Why Would Anyone Want to be Catholic?

I heard from a woman last week who watched a PBS documentary on the Vatican. The show was little more than a sensationalistic “hit piece,” meant to defame the Church as much as possible. Propaganda, pure and simple. But it was effective propaganda. After watching, the woman asked me, “Who, on earth, would ever want to be Catholic?”

confused pope

Well, me, for one. I joined the Church at the height of the media frenzy over abusive clergy. I had my eyes wide open and I can say honestly that the scandal did not deter me from becoming Catholic.  And I am not alone. I know countless men and women who have made an honest investigation of the Church’s claims and have embraced them even in the face of a non-stop media assault on the integrity of Catholicism.

The reasons are really not that hard to understand. The Church is not a cult of personality. When I became Catholic, I was not committing myself to the integrity of this or that Catholic leader. I was joining myself to a communion of saints and sinners that extends backwards in time to the Church’s foundation and forward to the end of time. It encompasses all the faithful joined to Christ, living and dead. In heaven, purgatory, and on earth. When I became Catholic, I knew that in some ways I was shaking hands with St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) or St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) more than with some abusive priest in Boston.  Ultimately, I was seeking to join myself to Christ. For as St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “He who beholds the Church really beholds Christ.”

Since the late 1980s, more and more Protestant clergy, leaders, and intellectuals have embraced the Catholic Church. This is something the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus predicted in his book The Catholic Moment: the Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. (1990) Neuhaus saw clearly that only the Catholic Church had the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual resources necessary to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. Writer Joseph Bottum has explored how this has played out since Neuhaus, how Catholic ideas and influence have come to dominate religious discourse in the public sphere. (See his new book An Anxious Age: the Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.) Historian Philip Jenkins explains that anti-Catholicism has become the last acceptable prejudice precisely because Catholicism represents the leading opponent to secularism, relativism, and atheism. (See his book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.)

This last point is worth emphasizing. One reason for the all-out media frenzy against the Church is that the Church represents the most articulate, well-reasoned, thoughtful response to the errors of atheism and relativism. This is not to deny that Catholics have done things deserving censure. But the sins of Catholics do not merit the disproportionate attention they receive in the media. Can you imagine the public outcry that would result if PBS published a hit piece on the sins of ….. ?  (Fill in the blank with the name of any politically-protected constituency.)  No, the Catholic Church remains a target because she reserves the right to speak with boldness to the whole of man’s existence, and she does so with a loud voice.

Even within the world of Protestant thought and culture, more and more leaders have come to realize that they must rely on the leadership and spiritual patrimony of Catholicism in order to confront the contemporary crisis. Protestant historian and theologian Mark Noll believes that contemporary Protestantism is impoverished, and sees at least a selective return to Catholic tradition as the answer. In an article for First Things, Noll writes:

Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition.

Catholicism offers a profound tradition of moral reasoning, a visible and audible Magisterium that can speak this tradition to the world, a sacramental holiness that transcends the merits or failings of any individual, and the witness of two-thousand years of saints and martyrs. There is nothing like it anywhere.

I don’t expect all Catholics to be perfect. (I’m sure not.) But the Church expects me to be perfectible. I didn’t join the Church because Catholics are all sinless, but in order to get rid of my sins. Oscar Wilde once said that the Catholic Church is “for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”  Today, the Church may not be respectable in the eyes of the world. It certainly is not respectable to PBS. But to millions of us converts, it offers things far more valuable: the truth about our origin and destiny in God, and a credible claim to deliver that destiny.  Through the Church we have received grace – faith, hope, and charity through Our Lord Jesus Christ.

8 thoughts on “Why Would Anyone Want to be Catholic?

  1. Reply
    Elsa Rutherford Kirst - March 26, 2014

    Dear Mr. Anders,
    I’ve recently read your latest article in “The One Voice.” I liked it so much that my husband suggested I visit your website and read your other articles, which I’ve just done. My first comment to you is “You took the words out of my mouth.” Literally. After I converted from Methodism to Catholicism, thirty yearrs ago, I wrote an article that was published in “The One Voice” about why I’d become a Catholic. I made many of the same statements you’ve made.

    At the time, I lived in Birmingham and attended St. Peter the Apostle in Hoover. My first visit there was to drive an elderly neighbor to that church. She insisted I meet the priest, Fr. Ray Murrin. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do this, but thought that refusing would be rude. Being polite on that day was one of the best things I ever did. Fr. Murrin was so kind and welcoming I could almost “feel” his goodness. When he asked if I’d like to attend RCIA and learn more about the Catholic Church, I was intrigued and said, “yes.”

