Category Archives: Apologetics

The Fullness of Grace


-by Br John Paul Kern, OP

“Do Catholics and Protestants both believe that we are saved by God’s grace?

Yes! And today many Christians are realizing that this is an essential point of Christian unity.

In 1999, the Catholic Church and Lutheran leaders signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, proclaiming together that “all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (JDDF, 19).

In 2006, Methodist leaders affirmed that this statement “corresponds to Methodist doctrine.” This summer, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Reformed communities also accepted this common explanation of justification by grace.

What does this groundbreaking agreement between the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders mean?

After many years of harsh rhetoric and, often, misunderstandings, the Catholic Church and several large Protestant communities have been able to acknowledge together, publicly, that we both believe that Christians are saved by grace. Acknowledging such common ground is an important step toward a fuller Christian unity.

However, many Protestants remain skeptical that the Catholic Church affirms the priority of God’s grace in man’s justification, which Luther called the “first and chief article” of Christian faith (Smalcald Articles, II.1). Additionally, the Joint Declaration itself openly acknowledges and describes differences in the way that Catholics and Protestants understand how we are saved by grace.

Unfortunately, many Catholics and Protestants alike are unfamiliar with both the Catholic doctrine of justification by grace and the teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Therefore, let us explore what we share in common as well as where we differ regarding “the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), to better appreciate this beautiful, saving truth in its fullness.

Common Ground: The Primacy of God’s Grace in Man’s Salvation

God, Who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)… For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph 2:4–5, 8–9)

St. Paul knew from his own conversion that salvation in Jesus Christ comes through God’s gift of grace. Therefore, he strongly emphasized this central Gospel truth throughout his writings.

Having also undergone a radical conversion by God’s grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously rejected the error of Pelagius, who claimed man could save himself apart from grace.

The Catholic Church later employed St. Augustine’s teachings to refute “semi-Pelagianism”—the claim that man can earn the grace of justification by his own efforts—at the Second Council of Orange (529), and she continues to honor St. Augustine as the Doctor Gratiae (Teacher of Grace).

A thousand years later, Protestant theologians in the 16th century articulated their doctrine of justification sola gratia (by grace alone), which also emphasized the priority of grace.

When the Catholic Church promulgated her official response at the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1546–1563), she strongly reaffirmed the primacy of God’s grace. Once again, she explicitly rejected Pelagianism—the claim “that man may be justified before God by his own works… without the grace of God”—and Semi-Pelagianism.

Thus, the Catholic Church in the 16th century authoritatively agreed with the Protestant Reformers regarding the priority of grace in salvation. However, she was concerned that the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia greatly reduced the scope and power of the grace of justification by emphasizing God’s forgiveness apart from the effects of grace on man.

Therefore, the Catholic Church emphasized, and continues to emphasize, that God’s grace of justification cannot be understood in its fullness apart from:

  1. the role of grace in God’s entire plan for mankind;
  2. a radical transformation, renewal, and rebirth of the human person; and
  3. God’s elevation of man to partake of the divine nature and participate in divine life.

1. Grace is a Fundamental Part of God’s Entire Plan for Humanity

For Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, the central question was justification: how can a sinful person be justified before God? This is extremely important. However, a singular emphasis on this question often leads Protestants to view grace solely through the lens of “solving the problem” of justification.

Catholics, on the other hand, understand God’s grace not only as a merciful response to man’s miserable, fallen state after sin but also as a generous gift that God freely and lovingly chose to bestow upon Adam and Eve from the moment of their creation. The Catholic faith teaches that God created man in a state of grace, which allowed him to enjoy an intimate friendship with God, knowing and loving God in a way that would not have been possible without God’s grace.

After the sinful Fall, God’s grace restores man to a state of friendship with God and grants the forgiveness of sin. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s prevenient (prior) grace prepares, disposes, and moves man to freely receive the grace of justification, which communicates to man the righteousness of Christ. From beginning to end, it is grace that saves.

Starting at the moment of justification, Christian life is animated by sanctifying grace, which allows Christians to grow in holiness throughout their lives. Sanctifying grace includes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the heart of the Christian life (1 Cor 13:13), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:2). Christians who follow the Holy Spirit through the gifts enjoy the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), the highest of which are the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12).

Finally, the life of grace reaches its full fruition in the glory of heaven. It is not by man’s natural powers that he is capable of beholding the beatific vision of God but only by God’s gift of the light of glory, which is also a grace.

2. God’s Grace Has the Power to Actually Transform a Human Person

According to the Protestant Reformers, justification by grace is extrinsic to man. That is, justification describes man’s standing before God, in a sort of legal fashion, rather than the actual state of man himself. According to Luther, for example, man is justified when God graciously looks at Christ’s merit, which covers but does not destroy man’s sin, and imputes (credits) to us the “alien righteousness” of Christ, declaring us righteous by a judicial act though we remain sinners in reality. Thus, grace is simply the “undeserved favor” of God’s merciful judgment, which renders us “not guilty.”

In contrast, the Catholic faith teaches that while the wounds due to original sin still affect Christians, the grace of justification does not merely cover sin but destroys it, regenerates man to spiritual life (Jn 3:3; Titus 3:4-7), and restores his friendship with God.

Scripture recounts Jesus forgiving sins (Mk 2:1-12), casting out evil (Lk 11:14), healing (Mt 8:1-4), and raising people from the dead (Jn 11:40-44), all of which serve as powerful images for what God accomplishes in the human soul through the grace of justification.

God’s declarations match reality. God spoke the universe into being by saying, “let there be…” (Gen 1). Similarly, when God declares a person to be just and righteous, he simultaneously and actually makes that person just and righteous by the power of his grace, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The grace of justification communicates the righteousness of Christ to man and has the power to actually transform man into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). The Christian is reborn to a new life of grace infused by the Holy Spirit and is given a new heart (Ez 36:26–28), a new mind (1 Cor 2:16), and a new “nature” in Christ (Eph 4:22–24).

St. Paul explains, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Thus, Christians transformed by grace have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:9–10).

Therefore, “justification… is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man [2 Cor 4:16] through the voluntary reception of the grace… whereby man who was unjust becomes just [Rom 3:23-24], and who was an enemy becomes a friend [Jn 15:15], so that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. 7).

God justifies a person by an infusion of grace, which brings about a transformation of the soul from a state of sin and injustice to a state of grace, justice, and righteousness. This conversion includes a movement of the intellect toward God in faith and a movement of the will to love God and to hate sin, and it simultaneously results in the forgiveness of sin (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 113, a. 6).

Thus, in his work of justification, God’s undeserved favor actively bestows upon us the gift of grace, which has the power to actually transform us and make us righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. By Grace We Partake of the Divine Nature and Participate in Divine Life

The Protestant Reformers also do not emphasize what is, perhaps, the most amazing thing about grace: that God’s grace elevates Christians to share in God’s Trinitarian life of love. Luther asserted that even “the just sin in every good work” (Denzinger, 771), and “every work of the just is worthy of damnation… if it be considered as it really is” (Möhler, “Symbolik,” 22). For Calvin, even Christian acts of charity “are always defiled by impurity” (Institutes, III, 18, 5).

In contrast, St. Peter wrote, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3–4).

From the very beginning, “God… freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC 1). That is, God created us to partake, by grace, in his own divine nature and to share in the divine life of Trinitarian love (1 Jn 4:7-16)—a life that is far above and beyond what is possible by human nature alone.

Even after original sin, God’s grace restores us from spiritual death to new life in Christ (Rom 6:4). Grace allows us to share in God’s own Trinitarian life as “adopted sons” in the Son (Gal 4:4–6) and as “children of God” (Jn 1:12–13) so that through, with, and in Jesus Christ, by the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), we may call God “Our Father” (Mt 6:9).

By grace, we are truly united to Christ as his members (1 Cor 12:12–27), and the life of the divine vine runs through us as branches (Jn 15:1–11), so that with St. Paul we may proclaim that it is now “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). As God’s children in Christ, we cooperate with God’s grace to bear the spiritual fruit of good works (Jn 15:16–17; Eph 2:10), which glorify God.

