Where Else Are We to Go, If Not to Rome?

If I were a convert, which I am not, I think I’d rather resent hearing the Pope tell me that I’d made a mistake in becoming one. It seems rather off-putting, don’t you think, to go ahead and pope, only to have the real one in Rome suddenly announce that maybe you shouldn’t have?

What’s going on here? Is it a big deal or just a little dustup in a dirt field? Well, it certainly strikes me as a big deal, even if it wasn’t actually the Pope saying it but some high-level twit speaking on his behalf, one of those “ecclesial pests” about whom Pope Pius IX used to complain.  

And in this particular instance it was, by any standard, an exceedingly big deal. Because here was no ordinary convert crossing the Tiber, as they say, to become Catholic. No, this was one of the brightest stars in the Anglican sky. Not a few fellow Anglicans were eager to hitch their wagon to his star. How dim that sky has since become now that Michael Nazir-Ali has decided to chuck it all for Rome!     

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The irony of the thing is quite stunning, too. A Pakistani-born immigrant grows up to become the Anglican Bishop of Rochester, where five centuries before a brave bishop by the name of John Fisher lost his head rather than bend it to the will of an irate king determined to make his own church. Fisher was the only bishop standing athwart the usurpations of Henry Tudor, who would not permit Rome, or any mere bishop appointed by her, to get in his way. And when weak and wayward children, driven by fear into abject submission to a wicked prince, dutifully resolve to rid themselves of their Mother, then the center no longer holds.

It was to return to that missing center that Michael Nazir-Ali chose to convert, an event which took place on the feast of his namesake, St. Michael the Archangel, on the 29th of last month. It was exactly ninety-one years to the day, by the way, after another luminary, Evelyn Waugh, made his submission to Rome. He was not a churchman, of course, but he was someone destined shortly to become one of the brightest literary lights in England. For Waugh, the Catholic Church had come to represent “the only genuine form of Christianity and that Christianity was the essential and formative constituent of western culture.” In fact, he would argue, “Catholicism was Christianity, and that all other forms of Christianity were only good insofar as they chipped little bits off the main block.” 

Is that, I wonder, what moved Michael Nazir-Ali to jump ship? That he’d come ruefully to realize that there simply weren’t enough bits left? That Anglicanism was an exhausted project, a dead end? In an email sent to friends, the former Anglican prelate put it more gently: “I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Catholic Ordinariate.”  

So, why would anyone—least of all the Pope, surely the last person on earth to try and deflect a movement of conversion conceived and executed in Catholic terms—wish to discourage someone like that? Is it being suggested that he wasn’t being sincere? Horsefeathers. Indeed, to see it from his vantage point, what would be the point of his remaining Anglican when, however inchoate such desires may be, their consummation can only be found in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome? Is that so strange or disconcerting?

It was more than a century ago, incidentally, that Ronald Knox, another and even brighter Anglican luminary, likewise left everything behind, becoming England’s most celebrated convert since Newman. “I could not now find,” he tells us in A Spiritual Aeneid, a moving account of his life right up to the moment of his conversion, “that any certain source of authority was available outside the pale of the Roman Catholic Church…I did not crave for infallible decrees; I wanted to be certain I belonged to that Church of which St. Paul said proudly, ‘We have the Mind of Christ.’”  

Lacking such certainty in the non-Catholic world, why shouldn’t one gravitate to Rome? As the novelist Walker Percy said when asked why he converted, “What else is there?” Or Joan of Arc, for heaven’s sake. Confronted by corrupt clergy on either side, her life hanging in the balance, how did she put it? “Concerning Christ and the Church,” she declared, “I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” 

If we take it as a given that the Eucharist remains the centerpiece of our faith, and that Protestantism can make no provision for Real Presence in their worship service, why shouldn’t it follow that people hungry for God become Catholic? The most telling line I’ve ever come across was in a letter written by Flannery O’Connor to a woman whom she’d recently persuaded to become Catholic. The conversion did not take, however, and in the aftermath of her leaving, O’Connor wrote the following: “The only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable is the Church; and the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and on this Body we are fed.” 

How does one improve upon that? Where else are we to go, then, if not to Rome? And when we do, armed with the faith of the apostles, let us have the courage to go straight to the Pope and tell him, smilingly, why.  

[Photo: Dr Michael Nazir-Ali (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)]

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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