Discover more from The Commonplace
Swimming the Tiber, Part 2
I’m not writing this ongoing series with the charism of apologetics; I’m first and foremost a woman who’s been given the gift of communication best outputted through writing. As a latecomer, the more I learn about the whole shebang on this side of the universal Church and her storied history, the more I fully acknowledge how much I have to learn. One of my regrets in converting not until my fortieth decade is only five decades left, at most, to feast at the theological and philosophical buffet that is Catholicism. I believe that it probably takes a good five years, minimum, of spiritual formation as a Catholic before one has any gaul resembling authority to speak on matters as rich and complex as her doctrines, history, and tradition. That means my writing anything here is more aligned with the genre of memoir than treatise.
This is part of a series that builds on itself. If you haven’t yet, read the first installment: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi: Swimming the Tiber, Part 1
This thought from G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorite Catholics, summarizes well my chief reason for swimming the Tiber:
“A Catholic is a person who has plucked up enough courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that something else may be wiser than he is.”
I am a new Catholic after a lifetime of Protestantism because I fully acknowledge that, like it or not, I am a product of my age by the mere fact that I live in this age, and the chief hallmarks of this age are modernism and chronological snobbery infused with a post-Enlightenment worldview (more on this in a future installment). Old is suspect; new is informed and enlightened.
Furthermore, here in the United States we Christians automatically put the burden of proof on Catholics, not Protestants—because the dominant form of Christianity over here, by leaps and bounds, is Protestant, we ask Catholics to explain why they’re Catholic instead of ask Protestants why they’re Protestant. I didn’t realize I held this posture, but I did. I automatically held the view that Catholics have added a bunch of stuff to their Christianity, instead of the view that Protestants have taken away a bunch of stuff from their Christianity. Catholics are bombarded with questions about Mary, the Pope, purgatory, saints, and justification, while Protestants rarely stop to ask why they assume those Catholic positions are wrong—and if they are indeed wrong, why is their theology about those issues assumed correct?
This was my posture under the guise of one more admitted truth: for almost all my life, I honestly didn’t think much about Catholicism at all. As a twenty-first-century adult, I wasn’t “protesting” anything. In fact, I never really thought of myself as a Protestant at all. I simply thought of myself as a Christian. It never occurred to me to question why I was a Protestant because, from my point of view, I wasn’t a Protestant. I was just a Christian. To be frank, Catholics were those kids in high school who knew nothing about what they believed, drank at parties, and occasionally protested abortion; they were the minority sisters in my Christian sorority I didn’t quite know what to do with as the Chaplain. As an evangelical, I was given carte blanche to question whether Catholics even were Christians, acknowledging that every now and then there emerged a few solid Catholics like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Peter Kreeft. At my missions-focused Bible church, Catholics were even an “unreached people group” in quite a few countries. They held on to weird superstitions and syncretisms, they worshipped statues of Mary, and they didn’t even know what it was like to be a “real” Christian free of all that, the poor souls.
I’m throwing myself under the bus first and foremost in saying all this, because I believed every bit of this for a time. I held a mental ranking of Christians until at least my late twenties: non-denominational evangelicals were the best; then came the evangelical types that subscribed to an extra denominational title, such as Presbyterian or Baptist; followed by those suspicious mainline Protestant denominations like Methodist, Lutheran, or Episcopal; and finally, way down on the list were those Catholics, many of whom may not be saved anyway.
I thought of the Catholic Church as a denomination, as I think many well-meaning Protestants do. I pictured it as different from non-Catholic denominations—a rooted tree separated out of the ground with two trunks; one of which was the big, main tree with all the various Protestant denominations as the branches, and the other, much smaller trunk, was Catholicism as an offshoot by itself.
Today, not quite three years as a Catholic, and I picture the Church very much otherwise. This tree has Jesus as the roots, the Catholic Church as the main trunk, and two smaller offshoots of this trunk: Protestantism and Orthodoxy, where various branches of all sizes represent their many denominational traditions. It’s one tree, and anyone baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are part of its body. But the trunk is the One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church and it is the Church founded by Christ alone.
