C o n v e r s i o n S t o r y
A CHURCH SHOPPER’S ROAD TO CATHOLICISM
By DAVE ARMSTRONG
Volume 4, Number 8
I WAS received into the Catholic Church in
February 1991, an event which as recently as a year earlier would
have seemed to me absolutely inconceivable. Not much in my background
would have indicated this surprising turn of events, but such are
God's ever-inscrutable mercy and providence.
Following a nominally Methodist early childhood, I rarely attended
church throughout most of the 1970s and even dabbled in occultic
practices. I converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1977, at the
age of 18, after a severe depression in which the meaninglessness
of life without Christ was made evident to me. Over a course of years I
attended Lutheran, Assemblies of God, and nondenominational churches
with strong connections to the "Jesus Movement," a revival
which was characterized by youth, spontaneity of worship, contemporary
music, and warm fellowship. Many of my friends were former Catholics.
I knew little of Catholicism and regarded it as an exotic, stern,
and unnecessarily ritualistic "denomination." I had never
been attracted to liturgy, and didn't believe in sacraments at all,
although I always had great reverence for the Lord's Supper and believed
something real was imparted in it.
I was never overtly anti-Catholic. Having been active in apologetics
and counter-cult work (specializing in the Jehovah's Witnesses), I
realized that Catholicism was different from the cults in that it
had correct central doctrines, such as the Trinity and the bodily
resurrection of Christ. I considered Catholicism fully Christian,
although inferior to Evangelicalism, and desired to dialogue with
orthodox and articulate Catholics, but rarely got the chance.
For four years I was a missionary on college campuses and also got
involved in the pro-life rescue movement. It became apparent to me
that Catholic rescuers were just as committed to Christ and godliness
as were Evangelicals. At rescues I began to "fellowship"
with Catholics, including priests and nuns. Although still unconvinced
theologically, my admiration for orthodox Catholics grew.
In January 1990 I started an ecumenical discussion group; it included
three knowledgeable Catholic friends from the rescue movement. Their
claims for the Church, particularly regarding papal infallibility,
challenged me to plunge into considerable research on that subject.
I thought I had found many errors and contradictions throughout papal
history. Later I realized that the incidents I came upon didn't fit
into the category of infallible pronouncements as defined by the First
Vatican Council of 1870.
In the meantime, I was reading Catholic books exclusively (and all
the short Catholic Answers tracts), and my respect for and understanding
of Catholicism grew rapidly. I began with The Spirit of Catholicism
by Karl Adam, a nearly perfect book about Catholicism as a worldview
and a way of life--perfect especially for a person acquainted
with basic Catholic theology. I read books by cultural historian
Christopher Dawson, Joan Andrews (a heroine of the rescue
movement), and Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk.
My three friends continued to offer replies to nearly all of my of
questions. I was dumbfounded by the realization that Catholicism seemed
to have thought out everything. It was a marvelously complex and
consistent belief system unparalleled by any portion of Evangelicalism.
Soon I became troubled by Protestantism's free and easy acceptance
of contraception. I came to believe, in agreement with the Church,
that once one regards sexual pleasure as an end in itself, then the
"right to abortion" is logically not far away. My Evangelical
pro-life friends might have been able to draw the line, but the less
spiritually-minded have not in fact done so, as has been borne out
by the full force of the sexual revolution since the widespread use
of the Pill began around 1960.
I was surprised to learn that no Christian body had accepted contraception
until the Anglicans did in 1930. The inevitable progression in nations
from contraception to abortion was demonstrated irrefutably by Fr.
Paul Marx of Human Life International. The Teaching of Humanae
Vitae, written by John Ford, Germain Grisez, and others, convinced
me of the moral distinction between contraception and natural family
planning and put me over the edge.
I now accepted a very un-Protestant belief, but still didn't even
dream of becoming Catholic. Yet I was falling prey to Chesterton's
principle of conversion: One cannot be fair to Catholicism without
starting to admire it and become convinced of it. Meanwhile
my wife, Judy, who was raised Catholic and had become a Protestant
before we first dated, had also been convinced independently of the
wrongness of contraception. She returned to the Church on the day
I was received.
By July 1990, then, I believed Catholicism had the best moral theology
of any Christian body and greatly respected its sense of community,
devotion, and contemplation. Interestingly, up to this point I had
changed virtually none of my theology. Moral issues and intangible
mystical elements got the ball of conversion rolling for me and increasingly
rang true deep within my soul--beyond, but not opposed to, the
rational calculations of my mind.