This supernatural life of grace, which begins on earth, blossoms into the life of glory in heaven. There, the gift of faith will be transformed into sight as we behold God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12). Our hope will be fulfilled as we possess God, our eternal inheritance and reward, celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). Yet love, the core of the Christian life, will continue, perfected, in heaven as we experience the fullness of joy praising God for all eternity (1 Cor 13:8). Thus, the life of grace will be crowned and fulfilled in eternal life.

By grace, even now, we can share in God’s life of love and, in imitation of Jesus Christ, perform the works of our Father (Jn 4:34). Let us cry out “Abba! Father!” in praise of him whose merciful love offers us, by the saving work of his Son, through the Holy Spirit, this amazing gift of grace!”

Love, & always begging for His grace,
Matthew

Atheism

Getting Rid of Bad Attitudes

Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” It’s hard to honestly face criticism, but it’s the only way we can grow as human beings, since we are notoriously good at deceiving ourselves about our own competence and knowledge.

That is why I hope theists will consider shedding attitudes we might unknowingly possess that can hinder productive dialogue.

Let’s start with three bad attitudes people who believe in God sometimes exhibit.

Bad Theistic Attitude #1: “No rational person can be an atheist! Do you think we just came from monkeys or something?”

In his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) writes, “Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.”

Theists do their cause a great disservice by ridiculing atheists or saying that it is obvious atheism is false. If atheism were simply irrational, then why would believers have to guard against being “drowned” by unbelief? Likewise, atheists should know that many people have wrestled and struggled with the question of God’s ex- istence before they converted to religious faith. Both sides should accept each other’s doubts and journey toward the truth together in a spirit of mutual humility.

In regard to the theory of evolution, atheists will probably find an origin from monkeys to be more likely than an origin from God—because at least we have seen monkeys and know they exist. Even if a theist doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, if he can create a case for God’s existence that does not come across as anti-science, most atheists will find that position to be more reasonable.

Indeed, scientific ignorance—real or perceived—only reinforces the negative stereotypes that atheists have about Christians. St. Augustine worried about this kind of attitude in the fourth century when he wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . . Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation.

There’s no need to insult someone’s intelligence just because he does not believe in God. In a debate at Cambridge University on the subject “Is God a Delusion?”,William Lane Craig said,

“[Atheists] recognize that the existence of God is a difficult question on which rational opinion can vary. Peter and I haven’t indicted our opponents tonight as being deluded. We think they’re mistaken, but we wouldn’t say they’re deluded. Why can’t they return the favor? People can disagree without calling each other names.”

Sensible atheists also have this agreeable attitude. Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse write in their book Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief:

“We think that religious beliefs are false and that religious believers are mistaken in their religious beliefs. We do not “respect” religious beliefs. We do, however, respect religious believers. We hold that religious believers can be intelligent, rational, and responsible, despite the falsity of their religious beliefs; in short, we hold that religious believers can be reasonable.”

Bad Theistic Attitude #2: “Atheists are immoral.”

Once when I was taking questions from an audience after one of my presentations, a gentleman asked me, “Why would anyone ever be an atheist? Don’t they know that Hitler and Stalin were atheists?” I told this man that saying someone is like Hitler usually starts a conversation off on the wrong foot, but there was an even more fundamental problem with this attitude. Whether Hitler was an atheist is unclear, but even if he was, so what? Maybe Hitler liked kittens and sunsets, too, but that doesn’t make those things evil by association. The immoral, even heinous, lives of some atheists do not invalidate the truth of atheism any more than the lives of immoral Christians invalidate theism. Any religion or belief system can have immoral people who hold to it. This does nothing to prove whether its beliefs are true or false.

Some theists say that if God does not exist, then what reasons would an atheist have to be good, since there is no life beyond the grave? But atheists have many practical reasons to be moral and would be offended by the idea that they are, as a whole, not morally good people. An atheist might cite her desire to make the human community more stable, or her need to follow her own conscience, or her belief in a principle like the Golden Rule as a reason to be moral. In any case, the real question we should ask is not why individual atheists would be moral, but why objective moral truths exist if God does not.

Bad Theistic Attitude #3: Failing to empathize with atheists

In her 2012 book Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, Greta Christina catalogues nearly 100 grievances atheists have against the followers of various religions. Christina’s complaints can be grouped under a few common themes:

-Atheists are compelled by the state to endorse or practice religion against their will (such as being forced to participate in public prayer).

-The state endorses a particular set of religious beliefs (like the teaching of creationism in public schools or prohibitions on marriage between people of the same sex).

-Religious people have ridiculous beliefs that cause them to hurt or dehumanize other people through acts like medical malpractice, bullying, social rejection, and even murder.

-Religious people believe things for stupid reasons.

In one example, Christina writes,“I’m angry at preachers who tell women in their flock to submit to their husbands because it’s the will of God, even when their husbands are beating them within an inch of their lives.”

Some theists will reply defensively that such examples don’t reflect their religion, or that their religion is being misrepresented as being unreasonable. But sometimes atheists don’t want to know if your religion is reasonable.

Sometimes they just want to know if you are reasonable. Aren’t you at least angry at Christians who use religion as an excuse to bully children? Wouldn’t you agree that laws related to marriage or abortion should be based on reason and not religion? Isn’t it okay to be angry when religious hypocrites hurt others? If atheists think theists are just “out to get them” and aren’t concerned by these injustices like they are, then there can be little hope for theistic beliefs to get a fair hearing among non-believers.

Likewise, atheists should realize that although theists and Christians are a majority in the United States, there are many particular places where they are the minority and can be pushed around. According to the Social Science Research Council, while only about one in five people think the Bible is a book of fables and myths, nearly three out of four professors at elite universities hold that view.

Instead of bullying, both sides of this debate should protect each other’s right to discuss and disagree without the fear of violence or persecution.”

Love,
Matthew

Why we’re Catholic

Q. What was your motivation for writing this book?

A. I can’t count the number of time someone has asked me to recommend a book to give to a Catholic family member or friend who has left the Faith or to a non-Catholic who has questions about the Faith. When I discovered that there was no book written to address this group of people, I set out to write one.

Q. Who’s this book designed for? Who’s your “target audience?”

A. The target audience is actually non-Catholics (or non-practicing Catholics), so the book is written in an inviting, simple style that explains what we believe and why we believe it. However, Catholics will benefit from reading this book by seeing different ways to share the Faith and answer objections to it.

Q. What do you recommend as a good way to present this book to someone that will get them to read it?

A. I would buy two copies and give one to a friend. You could tell him you think the book is really interesting and you would enjoy discussing even just a single chapter with him. Don’t pitch this as a book to convert him but rather as something to help him learn more about your faith and why it’s important to you.

Q. Did you learn anything about your own faith while you were writing this book?

A. I really enjoyed researching the stories about the saints I included in the book. While many I knew, I was able to go more deeply into the details, such as the story of St. Damien of Molokai who heroically served lepers in Hawaii. One story I wasn’t familiar with was that of Fr. Thomas Byle, who stayed aboard the sinking the Titanic and gave his life to hear as many confessions as he could.

Q. You touch upon twenty-five different things that Catholics believe in your book. Which of these do you think is the most difficult for a non-Catholic or ex-Catholic to accept?

A. Probably moral issues like contraception or homosexuality. These touch upon the most intimate parts of our identity. and it’s easy for us to reject arguments that run contrary to such strong desires. It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Q. Which Catholic teaching do you think is the easiest for a non-Catholic or ex-Catholic to accept? Would it be a good jumping off point for dialogue?

A. One teaching that can be helpful to start with is the Church’s opposition to moral relativism. In an age where almost everything must be tolerated, the Church’s clear opposition to evils (such as rape, sex trafficking, genocide) and her willingness to call such acts objectively evil, can be attractive to many people who just want the plain truth. From there you can discuss what morality is and how the ultimate standard of morality can be found in God and how the Church helps us come to know this standard of truth.

