Let me make this clear up front:
I never wanted to be a Catholic.
To begin with, I did not even see that as a serious possibility at first. As a Protestant, during my college years I had become terribly dissatisfied with the various churches that I had attended. Many were too liberal, some were biblically unsound, some were too loud, too rowdy, too this, too that and so on. After my wife and I were married, we desperately wanted to be a part of a church community, but we never could find one that fit us just right.
Yet of all the Christian denominations and churches that we considered over the years, I would honestly have to say that Catholicism was one of the last on the list. When we were searching, the prevalent view in our American Christian society seemed to be:
“Choose any church you want… as long as it is not Catholic.”
This was never spoken, of course. In conversations with Protestant friends and family members, there was never any blatant bad-mouthing of Catholics, never any overt anti-Catholicism. There was never any spoken prohibition against joining the Catholic Church. But the prohibition was always there nonetheless, somewhere right below the surface, along with a thousand other prejudices against the Catholic Church, which I will touch on in future posts.
The point is, and it bears repeating, I never wanted to be a Catholic.
In fact, during the period in which I found myself moving steadily, inevitably, unavoidably toward the Roman Catholic Church, I resisted just as strongly as a child resists being dragged off to the dentist for a yearly checkup. I used every means at my disposal to put off my ultimate conversion; I reasoned, I argued, I flat out refused. And yet in the end, I converted.
Why would I, a rabidly individualistic American Protestant in the 21st Century, a young man who despises all forms of authority, who has from childhood despised authority, who has always insisted on independence, liberty and autonomy in all things, who has always insisted on doing his own thing when and how he wants it, a man who was once a fierce proponent of Sola Scriptura, why would I convert to Roman Catholicism?
For a complete answer to this question, I suppose I would need to write a rather lengthy book, and even then, I would certainly find at the end that I had left out much more than I had said.
So I will not attempt a complete answer. Rather I will point to three major reasons why I chose to join the Catholic Church and why, when all is said and done, I feel that I made the only decision that I could have made.
Before I get to the reasons, however, I must mention briefly that if not for my mother, I do not think that I would have converted to Catholicism. This does not at all mean that she forced me to or that I did it to please her in some way. In fact, if truth be told, I tried at first to prevent her from converting! Or at least, I attempted to seriously hinder, weaken and undermine her studies of the Faith. Yet in doing so, in challenging her own growing belief in the Catholic Church during long-drawn-out conversations over countless cups of coffee at the kitchen table, and sometimes in ridiculing and mocking certain doctrines, I found myself struck by the profound theological depth and soundness of the Catholic Church.
I had begun by playing Devil’s advocate to her, and ending by being drawn into the very Church I had been deriding.
Anyway, that point must be made before the other three, because without it, I never would have even seriously considered the rest.
I had originally intended to do all three of these reasons in one post, but I soon realized that it would be entirely too long. So I decided to split them into three parts.
Now for the first reason:
History and Authority
Who speaks for Christ on Earth?
This is a tough question, but it is one that must be central when deciding which Christian denomination to join.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, “there were 217 denominations listed in the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.” This does not include the “over 35,000 independent or nondenominational churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents” in the United States [source].
Every one of these denominations claims the authority to speak for Jesus Christ. Of course, they may not claim it in those words, and they might even deny that statement if you put it to them like that. But in claiming the authority to interpret the Scriptures and in claiming the authority to define teachings, doctrines and matters of faith, these denominations are thereby assuming the authority to act and speak for Jesus in Earth.
Which of them is right?
Are any of them right?
And here we come back to the question again:
Who speaks for Christ on Earth?
Now I am not going to conduct a survey of all the major denominations in the United States and attempt to pick apart who is right and who is wrong, which are correct and which are wildly incorrect in their teachings. For starters, this would take a more skilled theologian than I could ever hope to be in a thousand years. And more than this, my goal is not to attack other denominations; my goal with this post is simply to shed some light on my own personal conversion. Why did I choose the Catholic Church above all the others?
In this case, my answer is quite simple:
The Roman Catholic Church has authority.
Of all the active churches in the United States today, the Catholic Church is the only one that can claim a legitimate authority to speak for Christ in our present world. Now some of you may be react to that statement with something like:
“ARE YOU SAYING THE POPE THINKS HE SPEAKS WITH THE VOICE OF CHRIST?! THE POPE THINKS HE IS JESUS?!”
And to this I have to say two things:
First of all, turn off your Caps Lock and stop screaming at me.
Secondly, I am not saying that at all. I am simply saying that as the Church vested with authority by Jesus Christ Himself, the Catholic Church is the only one on Earth today that can claim a logical and legitimate authority to interpret Scripture.
I will come back to this idea shortly.
Now, am I saying that all other churches have no authority? Not necessarily. You might make the argument for other churches, but as for my own personal belief, I cannot accept any authority as being as logical and as firm as that of the Catholic Church.
This is important to my conversion because as I mentioned already, I am a man who has never liked authority. Ever since I was a child, (and my parents can attest to this) I have never liked anyone telling me what to do. As I grew and matured as a Christian, however, I had to accept that the Lord desired men in authority over me, whether through secular government or through church leadership. Once I accepted this, I came to another realization.
If I am going to allow a church to have authority over me, it better be the right one!
In other words, I was not going to accept the teaching and, possibly, the reprimands of just any church. It had to be a church that had an unshakeable authority, a church that was so firm in its teachings and so theologically well-thought-out and so grounded in the Word of Christ that I would be comfortable submitting to it. After these realizations and after much prayerful searching and study, I came to the only logical conclusion for me:
It had to be the Roman Catholic Church.
