The Path to Rome: What a Young Protestant Discovered About Catholicism

You are having a quiet enough dinner with friends, or spending a Saturday afternoon with your family. Then someone asks. There is no right time; no matter what the occasion, it’s a bit awkward. And you try to come up with an answer that at once is simple, but complete; one that gives witness to your faith, but isn’t bold or even superior in tone or intent.

“Why did you become a Catholic?” they ask. You could answer (with Saint Paul) that you had something of a vision. You might say, humbly, that your faith is a gift to you; not an invention but a discovery. But perhaps that isn’t quite right either. You may truly have struggled, Augustine-like, to find the mountain. And you don’t want to cheapen that odyssey by pretending you were simply sitting around one day talking of Michelangelo when, to your surprise, you were born again.

There is even what might be called the Woody Allen answer: “I liked the fringe benefits.”

But you also know there is a true answer: Truth. It is simple to describe but infinite in beauty. The true answer is so comforting it offers indescribable joy, yet so frightening you hesitate even to mention it. It points simultaneously to a wonderful fairy tale of God becoming man; virgins giving birth; of water into wine; wine into blood; and blood back into a pure eternal river of eternal salvation—and, at the same time, to a frightening reality of lost souls, the pain and anguish of hell and the separation from God, and a world of immortal beings often oblivious to or even contemptuous of the gift they may reject or never even see.

Why accept the gift, embrace the light? Simply because the whole wonderful and awful tale is true. It’s almost painful that someone had to ask. Do they think me the sort of person who joined a church because the man in the pulpit is eloquent, or because the politics strike me as the right stuff? Or merely because it seemed like the right thing to do to become part of The Circle? To win the affection of this well-connected man of state or that clever writer?

God knows all. He knows that all of us, certainly including me, are weak enough to consider such superficial commitments and specious reasonings. But my guess is that few people in this age join the Catholic Church with narrow, this-worldly gains in mind. Plenty of other cliques promise far more in secular terms, and make (speaking from the same earthly view) far lesser demands.

As for me—well, it is my hope, prayer, and belief that a generous God gave me the light to see the Catholic Church as his own divine vessel. What convinced me of this truth? Now we have at least asked the right question.

Moment of Truth?

In my case conversion came about so gradually that it’s hard even to identify a certain hour, day, or even month when a “decision” was made—much less to cite a specific insight, argument, or bit of evidence that was the cause. There may be people who can pinpoint such moments: When exactly did a certain man decide to attend Yale University? When did his wife decide she wanted to marry him? Many such choices are not really made in a specific moment. One day a man is planning to become a lawyer. Years later he is a writer. But in between was not a single, dramatic fork; rather, a long series of twists and turns. No doubt one day he imagined what it would be like not to be a lawyer, but a cello player instead. On some other occasion, a friend joked that he was “too honest for law.”

Someone else urged him to persist in barristry; but a more persuasive acquaintance argued, “Try something else first… you can always go back to law school.” And so on. Asked, in retrospect, when and why he rejected the study of law, the man might feel pressed; yet he might still retain the highest confidence that his decision must have been sound and rational, even if he cannot now call to mind all the considerations and events which acted upon him at the time.

So it is with my conversion. Somewhere over the course of years the idea of being a Catholic came to seem intriguing; then possible; then imperative; then fact. In between the start and my baptism—in June of 1981—came many observations, arguments, and events. To cite any one signpost along the road—attending a first Mass? whispering, for the first time in memory, a prayer, addressed only to a tentative “God, if you exist?” opening the pages of Mere Christianity“?—would be to twist the story. And yet, because it may inform or at least encourage some others, let me try to set forth how a relatively few simple facts, arguments, and human examples first opened my mind; and then, how each door that opened seemed to reveal seven others; and each of those, another seventy—finally compelling my mind, will, and soul, to pledge, Millay-like…

Oh God…

Thou canst not move across the grass

But my quick eyes will see thee pass,

Nor speak, however silently,

But my hushed voice will answer thee.

“Go Further Out”

My parents raised me as a Protestant, of various sects. One leaned toward a rigorous Lutheranism of the Missouri Synod variety; the other toward a more relaxed Presbyterianism, almost pantheism really. We went to church perhaps five or ten times a year, often sampling various denominations to find a particular congregation or minister or service or location we liked. The tacit massage—which most of our friends would have explicitly acknowledged if asked—was that there were no important differences between churches, provided they were Christian. Beyond a belief in Christ, it seemed to me, theological debates involved little more than an arbitrary, Swiftian dispute between the Big Endians and the Little Endians. Belief in the divinity of Christ will save a man, we thought—and that belief remains to me, today, of course, the core matter of a soul’s salvation.

To many, this condensation of Christianity down to its simplest element makes religion a far lighter burden—and indeed, a burden, albeit mild, was how we came to regard those 90 or so minutes away from the Sunday paper or the Green Bay Packers game. Paradoxically, our family found this clean religion, stripped (as we saw it) of crass plastic idols of Mary and superfluous genuflections and services, rather hard to sustain. We tried to go to church; but no one at the church even claimed Sunday attendance was necessary. We listened to sermons, some eloquent, some not. Yet there were more interesting truths in the books we had at home; more entertaining programs on television; friends more helpful, sometimes, than the pastor. My parents both kept their effort up long after mine expired, insisting, for example, that we attend Christmas and Easter services. By about my fourteenth birthday, however, we had attended our last service together of any kind.