Q. Why are you Catholic?

A. I am Catholic because God gave me grace to accept the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ, and his plan to unite his children in the Catholic Church. Through this grace I came to see that the testimony of Scripture and the early Christians supports the claim that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

Q. Everyone loves a good story, especially one that results in a soul being transformed. The thing I like about this book is the way you weave real-life situations together with teaching points. Did you write it this way for a reason, or is that just the way the thoughts came to you?

A. I wanted to make sure stories would be a part of this book. An argument might go over some people’s heads, but a good story can help them see a truth clearly. I included not just aspects of my conversion story but also stories about saints that will help people see that Catholicism isn’t just true, it is good and beautiful as well.

Teaching the Bible to atheists made me Catholic – Don Johnson


-by Don Johnson

“I clearly remember the moment I became a Christian. I don’t recall how old I was exactly, probably six or seven, but it was a Sunday afternoon and I had been to church that morning. Something about Sunday School must have made an impression on me, because I asked my mother to come to my room to talk to me about getting saved. She graciously led me in a prayer of repentance and faith. As we finished, I felt great joy and relief sweep over me. I knew that I was going to get into heaven because Jesus had died for me.

If you had asked me at the time what it meant to be “saved,” I’m not sure what I would have told you. However, as I think back now to the theology of my youth, several images come to mind. For one, I considered salvation as a type of fire insurance. To avoid hell, make sure you sign on the dotted line by doing whatever the preacher says you need to do (“believe,” “repent,” “have faith,” “give your life to Jesus,” etc.) and then rest easy, knowing that you are covered. Your papers are in order, and when that fateful day arrives, everything will be just fine. In more familial and relational terms, I thought of becoming a child of God as a one-time transaction in which I got a new legal guardian, but one with whom I didn’t get to live. It’s like I was an orphan who got adopted, but then had to stay in the orphanage, even though I was now assigned a new name and even guaranteed an inheritance at some point in the future.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this view was that I lived a rather pathetic spiritual life as a youth. By that I mean I wasn’t really any different from any of the unbelievers I knew. I was enslaved to the same sins, beset by the same character flaws, and guided by the same materialistic priorities as everyone else. I didn’t pursue a life of radical righteousness or intimacy with God because I didn’t think it ultimately mattered. I was going to get to Heaven regardless. God didn’t take into account my sin and worldly ambition; He only saw the “Jesus covering” He had placed on me. I may not actually have been righteous, but God saw me as legally righteous, so everything was all right.

However, as a young adult my view of salvation began to change. I became heavily involved in ministry and started to study the Bible intensely. I was particularly interested in the Gospels and their relationship to the Old Testament. As I dug into Exodus, for example, I saw how it prefigured the entire story of God’s redemption. I became convinced that legal forgiveness is only one part of the equation. God doesn’t just purchase sinners while leaving them essentially unchanged. He doesn’t just take legal guardianship of children and cover their sins. Rather, He creates new children that are in intimate union with Him. God doesn’t just look at a believer “as if” he were a new person; he is actually a new person. The old person is dead, a new person is alive.

This birth is just the start of the Christian life, however. I now saw that salvation is a process by which we strive, by God’s grace, to become ever more like him. It is not simply a legal transaction in the past, but an ongoing journey to be finished and a battle to be won. My theology had been missing these truths. As I now started to understand and live them out, my relationship with God was taken to a much deeper level. It also turned out to be my first step toward the Catholic Church.

I was interacting with many skeptics in those days, and I noticed that their objections to Christianity were often based on the false view of salvation that I had come to reject. My childhood beliefs regarding salvation, and the spiritually weak Christians it produces, are a huge stumbling block. Unbelievers, particularly, simply can’t abide the notion that God doesn’t care what kind of person you are. They can’t understand why God would forgive some people and let them into heaven ahead of those who have lived morally better lives based on something as seemingly capricious and silly as saying a prayer, intellectually assenting to certain propositions, getting confirmed, or jumping through some other seemingly arbitrary hoop. It seems terribly unjust.

As my view of salvation shifted, I found myself agreeing with these atheists. If that view of God’s plan is correct, it is unjust. However, I was now convinced that that view was false. So I started teaching my new theology through my ministry and sharing it with the skeptics. And frankly, most of them were eating it up. The Evangelical churches I was speaking at greatly enjoyed my messages, and I was making good headway with many atheists and agnostics.

But not everyone appreciated my “insights.” I faced objections on two fronts. First, I was taken to task by an individual at one church, who claimed that I was contradicting the official doctrinal statement of his denomination. Frankly, I had never read it, and no one had ever asked me to. However, when I did, I realized that he actually had a case. There, in black and white, was the proposition that salvation was a one-time legal transaction that should be understood as separate from any call to ongoing holy living.

Secondly, the skeptics I was sharing with, while generally receptive to my understanding of salvation, often ended the conversation by saying something like this: “That’s nice, Don, and if God really was how you portray Him, and if His plan of salvation actually did work that way, I might accept it. But that’s just your opinion. The pastor down the street says something different, and I can find any number of Christian leaders who would offer any variety of opinions, and they all use the same Bible you do. Why should I believe your interpretation?” I had to admit they had a point.

In response, I started to dig into church history. Specifically, I started studying the history of various local denominations and the history of the doctrine of justification. That led me directly to the Reformation. Curiously, I had never really studied the Reformation. I had just assumed that it was a righteous movement that restored the Church to its biblical roots. However, as I analyzed what actually had happened, several startling facts jumped out at me, none of which aligned with my presuppositions.

First, the understanding of salvation that I had accepted as a child but now rejected as unbiblical was actually an articulated doctrine of several Reformers. (Today it is often called “forensic justification.”) Indeed, it was a key point of disagreement with Rome and a foundational element of much of Protestantism. It was a shock to me that, in many of my sermons, I was actually attacking one of the cornerstone doctrines of the movement that led to the very churches in which I had been speaking.

So the question naturally arose: Was the doctrine of forensic justification something new with the Reformation, or was it a renewal of the early Church’s teaching? In other words, were the beliefs that I now rejected held by the early Church Fathers — in which case I would have to re-think my stance — or were they developed fresh by the Reformers — in which case I could feel justified in rejecting them.

After extensive research, the answer was clear: the idea of forensic justification was new with the Reformation. Before that, the Church had been unanimous and unwavering in its understanding of salvation as a process whereby Christ’s life makes us new, and we are formed to be like Him. My “new” understanding of salvation, based on my personal interpretation of Scripture, turned out to be simply the historical orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church.

That truth dovetailed nicely with another fact I discovered: the Reformation notion of sola Scriptura was also new, and the crisis of authority that I faced in my evangelism work was its direct result. The idea that the Bible alone should guide us had never been accepted within Christianity before 1517, and its introduction led only to doctrinal chaos. Without an authoritative interpretive guide, people could — and did — teach and believe anything.

As I now realized, Jesus never intended such confusion. That’s why He left us a Church. He didn’t drop a book from the sky and say, “Do your best to find your own way based on your own interpretation.” He appointed Apostles and gave them His authority to lead in His name. I now had an answer to the skeptics who claimed that my theological views were just my opinion: No, my views are simply the teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.

Faced with the beginning of a clear biblical, historical, and philosophical case for the Catholic Church, I started to panic. This was going to cause a huge disruption in my life! But the more I studied, the more reasonable and attractive Catholicism became. I read authors like Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins. I even enrolled in the MA Theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville and became enthralled with the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as scholars such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. One by one my various objections were answered.

The last stumbling block was the Sacraments. I had been raised in a very non-liturgical, non-sacramental church culture, and I was having trouble getting comfortable with the idea that God would use matter as a means of grace. However, here again, my study of Scripture and the Reformation, as well as my work with skeptics, was a great help.

