STUDIES IN CATHOLICISM
FROM WITTENBERG TO ROME
Before detailing my journey from Protestantism to Catholicism, I would just like to say that I do not wish for this writing to be against Protestantism. Too often Christians adopt an "us versus them" attitude, even against their brothers in Christ. That is tragic. First, on the night before Jesus' crucifixion, the one prayer uppermost in His mind was that all His followers would be one, even as He is one with His Father (John 17:22). I can think of a lot of other things I would be thinking about if I were to be crucified within the next twelve hours! At this stage in the game though, we are not all going to be completely united. Too much divides us; HOWEVER, there is also so much that unites us. Second, Jesus also informs us that the person not against Him is for Him. That can be taken out of context; however, it probably really applies to all Christians, regardless their preferred denominations, who are genuinely seeking to follow Christ on a consistent basis.
Just a side note for those who have no idea what the title means: From Wittenberg to Rome. Most will naturally know that Rome is the seat of Roman Catholicism. Fewer may know though that Wittenberg was the birthplace of Protestantism, the home of Martin Luther where he nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. This seemed an appropriate title for one moving from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism.
So why would I leave Protestantism for Catholicism? Two reasons. First, I believe that Roman Catholicism is the fullest expression of the truth. Second, I believe that it is Christianity's best, if not only and last hope. That is a stunning claim which needs justification. That is exactly what I plan to do in this writing.
EARLY CHILDHOOD ENCOUNTERS WITH ROMAN CATHOLICISM
Unlike many Protestants I was not raised in a virulently anti-Catholic home. To be sure we didn't think Catholics were right in their beliefs, but neither did we believe as some Protestants that the Pope was the Antichrist and the RCC the great whore of Babylon. When I heard such charges as a child, I thought that those were strange remarks indeed. Moreover, my parents would not tolerate such a negative attitude. In fact, when Pope Paul VI visited the U.S. in 1965, I was watching the papal mass on T.V. with my dad. They kept calling it a mass; so, I thought I would be clever and call it a "mess." Promptly my dad corrected me: "It's a mass." Point taken. in
I was raised in a home which actually had an ambivalent attitude towards the RCC. My mom would say about Julia Burnet, her cousin, "Oh, even though Julia is a Catholic, she is one of the finest Christians I have ever known." Or about our Italian Catholic neighbors, the Michelagelo's, "Even though they are Catholics, they are the sweetest Christians...just make sure you don't read their Bible because it has books which are not in the Bible." My mom was simply saying that these were sweet Christians in spite of being saddled with Catholicism. Well, maybe the exact opposite was true: they were such sweet Christians because they were Catholics, genuine Catholics.
Just a side note here. Although I never read my friend's, Esther Michelagelo's Bible, I would join her for her little tea party in our basement in which she taught me how to pray in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, crossing myself while making that prayer. I did pray in front of my mom in the name of the Trinity once at supper and thought I was being so naughty! But she never said a word. So I left it at that.
When I was 15 and living in England, I was privileged to vacation a week in Rome with just my parents. I was one of 6 children. The 2 younger children had no desire to visit Rome; so they stayed with some friends in England. My older brother was off to fight in Viet Nam, whereas my 2 older sisters had returned to Texas to start college. So it was just my parents and me.
The week in Rome was wonderful. We stayed at the Hotel Michelangelo which is about 100 yards away from the main entrance to St. Peter's Piazza. St. Peter's was spectacular. After we arrived in Rome, my mom and I went out walking to St. Peter's (my dad was resting). We came upon a ceremony in which the Pope was beatifying a saint. We were stunned at all the people in the basilica. We were even more stunned by all the people snapping pictures during a worship service, flash bulbs lighting the church. While in Rome I picked up a small rock replica of the Pieta. My parents were not offended by the statue of Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus. In fact when we returned to London, we proudly displayed it in the main living room area. Today it is a center piece on my office bookshelves.
Probably the highlight came when both my parents and I were visiting St. Peter's and Pope Paul VI came out to greet the visitors. At that moment I was separated from my parents. They actually got to shake hands with Pope Paul VI; I was at a distance. Although I didn't get to shake his hand, he did bless me specifically from a distance. How do I know I was the one he specifically blessed? I was the only person in the area. The image of him blessing me is as clear an image in my mind today as it was on the day it happened.
Although none of these experiences converted me to Catholicism, they did plant positive seeds in my life, seeds which would later germinate and blossom into full Catholicism.