There are many reasons why I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the only church with such authority, and I cannot go into every single one right now. Let me instead focus on two.
The first is this:
Jesus Himself established the Catholic Church.
Now again, I may have ruffled some feathers with that statement, but any reasonable Christian can at least accept that Jesus wanted one, unified church. He intended for His Church to be united. Every time that Jesus speaks of the Church in Scripture, and any time Paul or any of the other Biblical authors speaks of the Church, they always speak of it in the singular. Always.
Many Protestants will argue (and I know this, because I would have argued it at one time) that when the “Church” as such is spoken of, this refers to the mystical body of all believers wherever they are on Earth and in whatever denomination. And that is correct. The Church with a capital “C” is composed of all Christians everywhere.
But to take that idea and then to make the leap that Jesus actually wanted over 35,000 independent churches, each with their own leadership and teachings, and that He wanted His believers dispersed, spread out over so many different groups, to say that this is what He meant when He spoke of His Church, that is absurd.
No, when Christ spoke of His Church, I believe that He meant an actual, single church group. In that case, the Catholic Church is the only extant group that can lay claim to that designation.
How can they claim this?
The Roman Catholic Church is able to trace its authority back through history to the actual Apostles and thus, to Jesus Christ Himself. One of the passages in Scripture that is often used to demonstrate this is in Matthew 16.
In the Gospel, shortly after Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus blesses him and says in verse 18, “…Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Catholics claim that Jesus is stating that He will build His Church upon Peter. Thus, Peter is the first Pope and thus, the authority of the Church flows from Christ to Peter and on through history to the leaders of the Catholic Church.
Protestants meanwhile point out that Jesus was only using a slight play on words related to the name Peter. Therefore in this interpretation, Jesus is saying that Peter (Petros) is correct in claiming Him as Christ and upon this rock (petra), the idea that Jesus is Christ, the church will be built.
This is the interpretation that I would have accepted up until a few months ago. There is a problem with it, however.
There is no play on words in what Jesus says.
There can be no play on words, because Jesus was speaking Aramaic, a language that had only one word for rock: kepha. Thus, what Jesus said was, “Thou art Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build my church.”
Put this way, it becomes much more apparent that what Jesus was actually saying was that He would build His Church upon Peter, upon Kepha. This is even more obvious when you realize that Kepha (Cephas) was a nickname of this man, Simon, and it was a nickname that Jesus Himself had bestowed upon him. Jesus knew when giving Simon this nickname that He was later going to make him the bedrock of the Church. Jesus meant for Peter to lead the Church. This makes much more sense especially when seen in the context of the very next verse, Mt. 16:19:
“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus is giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom,” the very sign of authority.
Peter was to be the leader of the Church after Jesus was taken from this Earth.
And as we see from the various descriptions later in the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere, this is exactly what happens. Peter becomes the leader of the Church. From Peter, the other leaders of the early Church take their authority, because Peter has the authority directly from Christ Himself.
It is in this way that the Catholic Church can claim authority; they can trace their leadership all the way back through the years to the early Church and to Peter, and thus to Christ.
This is called Apostolic Succession, and it is a matter of provable, historical fact.
No other church, and certainly no American Protestant church, many of which can only trace their history back a couple of decades or a couple of centuries at best, can reasonably make such a claim.
The Catholic Church, however, is deeply rooted in history. It is this history and Tradition, established over two thousand years and grounded in the actual words of Jesus Christ while on Earth, that give the Catholic Church an authority above and beyond any other denomination.
This mention of Tradition brings me to my last point in this section, and I will make this one quickly because I am already writing much more than I intended.
Throughout my entire life I have believed firmly in Sola Scriptura, the notion that the Bible Alone has authority. The teachings of man thus have no weight unless they line up with the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures. In other words, if something cannot be proven from the Scriptures, it is probably a false teaching. It was this idea—born out of the Protestant Reformation—that I would have pointed to as a way of discounting Catholic authority and Tradition.
A problem appears, however, when we consider history once again. In order for the notion of Sola Scriptura to be true, we as Christians must have certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Scripture we are using is accurate. Now by this I do not mean that we should avoid translations and all learn Hebrew and Greek. I simply mean that we must be sure that we are using actual Scripture that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. After all, no respectable proponent of Sola Scriptura would attempt to prove a biblical point by citing a verse from the Book of Mormon.
In simple terms, we must have an accepted Canon in order to use Scripture to define anything.
Now the question becomes then:
Or perhaps it is this: who decides which books go in and which books are left out?
And once again, the trail leads us back to the Catholic Church.
For it is the Catholic Church that established the Biblical Canon. This is another fact proven by history. No other church could have claimed the authority to add or to remove books from the Bible. No other Church could have created the Bible, guided by the Holy Spirit and through the leadership of the Church in Council, the way the Catholic Church did.
Thus, it becomes apparent that the fortress of Sola Scriptura, in which I had hidden for so long, crumbles under the weight of its own bricks. For it claims to ignore or reject Catholic Tradition in favor of individual interpretation, but then turns around and uses a book that was put together under the authority of that very same Tradition.
Once Sola Scriptura crumbled out from underneath me, and once I realized that I must allow authority over me, and once I realized that there was only one real authoritative church in existence in the world, the choice was obvious, however unattractive it seemed to me at the time:
I had to become Catholic.
(Part II will continue with a discussion of Worship, how Catholics get it right, and why this was a factor in my conversion).