In just under two weeks, after sundown on Easter Saturday at this year's Easter Vigil, my wife and I will be received into the Catholic Church, and our children will be implicitly received as well. This still feels like a strange decision, and will likely blindside some of you reading this post (though we've told those closest to us, this counts as the first public announcement of the fact). I have approximately zero interest in laying out our reasons for converting. First of all, they are complex and would take a great deal of time to explain. Second, there are so many rampant misconceptions about what Catholicism does and does not teach, that discussing thorny doctrinal issues seems counterproductive in this context. Third, I want to do my best to avoid public criticism of the strains of Protestantism that have been my home for so long, and to which I still owe so much. Last, and most frankly, the decision is so personal, in many ways, that I just don't really feel like sharing it here on my blog.
What I offer instead, then, is a list of reasons that I am glad to be joining this strange, sprawling, holy mess called the Roman Catholic Church. These should not be considered motivating factors, but added blessings on top.
1. The Communion of the Saints
One of the biggest misunderstandings Protestants have of Catholicism is the matter of "praying to" the saints. The practice would more accurately be called "praying through" the saints, as every prayer said in this way is in fact a request for intercession, an asking of the saint to pray with us before God. Viewed in this light, the practice is in fact a marvelous one, a way to actually practice the belief in the communion of saints, joined not just across geography but across time. Just as I grow closer to my friends when I ask them to pray for me, so too do my petitions draw me closer to those who already taste of glory.
There's another aspect of this as well. Much more than Protestantism, which tends to demand that Christian practice look roughly the same for everyone (if only at the level of intensity), there's a wonderful variety that comes from the Catholic insistence that anyone in good standing counts as part of the church. That guy who looks like a burned out Super Mario sitting in front of me barely moving his lips during the hymn? Yep, still a Catholic. Some excel more than others (hence the saints), but all participate, no matter how poorly.
2. Science, but not Scientism
I really appreciate the Catholic Church's approach to science and religion, which is one of integration, not antagonism. For those of us Christians who believe in, say, evolution and climate change (to take only the two most contentious scientific matters in the country at present), it's refreshing to be in a church that explicitly endorses the knowledge and benefits conferred on us by scientific research. [I want to note here, for the record, that as misguided as I find Christians who deny evolution, especially those who cling to young earth creationism, I also have a lot of sympathy for them. Adopting a position on any issue is always complex, and I definitely don't think Christians who deny these things are, say, stupid, just probably considering a different set of contexts that gives them certain blindspots. I am decidedly less charitable to those who deny climate change.] Though certain sectors of (in particular) "evangelical" Protestantism are grappling with these issues in honest ways, as a whole Catholicism is far ahead of these churches in this regard.
On the flip side, the Catholic Church is also one of the most vocal proponents of limiting the conclusions we draw from science. In an age where many think that to be able to do something is the same as to be justified in doing something, it's important to stand firm against the more destructive impulses of science. Especially as Silicon Valley talking heads rush to embrace improper uses of technology, such as transhumanism, it's important to accept science while still advocating for ethical conduct. Along with this, it's important to remain critical of the lack of nuance some proponents of science adopt, to guard against what William Blake called "single vision, and Newton's sleep". Here I speak as much as a defender of the humanities as as a Christian.
3. Criticizing the Machine of Modernity.
Here's where I get a bit weird, so forgive me (my wife is already rolling her eyes). It would take me too long to elaborate here what exactly my social and political views are, in large part because I take my cues from those outside the traditional limits of contemporary discourse. Long story short, I am deeply distrustful of "modernity", where that term represents an unmitigated belief in the progress of humankind (especially through technology). At the same time, I have no patience for nostalgia or a desire to return to the past (which is both not possible and, most likely, not desirable). To sum it up: every age is terrible, and every age is wonderful.
The challenge comes from navigating our age's challenges, using the best facets of the past and tradition in new ways. For all the hoary stereotypes to the contrary, Catholicism has shown in the past century to be remarkably adept at this, maintaining its core of beliefs while generously engaging the viewpoints of a pluralist society. Several of the most important interpreters of modernity in the 20th Century have been Catholic, including three I hold in especially high regard, Marshall McLuhan, Rene Girard, and Charles Taylor. These scholars (and many others) represent an attempt to elucidate where we stand and where we might go from here.
In resisting the corrosive effects of late capitalism (yeah, I said it), Catholicism has at least some of the correctives necessary, especially a strong emphasis on communal effort. Catholic-driven political movements like distributism and Dorothy Day's worker movement point out alternatives to the dead end social imaginary of the (completely, unrestrainedly) free market.
4. The Arts
Let me say from the start that many of my favorite writers and artists have been strong, committed Protestants [I'm using this specific phrasing to avoid setting up a false "Protestant bad, Catholic good" dichotomy. It should go without saying that many of my favorites are also committed Jews, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc]. To take but two contemporary examples, two of my favorite writers of the past 50 years, Marilynne Robinson and Frederick Buechner, are both Protestants of the liberal American reformed tradition.
And yet. I still feel the strong pull of a tradition that includes writers like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, and Evelyn Waugh. There's something that animates fiction written by Catholics, even questionable or lapsed Catholics (like Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo) that just feels special. For all their similarities, Catholicism and Protestantism do have pretty different views of the world, and those differences cannot help but come across in the art they create. To paint in a broad brush, there's more room for the unexpected in Catholic aesthetics, for the moments that only address faith in a sideways or attenuated fashion. That's important to me as someone slowly tinkering away at an unabashedly obscene satirical novel.
The same goes for music, visual art, and (perhaps most especially) film. As someone who is especially prone to aestheticism, I have actually been on my guard to avoid romanticizing the artistic aspects of Catholicism that appeal to me (it helps that our parish church, which we attend, has very plain architecture, and music that emphasizes the worst aspects of 70's and 80's "praise hymns". Helps keep me in check). Nevertheless, it would be useless to deny the appeal of this facet of Catholicism. That's as it should be, I think, since we humans worship with our whole being, sensibilities included.
So these are some reasons I feel at home where I am. Far from the whole story, but it's what I'm willing to share for now. As I hope I have emphasized above, this change, while big, does not mean that I have turned into a basher of Protestants. Whatever problems I see in the Protestant project, it has been my home for a very long time, and I can never forget the many blessings it has brought me. And believe me, I enter the Catholic Church severely aware of its problems and limitations. But, in spite of it all, I come. I'm confident that this is as it should be.