I came to a point of near despair last fall, when I found myself for a time in a spiritual no-man’s land. I had for many months been moving down a path leading me away from Evangelical Protestant Christianity and toward the Catholic Church. But I came to a point where I couldn’t see my way forward, but I knew I couldn’t go back. I was about two months into RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), the classes offered by the Catholic Church for those who wish to join. I found out that in order to be received into the Catholic Church the following Easter, I would need to make a public profession of the Catholic faith. In that profession, I would declare that I believed that ALL that the Catholic Church teaches is revealed by God. ALL. Not just the doctrines that led me to the Church; the sacraments, baptismal regeneration, and apostolic succession, but also the ones I wasn’t sure about; the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary, Purgatory, the intercession of Saints. I couldn’t pick and choose.
This in itself was a foreign concept to me. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a church where I have agreed with everything. I’ve always been a bit of a “cafeteria Christian”. This is not to say that I thought I knew “all truth”; I just thought no one else did either. After all, there are so many denominations teaching different doctrines, or variations of doctrines. And I had, over four and a half decades as a Christian, been a part of several of them. It seemed obvious that no one church had all the truth, although it was also obvious that many of them thought they did. To me, to make such a claim would seem to be the height of arrogance! But until that point, no church I had attended had asked of me, required of me, to publicly profess that ALL its teachings were true, and were revealed by God. In fact the hallmark of my last church was that it was a “safe place for a life changing experience”. A simple doctrinal difference would not exclude someone from full fellowship.
But then, the Catholic Church wasn’t just any church. This was the Church that claimed to be the original Christian Church, founded by Jesus Christ. I had come to accept that fact as historically accurate, through much study, prior to ever contacting a local parish to find out how one becomes a Catholic. My reading of the early Church Fathers, those leaders of the first and second century Church who were the disciples of the apostles, and their immediate successors, had convinced me that the Christian Church was basically Catholic in doctrine and practice from the beginning. I was able to understand Scripture more clearly by seeing how it was interpreted by those who learned from its authors. But doctrine had developed over the centuries, usually in response to some challenge or heresy. How could I know that error hadn’t crept in? What was the basis for the Church’s claim of infallibility? Could any church possibly be free from error?
Our Lord’s words, “with God all things are possible” encouraged me to consider the possibility that there could be a Church, still today, that taught pure truth, free from all error. After all, He made some strong promises about His church to its first leaders, His apostles. And if such a church existed, it would have to either be the original church led by the apostles, or a restored church which had existed throughout the ages as an “underground” remnant church because the leadership of the original church became at some point apostate, or which was raised up by God at some later date. There certainly are some non-Catholic Churches which make this claim (Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, Restored Church of God, probably others). The majority of Protestant Churches don’t claim that their visible Church is THE Church, but that it is a part of the “Invisible Church” made up of all Christian believers regardless of denomination.
After studying the writings of the early Church fathers, I was completely convinced of the truth of many uniquely Catholic doctrines (or unique at least to orthodox, apostolic churches: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic), in particular the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So if the Catholic Church was a mix of truth and error, then all churches were, since most Protestant churches reject transsubstantiation. This was what caused me to nearly despair. It was something I hadn’t seriously considered before, but if all churches taught at least some error, then Christian truth was either unknowable or relative. Can that possibly be what our Lord wanted? And, if all churches were a mix of truth and error, how could any Christian truly know that what he believes is Truth? Of course the pat answer is to check all doctrine against the infallible Word of God, Sacred Scripture. But I’m sure that all churches which claim to believe the infallibility of Scripture are convinced that their doctrines are scriptural. If one teaches that infants can and should be baptized, and another that they cannot, both claiming Scripture as their basis, how can a believer be sure his church has it right? The same could be said of a myriad of other doctrines, from church government and the form of worship to free will versus eternal security. These aren’t trivial differences! Yet sincere, Bible-believing Christians disagree on them. Ultimately, then, the arbiter of truth is the individual believer. We each study the Bible for ourselves and determine what we believe, then seek out a church that most closely aligns with our beliefs. So, we don’t trust that our pastor, church or denomination is infallible, but ultimately we act as though we are infallible. That is, if we trust that what we believe is the Truth. I think most believers are honest and humble enough to know that they are not infallible. Which leads us to the dilemma that we often don’t consider, that we really can’t be sure that what we believe, all of it, is true. This was something I had never given much thought to in the past, and so I hadn’t lost much sleep over it. I’ve read testimonies of Catholic converts who had been Protestant pastors, and for many of them this uncertainty that what they were teaching was the Truth was the pivotal issue which eventually led them into the Catholic Church. It’s one thing for a lay believer to have doubts about his beliefs because he sees the disparity of belief between sincere Christians, but that uncertainty takes on a much greater import if the individual is a pastor responsible for teaching truth and leading souls to heaven.
Most people reading this know that I was received into the Catholic Church this past Easter (2016). At that time, I made the profession of faith that had me so concerned the previous fall. I said, “I believe and profess all the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God”. And I meant it. How did I get from no-man’s land to being able to make this profession?