First, I realized that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist had been universally accepted and practiced from the early Church until the Reformation. Its rejection in the 16th century represented something novel in the history of Christianity. If the Reformers were right, it meant that everyone from the very first disciples of the Apostle John had been wrong. That made no sense to me.

Secondly, having already been making the case that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, I applied this interpretative principle to passages such as John 6. What could Jesus possibly have meant, and how would His Jewish followers have understood Him? I began to understand that the Eucharist was the fulfillment of the Passover celebration and those early Christians, who were almost all Jews, would never have understood it after my gnostic manner. They would instead have understood it according to the sacramental worldview they had always held; they would have seen it as the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus.

Finally, my work with skeptics helped me to come to a revelation about the Sacraments. My approach to atheists and agnostics, especially those who tend towards a materialistic view of the world, is to suggest that there might just be more to the world than they’ve been led to believe.

I then asserted that their worldview is reductionist, and that there might be dimensions to reality that they hadn’t really taken into account. By ignoring these, they were missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things that God was offering. Their skeptical worldview was a handicap for them, it was reducing their understanding of reality and constraining them from living life to the fullest.

Then, a question began to arise within my mind. What if there was more to the world than I, too, had been led to believe? What if there were dimensions to reality that I hadn’t taken into account, and that by ignoring them, I had been missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things? What if, I asked myself, not only did Jesus love me and long for me to live a joyful life, but that He had made possible an even more abundant life than I had imagined by offering His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist? Could it be that my Protestant worldview was equally reductionist and gnostic in a way similar to the atheist viewpoint?

My answer was yes. I realized that I had been guilty of unjustified skepticism towards Catholicism in the same way that unbelievers are unjustifiably skeptical towards Christianity in general. I also realized that I longed for the Eucharist and the intimacy with Jesus that it promised. That was the final piece of the puzzle, and I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 2015.”

Love,
Matthew

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

The Old Evangelization

Q. Before we get into the “Old Evangelization,” could you give us a definition of the New Evangelization?

A. Pope St. John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization” because he recognized that we are in a new era in the Church’s history: we have millions of baptized Catholics who have not been evangelized. Instead of traveling to a foreign country to evangelize, now we need only look next to us in the pews. This new reality presents new challenges for spreading the gospel.

Q. So what is your definition of the “Old Evangelization”?

A. The Old Evangelization is a return to the basic principles of evangelization that originated with Jesus himself. Too many things labeled “New Evangelization” today are neither new nor evangelization. The term has been co-opted. Popular techniques and programs are often just reruns of corporate marketing tricks or Protestant megachurch methods. The Old Evangelization focuses on the bold proclamation of the gospel, based on the model of Jesus Christ, and primarily through one-on-one relationships.

Q. What was your motivation behind writing this book?

A. I’ve been involved in Catholic evangelization for twenty-five years. In that time I’ve seen “evangelization” go from being practically taboo in Catholic circles to a buzzword attached to every parish program and outreach. Yet we still see a massive number of people leaving the Church. So I asked myself, “What if we don’t really understand what evangelization is?”

The most common misunderstandings I’ve seen are a result of two traps. First, many Catholics see evangelization primarily as a job for other people—those who are professionals, or maybe the people who run the programs at their parish. [Ed. too, too tragically, those professionals or even volunteers given responsibility are possessive, obsessive, territorial, and NO ONE but the officially sanctioned may proclaim.  The preaching office belongs to ALL the faithful. (Canon 766) Clericalism has NOTHING to do with males, celibate, clergy. It is ALL too common a Catholic universal malady. Tragic. Jesus weeps.] Or, second, they misunderstand what evangelization entails, figuring it can be summed up as being nice to others. Yet true Catholic evangelization—as Jesus and his first followers practiced it—means every Catholic boldly proclaiming the truths of our Faith to those around us. I wrote The Old Evangelization to remind Catholics of that fact and to show them how to do it.

Q. You call this “a practical guide.” How so?

A. Laced throughout the book are practical examples of evangelization. First and foremost are examples from the life of Jesus himself, unpacking his encounters with people like the Samaritan woman at the well and the rich young man. The book also includes examples from the lives of the saints over the past two millennia. Finally, I include many examples of evangelization—both successes and failures—I’ve encountered myself over the past quarter century of evangelization work. The book draws lessons from each of these examples that equip and encourage the reader to evangelize.

Q. I notice the book has study aids at the end of each chapter: examination, exercise, and exploration. Was the book designed for group as well as individual study?

A. I’m a firm believer that evangelization is best done one on one. But learning about evangelization can be a group affair. The Old Evangelization can be read as an individually or as part of a group, with the purpose of encouraging each Catholic to go out and proclaim his or her Faith without fear.

Q. Give us an example of how you would use The Old Evangelization in practice.

A. Let’s say you have a close relative who has fallen away from the Church. This book will give you practical advice—as well as encouragement—to talk to that person and help him or her back to the practice of the Faith.

Q. What is the greatest lesson you hope people learn from reading your book?

A. That they should not be scared to evangelize. Some are intimidated because they don’t think they know enough theology or doctrine. Others are intimidated because they fear social rejection if they talk about some of the Church’s more controversial teachings. In both cases, it is the devil who is working to keep Catholics quiet, but our Lord wants us spreading the Faith as he did!

Love,
Matthew

Catholicism is true – Casey Phillips


Casey Phillips

“What would convince a Jesus-loving, hymn-singing, Baptist preacher’s son to become a Catholic? This is a question that many have had for me over the past couple of years, whether they have worded it quite as succinctly or not. Why would someone with such a vibrant faith, rooted in a rich, solid family tradition, walk away from it and leap into the arms of the Church of Rome? Though many have probably speculated, citing history, art, or unity, they all fall short of the true reason that my wife and I made the journey across the River Tiber. As the famous Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons, all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” Though it may seem simplistic, it all boils down to that. Catholicism, when taken seriously and studied critically, simply cannot be denied.

My journey began in a small, rural Baptist church in western Kentucky. My wife’s began as a member of one of the largest Baptist churches in the state. Though from different church climates, both of us grew up alongside caring, God-fearing people who loved the Lord and wanted nothing more than to serve Him. We both were taught about the atoning death of Christ, the reality and impact of our sin, and the importance of Scripture. We were inspired to live lives totally entrusted to God’s love, and though we often took that mission for granted, the impact of that message remained with us throughout our formative years. The Baptist church was the only thing I knew as a child. We would often pass by the Methodist church downtown, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the Baptist tradition was the correct one. As far as Catholicism was concerned, my exposure to it, and that of my family, was non-existent. A thick shroud surrounded the term Catholicism, and none of us knew enough about it to commend or condemn it. Was it a Christian church? We weren’t exactly sure, but we also did not see any real necessity to investigate further. In short, the Baptist church was the only filter through which we understood the Christian Faith and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lunchroom Preacher

As a young child, I fondly remember going to our local Baptist church with my entire family and participating fully in each service. As I moved into adulthood, I was asked to be the song leader as well as the Sunday school secretary, charged with recording each morning’s attendance, Bible reading participation, and offering. This active participation in my church community bled over into how I acted at school among my peers. I was the “lunchroom preacher” who called my peers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I recall one occasion when I attended a party, very much out of my character, after graduation. Upon my arrival with a friend, and greeting many familiar faces from school, one of my peers retorted: “Casey, what are you doing here? It’s like Jesus is here!” To those around me, my identity was inextricably linked to the faith that I proclaimed. I was not ashamed to stand up for what I believed, and I often did so with vigor. In one instance, of which I am not particularly proud, I made a girl my age cry after expressing to her my dislike for the less than laudable activities that she and some of her friends had planned for Easter weekend. For better or for worse, I was type cast as the “Jesus Freak” among my friends, and I had no intention of rejecting that title.