At the time, having had little exposure to Catholicism or to similarly “more demanding” faiths, my sense was that our own minimalism was more or less the norm for all religions. All religions to me appeared designed to inculcate a vague feeling of do-goodishness, of enacting God’s will now in return for benefits in an after-life; all required assent to a hazy faith or trust that could not answer the question, “Why faith in the first place?”

As if to worsen my problem, all the more respectable sects were at pains, having asserted their myths and miracles, to qualify them back into a more rational framework. Thus, my own Lutheran minister stressed that although God had become man, suffered horribly, died, and resurrected himself, we did not share the Catholic superstition that his mother was conceived free of sin. Or, to take another example, my reformed Jewish friend in high school made it a point not to attend school during Passover, yet did not observe its norms at home, as these were merely “rules.” All of these people—like a Catholic family we knew that with all-too-common eclecticism continued to observe the old requirement of a meatless Friday, but never went to Mass—seemed to realize that their superstitions were not even internally consistent, much less plausible to a rigorous and skeptical outsider. They clung to an arbitrary collection of beliefs, and were welcome to do so, but as for these assemblages having truth—why, the collector themselves seemed a bit embarrassed by them.

Such was, in essence, the state of my mind upon entering Dartmouth College in the fall of “the year of our Lord 1977,” as Dartmouth diplomas read then. Any thought of embracing something lukewarm, from any of the major religions, was already rejected. Not yet foreclosed, however, because the idea had never truly been placed squarely before my soul, was the possibility of something saltier, something further out, more ambitious and more radical in the literal sense of “going to the root.”

My reactions to orthodoxy, of Christian and non-Christian varieties, were not usually favorable. For example, some Catholic school basketball players would make it a point to cross themselves during a time out or free throw or somesuch. This practice repulsed me. “Do they really believe God roots for Notre Dame?” as one of my relatives liked to put it. But even these incidents in a sense, may have been serving to draw me closer to God and his Church. For the one reaction my heart seldom or never felt towards these orthodox faiths, even towards, say, Mohammedism, was indifference. God in pastel pink did not move me; but a God who marched out in sky-flouting banners and loud trumpets with a following train, shouting “hossanna in excelsis.” Perhaps….

To order in even rough chronology the events and influences which turned me from uncomfortable atheism to the Catholic Church is beyond my scope, and unnecessary. My unfreedom was enforced not by any single great chain, but by a number of Lilliputian cords, the fraying, unraveling, and severing of which involved events complex, interrelated, and now difficult to separate and categorize. But let me summarize some of them.

One such influence, it must be admitted, was at best of mixed value. At Dartmouth, it became clear to me that many people who shared my politics, and my general habits of mind, were practicing Christians or Jews. Many of them were Catholic.

Now, the same reasoning might lead one simply to join a fraternity, or drink martinis, or subscribe to National Review—and in fact, led me to do (or try) all of these things. There are better motives for an interest in conversion; but it does not follow that even this comparatively shallow motive is an evil one. Fear of God, for example, isn’t as high a grace as love of God, but it is a grace, and there will probably be many souls in heaven whose religious thoughts were spurred on, as were mine in the fall of 1980, by a reading of Dante’s Inferno, not to mention a glance at some of the early line drawings depicting Virgil and the poet on the lake of Cocytus.

A similar factor, at work from my freshman year, was an emerging negative view of happiness—a disdain for the worldly, or at least for the common, that my disordered mind would connect to higher things only years later. In my early days at Dartmouth, these characters from various works of literature and film made a profound impression on me: Nick Adams in Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises; Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca; Shakespeare’s Richard III; Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine in the hymn to Princeton, This Side of Paradise; and the various personae of Woody Allen, but especially his own character in Love and Death: “I cannot say that God does not exist; I think the worst you can say about him is that he’s a bit of an under-achiever.”

All these figures rejected the maudlin sentimentality of (to me) Christian atavisms. All of them had a Nietzschean soul, a mighty and creative will—if not to power, then to a kind of wry or even outright negation. When Richard III decided himself ill-suited to “idle pleasures” of courtly custom, and “determined to be a villain,” my heart strutted with him his hour upon the stage. When Nicholson swept the plates off the table in that famous “chicken sandwich” scene, he prompted me to a thousand imitations of his (selfish and prideful) anti-bureaucratic tantrum. Allen, Adams, and Bogart, of course, go beyond these reactionary displays. Each find happiness and peace in ceasing to cling to something.

Their creed was mine, and what was more, it worked. To my sweet mother’s tearful entreaties—”if you are happy, Gregory—my answer was to scorn the very formulation. My happiness, truly, seemed to lay in a rejection of happiness altogether. Nothing revolted me more at the time than the self-focused students and faculty at college who would sit about contemplating their “happiness,” like a sort of obsessed plant-lover tending to some fragile weed with fanatical over-care. My greatest joy at this time always seemed to come in casting joy away, powerfully and defiantly; my seed was smothered by over-attention and grew best in the wild. To work was to be happy. To create; destroy; love; hate; not “to be or not to be,” but “to do or not to do”: that was the question. The equally brilliant works of such men as Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon confirmed in me the delighted feeling that this joy-in-becoming, in doing, was the mark not of a narrow mind but of a powerful soul, un homme serieux to use a pet phrase of Nixon’s. “Leaders,” as Nixon has written, are by their nature directed “outward,” towards the impossible dream. Not by coincidence, my choice of a motto for The Dartmouth Review—founded well before my conversion—was Teddy Roosevelt’s exaltation of “the man in the arena,” who “dares mighty things.”

