I was prepared to confess having been unfair with the evidence. But that seems a varnish. That suggests a weighing of evidence, maybe giving one side more weight than the other. No, I had ignored evidence. I disallowed witnesses to testify. Over 17 years ago, I was an unjust judge.
That realization did not mean Rome was right. It meant I had not fairly considered the Church’s claims. Also, as a lawyer, I realized that we, the Protestants, had the burden of proof. The Church came first, then protesters later. Since the Protestants brought the case, they must carry the burden of proof. Could they prove the Catholic Church had so perverted the Gospel as to forfeit its claim to be the one, true church of Jesus Christ?
Confession is good for the soul
In the Spring of 2017, as I read Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (Ignatius Press), I began to realize I had been unfair. I downloaded and started reading an electronic copy of the book. Then I discovered this very book, an old and used copy, was on my bookshelf. I don’t recall when or where I picked it up. There seems to be a lesson here. How easily and arrogantly one might continue in error and presumption, when correction lay so close at hand.
Almost twenty years ago, when I perceived my Baptist tradition estranged from the ancient faith once delivered to the saints, I started reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The witnesses I called into court, however, were anti-Catholic authors, preachers and pamphleteers. All ringing in my head. Does anyone come to the evidence fairly? I did not. I had on Baptist glasses, and mine were thicker than most. I had surpassed most Baptists I knew, having dug deeper into a hostile strain of anti-Catholic fundamentalism. Wearing those glasses, I did not get very far into the Catechism before hitting a brick wall.
Probably it was a Marian doctrine that caused the trail to go cold; the trail to end. There was no further study. I considered no evidence beyond my own understanding of Scripture. Nor did I allow friendly witnesses to testify for the Church. At my first difficulty, the case was closed. Verdict for the Protestants. Looking back, and writing these words, it is shameful and embarrassing.
But the Lord knows what we need. His condescension and kindness no one can fathom. He continued to teach me, though secretly. Already I was a devoted student of C.S. Lewis. That continued. I added to my teachers a Catholic, G.K. Chesterton. Maybe, I learned of Chesterton through another teacher, the great Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias. Later, I added to the mix another Catholic author, Walker Percy. I recall real disappointment when I got to the end of Percy’s last novel. When I first came across Percy’s name, he was merely the novelist at Loyola University who “discovered” the late John Kennedy Toole’s manuscript that became the American cult-classic, A Confederacy of Dunces. I was a big fan of the French Quarter’s modern-day version of Don Quixote, Ignatius J. Reilly. I have spent untold hours with Lewis, Chesterton and Percy. By 2017 when I picked up Catholicism and Fundamentalism, I was not the anti-Catholic I had been.
I don’t intend to summarize Keating’s book here. Suffice it to say, I quickly saw I had not judged fairly. In fact, Keating seemed to see things the way I saw them:
“We should expect that the religion that is the fullness of truth, coming in the ‘fullness of time’, would incorporate the good points of earlier religions while rejecting their errors. Conversely, a religion that rejected not only the errors, but also the good points, of earlier religions would seem to be incomplete, as though it went too far in trying to remain pure, as though it threw out more than just the bathwater.” (163)
Already, C.S. Lewis had shown me the dying gods and corn kings of paganism and mythology. In Bethlehem, myth became fact. The Word became flesh. But the picture painted in my mind was of a primitive church mysteriously gone off course, maybe in the days of Constantine. Nobody really knows when. When I drilled down, however, the real history was much different. Already, development of doctrine was something I knew to be true from studying Scripture for decades, and from the Church history I knew. Did Martin Luther throw out, not only the bathwater, but the baby too?
Another credible and competent witness
Keating connected with me, referring to “Calvary being in a perpetual Now.” (257) My aim is not to prove this or that theological point, or to claim I figured it all out. Rather, my point is simple. I found Keating to be a credible and competent Catholic witness. Do not misunderstand the quote. Catholics know Christ really died, in history, under Pontius Pilot, in our past – – the just for the unjust. All the Scripture is true. God, however, is outside of time. Long before Keating, two of Belfast’s favorite sons had impressed upon me this idea of the eternal now. C.S. Lewis, again, showed this to me. And then I heard doses of it not from a teacher, but from my all-time favorite singer-songwriter-musician, the Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison: “Take me back, take me way way back . . . In the eternal now, in the eternal moment . . .” God in the eternal moment. Keating, another Catholic, connected with me.