As I matured, I began to have troubles of my own, and my relationship with Christ was challenged. I had private struggles which no one knew about, that threatened to destroy the image that I had made for myself. At the very least, the perception that others had of me kept me from outwardly manifesting my innermost vices. This tug of war between who I claimed to be and who I was behind closed doors persisted and drove me to question my own justification before God. How could I sincerely call myself a follower of Christ and knowingly persist in the sinful ways from which He had died to redeem me? Many days I would return home from church, a cold sweat on my back, in fear that I had somehow lost the salvation which God had given to me at age fourteen. As a Baptist, I believed that God, once He justified or “saved” someone, kept him or her in His graces regardless of whatever sin he or she may have committed. Known as the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” this teaching was ordinarily a source of great solace for me. No matter how blinded I became of my sin, no matter how far I wandered away from my Creator, He persisted in holding me tightly in His clutches. Throughout high school, this doctrine was enough to keep me from completely questioning what I believed to be true. As many others have experienced, it was not until my undergraduate years that I was forced to make a decision about what I ought to believe about God. An encounter with other people who believed differently than me about eternal salvation, but who at the same time were God-fearing Christians, sought to frustrate my understanding of who God is and what He wanted from me.

Discovering That Not All Christians Are Baptist

Yes, it was during college, that proverbial hotbed of rebellion and dissension, when I was faced squarely with the fact that I may have had it wrong on at least one aspect of the divine. It was impossible for me to persist, as I had been doing up to that point, in the sinful acts that had begun during my high school years. This realization did not happen overnight, however, and it took me delving even deeper into sin before I experienced any real awakening. An addiction to pornography had ravaged my interior life with God, not to mention the serious relationship that I had with my fiancée (now my wife). This addiction, which had started when I was a pre-teen and which subsequently worsened when I became a young adult, forced me even deeper into the role of a faux Christian. But wasn’t my salvation secure? Was I not justified before God regardless of my sinful actions? My ruminations on the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” grew longer and more intense. I continually sought to cool my burning conscience through watching and listening to different Protestant pastors or apologists who also promulgated this doctrine. Though they seemed to answer my questions for a time, I always ended up back online, searching the web for answers. The justifications that I had previously used for my actions had all failed to convince me that what I was doing was morally benign. It was through this struggle with sin that I was brought to the realization that I could not continue in it and legitimately call myself a Christian. Through God’s grace, I eventually stopped justifying my actions, became honest with myself about their malignancy in my life, and started the arduous trek toward walking uprightly with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though I was still far from becoming Catholic, I began to seriously doubt the legitimacy of certain doctrines with which I had been raised. Specifically, I began to no longer believe that once God “saved” or justified someone, he or she could no longer be found outside of His fold. I realized that this man-made tradition of “once saved always saved” had been the source of all the stress and anxiety that I had endured over the last 10 years of my life. The biblical truth was that I needed to continue following Christ and guarding my relationship with Him, lest I be cut off from His grace (see Romans 11:22).

At the same time that I was coming to an awakening in my faith, I was double majoring in Spanish and religion as an undergraduate student. As I studied religion, with a focus in biblical studies, I began to see the divergence of beliefs between people who called themselves Christian. The professors who made up the religion department were themselves a testament to this fact; I took a class on Judaism with a Lutheran, a class on Augustine with a former Baptist, and advanced Old Testament with an Episcopalian priest. The culture of the college campus also lent itself to a broad range of belief and practice, some not even Christian. As I studied church history and the Bible, I began to discover that my understanding of the Christian religion, as described within the boundaries of conservative Evangelicalism, was somewhat limited, and that it could not be the only legitimate understanding of what Christianity is or should be.

As time progressed and my receptivity of other views increased, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant under an Episcopalian professor. Noticing my progression away from my Baptist moorings, this professor would casually assert, jestingly, the superiority of the Episcopalian faith. During one specific exchange, he conveyed to me what he thought to be the benefit or advantage of being an Episcopalian. “Look,” he had said, “you don’t want to be Catholic because that is going too far. As an Episcopalian, you can be as Catholic or as Protestant as you want to be.” Though he did not know it at the time, that statement stuck with me until I eventually came home to the Catholic Church. It was not until much later that I found out that this view, known as the via media, was one that confronted other, more notable converts like Blessed John Henry Newman. Though my professor was a sincere, faith-filled individual, I could not begin to imagine having it “my way” when it came to eternal truths. Can I lose my salvation or not? Is the Eucharist truly the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol? Must I confess my sins to a priest or not? I wanted the truth on these topics, as well as many others, and I did not wish to be the arbiter of divine revelation. Little did I know that the answers to these questions would be found in the Catholic Church.

At the same time that I was discovering the multiplicity of Christian belief, I had a Spanish professor who was one of the most outspoken people I have ever met, and he was unapologetically Catholic. Up until this point of my journey, I had never encountered anyone who was a practicing, sincere Catholic. In fact, when I first found out that this professor was Catholic, I remember being somewhat shocked. You mean Catholicism and Christianity are related somehow? At no point did this professor seek to evangelize or proselytize me during my four years of undergraduate work, but he did live his faith. No power or institution, not even the very institution for which he worked, could stand in the way of his ability to genuinely live his faith in everyday life. It was via his witness, and that of other Catholics that I met during this time, that I began to incorporate Catholicism into the panorama of Christian views that I considered to be legitimate. This move, though I did not recognize it at the time, would be my first step into the River Tiber, on my way to the Eternal City.

Amidst all of this spiritual awakening, God gifted me with a spouse who would prove vitally important to the direction of my faith journey. On July 28, 2012, the summer before our senior year of college, I exchanged vows with the woman who would become the mother of my children. Our wedding took place in a small country church just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, presided over by a very close friend with whom I had worked previously in a small startup church back in my home town. Marrying Erin was the best decision I had made up to this point in my life, outside of following our Lord. Though we would see our ups and downs, she would prove to be the rock I would lean on along the rough road we followed on our journey of faith.

My journey during college can only be described as an awakening. Transitioning from a fundamentalist, Missionary Baptist understanding to one which appreciated the beauty of many different Christian traditions was the first step toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic Church. Through an intense struggle with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved always saved,” I was convinced that I had erred in my understanding of how God redeems and heals His children. I vividly remember, toward the end of my undergraduate work, clutching an application to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and feeling unable to complete it. The application asked me to describe my relationship with Christ up to that point in my faith journey. How could I reveal all that I had gone through? Would they accept my application if I was truthful? I wasn’t even sure where I stood on my justified state before God, so undertaking a masters degree in theology seemed irresponsible. With the help of my wife, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish rather than undertaking the life of a Protestant seminarian. Though I could not see it at the time, and I often entertained doubts about my decision, the Lord was preparing my heart to receive something that I would have otherwise rejected out of hand. If I had gone to that seminary, who knows if I ever would have become Catholic?

What Is This Thing Called Catholicism?

After college, my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where I completed the master’s degree in teaching Spanish. Resolving not to go to seminary was a difficult move, but I felt it was the only honest one to make. I was still struggling with what to believe as a Christian. After our move, my wife and I attended the church where she was raised, Southland Christian Church. Southland, the second largest church in the state of Kentucky, holds a very special place in my heart. Though it seemed at least ten times larger than the church I was raised in, Southland’s mission to serve others as the hands and feet of Christ left an impact on me. These people loved Jesus and loved each other in a way that I had not seen before.

For the first few months after our move, we attended Southland regularly, often accompanied by my mother-in-law. All seemed well, and from the outside it must have seemed like the perfect scenario. But my wife and I still felt as though something was missing. Was worship truly supposed to be about entertaining sermons, loud music, and strobe lights? Our hearts longed for something different, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. Though we had not considered it seriously before that point, we decided to go to Mass at the local Catholic cathedral. Both of us were nervous as we entered the cathedral and found a seat. “What if they smell the Protestant on us, Erin?” I asked semi-jokingly. We had been to Mass a couple of times before, but neither time were we fully engaged or remotely tuned into what was happening there. This time, however, we were very aware of our surroundings. When the people next to us stood, we stood, and when they knelt, we knelt. How very strange this experience was for someone who had grown up in a church where sitting throughout the service was the norm, and the only time the congregation spoke was to sing a hymn or offer an occasional “amen.” These people seemed like robots, chanting after the priest, who led them in these odd rituals. Though the Mass did not make sense to us at the time, it piqued our curiosity and set us on a course to investigate this “Catholic thing.”