If such ambition seems a bit far from Catholic charity, consider: What greater dare can there be than to desire eternal life with God, in eternal joy? (“I go to prepare a place for you.”) What power greater than that of a soul which realizes it has no power, utterly none, but that if united to the will that is all power, the soul itself becomes an instrument of all-powerfulness? (“The Almighty has done great things for me.”) What impulse more charitable than an other-oriented, outward-reaching inclination?

Humility, as C.S. Lewis has observed, lies not so much in having a falsely low opinion of ourself: The skilled painter, sitting in his chair, attempting to force upon himself the notion that he isn’t skilled at all. That view of humility, in fact—of a talented pianist trying to convince himself he is not a talented pianist—is precisely what the devil would like us to hold. For as Lewis’ fictional tempter Screwtape observes, “it introduces an element of falseness” into the equation. Real humility, rather, consists in recognizing the truth that whatever talents we have, they are gifts, things God has given us to use in His service. The one attitude is inward and limiting; the other, outward and infinite.

My idea of happiness, then, was getting close to this vision of happiness, or peace. To obey the laws of God is, Christ said, to love God and our neighbors. Neither of those two closely-related loves, interestingly, has much to say about our attitude towards self. One of the easiest ways to avoid pride, and achieve charity and grace, consists simply in what Lewis called “a kind of self-forgetfulness.” Notice that the point of fasting, for example, isn’t self-abnegation per se; Christ himself eats and drinks wine, as he points out to the Pharisees. In the Scriptures we are told not to love the world, our lives, or our desires, but we are never told to hate ourselves either. And yet for each time we are told to love our own soul, we are told to love God and our neighbor many more times. The message seems to be that while our attitude towards ourselves can be important, our attitude to what is outside ourselves is more important. Indeed, any proper understanding of God and other immortal souls will lead inexorably to a proper understanding of ourselves. The latter is impossible to achieve without the former. The truth will set us free, free of self-love and even of the self-orientation from which self-love grows.

Thus, as twisted as my creed of other-than-selfishness is easily seen to be—focused as it was on objects profane at best and even evil—at its core, beneath the dross of my warped pridefulness, lay a golden principle, indeed a principle inextricable with the Golden Rule itself.

With this idea firmly planted in my pia mater, my mind was ready to receive, indeed wonderfully vulnerable to, the cascade of evidence and graces, arguments and examples, prayers and love, which were to inundate me in my final two years at Dartmouth.

Three Wise Men

Jeffrey Hart, my godfather, was the proximate cause of my introduction to G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Cardinal Newman. Those great minds—how falsely Shakespeare makes Antony speak when he eulogizes, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” for it is just the opposite—as survived by their works of charity toward us all, were in turn the principal intellectual authors of my conversion. They seemed to offer precisely the food my soul had needed, yet seldom knew it had hungered for before. Lewis, the lamb, or the simple shepherd, guided me safely, step by logical step, from the simplest belief—say, stealing is wrong—to the realization that this human conscience, universal in its operation, implies a divine architect. Chesterton, the lion, or at least, one capable of slaying a whole clan or of dying before them, and all the while chanting of love for God, excited me. What my soul had thought the highest and most imaginative strokes of the human will seemed weak, washed-out, grey, against the streaks of purple, gold, and blood red, of Chesterton. This pair accompanied me frequently about the campus, pointing out the way to the summit.

As guides to the holy mountain they were perfectly complementary. Lewis mapped the route, safely and methodically. One never once felt rushed or dragged along. But all the while, like an excited child who knows that we’re about to pass by Disneyland—nay, who knows we are about to pass by a grocery store, but holds that event, too, as wondrous—there was Chesterton whispering of fairies and singing the tune of the holy souls in purgatory. With Lewis, you climbed the cliff so safely, easily, and surely that it seemed hardly a strain, and once arrived, felt as if you had hardly scaled a great peak at all, so natural did the trip seem. With Chesterton, merely standing on the ground was a rocket trip into the stratosphere and above the firmament. Here was a religion not of milquetoast and weak coffee, but water, fire, wine, flesh, and blood. Lewis, the master of the analogy, could, by comparison to the familiar, make the most radical point of Christianity seem solid and unexceptionable, almost homely, in the objective sense of the word. His was the steady flame, giving warmth. Chesterton was Phaeton, but Phaeton with the wisdom to trust a greater one’s guidance; his metaphors streaked across the sky comet-like, sentences bursting with manic genius and energy-light-love.

Anyone who has read Orthodoxy and Mere Christianity as a Catholic, and been moved to great joy, can imagine the impact of these texts on a mind not yet aided by a single sentence of Augustine or Aquinas; on a dried-out soul untouched by a single drop of holy water; on a young man that had, to my best recollection, never attended a single Catholic Mass, never once been nourished by the real body and blood of our Lord and Savior. To single out but a few drops of their wisdom is perforce arbitrary. But it is no sacrilege, nor is it, as our modern argot would complain, “simplistic,” for me to point to a few particular instances of the help that these Samaritans offered to me, lost by the wayside. (The neo-Catholic: an atheist, happily mugged not by reality, but Truth.)

