This is, strange to say, the first time I have appeared in print as a Catholic writing to fellow Catholics, though I have lived half a century and have been writing for a living since I was 16. I was only received into the Catholic Church last New Year’s Eve. Someday, should I live, I would like to write a memoir titled The Half Life: Fifty Years of Sin and Error, explaining how I came to be received after making my best efforts to avoid it.
I’m an ex-Anglican, and was a kind of “evangelical atheist” before that, but one who was raised in the bosom of a loving, lapsed-Protestant family. I am also a “born again,” for I had to discard my adolescent atheism after meeting Christ on the Hungerford footbridge over the Thames in London at 22.
There was a reason why I didn’t become a Catholic then, even though the idea appealed to me, and my new religious sensibility was more sacramental and “catholic” than “protestant” in flavor. A copy of the then-celebrated Dutch Catechism fell into my hands, and I made the mistake of reading it under the impression that it was an official expression of the Catholic Church.
I became an Anglican, in due course, because I thought the Catholic Church was dead and because, as an autodidact steeped in English literature, I felt very comfortable in the church of Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, the Oxford Movement, and T. S. Eliot. I was an unmistakably “high” Anglican. It felt like Catholicism to me.
A long and terribly unequal wrestling match began with John Henry Newman, but in my younger days he only frightened me—he couldn’t touch me. I could see that I would never win an argument with him and so used that Dutch Catechism and other documents of Catholic post-modernity as roadblocks to slow his advance. This, incidentally, is classical Anglicanism: wasting a great deal of time finding or creating obstacles on a road that can only lead to Rome.
It is a pilgrimage of grace, as one learns when one finally arrives. I am typical of many converts to Rome, especially those who set out from Canterbury. We realize, in the moment of decision, that it was not our decision; it was made for us, and the part we played was only in the resisting.
I had Anglican reasons to become a Catholic—the ordination of women, the demolition of the Book of Common Prayer, the progressive sacrifice of doctrine and dogma on the altar of everything “new” and “gay,” the longing in one’s heart for a Christ who is not answerable to the zeitgeist. In the moment one crosses the Tiber, he becomes aware of Catholic reasons to be a Catholic.
Yet as a longtime external critic of the Catholic Church, it was im-possible for me to have illusions about what I would find: much good and much bad jumbled together, and on Sundays, in an average Catholic Church in North America, liturgical arrangements that make one long for the stately order of even the Anglican alternative-service book.
The first time I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I felt empty. It is a heavy, ugly building, and the scene under its dome is seldom edifying. The priests of six Christian communions elbow one another for precedence, and there are all the tasteless trappings of the tourist trade. Many Christian pilgrims have written about their feeling of desolation on first looking into Christendom’s founding shrine. But the crucifixion was real, the resurrection really happened, and the Mass really happens, no matter what is done to uglify it.
You know you are home when you are home, even if the roof might happen to be falling in. There is nowhere to go after the Catholic Church, except Heaven. In the meantime, one wonders, can I help with repairs?