Our investigation centered at first on the conversion stories of other Protestants turned Catholic. The Journey Home program on EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) I had long been familiar with. I had begun watching it while I was still in college. Looking back, I cannot remember what my initial motivation was for watching it as a college student, because I was at that time not considering Catholicism, but the episodes took on a new meaning to me once I began considering the Catholic Church seriously. Story after story, I found myself being drawn into the lives of many people, like myself, who had searched for answers and finally had found them in the Church of Rome. “Why couldn’t that be us?” I often pondered. Programs like The Journey Home provided my wife and me with a safe way to engage with Catholicism without the threat of being “found out.”

Books, like Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie, also played a role in breaking down barriers between myself and becoming Catholic. I remember becoming excited and re-reading portions of the book to my wife at night. Also, Bishop Robert Barron’s video series “Catholicism” played a major role in our eventual conversion. Displaying the Church in all her beauty and universality opened my eyes to the incredible breadth of Catholicism. Truth after truth emerged before my eyes. Catholics actually had good reasons for their beliefs! I found out that the Catholic Church has taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the earliest days of Christianity, that Jesus established a hierarchical order to safeguard the Church, and that Peter was truly the first pope. These revelations, along with many others, swept over me like a tidal wave.

Of these revelations, one of the most exciting to discover, and at the same time the scariest, was the Church’s teaching on justification. I was relieved to find that the Church did not teach the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” but I was also concerned about what that might imply. I quickly found out that the Church taught that a Christian can, after initially being justified by God, sin against Him in such a way as to sever the relationship with his or her Creator. As with all things that the Catholic Church teaches, there is scriptural support for the assertions she makes. I remember looking to verses such as 1 John 5:16 and seeing the differentiation between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death (mortal and venial sin). I also learned that priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive my sins and to restore the life of grace that is lost through my disobedience (John 20:23). As a Baptist, I had been taught that no sin could separate me from my life in Christ, and yet the Bible clearly showed me otherwise. The truth had been hiding in the very book that I carried back and forth to the Baptist church of my youth. Answers were coming, and I welcomed them.

As our objections to the Catholic Church continued to fall, the ominous realization that we needed to become Catholic became something we could not “shelve” or mentally evade any longer. When Erin and I both concluded that Rome was our destination, we took the next step in our journey and joined adult faith formation classes. Having intellectually grappled with the Church for months on our own, we decided to stop by our local cathedral parish to pray. Though we were seated several pews away from one another, we both began to sob as we prayed. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Enough waiting, come follow me.” Though our intellectual battle had not completely ended, it was safe to say that our hearts had “caught up.” So we joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), formed wonderful relationships with faithful Catholics and aspiring converts, and finally arrived at our confirmation day. On February 23, 2014, filled with joy and anticipation, my wife and I were sealed with sacred chrism and graced by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The finish line then became the starting gate as we entered fully into the life of the Church — the Church that Jesus Christ Himself had established on St. Peter some 2,000 years ago.

Proclaiming the Invitation to the Feast

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends his servants out to gather people for a great feast at his home. After many of society’s prominent figures had rejected the master’s call, in verse 23 the master commands the servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring in anyone who will come to the feast. I definitely feel that I am one of those who has been graced by the master’s call to the peripheries, that I must respond by going out to those in need. I am now the leader of a local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate which seeks to take the truth of the Church to the streets, to those who have not heard it before or who had rejected it at some time in the past. The reality is that the Church needs voices to proclaim the good news of Christ and His Church. God can use the most unlikely avenues, as He did in my story, to convert souls.

In the past two years, since being received into the Church, my family has seen the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way. Since our Confirmation, my sister has become Catholic, my mother-in-law was received into the Church on Christ the King Sunday of 2015, and my grandmother was confirmed during the Easter Vigil this year. The Lord truly is good, His love truly does endure forever, and His faithfulness endures through all generations (Psalm 100:5).”

Love,
Matthew

Lunch w/an atheist


-by Trent Horn

“I was sitting in a booth at a restaurant in San Diego waiting for the religious equivalent of a “blind date” to begin.

A few weeks earlier, some Catholic friends of mine asked me to meet with their son while he was home from college. They wanted me to speak to him because he told his parents he wasn’t going to church with them anymore because he was now an atheist. They asked me, “Can you help him see he needs to start going back to church? Can you help him get over all this atheist stuff?”

Then their son, who I’ll call Vincent, walked through the door. I raised my hand and he did his best to manage half a smile before he sat down.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Good, I’m Trent.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I didn’t expect this to go very well and, to be frank, I understood his lack of enthusiasm about having lunch with me. That’s why I decided just to be honest with him.

“You think I’m here to talk you back into being Catholic again?”

“Sure, it’s why my parents kept asking me to see you,” he said.

“Look, I don’t think there’s anything I can say that’s going to make you change what you believe. I just think you should believe in something because you think it’s true, not just because it’s convenient for you. Does that make sense?”

He nodded in agreement.

“How about this. Why don’t you just tell me why you’re an atheist.”

“I know you wrote a book on atheism, so I’m not going to debate you,” he shot back.

“I don’t feel like debating anybody over a plate of mozzarella sticks,” I responded. “I just want to find out what you believe, that’s all.”

So for the next twenty minutes I asked him questions. What do you mean by the term “atheist”? What are the best arguments for and against God? What are the worst? What do you think are the good and bad things about the Catholic Church?

By the time our entrees arrived we were having a good discussion. I gently challenged some of his atheistic beliefs but, true to my word, it wasn’t a debate. It was just two guys having a deep conversation.

As I dipped my quesadilla into some salsa I said to Vincent, “I think I’ve got a good grasp on why you’re an atheist and I actually like talking to people like you. You’ve given this issue a lot of thought, and if I’m wrong about atheism I’d want someone like you to show me where I’m wrong.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“But it’s a two-way street, Vincent. Be honest. If you were wrong about the Catholic Church, would you want someone like me to show you what you were wrong about?”

He took a sip of his soda while he thought the question over, and finally said, “Yeah, I’d be open to that.”

“Okay, well, I’ve spent a lot of time asking you questions, so now it’s your turn. Why don’t you ask me about what Catholics believe and I’ll tell you why we believe that stuff. You can take my reasons or leave them, but I think your parents will be happy that we at least talked about them.” Vincent agreed and we kept at it for another hour.

As the check came, he said to me, “I appreciate what you said. I’ll definitely think about all of it.”

“And I’ll think about what you said,” I replied. “Remember, it’s a two-way street.”

A Common Desire

I don’t look at people who’ve left the Catholic Church or who aren’t Catholic as potential “customers.” They’re just people. They have things they love and things they hate. They may differ from me in lots of ways, but they almost certainly have one thing in common with me: they don’t want to be ignorant and they do want to be happy. I became Catholic in high school because 1) I thought it was true, and 2) finding answers to my deepest questions about existence and purpose made me happy.

It would be selfish for me to keep to myself the peace and joy I receive from being Catholic, so I share this “good news” with others. My aim in Why We’re Catholic is simple: to explain why Catholics believe what they believe. I haven’t given every explanation I can think of, because most people aren’t in a rush to read a book that is so thick it can double as a step-stool. Instead, I’ve presented the reasons that made the biggest impact on me during my conversion to the Catholic faith.

If you are Catholic, this book should give you a great starting point for discussions with your non-Catholic friends and family. If you aren’t Catholic, then I hope, you will at least be willing to hear me out, like Vincent did. Even if it doesn’t convince you, it should help you have more thoughtful conversations with Catholic friends and family, because you will better understand their point of view.

Whoever you are, whether you’re a believer, a skeptic, or you’re just not sure what you believe, I hope at a minimum this book will encourage you to follow an ancient piece of wisdom: “Test everything, retain what is good.”