The Catholic Church can’t point to Luther, or King Henry VIII, or Calvin, or Jim Bob down the street as its founder, because it has no founder besides Christ himself. It wasn’t formed by Constantine during his reign (as some Protestant apologists claim) because it had already existed for hundreds of years. Scores of early Christian documents in the first three centuries display Catholic theology and praxis (the term “Catholic Church” was first used in 107 to describe the community of believers, with “catholic” meaning simply ‘universal’ or ‘whole’). In fact, it all started when Jesus himself told Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
The good news is that this means the Catholic Church is for everyone, and it’s the foundation of all Christians from all times and places. We are unified by our history. But we don’t all admit it …yet.
This is why I nod in complete understanding with St. John Henry Newman, a nineteenth-century Catholic convert from Anglicanism, when he said, “To be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant,” and why every week I find more evidence to the truth of twentieth-century Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s observation that, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
These two ideas, in a nutshell, are what happened to me.
After recognizing the basic premise that how we worship matters, my next question was what stared me in the face for years — for most of my thirties, undoubtedly, as I wrestled with my own view of church after having lived overseas for several years as an evangelical, cross-cultural missionary, then later as a pilgrim returning to her home culture and finding a spiritual home in the older tradition of Anglicanism:
Where are we getting all this (gestures broadly at Christian theology and culture) from? Who says this is how we “do” church? Who says the Bible is the Word of God? Who says these are the books that belong in the Bible? Who says this is how such-and-such verse is interpreted? And how do we reconcile various interpretations of said verses? Who says this is how someone becomes a Christian? Who says these are the people meant to be leaders of churches?
Billions of Christians agree that God exists and Jesus is God, but beyond that, serious differences emerge. Many say that all that matters is “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Who determines what that looks like? Is it arrogant for one Church to say they’ve got it right and other expressions of Christianity have it wrong?
Again, I’m not an apologist, but here’s where many good-willed Protestants would argue that all these answers are found in the Bible, that this is where we find all our answers for doctrine and how to live. Appealing to the Bible isn’t a bad thing; after all, all Christians do agree that it’s the inspired Word of God, and thus authoritative. This is where we could wade into “Sola Scriptura” waters a bit, but I want to get into that later. For now, my realization was this:
Jesus left a Church, not a Bible.
There’s the aforementioned moment when Jesus named Peter the rock on which he will build his church, and there’s also the basic idea that the Bible itself never prescribes itself as the only authority. In fact, the Bible describes the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), not the Bible. Jesus started a Church—a living institution full of and led by broken people, yet with authority to carry out his mission and to speak and act in his name. He started this by appointing his closest disciples, the apostles, who then (because they were mortal and would die) passed on their authority to successors.
This apostolic succession is how the Catholic Church can trace all of today’s priests, bishops, and popes, all the way to Jesus appointing the original twelve with Peter as their leader. That was absolutely wild for me to realize. The laying on of hands to appoint other leaders is a real thing, not just a symbolic gesture of “You have the right intent in starting a neighborhood church—go for it.” There’s something legit in a long line of leaders appointing their successors with Jesus at the beginning of that line.
For me, this was incredible comfort, because I had gotten to the point in my faith where I questioned absolutely everything with, “Oh yeah—says who?” If there’s no one central, authoritative Church established by Jesus, then we Christians are left to our own devices to decide what’s true and what’s not. Yes, there’s the Bible, but who’s to say how to interpret the Bible? As soon as there’s a decision made that we don’t like, or that seems fishy, or that doesn’t jibe with our modern sensibilities, we should just find another church that fits our preferences. We’ll just take our ball and play elsewhere. And as soon as that local expression of the church doesn’t fit our convictions or tastes, then time to rinse and repeat. Heck, for some people, that means starting a whole new denomination or branch off of an existing denomination. And why not, if where we are currently doesn’t seem to make sense to us?
Seeing as Jesus talked to his followers about unity more than just about anything else, it didn’t seem to me like this was what he had in mind. Why would he establish a visible Church on earth led by imperfect people, then leave them to their own devices to figure out how to do it?
This is ultimately why apostolic succession became such a hinge point for me, especially as an Anglican. Because unless the answer to “Says who?” is “Jesus says, that’s who,” then why follow a tradition made by a fellow mortal human being? If I became convinced that there is an expression of the universal Church that was literally established by Jesus himself, and not King Henry VIII, or Luther, or Calvin, or Jim Bob down the street, wouldn’t it be silly at best for me to go with one of the later-founded denominations and not the OG church? This was the hinge-point question I wrestled with.