One of my friends, tiring of my constant rhetoric about Catholic "errors"
and "additions" through the centuries, suggested I read
Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This
book demolished the whole schema of Church history which I had constructed:
that early Christianity was Protestant and that Catholicism was a
later corruption. (Unlike most Evangelicals, I placed the collapse
of Christianity in the late Middle Ages rather than in the time of
Martin Luther, so I reckoned, had discovered in sola scriptura
the means to scrape the accumulated Catholic barnacles off of
the originally lean and clean Christian ship. Newman exploded this
notion. The real question is whether the ship will arrive at its destination. For
this purpose sacred Tradition acts like a rudder, absolutely necessary
for guidance and direction. Newman brilliantly demonstrated the characteristics
of true doctrinal development, as opposed to corruption, within the
visible and historically continuous Church instituted by Christ. I
found myself unable and unwilling to refute his reasoning, and a crucial
piece of the puzzle had been put into place. Tradition had become
plausible to me.
Thus began what some call a paradigm shift. While reading the Essay
I experienced a peculiar and quite intense feeling of reverence for
the idea of a Church "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."
Catholicism was now thinkable, casting me into a crisis. I knew that
the Church was visible and suspected that it was infallible as well.
Once I accepted Catholic ecclesiology, the theology followed as a
matter of course, and I accepted it without difficulty, even the Marian
doctrines--highly unusual for a Protestant.
My Catholic friends had been tilling the rocky soil of my stubborn
mind and will for almost a year, planting Catholic seeds, and now,
to their surprise, the seeds began to sprout. I had fought the hardest
just prior to reading Newman, in a desperate attempt to salvage my
Protestantism--much as a drowning man kicks most furiously just
before he succumbs.
I continued reading, now actively trying to persuade myself fully
of Catholicism. I went through Newman's autobiography, Apologia
Pro Vita Sua, through Tom Howard's Evangelical is Not Enough,
which helped me appreciate the genius of liturgy for the first time,
and through two books by Chesterton. At this time I had the privilege
of meeting Fr. John Hardon, the eminent Jesuit catechist, and attending
his informal class on spirituality. This gave me the opportunity to
learn from a scholarly, authoritative Catholic priest and a delightful
and humble man.
After seven tense weeks of alternately questioning my sanity and arriving
at exciting new discoveries, the final blow came in just the fashion
I had suspected. I studied a large portion of the six-volume biography
Luther, by the German Jesuit Hartmann Grisar. This convinced
me that the foundational tenets of the Reformation were tenuous.
I always had rejected Luther's conception of predestination and his
notion of the total depravity of mankind. Now I realized that if man
had a free will, he did not have to be declared righteous
in a merely forensic, abstract sense, but could participate actively
in his redemption. By being justified he actually would be made
righteous by God.
I learned many disturbing facts about Luther; for example, his radically
subjective existential methodology, his disdain for reason and historical
precedent, and his dictatorial intolerance of opposing viewpoints,
including those of his fellow Protestants. These and other discoveries
convinced me that he was not really a reformer seeking the pure, pre-Nicene
Church, but rather a revolutionary who created a novel theology.
Now I was unconvinced of the standard Protestant concept of the invisible,
rediscovered Church. In the end, my love of history played a crucial
part in my forsaking Protestantism, which tends to give very little
attention to history. The inattention is necessary if one is to reject
Catholicism in good conscience.
Now it became an intellectual and moral duty to abandon Protestantism
in its Evangelical form, but it was not easy. Old habits and perceptions
die hard, but I refused to let mere feelings and biases interfere
with the wondrous process of illumination which was overpowering me
by God's grace. I waited expectantly for one last impetus to surrender
myself fully. The unpredictable course of conversion came to an end
on December 6, 1990, while I was reading Cardinal Newman's meditation
on "Hope in God the Creator" and in a moment decisively
realized that I had already ceased to offer any resistance to the
Catholic Church. As in most converts' experience, an icy fear had
set in early on, similar to the cold feet of premarriage jitters,
but in an instant this final obstacle vanished and a tangible sense
of emotional and theological peace prevailed.
Dave Armstrong, a Detroit-based freelancer, is at
work on a book of popular apologetics.