Five years passed without anything new from Catholicism impacting my life. Things radically changed though when I turned 20. I was a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin earning a Bachelor of Science degree. By the end of my sophomore year I was one miserable young man. Several incidents from my childhood had reached into my life and left me a miserable human being. Although from the outside everything seemed wonderful--I was able to concentrate fully on my studies since my dad, now VP of Safeway Food Stores, was paying my way fully through college, I was so miserable. In fact I was suicidal. At night I would bury my head in the pillow and sob uncontrollably. I felt that there had to be no God in light of what I was going through.
One afternoon that spring semester, I wandered into the downtown Austin Paramount Theater. I was interested in watching the new Franco Zeffirelli movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I don't think the movie was very good; however, it was about a good man, a great man. The power of that young man's life reached from the screen and touched me in a way like nothing before or since has ever touched me. When my classes finished for the day, I found myself going day after day to the Paramount to watch the movie, sometimes sitting through multiple showings. I think I was the only one who actually watched that movie during many of those showings. But I didn't care. The complete and absolute commitment of St. Francis' life spoke to me, spoke to me that I too should give everything to Christ. So that spring semester at UT, I gave my life to Christ...little knowing that I had been impacted by the greatest Catholic of them all, St. Francis.
What did giving your life to Christ look like for me? I agreed to participate in a summer-long discipleship program put on by The Navigators in Dallas. All that summer, if I was not working I was either engaged in Scripture memory, preparing for a Bible study, or else sitting in a Bible study. Linked with my decision to give everything to Christ, this summer Bible program set me on a course of a commitment to Scripture for the duration of my life.
My love for the Bible was so great that I decided after graduating from UT to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth. I didn't attend in order to become a minister; that followed out of my calling to attend SW. I just hungered for God's Word and wanted to master it, if possible.
While at SW, several significant events occurred in my life. First, the Lord impressed upon me the need to become even more disciplined in Scripture memory and Bible study. In 1976 upon the Spirit's urging, I committed to commit 2 hours each day to Scripture memory and Bible study. (At first I struggled with the Lord over this. I was going to school full-time and working part-time. I needed every precious moment left over for studies. I felt like the Lord though wanted me to trust Him in this. So I did. My grades didn't falter at all. In fact, they were good enough to qualify me for the doctoral program a few years later.) Very few days have passed in the past 37 years that I have not kept that commitment. The result has been I have committed to memory 20 books of the NT (some of them quite lengthy, such as John, Acts, Romans, 1/2 Corinthians, Revelation) plus passages from the OT, especially the Psalms. Presently I am engaged in re-memorizing Jesus' sermons in Matthew in Greek.
Since very few people have known this, why do I mention it now? Protestants misunderstand Catholicism. One prominent Colorado Baptist minister once informed me that whereas Baptists had the Bible as their authority, Catholics had the pope. Well, when you frame it like that, then I am going to be a Baptist! But that is not true. The truth is that Catholics have a pope because they have the Bible. Moreover, in light of the fact that the Catholic Church gave us the Bible, it would seem really strange and totally improbable that she would select books for the Bible which contradicted Catholicism. As I hope to demonstrate later, though, the Catholic interpretation is actually the true interpretation of the Bible.
Second, I met Dr. Yandall Woodfin, professor of philosophy at SWBTS. Having received his Bachelors from Baylor, Masters from Princeton, and PhD from Edinburgh (one of the top 15 schools of philosophy in the world), he topped it off with studying at Cambridge with C.S. Lewis, who is more and more being recognized as the greatest Christian thinker of the last one hundred years (if not more). Woodfin not only introduced me to Lewis' thoughts but also to his writings. These would later be major players in my conversion to Catholicism.
Third, the first paper I was assigned to write at the PhD level was an 80-page paper on Matt. 16: the "You are Peter and upon this rock" passage. The conclusions I drew from my study totally surprised my professor. I suppose he thought I would come up with the conclusion that the rock upon which Jesus built His church was Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Actually, the conclusion I drew was that Peter himself was the rock upon which Jesus built the church. If I had any intellectual integrity, I knew that I could come to no other conclusion--the Greek is just that clear in the passage: Peter, not the confession, was the "rock," Now I by no means was embracing the papacy at this point; HOWEVER, once a a person admits that Peter is the rock, it is just a short step before one embraces the papacy. Although I was many years away from becoming a Catholic, theologically I was only a few short steps away.