Love,
Matthew

The search for truth – Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler is a former atheist who was born and raised with the natural materialist worldview that says, “If you can see it and touch it, then it is real.” Influenced by her atheist father, who told her, “Seek truth and do not believe assumptions,” from early childhood she sought answers to her many questions that eventually brought her to an unexpected destination.


-by Jennifer Fulwiler

“One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)

By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable. A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the well-worn path of people who are trying to run from something that haunts them: I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn’t know what I knew.

A Guy Named Joe

A year after I graduated from college, I met a guy at work named Joe. I was so impressed with him but I didn’t think I had much of a chance. He’d grown up poor, raised by a single mother, and had gone on to get degrees from Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. People who knew him said he was one of the smartest people they’d ever met. So when we began dating, I was thrilled. Our life together turned out to be even better than I could have imagined: We traveled the world on whims, ate at the finest restaurants, flew first class, and threw epic parties on the roof of his loft downtown. On top of that, both of our careers were taking off, so our future held only more money and more success.

We were a perfect couple. The only thing we didn’t see the same way was the issue of religion. A few months after we started dating, it came out that Joe not only believed in God, but considered himself a Christian. I did not understand how someone who was perfectly capable of rational thought could believe in fairy tale stories like those of Christianity. Did he believe in Santa Claus too?

It didn’t cause any problems between us, though, since we had the same basic moral code: he didn’t practice this bizarre faith of his in any noticeable way, and, mainly, I did not want to think about it. At all. Whenever the subject of God came up, something deep within me recoiled. Not that I had any problem demolishing silly theist ideas — it had been something of a hobby back in college — but the subject took me too close to that thing I was trying to forget. I had constructed my entire life around not thinking about it, so I never articulated what it was. It had been so buried by the parties and the socializing and the breathless running from place to place that it was no longer a specific concept, just some dark, cold amorphous knowledge I needed to avoid.

Joe and I married in a theater in 2003, reciting vows we wrote ourselves, with me wearing a dark purple dress. The plan was that marriage would be just a stepping stone along the path we were already on. But then I discovered I was pregnant, and everything changed.

Motherhood Turns My Life Upside Down

Motherhood caught me completely off guard. I’d grown up as an only child in a culture where nobody I knew had more than two kids living at home. I never had a friend whose mom had a baby during the time of our friendship. And considering that I’d never wanted kids and had some minor medical issues that made me think I probably couldn’t have them anyway, I was utterly unprepared for motherhood. The physical, mental, and emotional changes I went through after the birth of my son were a hard blow, like a punch to the head that comes out of the blue, and it left me reeling.

This cataclysmic event unearthed all those old thoughts about meaninglessness, and this time there was no re-burying them. Now that I had a child, it felt like my life had more meaning than ever. The dark-haired, blue-eyed baby felt so valuable; my own life was flooded with hope and joy at his presence. But with none of the usual distractions in place, the facts of the matter now descended upon me: There was nothing transcendent about my son’s life, my life, or any of the love I felt for him. He was destined for the same fate as the rest of us, to have his entire existence erased upon his inevitable death.

For weeks, I hardly got out of bed. Some combination of severe sleep deprivation and more severe depression left me almost catatonic. But then one morning, as I looked at the baby in the pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window, I felt something new within me. It was something that was not despair, some unfamiliar yet welcome feeling. I peeled back the layers to find that it was doubt: Doubt of my purely materialist worldview, doubt of the truth I had believed since childhood that there is nothing transcendent about the human life.

I considered that in almost every single time and place throughout human history, people have believed in some kind of spiritual realm. Almost every human society we know of has shared the belief that there is more to life than meets the eye, that what transpires here in the material world somehow reverberates into the eternal. Previously I had assumed that the vast majority of the billions of people who had ever lived were all simply ignorant; now I wondered if maybe I was the one who was missing something.

My First Christian Book

A few months later, I stumbled across a Christian book. I’d never been in the Religion section of a bookstore, let alone read anything about Christianity. I’d only picked up this book because the author claimed to be a former atheist, and I was curious to see what level of fraud he was. After flipping through the first few pages, I was surprised to find that I believed that he had been an atheist. I read a few more pages, and found his writing to be clear and basically reasonable. Obviously he’d come to the wrong conclusions, but I could respect the fact that he at least attempted to reason his way into his current belief system, rather than basing it on some emotional experience. I found that I couldn’t put the book down, and ended up buying it (loudly noting to the cashier that it was a gift for a friend).

A quick internet search showed that the book was widely scorned by atheists, and some of their counter-points to the author’s arguments were good. But it was simply not true to say that there was nothing compelling about it. For example, the book pointed out that thousands of Jewish people abandoned the sacred practices that had sustained them through centuries, through all types of persecution, in the years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Almost all of Jesus’ original followers went to their death rather than recant their statements that they’d seen Him rise from the dead. Christianity spread like wildfire in the early centuries, despite the fact that becoming a Christian often meant persecution or even death.

I had never seen Jesus as anything other than a silly fairy tale figure whom people called upon to give a divine thumbs-up to self-serving beliefs, but now I was intrigued by the man as a historical figure. Something happened in first-century Palestine, something so big that it still sends shockwaves down to the present day. And it all centered around the figure of Jesus Christ. As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a guy who claimed to be God. That’s an easy claim to disprove if it’s not true.

One afternoon, shortly after I finished the book, I was caught off guard by a thought: What if it’s true?

What if there were a God? What if He chose to enter history as a human being? It was the most shattering thought that had ever crossed my mind. Never once in my life, not even as a child, had I considered that a personal God might exist, or that there could be even a shred of truth to any of Christianity’s supernatural claims. I quickly came to my senses and admonished myself to stop this silliness. Part of me wondered if I was losing my mind — what else could explain such a thought?

I wanted to forget all about this embarrassing little incident … but I couldn’t. Some strange feeling had risen up within me, that wouldn’t let me walk away from this subject. I figured that it must be simple curiosity. All I needed to do was read a bit more about Christianity, then when I was overwhelmed with the obvious flaws in its theology, I could move on.

Plunging Into the Deep End of the Pool

I bought another Christian book, this one called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, this was not going to help me extricate myself from this religion.

Lewis was reasonable and obviously intelligent. His book was one of the most clear, well-written things I’d read in a long time. I was particularly captivated by his case for the Natural Law, in which he proposed that God is the source of all that we call “good,” which is why people in all times and places have had the same basic ideas about what is good and what is bad. My curiosity piqued, I then read excerpts online from the great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. I began to think that this religion was not opposed to reason at all — in fact, some of the most intelligent, reasonable people in history were Christians.

I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I’d ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one. I was alternately baffled and horrified by what I read in the first few hundred pages. Joe encouraged me to read the second part of the book, called the New Testament, since that is where Jesus comes into the picture. That didn’t help. There was no clear call to action, like, “If you like what you’ve read here and would like to become a Christian, here’s what you do.” I had no idea how to interpret most of the passages, and it seemed like no one else did either. When I would search online for whether or not the Bible said abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, etc. were right or wrong, I encountered as many different answers as there were people, with each person citing Bible verses to back up his or her personal view. Similarly, I had no idea which church to go to if I wanted to ask someone questions in person: In my community there was everything from Church of Christ to Jehovah’s Witnesses to conservative Baptist to liberal Anglican churches, each one claiming to be based on the Bible, yet they all taught drastically different things about what constitutes sin.

This was a huge problem. If God is all that is good, then to define what is bad — in other words, sin — is to define the very boundaries of God Himself. It was nonsensical to suggest that His religion would be confused on that issue.

I’d found what I was looking for: the flaw that showed that Christianity didn’t make sense. It was time to move on.

What’s This with the Catholic Intellectuals?

Shortly after I came to this realization, someone I’d encountered online made a crazy suggestion: he said that I’d been approaching the whole thing from a very modern and distinctly American perspective, that the traditional understanding of Christianity is totally different. He suggested that Jesus founded just one Church before He left the earth, and that He instilled it with supernatural power so that it would accurately articulate the truth about what is good — and therefore about what is God — for all times and places. As if that weren’t crazy enough, he was talking about the Catholic Church!

