Conversion Memoir Entry #1: Did I Ever Think I Would Become Catholic?

No. Well, obviously at some point close to conversion I had to actually consider becoming Catholic. However, growing up, the thought had never crossed my mind. I didn’t really know any Catholics. I had encountered some as literary figures. I occasionally met former Catholics within the Evangelical churches of my youth. Most of them seemed to be from Catholic-in-name-only families who never encountered the person of Christ until their adult experiences inside the Evangelical Tradition. But I didn’t personally know any practicing Catholics, and it never occurred to me in my adolescence or college years to explore Catholic Church teaching. So, did I ever think I would become Catholic? No.  That is not a “no” out of any previous anti-Catholic sentiment. It just wasn’t anywhere on my radar, and I was truly completely ignorant of Catholicism (and church history in general). In fact, had someone told me I would become Catholic 10 years ago, they would probably have gotten the same blank look in response as if they had told me I would be moving to a remote island and living in a tent for the rest of my days. Interactions with Catholicism were just not part of my world.

At least, encountering real Catholicism was foreign. In the absence of learning about Catholicism from any primary sources in my youth, the snippets I gathered were from well-meaning Evangelical leaders and Sunday School teachers. Unfortunately, these descriptions amounted to some of the common misconceptions of Catholics and Catholicism that circulate within some Protestant groups and churches:

“Catholicism is a cult;” “Catholics worship Mary;” and “the Pope is the Anti-Christ.”

So, since I didn’t plan to join a cult, worship Mary, or get involve in the same organization as the possible Anti-Christ — no, I never thought about becoming Catholic.

However, as I got closer to converting a few years ago (and in the time since), two things have become clear to me: (1) many Evangelical Protestants in the tradition in which I grew up hold a view of Catholicism that is based largely on misconceptions of the Church’s teaching, and (2) many lapsed or former Catholics that ended up in Evangelical churches (at least most of the ones I have met) hold either similar misconceptions or significant ignorance of what the Catholic Church (and Catechism) actually teaches. Why is this the case? Well, there are numerous reasons. Some people, no matter what tradition or denomination they are from, simply are not that intellectually curious about investigating matters of faith and theology. They will take the word of someone they trust–a pastor, Sunday School teacher, Priest, Catholic school teacher, an outspoken peer, a friend–and never investigate primary sources of information for themselves.

IMG_0668Others have grown up in nominally Christian or Catholic homes, lacking a rich and authentic faith experience at the domestic level. Certainly some Catholics or former Catholics I have met (who know very little actual Church teaching) came from homes that did not regularly practice their faith and only attended church a few times a year. The equivalent happens in Protestant traditions as well. If this is your childhood experience of faith–whether Protestant or Catholic–it is not hard to see how young adults start searching for a different experience in another denomination or tradition, mistakenly thinking that their experience mirrors the actual Church teaching or prescribed practice.

Another significant cause of misconceptions of the Catholic faith–particularly for non-practicing or lapsed Catholics–is that they were never properly Catechized (instructed in the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Perhaps they grew up during the “beige Catholicism” of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps they lived in a geographical area or belonged to a particular parish that would not be described as “faithfully” Catholic. Regardless of the reasons, and there are many, numerous misconceptions of Catholicism certainly exist today–among both Protestants and Catholics. I have first-hand knowledge of this, both as a former Protestant and a current Catholic.

For plenty of years I let such misconceptions fed to me go unchecked. It wasn’t until I started investigating various misgivings I had about my own tradition that I started to realize I had allowed myself to remain quite ignorant of both Catholic doctrine and Church history in general. I had taken so much of my faith–and major aspects of orthodox Christianity–for granted my whole life. I never stopped to ask who was responsible for preserving my faith over the centuries, how and why various doctrines came to be, or where and when the precious Scriptures were assembled and preserved for the ages. I only got beyond superficial misconceptions of the Catholic faith once I started actually studying it. Ultimately, it was my responsibility to do so, because–ultimately–I will be responsible before God for the faith that I have practiced. Most of us have negative religious experiences somewhere in our lifetimes; it is an unfortunate common occurrence in any denomination. There are plenty of erroneous sources of theology and plenty more incorrect examples of “faithful Christian living.” But we will never get past these misconceptions of other faith traditions if each of us doesn’t do his or her part to investigate the truth.

Why is it important for misconceptions to be erased? Because Protestants and Catholics will have a hard time entering into true dialogue, and thereby edifying each other in lasting ways, if they are not. There certainly are significant differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, and those will remain regardless of misconceptions being rectified. But isn’t it important that we know what our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ actually believe? There are plenty of Protestants I know who will probably never become Catholic, even though they rightly understand Catholic Church teaching and doctrine. But they are able to dialogue with their Catholic friends and partner with them on various projects and causes in the world because they rightly understand them and their theological perspectives. For me, resolving my misconceptions of Catholicism was the first step to becoming Catholic; for others, it may be the first step to discovering fellow Christ-followers who can enrich your own faith and partner with you on common causes for the Kingdom. I’ll take either outcome.

 

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