Nothing else of significance occurred at seminary which led me to Catholicism; however, even at this point, the stage was being set for me to go from Wittenberg to Rome.
For the next 24 years nothing moved me from Wittenberg closer to Rome. I just kept working in Baptist churches, developing Bible studies, actually teaching the whole Bible several times during those years, plus continuing to memorize Scripture. In 2005, though, something happened which I now know was a major turning point in my life. At this point I had memorized 20 books of the NT. I had taught every book of the Bible in depth, with just a few exceptions. I just remember feeling this thud in my spirit, "Is this all there is to Christianity?" I came to the conclusion that this was it. Nothing more. Only heaven would give me more. I was in for a wonderful surprise.
In 2006 my son, who was a junior at Corsicana High School, asked me to take him and his 2 best friends through Lewis' Mere Christianity. I was elated that my son would want me to do anything with him, much less take him through an in-depth study of MC. I thankfully granted the request.
I will never forget how I felt the first time I worked through MC. I had read it 27 years earlier, but I hadn't appreciated what it was saying. In the meantime I had received my Masters degree and a PhD PLUS had taught Scripture for 27 years, in addition to memorizing it. This time I came to appreciate the depth of what Lewis was saying (FN 1). Insight after insight was coming at me in waves from MC. I had been living in a desert all these years theologically; I felt like I had come to the oasis of life.
As time went on, I came to realize that Lewis was not coming up with any new insights. His approach was novel; however, his insights weren't. In fact, he criticizes those who come up with new systems. Rather he was drawing upon the wealth of 2,000 years of Christian teaching--from Augustine, Aquinas, Boethius, etc. ALL CATHOLICS. When I realized that at least some of Lewis' writings were blatantly Catholic, e.g. MC, Book 2, chapter 5, I tended to jump over those sections. But Catholicism actually runs through nearly all of his writings. You can't escape it.
Case in point: The Weight of Glory. I took a little breather from MC and started reading some of Lewis' other works, some I had never read before. One was The Weight of Glory. After I had read it, I was depressed for 6 months. Why? Because this awe-inspiring sermon took seriously the ripple effects of the incarnation as they applied to people: we are either sons and daughters of God because of a relationship with the Son, or else God wants us to be His sons or daughters. If a son or daughter of God here on earth appeared today the way s/he will appear when Christ returns, s/he would be so glorious that we would all fall down and worship him/her. That is an effect the incarnation has upon us. Before long I was reading G.K. Chesterton. One thing he convinced me of was that whatever else is true about Catholicism, it is serious about the incarnation, not just simply how it applied to Jesus but to people, the universe, even the mass. I will forever be grateful to my son for initiating the Lewis study on MC.
Protestants used to say that if people only read the Bible, then they would cease to be Catholics. Well, the exact opposite actually worked in my case. Every 3 weeks I would review all the verses I had memorized over the past 30 years. This constant review and constant meditation on God's Word ultimately undermined what I had been taught about the Lord's Supper since my earliest days as a Baptist. I had been so indoctrinated in Baptist thought that I couldn't hear Scripture itself speak to me even though I was going over these passages every three weeks. But Scripture is alive because it is God's Word. It was eventually powerful enough to correct my false views on the mass. SCRIPTURE, not man-made doctrine, turned me from Wittenberg to Rome.
For ever since I can remember, it was drummed into my head that the Lord's Supper was NOT the actual body and blood of Christ. Rather it was JUST a symbol of the body and blood of Christ, with the emphasis being on the word "just"--JUST a symbol.
After being hired full-time as Associate Professor of Philosophy at Navarro College, I started attending more graduate-level classes at SWBTS. There I studied not only secular philosophers but also Protestant philosophers, especially Soren Kierkegaard. As I read his philosophy, I saw that for all its emphasis on the incarnation, it didn't really appreciate the incarnation like Lewis or Chesterton did. God was breaking into history, into our space and time, not only in the person of Jesus, but also in the lives of people who are being transformed into sons and daughters of God through Christ, and also in the universe which will be radically transformed upon the return of Christ to be a suitable dwelling place for the sons and daughters of God. As I reviewed 1 Cor. 10 and 11, I began to see the ripple effects of the incarnation upon the Lord's Supper. If I was going to take these verses seriously, which I was obligated to do since they are God's Word as Baptists declare, then I had to admit that even in the Lord's Supper God was breaking into our world.