As presented to me, belief in Christianity had always consisted in a sort of vague feeling: “faith.” Faith, in turn involved an illogical hurdle—the “leap of faith”—from the solid ground of reason into a state of mind that arbitrarily denied reason, as applied to certain points. The touching but alas, potentially misleading, line from Miracle on 34th Street spoke for me: “Faith means believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”

Jeff Hart opened the first major crack in that block of misunderstanding, reading a long passage about Samuel Johnson’s humble devotions from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. “Faith is not a leap,” Hart concluded, “but a series of steps.” This important assertion may seem unextraordinary to the faithful, who enjoy not only the memory and experience of having taken the long road to paradise regained, but also the supernatural graces that follow. To me, however, this was an unusual discovery. Until that day, my mind had struggled to suppress my heart; now it seemed that the two might function in complementary fashion. The mind could reach the destination that the soul desired with no acrobatics or hocus pocus; no need to beam up, a la Mr. Spock. Rather, the will need only consent to take the final step into peace, if only reason could bring one close to the garden. What Hart had asserted, Lewis demonstrated, his proofs proceeding from the simplest and clearest truths—various ideas about morality and sacredness common to all men and cultures—to what once seemed a distant and bizarre conclusion about natural law.

A single passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy destroyed what seemed after Lewis one of the last safe places of refuge for my atheism. This was the idea of Christ as sort of a blessed Phil Donahue, a Sensitive Man with many insights and perhaps even a whole way of life. No, said Chesterton. For Jesus Christ was—no one denies this—a real human being who claimed to be God. Millions have died on behalf of their belief in this brazen assertion; whole empires lost and gained. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton points out the seemingly obvious, but often evaded, dichotomy which follows from Christ’s assertion: If it is true, of course, then the whole thing—Christianity, as He embodied it in the new church He founded—is true as well. We are to change our whole life as a result, and change it far more radically than we would in response to any conceivable temporal event. Better for millions to perish in agony, as Newman argued, that for a serious sin—nay, a single venial sin—to be committed. Suddenly all the people around us are gods, immortal beings, as Lewis observes, destined either for infinite joy or the profound and eternally painful loss thereof.

On the other hand, if Christ’s claim is false, he is no mere Alan Alda in sandals. His subversive doctrines approach the demands made on one by the most extreme Islamic sects. His claim to greatness far exceeds that of a Stalin or Hitler. If the whole core is a lie, Christ was not only not the son of God. He may have been the most evil man known to our history.

Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ,” Chesterton writes, “he must have been the anti-Christ.” Jesus himself inculcated the notion that he must be viewed in such stark terms. “Christianity,” as my friend Keeney Jones has observed, “is not a spectator sport.” Scriptures thus speak repeatedly of division; of unavoidable and stark choices. Christ said: “He who is not for me is against me.” To be for Him is to “love with the whole heart,” to pray “constantly,” as St. Paul said, in the sense of seeking to do his will in even the most mundane acts. “God will vomit up the lukewarm,” one of the apostles argues, and it is a just conclusion. In the apostolic discourse Jesus asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No,” which is to say, not as men are given to understand the term, for “I am a sword, come to divide the father from the son, the mother from the daughter….”

My mind had consistently rebelled against any religion unwilling to present itself as involving such a decisive choice. Yet the mind, especially when cut off from grace, is reluctant to embrace that which implies an uprooting of many of its cherished habits. And the body—well, as Woody Allen says, compared to the mind, “the body has all the fun.” Thus it importunes the intellect to find or invent evasions even of the joys that it knows will accompany the Christian norms of piety.

Enter Father Nolan

Few instructors are as powerful, for good or ill, as the tutor Example. The second important event in my conversion was my first visit to Aquinas House, the Catholic student center at Dartmouth. Monsignor William Nolan, who conducted my formal instruction, was the rector and indeed the founder of “AQ,” as we called it. This one center, in a school of about 4,000 undergraduates, accounts—or alas, let us say, “accounted,” for like Dartmouth itself, Aquinas House has temporarily lost its way—a couple of dozen conversions a year.

Yet Father Nolan’s most important instruction was of an indirect sort. Perhaps the most persuasive apologist for the faith, in my case, were the students at Aquinas House. It was the way they lived, joyful and simple and natural, that helped open my eyes to the Catholic Church as the “most Christian,” as Johnson called it. They had that very “confidence” and “certainty” that Pat Buchanan portrays in describing his own Roman upbringing, that had always struck me about Catholics. There was, in fact, a mystery about them.

It was easy to see the few essential things that made Aquinas House unique by considering all the things it had in common with other places on campus. Like many of the fraternities, AQ had in its basement various amusements: a TV set, ping pong, even a pool table. Unlike all the fraternities—and unlike any dorm—it was generally neat, clean, well-kept. Similarly, Dartmouth had numerous libraries and study centers where students would work with a manic, possessive drive. While a student would occasionally hang around Aquinas House to study past 11 or 12, it did not happen often, and such a practice was viewed as an occasional necessity or mild imbalance, not held up as a supreme model of human behavior. There wasn’t a lot of yelling or noise but neither was the place a silent tomb; what set the behavior of the students apart from others on campus was not that they did different things, but the same things differently, in their proper place and order, even as a collection of the same sounds can be altered so as to change from noise to harmony. To take one example, the students had neither the Puritan’s obsession with sex nor the playboy’s. So it was not that they were anti-worldly or worldly, but rather, in varying degrees, other-worldly.

