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?”
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.