We recently hosted a talk by John Beaumont, author of The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Catholic Converts to the Catholic Church. It’s a wonderful compilation of convert stories that includes a few folks associated with this fine magazine. John recounted a number of them. He ended with an arresting question: Why do people convert to Catholicism? There’s no one answer, of course, but many reasons, which John winsomely summarized.
My Protestant friends sometimes accuse First Things of encouraging Catholic triumphalism. We’re not entirely innocent. How can we avoid an atmosphere of triumphalism, given the profound influence Catholicism exercises over so many who are associated with the magazine, beginning with our founding editor and including our current one, yours truly? We love the Catholic Church, and one invariably wishes to champion that which one loves. And so, in that spirit—and with the urgent reminder that there’s no reason Protestants don’t share in these reasons in their own ways— I’ll recount John’s summation, adding my own observations.
1. Visibility: Catholicism attracts because it’s visible. That’s obvious in the case for the architecture of Catholic churches, which aside from a short period of modernist banality brashly claims space as sacred. Men and women in religious orders wear distinctive outfits. Priests consistently set themselves apart with clerical collars. Even the bulky, sometimes exasperating institutional bureaucracy of the Catholic has a reassuring solidity. This multifaceted visibility is especially powerful in our culture, which so often reduces faith to a private opinion or inward sentiment. The scriptures speak of a New Jerusalem, a city of God. Catholicism foreshadows that city with its very real and tangible buildings, uniforms, rituals, laws, and ensigns.
2. Universality: The Church is universal, spanning the entire globe. Or more simply: Catholicism is catholic. This breadth makes the gospel more credible. The universality of the Church demonstrates that ours is a faith for all men and all seasons. It’s not a European or African or South American religion; it’s not an ancient or medieval or modern religion. The Church’s universality has a special appeal to those of us aware of the failures of postmodern Western culture. We feel the intellectual and moral decadence of our times, and we know this deforms our reason and conscience. Here the universality of the Church is a source of grace. To enter the Church is to enter a larger world. We don’t stop being postmodern Americans—instead, we become more than that. The Church’s catholicity delivers us from our parochialism, which in America often comes in the form of a false universalism.
3. Endurance: There’s a joke about a papal representative who meets with Stalin. The Man of Steel announces his intention to destroy the Church. The cleric responds, “Good luck. We’ve been trying for two thousand years and haven’t succeeded.” The Church’s endurance, the continuity of teaching and ministry, is nothing short of miraculous—especially during times of high status, prominence, and privilege when worldly seductions are powerful. At the very times when the papacy fell captive to corrupt Renaissance popes, the Holy Spirt was stirring up a piety that gave birth to great new religious orders.
4. Authority: In our age of exalted individualism and false views of freedom, the Church’s authority is often seen as a liability. It is in fact the opposite. When we are going headlong in the wrong direction, we need to hear a sharp word spoken with authority: Stop! When we wallow in skepticism and postmodern ennui, we need the galvanizing force of authority. As John Henry Newman recognized, the authority of the Church is a great asset: It heals the wounds of the pride of man.
5. Beauty: The Church’s beauty has its own power as well. Her musical, artistic, or literary legacy caresses us with the truth of God in Christ. Catholicism’s neglect of those legacies in favor of an easy, banal contemporary aesthetic is one of the great evangelical failures of recent decades. The Lord walks with us along the dusty road of our humanity, it is true. But he does so to raise us up to dwell with him in the beauty of holiness.
6. Hierarchy: Even as a non-Catholic—even attending worship services run by Jesuits!—I was struck by the dignity of the Mass. Although the Second Vatican Council emphasized the dignity of the laity, there remains a rightful hierarchy at the Mass, one that echoes in countless ways the Temple in Jerusalem and its high priests. The priest stands at the altar, representing the congregation—representing all humanity—as he brings his own voice in union with Christ in the word of institution (This is my body . . . This is my blood . . . ) This hierarchy of laity, priest, and Christ is felt at every Mass, not matter how far contemporary churches depart from the traditional relations of congregation, priest and altar. This hierarchy encourages a spiritual elevation, an ascent of the soul to God in prayer.
7. Saints: The saints offer a great cloud of witnesses. Reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s spiritual autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” helped me see the genius of the garish, often lachrymose piety of nineteenth century bourgeois French Catholicism. As Christ taught: We must first be as children. A desiccated East Coast intellectual, that’s what I needed to learn. And there are countless saints to teach others what they need to know. For someone else with handicaps different from my own the strict logic of St. Thomas opens up new spiritual horizons.
8. Moral witness: John’s final reason why some are drawn to the Catholic Church is her moral doctrine. Secular folks find this quite baffling, imaging that the Church’s teachings, especially on sex, must be felt as a severe burden. Well, yes, the Church’s moral doctrine is burdensome in the sense that moral truth is always hard for fallen men and women to hear and unbend their deformed lives to conform to. But the Church’s courage to speak the truth also inspires. Human beings don’t want moral mediocrity. We desire to live in accord with higher standards, certainly one’s higher than those our age offers. The Catholic Church satisfies this desire. She does not indulge our weaknesses. She does not underestimate our freedom.
As I said at the outset, I see no reason why Protestants can’t find many of these qualities in their own churches. I don’t think its triumphalist of me—or at least not perniciously so—to say as a Catholic convert I’m thankful to have found them in mine.