    That was not my first introduction to Catholicism. I had always been curious about other religions and, as a devoted reader, had studied many of the world religions, including Catholicism. Also, having lived in Europe, I’d been inside many Catholic Churches and investigated their histories. But while attending RCIA, I learned much more and began to regularly attend St. Peter’s. The greater my involvement with the Catholic Church, the more I loved it and felt that it “fit” me. The Catholic understanding of “mystery” made sense to me, having heard so many ministers say their particular Protestant church had all the answers. It was reasonable to me that no church had all the answers since no one fully knew the “mind” of God. But I did believe in Christ and in God and it was also reasonable to me that I should belong to the first Christian Church which history told me was the Catholic Church. I liked the idea of being a link in a massively long chain reaching all the way back through time to Jesus Himself and his apostles.

    Well, I could go on and on, extolling the Catholic Church and how it has helped me deal with so much in my life, I think you get the gist of my message. I currently live in Albertville, AL and attend both St. William in Guntersville and La Capilla de la Santa Cruz in Albertville, My husband is an attorney who helps many of the Latinos at La Capilla.

    Keep up the good work. God bless you.
    Elsa

  2. Reply
    ETY - June 2, 2014

    Mr. David Anders,

    Thank you for this article. I find it extremely helpful. Especially the idea that when we join ourselves to the Spiritual Society of the Catholic Church, we enter into a Spiritual reality which has as its life Jesus Himself. And so to join the Society of the Church is to enter into and join Christ Himself. This teaching of Catholicism must never be forgotten.

    However, I can suspect that there are other barriers that may merit someone’s justification in either leaving the Catholic Church or never joining it in the first place. The following reasons are some of my own thoughts that I have as I remain a Catholic, and fight to remain Catholic.

    For starters, the New Testament clearly teaches that baptized Christians are not allowed to fellowship with self-professed “brothers” (1 Cor 5:3-12) who live in a persistent lifestyle of sin. There is another Apostolic truth coming from the first epistle of John which tells us that “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. “.

    In Catholic theology and discipline, each baptized Christians is bound to submit himself to as well as being in “fellowship with” the Pope as well as the Bishops who are in good fellowship with the Pope, regardless of their status as “children of the devil” or “children of God”. Whereas St. John tells us that we only have fellowship with “one another” when each of us is walking in the light, and those that do not walk in the light do not have fellowship with those who walk in the light.

    In Catholic Theology, even when the Pope is not walking in the light, there is a binding law on all Christians to remain in fellowship with him. This “appears” to be in contradiction to the Apostolic mandate through St. Paul who said not to have fellowship with any brother who is living in sin, for they are lost and do not either walk or know the truth.

    The Catholic will want to demonstrate how the Principles of revelation and epistemology concerning every subject of doctrine can only be reasonably upheld when adopting the Catholic principles of revelation and doctrinal epistemology. And yet, even if this argument can win against the Protestant epistemic situation, there is a striking difference between say a Reformed baptist congregation that has been holding to the same confession of faith for the last 400 years, who abundantly bear good fruits, discipline erring and sinning members, and sustain a mark of holiness and perseverance that is outstanding in the community. A philosophical argument can never cloud out the visible evidence of the Spirit’s works in the lives of Christians who are gladly not in communion with Rome.

    The philosophical arguments for the Catholic interpretive paradigm comes with the difficulty of explaining how One Church can be so fragmented and disunified, basically just as much as the Protestant churches. Although the Catholic can point to the Magesterium as a stabilizing rule of proper membership in the Catholic Church, it would be difficult to show statistically that not less than the majority of baptized Catholics worldwide do not subscribe to that stabilizing center. Moreover, the Protestant also has a stabilizing center, more or less subjective, but no less subject to criticism than the Catholic magesterium, when he points to the Scriptures as interpreted by the reformation traditions as well as the necessity of the Holy spirit in bringing illumination. This is subject to a strong array of criticism, but it does not take away from the fact that they do end up having some essential unity on some body of doctrine, as well as the evidence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their life. Those Catholics who will want to bundle all protestants under the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and the vast heretical camps, only do this in order to point to the lack of force in this subjective stabilizing center. Be that as it may, the Protestant churches who stem from the reformation, whether anabaptist or Presbyterian, seek to unite themselves under an essentially common doctrine of God and live in charity with one another. That sometimes they do not only echo’s the same controversies that make up the history of the Church in the first 1,000 years. And again, that the Catholic can point to the visible Magesterium as a standard of orthodoxy even in the midst of dividing turmoil in the Church, it becomes a weaker argument as the incarnation of history still to this day shows us how many Catholics do not actually hold to that stabilizing magesterial center, especially when there could be arguably the same amount of Protestants who would want to unify themselves on the basic essentials of the faith even with the subjective standard of their reading of the Scriptures. At the end of the day, you may be practically looking at two different epistemic programs with congruent results in terms of unity and disunity.