Every now and then, at a certain time early in the afternoon, some of the students would get up from the library and leave. It was not such a large number, or at such a uniform time, as to be noticeable at once. Neither, however, could one fail to see something of a pattern. These students were, of course, going to Mass. To one who had always regarded even a weekly service as a bit odious—and also unnecessary, by my own creed—this discovery might be expected to serve as but one more counter-proof. Instead, of course, it piqued my interest. Maybe this was part of the grand secret the Catholics had always seemed in on, with their strange crossing mannerisms and plethora of saints and holidays and artifacts. My attendance at a few Masses in the spring and fall of 1980 only confirmed what took root as curiosity, but soon grew.

At the Masses, signs of acknowledgement and respect abounded. Each genuflection, each station of the cross, affirmed the Church’s message that Jesus Christ was present—right up there in the tabernacle. For many of the students instrumental to my conversion—Gerald Murray, John MacGovern, Benjamin Hart, and Keeney Jones, most notably—Mass was practically a daily event. Special prayers, services, and mannerisms—”Glory to you, O Lord”—abounded, each with a history and a well-considered theological rationale. Everything about these popular devotions pointed toward an affirmation of God and the miraculous.

The attention the students paid to the saints, and their knowledge of them, serve as a good illustration. Now one way of looking at the Catholic veneration of the saints and the history of post-ascension miracles is as an extraneous add-on; another needless piece of baggage. To me, the addition somehow made the burden lighter. A God who took an active interest in human affairs, who was constantly butting in and interfering—an interventionist God, if you will—this made sense to me. A God who behaves as if Nietzsche were right about Him, as if He were dead—this has always struck me as incredible. It seemed much more fitting that a generous God would not allow mankind to spend some 2,000 years without signs of His grace and repeated models of holiness. And the Christian God, a God who died on a cross, is nothing if ungenerous.

Simply put, there seemed to be a lot to this faith. More, you might say, was asked of a Catholic, from particular rules about devotion to the Mass to a more demanding view of, say, marriage and chastity. This of itself was in accord with my ideas about a plausible deity. (Can one, by contrast, imagine an all-loving, all-knowing being who has nothing definitive to say to his immortal creatures about such things?) Yet if more was being asked of these students, more was given. For every obligation, say the necessity of confession, there was a corresponding grace: The opportunity of confession, that is, absolution. The students at Aquinas House, in other words, acted as if their faith were true, even as their church itself behaved as if it were truth. As much as by explicit, rational argument, my conversion was shaped by a thousand little genuflections and prayers—perhaps some of them petitions on behalf of “those not in the church”—by students who came and went through Father Bill’s Masses, their names unknown or since forgotten to me.

In other words, the students at Aquinas House behaved as one might imagine men behaving if Christianity were true. Or at least, they held as a model for behavior one consistent with Christ’s message, Christ’s life.

As a foundation for one’s conversion, of course, mere consistency would be at best shaky, at worst, positively dangerous: a sand-built apologetic. Libertines and cannibals behave “as if their credo were true.” But here was a credo urging men to charity, and which also realized that this is difficult. One that asks of them what can seem tasks superhuman, but offers aids that transcend transcendence. If finding a church that behaved as if the Christ myth were true was not sufficient for my conversion, it had always been necessary. This is something for all apostles of Christ to bear in mind as they carry out even the simplest daily duties. A lost soul may be watching.

Much of my work as a columnist and author on generally political controversies, has involved the study of human persuasion. My tentative conclusion is that two particular methods of argument are especially potent. The first and most important is the power of suggestion. As Lewis demonstrates in The Abolition of Man, many of the truths we cling to most tenaciously are ideas that were implanted subliminally, like those famous one-or two-frame clips of a mound of popcorn spliced into movies in the 1960s to spur audiences into a trip to the snack bar. That men are so swayed may seem to make us irrational creatures; it is not a misfortune. Objects and behavior, after all, are concrete things. A man who washes his hands well every day is, in some ways a more logical argument for cleanliness than a thousand pamphlets on hygiene from the Surgeon General’s office.

A second key to persuasion, or at least an understanding of it, is the rule of thumb. No one has time to gather all the information that might be relevant to a particular decision. So we economize by adopting little shortcuts in gathering information. Thus, for example, some people spend very little time looking for an apartment in a new city. They calculate that no building could possibly fill itself with tenants, in a free market, at an outrageous price. So, rather than spending days or weeks shopping around for a slight savings, they take the first decent room that they find.

Now, different people may have different rules of thumb. One common one, however, rules out automatically any program or belief that seems inconsistent with the behavior of its adherents. It is easy, for example, to dismiss Marxism as a philosophy, because “Marxists” so persistently and systematically violate its tenets of equality, peace, and freedom. Here we are not talking about specific violations, but a whole pattern and “superstructure,” as the Marxists call it. The doubtful note ironically that Catholics preach chastity, but often practice adultery and perversion, he is as correct as he is irrelevant. As long as human beings are fallible, the only way to avoid this sort of hypocrisy will be to abolish standards of behavior. It’s quite possible that the students of Aquinas House failed to live up to their own standards just as often as many faithless atheists do. Yet they were shooting for a much higher mark, and if they missed it one time out of five, my fascination was attracted by the four successes, and the repeated effort to score a five—and, finally, by the fact that the enterprise seemed seriously constructed so as to enable them to do it.