What brought about the change? For way too long when I thought about the Lord's Supper, only 1 Cor. 11:23-26 came to mind (they were the only verses Baptist ministers would point to when ministering the Lord's Supper): "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me. In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." On the basis of these verses alone, Baptists could make the case that the bread and wine were only symbols because Jesus was speaking metaphorically.
The problem was that these are not the only verses in 1 Cor. which deal with the Lord's Supper. The other verses in chapters 10 and 11 began to trouble my mind:
"But a man must examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. (11:28-30). In other words, you could actually die if you mistreated the Lord's Supper. Didn't sound like a symbol to me!
Earlier in 1 Cor. Paul writes: "I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (10:15-16). None of this language sounds metaphorical.
Many Protestants will respond that Paul and Matthew, et al are speaking metaphorically just like Jesus speaks metaphorically in the Gospel of John: "I am the door" (10:9)." Jesus is definitely speaking metaphorically in John; however, when Jesus speaks metaphorically or uses a similitude in Matthew, He uses the word homoios ("like"). That word is nowhere to be found in the Lord Supper accounts in Matt/Mark/Luke. Moreover, again just looking at the Pauline verses demonstrates that Jesus is speaking way beyond metaphor.
Symbol, therefore, seems to be ruled out in this verses. But what about the main Protestant claim that instead of transubstantiation (the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist), Jesus is referring to consubstantiation (Christ is with the Eucharist)? Surely, consubstantiation makes much more sense for those of us who come from an age of enlightenment. So, now are we left with those 2 options and just choose on the basis of a gut feeling?
No, we have much more at our disposal to help us decide which of the 2 is the correct interpretation of the Eucharist: the Church Fathers. Elsewhere I have written at length in the reason the Church Fathers are authoritative in this discussion. To summarize that earlier writing, I will just say that the Church Fathers are so pivotal to determining the truth because they were either taught by the apostles who wrote these documents describing the Eucharist or else they were taught by those taught by those taught by the apostles. I sincerely believe the church fathers knew what they meant when they wrote about the Lord's Supper.
Justin Martyr is one of the earliest church fathers who mentions that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are none other than the body and blood of Christ. What is stunning about this philosopher is that he, like Augustine 200 years after him, loved Plato. In fact, he exalts Plato in his writings, seeing him as a proto-Christian. Well, the last thing Plato would have ever conceived would have been bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. He would have rejected an incarnation; he believed that only the spiritual was real, a type of secular Protestantism. In spite of Justin's love for Plato, it didn't alter his view on the Lord's Supper one whit: for him the bread and wine are definitely the body and blood of Christ.
It is interesting that over 30 years earlier, I had actually used this same principle in determining which interpretation of Revelation was true, especially in regards to the timing of the rapture: are Christians raptured (resurrected) before or after the Great Tribulation. ALL the Church Fathers believed that Christians go through the Great Tribulation; as a result, the rapture would occur after the Great Tribulation. They settled this issue for me. I had never thought to apply this same principle to the issue of the Lord's Supper; I didn't even know if they had even addressed the issue. But when I did find out they had addressed it, I was stunned. There was universal agreement among the Church Fathers that the bread and wine were literally transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. They didn't argue that this was true; they just stated it. It was all like a great big "duh" to them.
So my choice came to this: believe Luther who had lived 1500 years after the apostles and hadn't even spent one moment with the apostles, or else believe the early Church Fathers who were either taught by the apostles or by those taught by the apostles. [FN2] It was a simple choice to make; it was a "duh" choice. Transubstantiation, that is the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view of the Lord's Supper, best explains the Lord's Supper. I wasn't ready to become a Catholic yet; however, only one more piece of the puzzle needed to be added and all would be complete.
Recently, I had somebody really challenge me about transubstantiation. They protested: "So you really believe the wine and bread are turned into the blood and body of Christ?" My response was, "Why not?" Like Paul said, "Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead" (Acts 26:8). Likewise, why is it incredible among you people if God transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ?" The true mystery, the true miracle is not the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In fact, Christianity is all about transformation by the invasion of God into the world. The man Jesus is none other than God the Son. God actually took human word and transformed it into God's Word. God will one day transform the world into a glorious dwelling place for the sons and daughters of God. The greatest miracle, the most wonderful mystery, the transformation above all transformations is Christ literally transforming us into sons and daughters of God. Now if I can believe Christ does that to us, then He can definitely transform bread and wine into His body and blood.