    I speak with Catholics today who describe the situation of the Catholic Church as terrible. St Ireneaus spoke of the Holy Spirit being the place where the Church is, and you cannot have the Spirit without His work in the lives of people. So where there is the Holy Spirit, there is righteousness and good works. Therefore, where there is righteousness and good works, there is the Church. Many would want to point out that St. Ireneaus taught Apostolic Succession. However, he equally held that we should not even listen to the wicked bishops who retain that Apostolic Succession, which itself is a principle which would have caused division all throughout the centuries.

    And so a major difficulty in all of this is that despite the philosophical principles which show forth an objective standard for Orthodoxy, there is still, in comparison, a work of the Spirit that cannot be denied in the Protestant sects who are knowingly and actively anti-Catholic, even if their philosophical principles for Orthodoxy are entirely subjective. Who knows what is working behind the subjectivity, if it results in such good character formation and abundant rays of Christ’s light.

    Any comments in response to the above difficulties that may be present in the minds of Catholics or those seeking, would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

    1. Reply
      Constantino - June 4, 2014

      “The Church is not a cult of personality”, David said early in this article. Why one should remain in communion with the Church in spite of wicked bishops or even a wicked pope is because Jesus himself said: “Do what they teach you but do not follow what they do” referring to errant Pharisees. It is the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that is important, not its ministers. They are humans not angels.

  3. Reply
    ETY - June 4, 2014

    Constantino,

    Thanks for your comment!

    What you said is what I’ve been holding on to.

    I am just trying to make this compatible with the NT mandate to not be in communion with the unrighteous, as stated in a few points above. The Apostles seem to show that those who are unrighteous belong to Satan and thus do not interpret things Spiritually, and are blind to the truth.

    I am just trying to reconcile these things.

  4. Reply
    Tb - September 25, 2015

    Interesting article. In my time I have met clerical abuse survivors. Far too many. All but two later discovered their abuse could have been prevented. All but two now know their abuser was protected from prosecution by the hierarchy of the church. Some have discovered that the catholic church knew their abuse had abused hundreds of children before he was ordained. Despite this knowledge of child rape, the catholic church was more than happy to ordain him as a priest. That’s what this story is about. Child rape. And despite your attacks against the media, they didn’t even say child rape, they toned it down to abuse. Just like me at the start of this comment. But I know it was rape. I have spoken to survivors who were not believed. They found a little solace in finally being listened to and believed. But truth of is they will be in pain for the rest of their lives. All have said that it’s impossible not to forget what happened, no matter how hard they try. To dismiss the rape of small children as “media frenzy” is totally dishonest. No rational person could research the catholic church child rape scandal properly and still want to support it. Maybe you should meet some abuse survivors yourself. It would have been a good idea if you had met them before you wrote this lousy article. To dismiss their bravery in coming forward to reveil the truth as a “media frenzy”, is total cowardice on your part. You’re either a liar, or delusional. Either way child rape is wrong. No matter how much people try to defend it.

    1. Reply
      David Anders - September 25, 2015

      Dear TB,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with you completely in your assessment of the objective evil you have identified. Child rape is a horrendous crime that cries out for vengeance. I would never want to defend it. But that was not the point of my article. Rather, I pointed out that I became a catholic in the midst of the media uproar about such abuse. Whether or not that uproar was disproportional or tilted more towards the Catholic Church than, say, the California public school system, is another question. I did not become a Catholic because Catholics are sinless or because the hierarchy has never made gross mistakes, but because I believe that the Church is the one founded by Christ – including both saints and damnable sinners.

      thank you,

      David

      1. Reply
        Tb - September 27, 2015

        Have you ever met survivors of clerical child abuse? If you met them would you tell them you’re happy to be a member of the catholic church? Would yo tell them you’re happy to support and give money to an organisation that allowed them to be abused and protected their abuser? That you support an organisation that silenced them, and blamed them for being abused by a 40 year old man when they were 7 years old?

        Defending child abuse is exactly what you are doing with this article. You’re blaming the media. That doesn’t change the fact that it actually happen. That doesn’t alter my interviews with survivors. Yes child abuse happens with other organisations, but the article is about you still supporting the catholic church. I’m sorry but I have to ask. Are you excusing the actions of the catholic church by saying child abuse is something that happens? Because in my experience child abuse happens when it’s allowed to happen. And in recent history no one has done more to protect child abusers than the catholic church. Rather than blaming everyone else you should examine your own actions.

        Are you going to meet abuse survivors?

  5. Reply
    David Anders - September 27, 2015

    Hi TB,

    I am not defending child abuse in this article. The fact that Catholic authorities abetted child abuse does not change the fact that Catholic doctrine condemns child abuse. It merely proves that the clerics involved were grotesque hypocrites. If I met survivors of abuse, would I tell them I was glad to be Catholic? I certainly wouldn’t want to say anything that would hurt them. If they were sound enough to understand that one can belong to a society in good faith while condemning the actions of some of its members, then I might. But I might just keep my mouth shut, too.

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