Missionaries in Deed

Often conversion may be based on the removal of barriers that the convert wasn’t even aware of, much less capable of articulating—by an apostle not even consciously directing himself to the task of persuasion. Several students at Dartmouth—Rich Shoup, Gail Koziara, Dave Shula, John Donahoe—thus played an important role in my conversion, without having exchanged more than 100 words with me in four years, simply by dint of their regular attendance at Mass or their commitment to help in the running of AQ despite a busy schedule.

This does not mean we should not make a special effort to win others to the faith. It does mean that certain means of achieving this, especially if they involve the contrivance of argument or the withholding of some parts of the message that are uncomfortable to put forth, may be fruitless. They may even be, though well-intentioned, destructive.

Any number of people at Dartmouth, for example, attempted to help me by stressing how open the church was to change; how many “old doctrines” had now been shuffled off for more comfortable ones. One student said that “anyone who tells you that you have to go to confession after you miss Sunday Mass is going too far.” Now this fear, that a scrupulous observance of what can seem picky points will alienate the lukewarm Catholic or the potential convert, has great plausibility. If one were to poll the population at large, many people, probably including me in my early years at Dartmouth, would say that they would be unlikely to remain with or join a church that took such an attitude. Phrases such as “making a big deal out of little things” would be commonplace. A loosening of such practices, it should follow, ought to be of great potential benefit. Yet what seems obvious in this case is wrong. A concrete example from my own conversion may illustrate the point.

Throughout my period of instruction, it was my practice to attend Mass often, daily through some stretches, participating fully and indeed often receiving the blessed sacrament. It is not clear to me if the priest who administered it to me knew of my condition extra ecclesium; if he did, then my guess is that the kind and generous man in question had searched his conscience, prayed deeply in an effort to choose the right path, and decided it prudent and holy to allow this breach of good practice lest a soul still unfamiliar with the fundamental norms of piety be driven away from the true Church. Several friends who might have objected also allowed the practice to continue. (It later came to my attention that these friends—through no fault of their own, but rather having been victims of lazy or incomplete catechism—simply hadn’t known there was any scandal in this. One friend, for example, who was raised a Catholic, had evidently never been told that even a Catholic in a state of serious separation from God must seek reconciliation before taking communion.)

At least several friends, however, had observed all these events with apprehension, and after much thought, these two approached me: John MacGovern and Rich Shoup. The result was hardly predictable—or then again, perhaps it was eminently to be expected. For when those two good shepherds told me, gently but firmly, that my continued reception of the sacrament would be a serious offense against God—when this happened, a decisive and joyful point in my journey was realized. They cared enough about me to try to steer me from this error. And they cared enough about Truth to articulate it, at the risk of anger or confusion on my part. Far from diminishing my zeal, their consideration increased it, and removed it from a rickety foundation.

The Thorny Path

This principle, of the greater attraction men feel for the harder way if it seems more pure, more worthy, is so constant and pervasive in its operation, that from a certain point of view, it is remarkable so many of us ignore it, even in our daily apostolate. Consider, if you will, the relatively secular matter of military recruitment. Throughout the 1970s almost all of the services experienced a shortage of volunteers. So, on the one hand, new inducements were offered to bring the rewards into line with the undeniable difficulties that accompany the harsh life of the soldier. Scholarships, shopping privileges, and early retirement benefits were among the inducements offered young men willing to endure as little as a few years of active duty. At the same time, to an extent never before deemed necessary or prudent, some of the disciplines of the regimen were relaxed. Sailors previously prohibited from having beards, for instance, were allowed to grow them. Some officers in highly visible positions, once under orders to appear only in uniform, were now free to dress in civilian clothes, if not positively encouraged to do so. One might even note that throughout most of the decade, one of the chief disincentives to joining up, the possibility of an early death, was becoming steadily less likely. Boot camps became less torturous; drill instructors weren’t even allowed to use certain words which had long been a staple in dealing with privates.

Now, undoubtedly, careful surveys of young people by marketing research experts had (or would have indicated that this mix of strengthened rewards and diluted requirements would help sway many youngsters to consider a military stint more appealing. But the appeals to “see the world,” or “get job training while you’re getting paid,” while undoubtedly useful on a certain level, failed to effect any substantial gains in service recruitment. The general trend was reversed only in the 1980s, when the idea of U.S. military might as good and useful in itself enjoyed a revival, and some of the old disciplines actually returned: the “re-militarization of the military,” as one of my newspaper columns called it in 1981.

Throughout the lean years, however, one service did manage often to achieve its personnel goals: the U.S. Marine Corps. Yet it was the Marines who persistently avoided casting themselves in terms of specific benefits or lowered expectations, enjoining candidates to enroll only if they wanted to be one of the “few good men.” In the 1980s, Marine Corps enlistments increased dramatically at two points: after the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and after the bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed more than 200 men.

“You can’t manage a man to his death,” warned a critic of the efforts to bureaucratize and rationalize national service in the wake of Vietnam. A spiritual corollary might echo: “You can’t manage a man into eternal life.” Only the truth will do; and Truth, if left unadorned and unaltered in all its undiminished majesty, will do nicely.