Truth be told, I could have still lived with the idea that Protestantism taught that the Lord's Supper was symbolical or that Christ was with the elements, just as long as they administered the Lord's Supper BUT the day that ethics came into play, I couldn't remain a Protestant any longer. God is a moral God. When we start messing around with morals, then Christianity is finished.
What I have to say is about Protestantism in general and not about any one particular church. The driving force behind Protestantism is the concept that each individual is responsible to God for what he or she believes. That is all well and good. At the very beginning, though, Luther inserted a principle which ultimately destroyed Protestantism. He kept on saying that the Bible taught this or that the Bible taught that. That sounds good; HOWEVER, the truth was that when he made these claims, he was interpreting the Bible. He was actually saying that HIS interpretation of the Bible was right and the Roman Catholic interpretation (with support from the early Church Fathers) was wrong. Luther had basically made the individual Christian the authority in interpreting Scripture.
For the longest, this debate on authority affected only the areas of church leadership (Pope, pastor, or congregation?), the nature of the Lord's Supper (transubstantiation, consubstantiation, symbol?), and little else. However, in the 1960's, a new movement arose which applied this principle to ethics. Now people used this subjective, individualistic interpretation in a way which undermined Christian morality: the gay lifestyle, gay marriage, ordination of practicing homosexuals, ordination of women, a loosening of the rules on marriage/divorce, ordination of the divorced, etc. For the longest, many in Protestantism fought against this error; little did they realize that the problem was not the application of the principle but the principle itself: the individualistic, subjective interpretation of Scripture.
In my own life, I had to deal with the ordination issue. Why not ordain groups of people the church had not ordained for the past 1900 years? I was feeling uneasy with this because whom you ordain affects other areas of theology. When you ordain the divorced, you have lowered your standards on marriage. I work in a sea of devastation; there are so many ruined lives among the students I work with. The number one cause for this devastation has been the break-up of the home. Ordaining the divorced just simply gives in to this devastation.
Why not ordain women? Simply because of the significance of the person administering the Lord's Supper. When the priest transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, he is doing so in persona Christi, in the person/place of Christ. He represents Christ to us. Christ was God the Son, not God the Daughter. A woman can never appropriate represent God the Son. Moreover, history has shown us that the Protestant groups which ordain women invariably re-present God, not as Father but as gender neutral, in some cases as mother. Of course God is not a man; however, He is Father according to Christ. A woman cannot represent a Father to the world. Change who qualifies to administer the Lord's Supper and you change its meaning.
I am once again sitting in a movie theater trying to escape the spiritual angst I was going through. I tried to resolve it this way: "Carey, it's only the Lord's Supper. It's not like it's the Bible they are attacking. It's just the Lord's Supper." At that point there welled up within me a spiritual cry: "No! It's not just the Lord's Supper! It's the body and blood of Christ." For me, that was it. I couldn't remain in a Protestant church because of the disturbance I would be in that church. Moreover, that event more than any other showed me that I was a Catholic. The die was cast. I called Fr Jason, the local priest, and informed him I was converting to Catholicism. I never looked back after that moment.
Many Protestants have tried to find a way to support the claim that these moral stances were wrong without becoming Catholic. The only way to do so is to turn to the Church Fathers. When they, and I, turn to the Church Fathers though on these issues, we eventually have to admit that these stances and these doctrines were what the Catholic Church had been teaching since day one. Many Protestants convert to Catholicism because of this process because only did the Church Fathers address the Eucharist and morals, they also discussed church governance and much, much more, all in a way which affirms Catholicism.
Roman Catholics need to be prepared for the influx of Protestants who will be making their way into the Catholic Church. How to prepare?
You are the best hope for Christianity. Don’t blow this golden opportunity which Christ has extended to us.
FN 1: If you think I value MC, check out what Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor at Boston U., has to say about it.
FN 2: Luther is able to get away with this by attacking St. Thomas Aquinas. He basically asserts that Aquinas was responsible for the doctrine of transubstantiation. In fact he claims that Aquinas based his doctrine upon the philosophy of a pagan, Aristotle. Now who would ever want to accept Aquinas when the argument is framed like this? The truth, though, is that since the earliest days, the Catholic Church believed in the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Aquinas just simply found support for this philosophically in the Aristotelian corpus. As Chesterton notes, Aquinas was bringing Aristotle to Christ and not vice versa as Luther had falsely claimed.