This is why I then went to the early Church writings. It didn’t dawn on me until my search for answers that I was well-versed in the Bible, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, but that I didn’t know much else about what happened with Christians until the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century. There was a whole blank chasm in the timeline of history, and this became a head-smack “duh” for me: What did happen in those first fifteen centuries? And most importantly, what happened in those first few centuries post-Jesus on earth? After all, that’s probably where the meat of the whys and hows and wheretofores would be, since those early Christians were really close in time to the original source.
There are countless conversion stories that begin with, “Well, I began reading the early Church fathers and mothers...” Many people in Protestant schools, seminaries, and structures wonder why they’re ‘losing’ many of their faithful to the Catholic Church, and the common denominator is always that they have their students and participants read early Christian documents. It happened to St. John Henry Newman, which is why he said that to be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant. It happened to me. Those details are for next time.
In short (who are we kidding? This isn’t short), it started with the recognition that how I worship matters, and then it led to “Who says?” matters. And it was the realization that unless the answer is “Jesus says,” then why would I participate in or obey any other church expression?
Ultimately, apostolic succession was THE issue for me, because if the Catholic Church is the fullest expression of the faith, then I could submit to that truth and then wrestle with all that the Church teaches, from transubstantiation to Marian doctrines, knowing that there are smarter, wiser people than me who’ve wrestled with this a million times deeper than little me. And that the Church is very okay with me wrestling. There’s a difference between assenting and questioning, and the Church delights in our ‘yes’ even if we freely come with a bazillion questions.
As Kyle and I summed up our journey the week we came into the Church: We became tired of being our own pope. We were road-weary from carrying the burden that it was up to us to decide what was true and what wasn’t, what was the correct interpretation of Scripture, and that it was up to us to pass on this self-determined truth to our children. It was an exhausting way to be a Christian, carrying a weight none of us were meant to carry alone.
And as a couple of twenty-first-century American kids who were raised on a diet of individualism and self-determination because it’s in the very air we breathe, boy howdy was it both weird and freeing to submit ourselves to a two-thousand-year-old Church. It’s still a weird feeling!
Next time, I’ll get more into the nerdy weeds about what those early Church fathers say, why apostolic succession really does trail from St. Peter to the current Pope Francis, and why because of this succession, it was more than just doctrinal differences that made what Luther and Henry VIII and Calvin and beyond did more than just a newer way to worship Jesus. In the meantime, here are a few resources about this topic that helped me, if you’d like to dig deeper:
Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome, by Douglas Beaumont
Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be, Too), by Brandon Vogt
Stunned by Scripture: How the Bible Made Me Catholic, by John Bergsma
When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers, by Marcellino D'Ambrosio
Trent Horn’s Counsel of Trent episodes
Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Ascension Presents episodes
Long-form discussions on Pints With Aquinas (depending on my questions)
Gratefully not my own pope,
p.s. A common pushback after making the case for the Catholic Church being the OG Church is, “Okay—if that’s true, then why are there so many ‘bad’ Catholics now? Why do most of the Catholics I know not know anything about how to be a Christian? Why do lots of predominately Catholic countries have all sorts of superstitions and weird rituals?” Many times, these arguments come from folks who were raised Catholic but not well catechized and then left the Church, or even had bad experiences with the Church in their upbringing, so this is fair. These were questions I had, too — basically, if the Catholic Church is the church Jesus founded, then why the bad fruit? Again, more on this soon. But the quick answer, in case my words above leave you with this conundrum, is something Brandon Vogt encouraged me with when I asked him these questions: Don’t look at the worst examples, look at the best examples—the saints. Look at Joan of Arc, Augustine, Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Mother Theresa, Maximilian Kolbe, and countless more. Just like how Protestants wouldn’t want their faith judged solely or mostly by certain folks or expressions out there that give Christianity a bad name, let’s make sure we don’t do the same to our Catholic brothers and sisters.
And by “new,” I mean post-16th century.
Taking it further, a “follower of Jesus,” as many of us preferred to call ourselves during the late 90s and early 2000s, wincing at the old-school “Christian” label and therefore labeling me as one of the cool Jesus followers.
Again, bless my 90s-youth-group-raised self.