Below is an excerpt from the newly published book of interviews with Catholic converts, Mind, Heart, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome.
Julia: First, some background. What were your impressions of Catholicism while you were growing up evangelical in a small town in Nebraska?
Matthew: My grandparents on my father's side are Catholic, and I loved them, but I was concerned for their salvation. I had been raised to believe that Catholics were probably not Christians. Catholicism was a kind of thicket of superstition that one would get tangled in on the road to heaven. You had to clear it away by introducing people to their personal lord and savior Jesus Christ. So I tried to introduce my Catholic cousins to Christ. I even tried to witness to my grandparents. But I thought Catholicism was at odds with Christianity, and that impression was reinforced by the fact that the kids who went to the Catholic school were bullies.
Julia: What did they do? Did they throw rocks at you or something?
Matthew: They called me “Jesus Boy,” because I was so religious. I don't think they ever threw anything at me, though I eventually punched one of them who kept mocking me.
Julia: Say a bit more about the style of evangelicalism in which you were raised. You were baptized when and how?
Matthew: When I was three years old, my mother was pregnant with my younger brother and I asked her if Jesus could come into my tummy just as my brother had come into hers. This was my inept way of saying I wanted to accept Jesus into my heart—an idea I would already have been introduced to. But it was also my first moment of Marian piety, however unwitting. Literally speaking, in that moment I took Mary as my model in faith. I asked to become a God-bearer like her, to become pregnant with Christ.
Julia: So your family was articulate about this moment of accepting Jesus into your heart, and pointed to that moment and said, “Matthew is saved”?
Matthew: Yes, and I remained true to that decision. A decade later, at age thirteen, I was baptized in the Elkhorn River. It was a source of some anxiety for my grandparents that I wasn't baptized earlier.
Julia: Why were they concerned?
Matthew: There’s a lot of talk about how Catholics have something called the “sacramental imagination.” Often this is said sentimentally, as if Catholics were romantic savages who view everything as suffused with wonderment and beauty, enchanted people who climb up and down the rungs of the analogy of being. This is a way of talking around the actual content of the faith. What the sacramental imagination should mean, first of all, is actual belief in the sacraments: Marriage is indissoluble and ordained by God. Christ is present in the Eucharist and must be revered. My grandparents in their concern for my baptism were much better examples of the sacramental imagination than all the faith-in-fiction litterateurs combined. The sacrament of baptism was real to them, and so long as I went without it, they feared my damnation. They had the sacramental imagination in that cold, narrow sense. My parents did not.
Julia: So you went to college then, at Princeton. And not long after you got to Princeton you ceased to be an evangelical. But before you went off to college were there any rumblings of defection? Did you have a sense that there was something lacking, or something off, in the religion in which you had been raised?
Matthew: At a young age, I went through something called the Gothard Seminar. Bill Gothard was a kind of evangelical moralist who would fill out stadiums in second- and third-tier American cities in the eighties. A lot of young, square Americans would go to see him explain basic principles for how to live. You know, methods of conflict resolution, things like that, but it would all be “biblically derived.” He had a very strong focus on following certain rules. And for the most part they were quite helpful. Most of the people who went to his seminars were fairly well grounded, not too prone to take too seriously what he was saying. You can listen to a man go on about this that and the other and take from this what you think is sound, and whatever you think is unhelpful you just set to the side.
But when I went through this I was quite young, and I took it all very seriously. I came out of it as an incredibly legalistic and unhappy boy (though Gothard did help me overcome some of the vices of youth). I eventually rebelled against him and persuaded the elders of my church to stop patronizing his seminars. Like many people who say they are Christian, Gothard did not believe in grace. At this time I was seventeen. I was living in Washington, DC, working as a congressional page and attending Capitol Hill Baptist, pastored by Mark Dever. I met with Dever and spoke to him about my interest in Jonathan Edwards, on whom I was writing a paper. He gave me a book by J.I. Packer, and I became a Calvinist. I was young, restless, and Reformed.
At the same time, I began to read whatever struck me as both solidly “Christian” and undeniably great. So what are Christian things? Christian things would probably not be post-Reformation Catholic things, but they might be some older Catholic things. A lot of Protestants operate with a kind of unspoken idea of a subterranean apostolical succession, even a kind of ghostly Petrine office. Augustine is okay because he influenced Calvin, and after all, Luther was an Augustinian friar. So I read Augustine’s Confessions, I purchased the Institutes, and though I read Confessions, I did not read the Institutes. I recently looked back at my copy of the Institutes and found my bookmark on page seventy, where I left off. That’s as far as my Calvinism went. So all the Calvinists can mock me for being non-committal, and I accept the charge.
