Can We Learn from a Catholic Convert?
Not to worry. Though some of my tribe have swum the Tiber, most notably of late Jason Stellman, I am not planning to join them. I fear I might drown.
Yet recently, tooling around the internet, I came across a column by a British professor of U.S history which might challenge us and from which we might learn a few things. It’s titled I'm a Catholic because I'm a screw-up.
The writer tells us why he converted to Catholicism:
I converted to Catholicism not because I was full of religious chauvinism or intellectual conviction but because it offered hope to someone who was very alone. I was burnt out and mostly drunk. I had struggled to find a church that would help me; all of them seemed either compromised or hopelessly idealistic. Slowly I was drawn into the Catholic community. Here was a place where monks drank beer, priests smoked like chimneys and filthy jokes were at a premium. It wasn't hypocritical, just human. And behind the humanity was a concern with encountering the divine – made possible by a very practical, step-by-step approach to salvation. Go to Confession, make penance, take Communion at Mass, buy the priest a pint afterwards. As soon as I understood Catholicism, it became second nature. I converted and my soul was saved. I suspect that my life was saved, too.
He tells us why having converted he remains a Catholic:
Here’s why I stay Catholic: Whenever I find myself wanting to walk out the door, some inner voice tells me, “Nah, stick around. It’s just about to get interesting.” I like to think that’s the voice of God.
This speaks to me. There’s often a presumption – because of our line on sexual morality – that Catholics are prudes and bigots who wouldn't know a good time if it booked them a room for two with Monica Lewinsky at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The reality is quite the opposite. Catholicism is a community of sinners seeking grace, taking strength in each other’s company – a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for screw-ups. As such, I've never known an environment more compassionate and comfortably eccentric.
Since then, I have never once doubted the Truth of the Church’s teachings, but I have struggled to be faithful. If I skip Mass it’s usually because the petty minutiae of the rest of my life distracts me. Things go wrong, hope is lost and it feels like Jack Daniels is the only man who understands me. But something wonderful always draws me back. A few weeks ago, I visited my favourite priest in his rectory. I saw the light glowing under his kitchen door, tasted the smell of Marlboro Reds on my tongue and heard a babble of mad voices discussing what’s wrong and what’s right about this Argentine Pope. I opened the door and walked in to love, knowing that I was returning home to my tribe. The tribe of screw-ups.
Here are a few observations:
(1) I have sung Just As I Am for as long as I can remember, sometimes over and over again while waiting for sinners to come to the Lamb of God by walking the aisle. However, I often doubt we mean “Come as you are.” Too often what we communicate, and, I think probably mean, is, “Come as you are, but you better be different as soon as you do.”
Regeneration is supposed to do such a number on you that you find yourself irresistibly compelled to be better quick and stay that way. We want to know your past only for comparison’s sake - and maybe for your testimony of transformation. Don’t tell us about your “relapses” or we'll doubt you are converted, or we'll lay the wood to you to get your attention and straighten you out - all in love, of course. It seems, at least in the British professor’s experience, you really can come as the sinner you are, and the struggling sinner you’ll remain. They'll take you and let you stay.
I have discovered that one of the reasons (and it is only one) that some conservative Presbyterians find more fellowship in AA than in church is because everybody in AA is a mess-up, and you can talk freely about about your being a mess-up, while in church you have to keep up appearances. The cliche-ridden, ultimately Christ-denying fellowship of AA is no substitute for genuine Christian fellowship, but it is for many better than no fellowship or fellowship based on pretense when it comes to the truth about who you are.
(2) I don't believe in telling filthy jokes - earthy ones, sometimes in some company, but down and dirty ones, no. I surely do not believe that there is any truly good time to be had by being booked into a Las Vegas hotel room with Monica Lewinsky.
But I also know there is a difference between holiness and prudishness. I think what the Catholic convert is saying is that he found real humanity and human approachability within the Roman church. Not the hypocrisy of those who pretend faith while having no commitment to Christ, but real human beings.
Interestingly in the PCA it seems that those on the right and left, distinguished from those in the middle, best understand that you can be human and enjoy life in the flesh while not being fleshly. At post-recess gatherings at General Assembly, which groups are most likely to feature bourbon and Scotch (single malt, of course, for the snooty), cigars and pipes? You guessed it.
But there is more to it than enjoying the “mercies” (as John Murray once described Scotch). It has to do with authenticity (and I hate using the word just because it is so trendy), with being real enough to help someone else. Sometime ago I got to know creedal Episcopal priest who was generous enough to share his time with me and to open his ear to me . On more than one occasion, he said, “You are your family are going through "hell" or through "a helluva time” (one thing, among many over a period of several years, was that our daughter-in-law Kim was dying). For me there was more grace in that response than in just about anything I experienced among my own kind. I felt he understood and cared and that he meant it when he said we were in his prayers. I'll take that over indifference, neglect, or pious cliches any day.
3) There is something about a religion that works. “And behind the humanity was a concern with encountering the divine – made possible by a very practical, step-by-step approach to salvation. Go to Confession, make penance, take Communion at Mass, buy the priest a pint afterwards.” Yes, I understand Catholic sacerdotalism and works righteousness and ex opere operato. I do not believe in automatic salvation by going to mass and receiving the sacraments.
But there is something in some forms of Protestantism, especially the revivalistic experientialist sort, that is almost as pernicious. It is the frequent questioning of what is really going on inside, of whether “ you've really got it,” of whether your heart is right, of what you are feeling. The Catholic may be required to doubt his final salvation because he does know if he will die in a state of grace. This kind of Protestant doubts his salvation because he does not know if he now is really in a state of grace. One must be examining himself even as he is worshiping, because self-deception is such a real possibility.
A healthy Reformed version of a religion that works is confidence in the ordinary means of grace. You go to worship confident that God does work though the Word, sacraments, and prayers. No, these are not alive apart from the work of the Spirit, but it is not presumptuous to believe that ordinarily the Spirit will work in conjunction with the ordinary means. The Christian may participate in these means without constantly asking if anything is happening or not, if he is really getting the needed grace or not, if he is in a state to receive the grace he needs or not. These are after all the means by which Christ has appointed for us to receive the graces of salvation. It is not that is is unusual for hearing the Word, receiving the sacraments, and participating in the prayers to work. It is unusual when they don’t.
“Catholicism is a community of sinners seeking grace, taking strength in each other’s company – a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for screw-ups... I opened the door and walked in to love, knowing that I was returning home to my tribe. The tribe of screw-ups.” My guess is that not a few Reformed Protestants would be relieved and refreshed to find that their church were a community and tribe of sinners and screw-ups needing, seeking, and finding grace - God’s and man’s.