First, I realized that unity (one Church) and truth were God’s will for His Church. So if that didn’t exist, then His will has been thwarted. I could not accept that the myriad of denominations with differing beliefs and the uncertainty of doctrine was or is the will of God. When Jesus ascended to Heaven leaving behind a handful of disciples, was He taking a big risk? Was He dependent on them to build His Church? Or did He truly give them everything they needed to accomplish His will? We know that he used these men, and others who would believe through their witness, to pen the books of infallible Scripture through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Could He also use these fallible humans to build His infallible Church, through the same Holy Spirit? Was, is Jesus Christ capable, able and willing, to preserve true doctrine in the Church He promised to build? His words to Simon Peter were powerful. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. He also promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead His apostles, the first leaders of His Church, into ALL TRUTH. (John 16:13). As an Evangelical Protestant, I had believed that the one true church was invisible, not an organized entity but a spiritual body made up of all true believers in all denominations. But a study of Scripture and of the early Church point to the church as something real, tangible, visible. We are to be a ‘city set on a hill’, known to unbelievers by our love for one another and our unity. Jesus prayed that his disciples, as well as those who would come after them, would be one as He and the Father are one. And He predicted that this Church, this real visible entity, would be made up of believers and unbelievers (the wheat and the tares growing together). An invisible church which is not in agreement or unity, made up of all true believers, does not fit any New Testament description of the Church that Jesus founded, which from the beginning had a hierarchy of authority and a unity between separate congregations. So the realization that Jesus willed to build one church, which would be led into all truth, and against which the gates of hell would not prevail was my first step to coming to fully trust the Catholic Church.
The next step was understanding the relationship between the Church and Sacred Scripture. I believed, and still believe, that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God. But does it contain the full revelation of God to man? One of the pillars of the Protestant reformation is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which basically means that the Bible alone is the rule of faith for Christians and is sufficient in itself as our guide for faith and morals. It is, according to them, the full revelation of God. The Catholic Church teaches that revelation is a three-legged stool of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition (the handed-down teaching of the apostles), and the Magisterium, or teaching and interpretive authority of the Church. The Church, through the Magisterium, infallibly interprets Scripture to arrive at true doctrine. To be honest, it wasn’t difficult for me to abandon a belief in Sola Scriptura, primarily because it in itself is not taught in Scripture. I could see that it is so ingrained in Protestant doctrine that to question it is almost considered blasphemy, but as soon as I had the courage to question it, I found it to be made of straw. Jesus wrote nothing, and it is not recorded that He commanded His apostles to write. He commanded them to preach. Repeatedly, the New Testament holds up the oral preaching of the Apostles as the Word of God, and binds the conscience of believers to it. Peter, Paul and the other apostles spent decades preaching and evangelizing throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Occasionally, when the need arose, they penned letters to individuals or to local churches to address problems or put down heresies. Those letters were eventually gathered together, and determined by the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be the inspired Word of God. But did this collection of letters contain all of the apostles teaching? Paul told the Thessalonians: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). He also commended this same church for accepting the spoken, not written, word of God: “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). If the oral preaching of the apostles, the traditions Paul refers to here and elsewhere, was the Word of God, then the written Word is not the full revelation of God. The church fathers, who were disciples of the Apostles and their followers, refer often to the Traditions of the Apostles. When Justin the Martyr, writing in about 155 AD describes the rite of Baptism and the order of the Christian worship service (which is basically the same as the Catholic Mass today), he states, “this rite we learned from the apostles”. The teaching of the apostles, both oral and written, was called the “deposit of faith” by the early Church, and it was the sacred duty of the Church to guard it and hand it down just as it was received. When there was a question about doctrine or the interpretation of Scripture, as happened many times in the first centuries with various heresies, it was the Church, in Councils of Bishops, that had the final say. Many of the heretics defended their beliefs with Scripture, cherry-picking or “proof-texting” then as is done now to justify church splits. The Council Bishops refuted the various heretics not with Scripture alone, but with an appeal to Tradition, the Deposit of Faith…what the Church had in all ages believed. It was the Church, not the Bible, that Paul called “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Church was used by God to write, distribute, collect and canonize Scripture. In the court of doctrinal purity, the Church was the judge and Scripture the witness, not the other way around.
There was one last stumbling block to get over. Many Protestants believe that the early church was pure until the time of Constantine. It is thought that when Christianity became legal, pagans flooded into the church and corrupted it. Some even teach that Constantine founded the Roman Catholic Church. Myths die hard when they serve a purpose, and for many the purpose of these myths is to discredit Catholicism and justify the action of the Reformers in breaking away from the Church, a move which led to splintering in the Body of Christ which continues to this day. However, despite how widely held this belief is, a simple study of history put it to rest. I was able to see the continuity of Catholic doctrine from the early post-apostolic writers, through the time of Constantine and well beyond. Although disciplines and devotions might change with time and location, doctrine and dogma do not. Doctrines have been declared as dogma over the centuries in response to challenges or heresies, but that does not mean that their origin was the time of their dogmatic declaration. For example, the Council of Trent in the 1500’s dogmatically defined several doctrines which had been a part of Christian belief from the beginning, but which had never been challenged prior to the Protestant Reformation, such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Over the course of several months, I came to understand and believe that Jesus came to build His Church, and desired it to be one church. He promised to lead His Church into all truth and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The apostles pointed in their letters to the authority of their oral teaching and to the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth. The church fathers referenced the tradition of the apostles as authoritative. They were in agreement as to the interpretation of Scriptures for which there is currently great disagreement in Protestant churches, or between Protestants and Catholics. And the beliefs and practices of the early Church were more in line with Catholic doctrine than non-Catholic (a literal interpretation of Jesus’ teaching “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”, baptismal regeneration, a church hierarchy of Bishops, Priests (or presbyters) and Deacons, prayers for the dead, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome). I made a significant shift in my search for doctrinal truth from “where in the Bible does it say…?” to “what has the Christian Church always believed?” This shift was possible because while I still hadn’t studied all of the scriptural and historical evidence for every Catholic doctrine, I had come to accept the God-given authority of the Catholic Church to guard the deposit of faith and proclaim true doctrine. I believe that the same Holy Spirit who inspired and preserved the Scriptures also inspires and preserves true doctrine in the Church that Jesus founded. I believe that Jesus has kept his promises. He has sent the Holy Spirit to lead His Church into all truth, and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it. I am no longer a “cafeteria Christian”. I am betting on the Catholic Church.