When I returned to Nebraska for my senior year, I was left with two intellectual problems. One was the reliability of scripture, the other was evolution. I read the first three volumes of N.T. Wright's Christian Origins and the Question of God series. He writes big books, and they really were magnificent. They convinced me that Scripture is reliable and that historical criticism can be done in ways consonant with orthodox faith. That was the basic demonstration. I didn't have to enter into the minor arguments or pedantries and take sides and say, “I’m an N.T. Wright guy,” or this, that, or the other. I just saw that someone working in a very scientific way could fully affirm the Christian inheritance.
What I couldn't really resolve was this evolution issue. When I arrived on campus at Princeton, I was still a young-earth creationist. I believed that if one ceased to be a young-earth creationist, one would cease to be a Christian. It had always been presented to me that way: Believe this or cease to believe at all. Slowly I began to let go of that. I had read Augustine and seen that he had a different way of approaching it. I was ready to follow.
What I didn't realize at the time was that I was ceasing to be a Protestant, at least to be a pure kind of Protestant. I was becoming a more complicated kind of Protestant, or a more Catholic kind of Christian. I was looking for ways of reading Scripture, which, though I wouldn't have put it this way at the time, were more traditional or ecclesial. But a strictly intellectual account is misleading. I was not locked in a cell wrestling with God all this time. I was pulling all-nighters, drinking beer, participating in the corruption on campus. The unhappiness that I found in that prompted me to keep thinking about my faith.
Julia: So you were evangelical still for a bit at Princeton?
Matthew: One of the things going on when I was an undergrad was the instantaneous emergence of gay rights as the most important issue, bar none. That simply hadn’t been the case when I was in high school. When I was in college, it was absolutely definitive. So if you supported gay rights you became a liberal Protestant. If you were quiet about it or kind of tacitly supported it, you could remain an evangelical. After deciding that I couldn't accept gay marriage, I was confronted with the fact that my ideas about sex were incoherent. My gay friends asked me, “If I love someone, why can't I be with that person?” I had to give a response. Well, St. Paul has some scathing things to say about that. He does, but did he have deep reasons for saying what he did? I read Elizabeth Anscombe's essay “Contraception and Chastity,” in which she compares contraceptive sex to sodomy, and thereby articulates a view that is logically coherent and that also appealed to me sympathetically because it bound people of every proclivity. That appealed to my sense of fairness. It struck me very vividly that the Catholic Church had been right about this. How could they be right about it if they were wrong about everything? If it was the kind of beast or monster I had been raised to believe it was, how could it happen to be right about this? So I began looking into the Catholic Church.
Julia: How important was the Princeton Catholic milieu in making your conversion possible?
Matthew: I ran into an acquaintance of mine from the evangelical fellowship late one night in the taproom of my eating club. He asked me how my walk with the Lord was going, and I said not very well. I had a conviction that I should become Catholic but was hesitating because it would demand things of me that I didn't want to give. He said that he was in the same position. And then I told him that we were both going to hell because we had been given a gift of understanding that we refused. So we resolved at that moment, in the midst of this terrible crowd, to enroll in RCIA. The next day we did.
Julia: Was that the end of it?
Matthew: As soon as my reason was well disposed toward the Church, I could accept all the arguments and my objections dropped away. But my instinctual aversions remained. They had to be overcome more slowly. My most intense aversion was to Mary, who I'm sure was praying most intently, guiding me, even as I recoiled from her. So I would say that I didn't have an intellectual conversion, even though there were very serious intellectual issues behind it. I didn't really read my way into the Church. In the end, I just had to show up once a week, and be submissive and docile.
Julia: It’s long been my sense that people don't really read or reason their way into or out of the Church, though they often claim to. The decisive factors are less rational, more experiential. For me, this is one of John Henry Newman's great themes. His Apologia pro Vita Sua took the form of autobiography because he could not explain his religious opinions without telling his whole life story. Earlier, he had written a book, the Essay on Development, partly to see whether he could reason his way out of the Anglican Church and into the Catholic Church. The intellectual work he does here is very important, in making his conversion possible. But at the end of that book, he leaves his argument not quite complete, then tacks on a conclusion that says, “Time is short, eternity is long.” This is his way of saying that at a certain point, you stop reasoning and take action. Even the most intellectual conversion is not reducible to reasons but is a matter of will, emotions, imagination—the things that compel action. As Newman wrote elsewhere, “Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences. … Life is for action.”
Matthew: Ultimately I became Catholic just by beginning to view things in the way Catholics viewed them. All I had to do was relinquish my opposition.
