The Joy of Travel with Catholic Doctrine
Upon converting to the Catholic faith, I was interviewed by many Catholic media outlets, and one question kept coming up: “Was there any point of Catholic teaching that you struggled with?” I understand the question; many converts to Catholicism have such a story to tell. You would think I, of all people, would have a few points to discuss.
After all, I had been embedded in evangelical Christianity for over 50 years. I’d taken a master’s degree in divinity at a prominent evangelical institution (Fuller Theological Seminary). I had been a journalist at a leading evangelical ministry, Christianity Today, serving as editor-in-chief for seven years. Evangelical theology coursed through my blood. But when asked this question about Catholic teachings, I had nothing to say.
First, as a Christian, I had already “swallowed” a host of “outrageous” teachings: that Almighty, Infinite, and Holy God became flesh and lived among us; that He was born of a virgin; that He allowed His holy self to be killed by sinful mortals; that He then turned around and, as a mortal, rose from the dead; that He will return and establish a kingdom on earth; and that, in the meantime, He lives inside me. You think that the Assumption or Immaculate Conception of Mary or transubstantiation are a stumbling block — theological child’s play!
Second and more to the point, I think the question betrays a misunderstanding of faith. For many, faith is more or less something that happens to you – you find that you simply believe or don’t believe something. Faith, then, is a sense of confidence that something you can’t prove scientifically or logically is nonetheless true. And thus you find Christians saying, “I believe in this doctrine, but I find it hard to believe in that doctrine.” Here’s the key: the ultimate judge of the truthfulness of any teaching is, then, determined by how it impresses me emotionally and intellectually – that is, internally. I am the judge of truth.
To become a Catholic, it seems to me one must undergo a gestalt in the very perception of how one views reality. Faith for the Catholic is not primarily a warm feeling of confidence (though it will include that). It is not an act in which I stand in judgment over some teaching, deciding whether it is true or not.
That’s because a shift has occurred: no longer do I think that I am the one who determines the truth or falsity of any given teaching. It’s a recognition of one’s smallness in the face of teachings that are deeper, wider, and broader than any one mind can comprehend. A realization that wisdom lies not in marshaling my puny heart and intellect to determine reality, but in humbly giving myself to something greater and trying to learn from that which is greater.
The Catholic Church claims to be that greater thing – founded by Christ Himself and preserved by Him throughout the ages, continually guiding the Church into all truth, as He promised (John 16:13). If the Church, then, in its collective wisdom has said that X is true and Y is not, who am I (limited in intellect, emotion, and experience) to mount an assault? Would not the wiser and humbler course be first to try to understand why the Church teaches as it does and ask God to shape one’s heart and mind around this teaching?
So, yes, having spent over half a century in Protestantism, some Catholic teachings feel uncomfortable – for example, the Immaculate Conception. It’s just not something I’ve ever thought about, and it comes across as strange when first hearing of it. But my approach has been “Catholics are not stupid. Some great minds have shaped and taught this. What do they see it in? Why do they believe it? How does it accord with other aspects of the faith?”
When I explored that briefly, I understood that it did, in fact, have a rather remarkable grounding in Scripture: Mary is described as “full of grace” by the Angel Gabriel. In this respect, Catholics are more literal at reading Scripture than are Fundamentalists. For Catholics, this means that Mary was born and preserved by God’s grace completely – “fully.”
It is fitting that she should be a holy vessel to nurture the Holy One, Jesus, within her. One of the principal documents from the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, which means "Light of the Nations," stated that Mary has been recognized by the Church as "all holy and free from every stain of sin," and "enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness." This was due, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed, to "a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race...."
Such a doctrine, like all doctrines, cannot be tied up neatly in a bow. Does it satisfy every theological itch I experience when I think about it deeply? Of course not, but not even the Trinity does that: I mean really, three in one and one in three? No sane human being can sit comfortably with that paradox. But when it comes to the Trinity, the Assumption of Mary, and a host of other teachings, I’m more than happy to live under the umbrella of faith in the Church.
To me, becoming Catholic means embracing the church and its doctrines, ethics, councils, and hierarchy – not in the spirit of abject subservience that never questions, but in joyful and free obedience to something greater than one’s self, not for the sake of obedience as such, but because one is convinced this is the true Church.
Of course, there is room for disagreement and debate, which has been good for the Church, as its history attests time and again. St. John Henry Newman’s insight about the development of doctrine comes in play here. The early debates about the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not come into focus until the 4th century, just as the relationship of the Eucharistic bread and Christ’s body wasn’t clear until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. And so on. Things are not always clear immediately when it come to theology. And sometimes, it takes a few centuries for the Church to come to a fuller understanding. In the meantime, there’s a lot of debate.
Becoming a Catholic was not about waiting for all my little beliefs and quirks of faith to line up with Catholic theology. That will never happen in this life, because an opinionated person like me has thousands of such quirks. Instead, it’s about making a commitment based on, yes, certain fundamental convictions (it is not blind faith, after all), and then letting the Church instruct me in all those areas that might be discomforting to me.
So, to take the example of the Immaculate Conception again – it’s not so much a stumbling block as a gateway in a journey to destinations not yet known. And I happen to love travel.