A patient but consistent defense of the whole faith may seem pugnacious or arrogant, and so the effort to find lesser versions of the faith are defensible, indeed laudable in their intent. Even if well-meant, however, they cannot advance the faith, and may even do it some violence.

All of this, of course, omits an important consideration, perhaps the most vital of all: Even if it meant the sudden conversion of a billion souls to the Catholic Church, we cannot condone any alteration of the central truths of the faith. For the souls so purchased would not, in fact, even be saved by the ransom; rather than purifying the corrupt, we would be corrupting the pure. The interesting truth, though, is that such methods, obviously flawed on a spiritual level, so often fail to produce their promised fruits even on a short-term, secular level. At the instant an apostle, or a whole church, diverges from Christ, it withers, like the fig tree struck dead by our savior himself.

My rule of thumb—clear to me only in retrospect—was that only a church which behaved as if it were the seat of wisdom ought to be treated as the seat of wisdom. Only such churches as might make that claim, in fact, even deserved serious consideration. As the skeptical character of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing put it in setting requirements for a bride,

… but ’til all graces

Come into one woman,

One woman shall not come

Into my grace.

The Catholic Answer

There was a final bit of evidence for me, and that was the institution of the Catholic Church itself. Interestingly, the type of counter-argument most often urged on me by friends against my conversion was that the office of the Inquisition tortured people in the Middle Ages, or that some popes had affairs with women or sought worldly control, or that a group of American bishops have offered silly opinions about public policy in the 1980s. They thought some act they considered fatuous or horrendous by a particular Catholic or group of Catholics ruled out the truth of Catholicism. These people would not deny the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution on the ground that Gary Hart fooled around with Donna Rice, or the validity of some of Newton’s observations on the ground that others were invalid. Indeed, as Father Nolan was to observe helpfully, the abuses of particular officers or laymen of the Church argue rather for its truth. For despite such occasional and horrible diseases in some of its members, diseases fatal to other creeds’ religious and political, the body of the church lived on and grew; it lives on, and grows.

Was Christ, to use Chesterton’s dichotomy, an evil madman or was he, is he, divine? This, to me, was now the decisive question. What convinced me that Christ did in fact fulfill his own claims? Whole books, and greater minds than mine, have presented the testimony: Christ, his witnesses, his miracles; Peter, Paul, and their miracles of witness; countless saints and their miracles, countless times countless; and finally, Rome itself, an unbroken chain of apostolic succession and living orthodoxy. Their testimony, simply put, outweighs their opponents.

Naturally, for many Christians it is not Christ’s divinity that is at issue, but that of the Roman Catholic Church. For me, the Church had seldom been the question. From the moment its basic doctrines became clear to me, the Church seemed like the logical repository of Christianity if all the mumbo jumbo were true—the “most Christian,” as Dr. Johnson put it, the “real is the appendages that are confusing or troublesome: the teaching on the immaculate conception of Mary, and the general emphasis on her role in Christ’s mission; the doctrine of papal infallibility in doctrinal utterances identified as ex cathedra; sacramental confession; belief in the real presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist; the non-dissolubility of marriage; and others. For them these branches of the Church make little sense, though they would firmly state that the trunk, Jesus Christ as God and Man, is alive. For me, only a tree full of such branches and foliage could seriously be thought of as living, for what God could design a tree without leaves and sap to sustain it and those who depend upon its fruit?

Thus, in a sense, many of the arguments of my friends in favor of their Protestant church as more reasonable, more in keeping with the nature of man and of common sense, simply drove me all the faster towards Catholicism. Confession, for example, makes sense to me. People need to examine their lives regularly and admit their faults to another. Catholic sacramental confession merely adds to this the chance to admit them to God and be absolutely, certainly forgiven—the sort of arrangement a God generous enough to die on a cross would make. It is interesting that such non-Catholic groups as Alcoholics Anonymous and Pure Life Ministries instruct the addicts who come to them to find a regular partner to confess to. Secular and Protestant cultures have invented the psychoanalyst to fill the role. Catholics, it seemed to me from the outside, get free analysis from a rather insightful source, and forgiveness from God to boot.

The office of Pope made sense to me. It seemed only realistic that God would set someone up to declare heresies invalid, protecting his truth and carrying the keys to the gates. Protestants are right, as a fundamentalist has written, to doubt that mere men are capable of such an office. That is why the Catholic Church does not trust mere men, either as individuals or in collective bodies of experts, to define the faith and protect sacred dogmas. Men would botch it up, of course. Only God, speaking through the pope at distinct times, can do the job. And even this pope, as Msgr. Georges Chevrot has observed, “needs our prayers.” Is the wisdom of the popes in matters of fundamental truth unreasonable? How so, for an omnipotent God?

Scripture, it seemed to me, upon finally reading it closely, clearly points to the real presence of Christ in communion. How else are we to read the reaction of the scribes and the desertion of many of his own followers when Christ proclaimed that he must be “eaten,” repeating himself several times? Yet many pointed out Catholic doctrine on this point to me, as if the lunacy were self-evident. Only their incomprehension was striking. How is it that a God who could restore sight with touch, float up into the heavens on a cloud, and bring all men to eternal life, would lack the ability to manifest his own flesh in the form of a communion wafer? Again, the real body of Christ seemed rather like the sort of thing men would need to sustain them if all the demands of Scripture were to be taken seriously.