Joe and I both balked. Joe said that Catholicism wasn’t real Christianity, and I knew that the Church was an archaic, oppressive, sexist institution. Besides, this idea of supernaturally-empowered people was just silly.

However, I did notice something: almost all the people who had impressed me with their ability to defend their faith through reason alone, both famous authors and people online, were Catholic. In fact, the more I paid attention, the more I saw that the Catholic intellectual tradition was one of the greatest in the world. I began reading books by Catholic authors; not that I was really interested in Catholicism, I told myself — I was just looking for something good to read. But I couldn’t help but admit that these people seemed to possess an understanding of the world and the human experience that I’d never encountered before. They had the same solid grasp on science and the material world as the atheists, but also possessed a knowledge of the movements of the human soul that resonated as true down to the core of my being.

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this Catholic stuff, and still vehemently disagreed with the Church on some of its crazier ideas, like its opposition to abortion and contraception. But I had to admit that the more I read about Catholic theology, the more sane it seemed.

I also began to think that it was more likely than not that God does exist, and that if the Christians weren’t entirely right, they were at least close with their understanding of Him. But why, then, had I had no experience of Him? Not that this was a requirement for me to believe, but it just seemed like if there were a God out there and He cared about me, I would sense His presence in some way.

I’d been under a lot of stress between having a new baby and some money problems we were experiencing, plus I’d developed a severe pain in my leg that was almost debilitating. All along I’d prided myself on saying that I would never convert based on emotional experience, that I only needed facts, not feelings. But now it was getting old. It was hurtful to think that God might be out there but just withholding comfort from me. I was tired of pressing forward in this pursuit with no sense of His presence. I could be miserable and feel alone in the universe as an agnostic — why bother with this religion business if that didn’t change anything?

Will It Work? An Experiment

My feelings of frustration and resentment toward God reached a head. And then, just at the right time, I happened to come across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he pointed out:

[God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.

Of course. I’d been walking around talking trash, watching TV shows that portrayed all types of nastiness, indulging in selfish behavior … and yet wondering why I couldn’t feel the presence of the source of all goodness. I realized that, if I were serious about figuring out if God exists or not, it could not be an entirely intellectual exercise. I had to be willing to change.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sign up for that for the long haul, but I decided to give it a shot: I committed to go a month living according to the Catholic moral code. I bought a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of the Church’s teachings, and studied it carefully, living my life according to what it taught, even in the cases where I wasn’t sure the Church was right.

My goal with the experiment had been to discover the presence of God; instead, I discovered myself — the real me. I had thought that cynicism, judgmentalness, and irritability were just parts of who I was, but I realized that there was a purer, better version of me buried underneath all that filth — what the Church would call sins — that I had never before encountered.

I found that the rules of the Church, that I had once perceived to be a set of confining laws, were rules of love; they defined the boundaries between what is love and what is not. It had changed me, my life, and my marriage for the better. I may not have experienced God, but by following the teachings of the Church that was supposedly founded by Him, I had experienced real love.

Following the teachings about contraception had been moot since I was pregnant with our second child, but I did read up on it during my experiment of following the Church’s teachings. And, to my great surprise, I discovered that the Church had incredibly reasonable defenses of its points. I asked Joe to take a look at this stuff in case I was missing something, and, to his own amazement, he also found the Church’s arguments to be airtight. He had been doing his own investigation into Catholicism, and this was the final issue that had been troubling him too. We looked at each other, and for the first time dared to ask: Are we going to become Catholic?!

Medical and Moral Complications

Only two weeks after we had that thought, that pain in my leg got so bad that I ended up in the ER. I was seven months pregnant with our second child, and it turned out that I had a deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening blood clot in a major vein. If the clot had broken free, I likely would have died.

After some testing, the doctors delivered worse news: I have a genetic clotting disorder that means that my blood clots easily — and I inherited it from both parents, which makes it worse. On top of that, it is exacerbated by pregnancy, which makes pregnancy dangerous for me.

I had a lot of time to mull over this turn of events: the clot couldn’t be treated during pregnancy, and the pain was so severe that I could no longer walk on my own. So I spent most of my days lying in bed, wondering what to do now.

To treat the clot postpartum, the doctors wanted to prescribe an FDA Category X drug to treat the clot — it’s so dangerous for pregnancy that women often choose to be sterilized before they take it. They told me that my clotting disorder means I should not have any more children, because of the risk that pregnancy poses to my health. I didn’t want them to think I was religious for fear of what they’d think of me, but when I hinted at the question of using Natural Family Planning (a method for spacing children that the Church deems morally acceptable), they laughed. Someone with my condition had to use contraception, they said. There was no choice.

Fatigued by the constant pain, overwhelmed by medical bills that were piling up by the thousands, I began to slide back away from this religion, tumbling down a slope that ended back in atheism. I hadn’t minded changing in the sense of not using the F-word so much, but this was a whole different ball game. To stick with the Church now would be to lose my life as I knew it, and to set out down an unfamiliar, frightening path.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to the basics of the way I’d been taught to work through problems since childhood. My dad, my parent from whom I got my religious views (or lack thereof), had not raised me to be an atheist as much as he’d raised me to seek truth fearlessly. “Never believe something because it’s convenient or it makes you feel good,” he’d always say. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this true?’”

And so I set everything else aside, and clung to the simple question: What is true?

I quickly realized then that this was not in question, and hadn’t been for a while. For weeks now, I had known on an intellectual level that I believed what the Church taught. What stalled me had not been a hesitation of whether or not it was true; it had been a hesitation of not wanting to sacrifice too much.

I had no idea how things would work out. I thought there was a fair chance that this step would lead us to financial ruin, and may even take a serious toll on my health. But I decided, for the first time in a long time, to choose what was true instead of what was comfortable. Joe and I signed up to begin the formation process at our parish church. And, in the first statement of faith I’d ever made, I told my doctors that I would not use contraception, because I was Catholic.

God Helps Us Home

After that moment, a bunch of fortuitous events occurred that smoothed the way for us to become Catholic. A series of windfalls gave us the money we needed to manage our medical bills. After they got over their initial shock at encountering someone who wouldn’t contracept, my doctors came up with creative solutions to keep me healthy. Even after a surprise positive pregnancy test came at the worst possible time, just a few weeks after I’d healed from the blood clot, a bunch of startling coincidences played out to help us stay afloat during that difficult time.

The next spring, three days before Joe and I would be received into the Church, it was time for my first confession. As I approached the confessional, I had no hesitation. I had an intellectual understanding that God is the source of goodness, and that therefore it’s important that we take great care to repent when we have done something bad. But I’d already privately confessed all these sins in my head, so I figured that telling them to the priest, who was simply standing in for Jesus, would be redundant — after all, Jesus had already heard all this stuff.

But as soon as I heard the words coming from my mouth, everything changed. To hear all of these selfish, cowardly, hateful acts articulated with real words, for another human being to hear, was more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Tears began to flow, and, as I continued recounting every unloving thing I’d ever done, I shook and sobbed. Never could I have imagined the impact it would have on me to hear of my own sins, spoken out loud; but never could I have imagined how much it would impact me to hear the words, spoken by the​ priest on behalf of God, that I was forgiven. I walked away from the confessional in a daze, and slid into a pew in the silent church. I knew that my life had just changed, never to be the same again.

Later that night, around midnight, I stepped out on the back porch. When I was younger I used to avoid going outside at night when it was quiet and still, because it would trigger memories of all those ominous thoughts about meaninglessness that I was trying to forget. The darkness outside was too familiar, as if it had all spilled out from somewhere within me. But as I stood there that night after my first confession, I realized that all that was gone. The darkness within me was simply not there anymore. In its place was peace, and an unmistakable feeling of love. For the first time, I felt the presence of God.”

Love,
Matthew