a nice guy, or to fit into her family. That’s not the sort of thing I’d do. But she did help me learn about the Church – – –
I’m a very emotional man, which sometimes — often — complicates decision-making. There’s nothing wrong with emotions: but I’ve learned that it’s better to think about whether what I feel like doing is a good idea.1
I’ve known Catholics who quite ardent about our faith. So am I: occasionally. But that’s not why I became a Catholic. A system of belief that’s mostly an emotional rush wouldn’t appeal to me.
Something that I could still believe when I felt like all the color and beauty was drained from the world — that, I’d pay attention to.
A huge turning point came just before my wife and I got married. I knew that I’d have to agree that our children, if any, would be raised in the Catholic faith. That meant I had to start a sort of crash course of study, to learn just what I was agreeing to.
One of the items was the Church’s stand on artificial contraceptives. I really, really, didn’t want the Catholic Church to be right about that. Remember, I’d been raised as a nice, normal American.
The key document for that issue was Humanae Vitae. I got the official English translation and studied it. I’m fairly sharp, and my experience with other Christian denominations suggested that I’d find gaps in the Vatican’s logic I could drive a truck through.
I failed. I didn’t find a gap in the document’s reasoning. So, I went through it again. I must have missed something, I figured. Second time, same result.
I could reject the conclusions of Humanae Vitae, but to do so I’d have to reject ideas like God being real and having created the world. I was not willing to do that: hormonally-addled or not.
So, grumbling all the way, I acquiesced to the Church’s position on artificial contraceptives. Decades later, I’m glad I did — for aesthetic as well as ‘spiritual’ reasons. But that’s another topic.
That experience taught me a respect for the Catholic Church that no other outfit had earned. Eventually, it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’
That authority has been passed along to each of the Popes since Peter’s day — and through the hierarchy to the parish priest, down the street from my house.2
Some Popes, including two from the 20th century, are canonized Saints.3
I’m impressed by the saintly Popes. But knowing about Popes who were — ethically challenged? — helped convince me that my Lord’s authority had been passed from Peter to Linus, and so on to Benedict XVI and now Francis.
I knew that the Catholic Church had endured, with an unbroken transfer of authority, for nearly two thousand years: despite the fall of Rome, the occasional knave like Benedict IX, and the Black Death.
Human institutions don’t last that long. Not with that sort of continuity.
Another appeal the Catholic Church had for me was that it really is catholic, καθολικός: universal.
Many denominations I’ve run into were, I think, heavily rooted in the members’ culture. Some acted like a sort of social club where like-minded people could get together and congratulate each other on feeling that, for example, playing cards, Bingo, and certain kinds of music were bad.
The Catholic Church has rules, and there are a few things that we’re simply not allowed to do.
But that’s just part of the picture. We’re not tied to one country, or one culture, or one ethnic group. Catholics are certainly not people who get together because we all like the same things. We do pay attention to local and regional cultures, and that’s another topic. (Catechism, 361, 887, 1668, 1908, 2524)
- You want rousing music?
- We got rousing music!
- You want quiet meditation?
- We got quiet meditation!
- You want ancient rites?
- We got ancient rites!
- You want polka with your Mass?
- We got polka with your Mass!
- You name it?
- We got it!
You won’t find that list in the Catechism, but I think it’s a fairly reasonable summary of what I’ve learned about Catholicism.
(Brian H. Gill (text August 2016, rev. December 2016))
1 There’s nothing wrong with emotions. They’re part of being human. But we’re supposed to think about what we do: not simply do what feels good, although it’s easier if our emotions are in sync with our reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1762–1769, 1804, 2341)