All these things, of course, could make common sense without the Church being true. Marriage could work better as a sacramental contract binding for life; churches could function better with an executive head on doctrine; the human heart might need to confess its guilty deeds to some person; and so on—all these practices of the Catholic Church could be in accord with common sense, could fit the needs and nature of man, and yet the core of the thing be false. But the amazing thing was that friends trying to keep me from the Church consistently urged me to avoid it because they found all these appendages an offense to nature and to common sense. They set up man’s nature and urges and common sense as a standard for judging the Church, but something unexpected, by them or by me, happened. Their standard—that no true faith could have a single essential part which stands in stark contradiction to nature or reason—struck me as eminently reasonable. Their application of it, however, seemed inconsistent, unimaginative, even ridiculous.

Where Else Can We Go?

The description of my upbringing should make clear my problems with Lutheranism and other non-fundamentalist Protestant sects. It was not so much the presence of anything objectionable, but the feeling that something was missing, that drove me from the churches of my early years. There are, of course, many other religions, and this apologetic might be more persuasive if it could truthfully be said that only after examining these with equal rigor was my decision to turn to Rome made final.

In truth, however, most other religions never attracted my serious attention. If Catholicism were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then the others, however admirable and truth-containing, were something less.

As one might suspect, Orthodox Judaism and Fundamentalist Protestantism both had some appeal. Judaism seemed a noble faith to live by, and Jews it appeared to me before, during, and after my conversion, lived their faith; this alone commanded serious attention. My belief in the covenant of old, the manifestations of Yahweh through the prophets, and the profundity of the Ten Commandments, and even an admiration of the character of Israel’s resurrection in this century, all produced a deep affection for the Jewish faith—one unfelt for, say, Islam, whose very creed seemed to me negative and uncharitable. On Christ, no less but no more, did Judaism and Christianity split, and there too was my departure.

Fundamentalism in some ways, offered the only coherent Christian alternative to a papacy: If not God acting through a succession of men in movements of grace, then surely God speaking to a particular group of men through Scripture, would offer a solid and reliable truth to the human understanding. The problem with taking all the Bible literally, of course, is that one thereby undermines the Bible, literally. What else are we to make of the evident inconsistencies in the accounts of creation and the resurrection, for example?

Whatever one’s reading of the gospels moreover, my mind simply could not grasp a God who would allow his church on earth to stray for 1,500 years, only to be replaced by a valid faith centuries later. Nor could it embrace what one of my closest friends pressed me to consider—the notion that there could be many Christian churches, all more or less valid though espousing radically different creeds. Of all the Christian churches, the Catholic Church most boldly proclaimed itself to be the one of all; it may, to my knowledge, be the only one to make this audacious claim. And this was a final proof of Christ’s, and of its own, union with God. For God to parcel out little truths, rather than Truth, through a series of competing franchises, was to my conception un-Christlike, un-Godlike. As most of the other Christian churches did not even aspire to represent the whole of Christendom, often claiming that no single church could, Rome appeared to embody the alpha and the omega.

It is my fervent prayer that no offense is given to anyone of another faith or non-faith; none is meant, and if any is felt, men of good will may attribute it to an imprecision of expression, not ill intent. If mine seem light reasons for rejecting another man’s faith, they are—for in fact no rejection of any faith is intended or is being described here. Only my decision to embrace the Roman Catholic Church is being explained; my confession is that having found truth there, my soul made no comprehensive search of other sects. My own faith requires this of me: to bear witness that my belief is not merely that the church is “best for me,” or the “most in sync with my lifestyle” or one of a number of “valid systems.” Rather, the Catholic Church seems to me to be the one true church of the one true God of all men and the universe, ipse veritas.

“From the time that I became a Catholic,” Newman writes in his Apologia, “I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatsoever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment.” One day, my own ship may find the calm and quiet harbor he describes. It has not yet.

The world, in my case, is too much with me. Temptations tempt, from the relatively benign (but still dangerous) urge to labor with too-great fury on some political crusade to the more deadly sins. These sirens still sing to me, with a sweetness that at times divides my soul, and makes me fear for my own destiny. Moments of great peace there have been, intimations of immortality. There have also been valleys and shadows.

Yet there’s hope—and a cause for encouragement for any who may long to join the Church in spirit, but dread its exactions in flesh. For if the spirit is willing, a weak flesh will be transformed: God promises this. And if fear of God is not the highest wisdom, it is wisdom. However my courage may have flagged in bearing the small crosses we all carry, this never has: My Faith. No serious intellectual doubt of God’s existence, of the eternal divinity of his Son and his Church, no confusion about the goodness of his Will, has entered my mind.

In June of 1981, in the Aquinas House at Dartmouth, Father William Nolan baptized me conditionally in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. This marked the decisive turning point in my battle. It did not mark the end of the battle. The struggle, though, became a happy, loving, and generally confident one, accompanied by the great consolations God offers. His rod and staff comfort us; his angels watch over us; he knows every hair of our head. Deo omnis gloria: verus et verum, propter… Veritatem.

  • Gregory A. Fossedal

    Gregory Fossedal (born 1959) is an American writer and political/economic theorist. At the time this article was published, he was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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