Julia: What would you say to prospective converts today who are considering the Catholic Church for the reasons you did? This seems not the most auspicious hour for Catholics of your persuasion.
Matthew: If you were a child who had been separated from his mother at a young age, and hadn’t seen her for many years, and finally found where she was—but then learned she had a serious ailment—would you not go meet her for that reason? Say, “Well, it’s not an auspicious time”? Of course you would rush to meet your mother.
Julia: But if your mother were about to get a sex change, to deny that she is your mother, and so become unrecognizable … ?
Matthew: My faith is not shaken by what the pope is doing, though I have a very negative view of it. Many would say the pope isn’t compromising the Church’s teaching on marriage. I don't think that. I think the pope's doing it, and that if he fully and finally succeeded, the Church would be revealed as a fraud. The Catholic faith would be falsified.
But we can look at history and see that there have been other moments when the main body of bishops has not defended Catholic doctrine, or has even inclined toward heresy. That even the bishop of Rome has done this. So if one were prepared to become Catholic before but not after the regrettable events of 2016, one should have given up on the Church much earlier.
What is infallibility? Ultramontanes and anti-Catholics exaggerate the Church's claims to infallibility. Those claims are in fact very narrow: The Church will never require Catholics to believe that which is false. If you look back at the promulgation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, it's very clear that Catholics are required to believe it. If you don't believe it, you are said to separate yourself from Peter, from Paul, from the Saints, the Martyrs, from all the apostles, down through the centuries. You have to believe in the Immaculate Conception to be Catholic. No such demand is being made with this pastoral approach to marriage. In fact, all of the language used to advance it deliberately avoids that kind of definition. If a real dogmatic redefinition were to happen, it would shatter the Church’s claim to be what she is. It would show that she never existed.
But enough about me. You, too, had a sort of conversion during your college years.
Julia: I underwent a sort of intra-ecclesial conversion, to traditional and dogmatic Catholicism. I was raised in the Church, but in a very suburban sector of it, very bourgeois. The parish mission song beseeched God to “Guide and unite us in our efforts / As we build community”—that should give you a sense of the tone. The architecture and liturgical aesthetics were as Protestant as possible, to a degree that I suspect was illicit. Heresy was not preached openly, but concerns were mooted about gender equality in the Church, and in fact the Creed had been emended in this direction. For instance, Christ had not “become man,” but rather had “shared human life with us.”
I went through this parish’s CCD program, up through confirmation, which for us happened in eleventh grade. We learned in CCD that God is love, and I gleaned an impression that sexual morality is negotiable, though teen pregnancy is very bad. No one ever explained to me the importance of the sacrament of confession, or its relation to communion. Basics of the sacraments were simply not part of the curriculum.
I remember one Sunday after my confirmation, attending a neighboring parish, where I occupied myself by reading the front matter in their missal. We didn’t have missals in the pews at my home parish. In fact, we didn’t have pews. And in this missal I came across the notion that Catholics “with knowledge of grave sin” must not receive communion until they have confessed. I naturally thought the category of “grave sin” included murder, child abuse, and racism—probably nothing else. I thought that “knowledge of” meant “I know that my neighbor is beating his children.” It would not be knowledge of one’s own grave sins, because only well-behaved bourgeois people go to church.
Matthew: So how did you end up where you are now?
Julia: I finally got catechized while in college. I was reading James Joyce, and I found in Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses a version of Catholicism that was totally alien to me—one that assumed that Catholics in the pews are grave sinners whose souls are in danger. The category of grave sin turned out to be much more capacious than I had thought. In short, it was time to stop profaning the Eucharist.
So it was in the library stacks that I learned how to profess the faith in which I had already been baptized and confirmed. In a sense, I guess I did read my way into the Church. But I didn’t reason my way. I was drawn in large measure by envy of Joyce, who had been raised in a Catholic Church that had spiritual and imaginative power, and that went on haunting him after he had left. I couldn’t imagine writing an autobiographical novel to compare with Joyce’s Portrait, about a young woman who grew up singing “On Eagle’s Wings.”
Matthew: In a technical sense, I did not convert from evangelicalism to Catholicism. After all, I had already been baptized. I simply became more fully what, by virtue of my baptism, I already was: a Catholic Christian. But in the broader sense, I had to undergo a profound conversion. It was not just the personal and moral kind of conversion that we all must constantly undergo (and that I have hardly begun) but a theological change. It’s a bit depressing that cradle Catholics are so poorly catechized that they often have to go through an equally dramatic intellectual conversion.
Julia Yost and Matthew Schmitz are senior editors of First Things.