Keating connected again in another place, concerning the Eucharist:
“When [God] created the worlds, he gave common bread and wine for our use in order that we might understand what the Blessed Sacrament was when it came to be instituted. He did not design the Sacred Host to be something like bread. He designed bread to be something like the Sacred Host.” (258)
Keating’s way of thinking had a ring of truth, based on what I already knew to be true from Scripture. There we read, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27*) Also,
“The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: ‘This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” (Gen. 2:22-24)
And then, quoting from Genesis 2:24 and in the context of human marriage, Saint Paul writes: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:32) I could already appreciate God, existing in the eternal moment, having in mind and intending more than meets our eye. That is, the church and Christ’s relationship with her, was in the mind of God before man existed, and before man was joined to woman in marriage. Just as, for example, the eternal Father existed before Adam our first father. The heavenly and eternal precede the earthly and temporal. And so, here again, I am met with a thoughtful Catholic introducing peculiar Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist, and doing so in a way that fit within my understanding of God and Scripture and reality. Like Chesterton had been doing for many years, here was Keating, seeming to make sense.
Then Keating addressed a subject that, 17 years before, had been for me a brick wall:
“Backing up the testimony of Scripture regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity is the testimony of early Christian writings. Consider the controversy between Jerome and Helvidius. It was Helvidius, writing around 380, who first brought up the notion that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. Jerome first declined to comment on Helvidius’ remarks because they were a ‘novel, wicked, and a daring affront to the faith of the whole world’. This was an entirely new interpretation, one nobody had ventured before, and it was beneath contempt. At length, however, Jerome’s friends convinced him to write a reply, which turned out to be his treatise called On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary. He used not only the scriptural arguments given above, but cited earlier Christian writers, such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. Helvidius claimed the support of two writers, Tertullian and Victorinus, but Jerome showed this was no support at all, since Tertullian was a heretic (a Montanist) and the passage from Victorinus had been misinterpreted. Helvidius was unable to come up with a reply, and his theory was not employed again until modern times.” (286, quotation omitted)
Church Fathers versus me
This is serious. Keating brings forward as witnesses Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. These Church Fathers would prove monumental in my journey. My own interpretation of Sacred Scripture stood in contrast to that of the Church Fathers, who followed on the heels of the Apostles, and who witnessed to the Faith with their own blood. It was time to take a harder look, and this time without my Protestant glasses. The Catholics must be allowed to testify on their own behalf.
Keating showed me something else, shedding light on the question from another angle. My traditions, if held devoutly and rightly, required us to think the worst of the Catholic Church, its doctrines and practices. If Protestant theology is properly understood, there is no place
for Rome. Rome had to be apostate to the core, or the Reformation would have been Rebellion. A modern-day, milk-toast, Protestants-and-Catholics-are-all-in-the-same-boat theology might be espoused by many, but that flows from watered-down, post-modernism, not real Protestantism. However, Keating’s faith made sense:
“Not everyone opposing the Catholic religion is a loon or is working in bad faith, and, if you cannot appreciate that, you will do more harm than good. Few fundamentalists, even those who are actively anti-Catholic, do what they do out of spite. They are working with clear consciences, but they have been misinformed. Perhaps they should have done more homework, but the fault is not entirely theirs. They trust the sources they have had, but now they should be shown there is more to consider.” (307)
Where I came from, Romanists were in an apostate Church. Catholics on the other hand, can see, for example, that Protestants working from Sola Scriptura are moving forward in good faith, by and large, and in many case (like mine) just repeating errors passed down from sources believed trustworthy. I should have done more homework. I would learn that the Catholic Church sees in the many and varied Protestant traditions, notwithstanding mixtures of error, baptized Christians not yet in full communion with the one, holy, apostolic church. Our Protestant picture of the Catholic Church made no sense in light of our Lord’s words about the gates of Hell not prevailing. Conversely, the Catholic Church’s picture of Protestantism made sense.
While I was no longer a fundamentalist by 2017, my studies over the spring and summer revealed the truth of Keating’s observation:
“Once you have the definitions clear, fundamentalists, like other non-Catholics who have gone through similar instruction, will want to learn more because they will have been introduced to something fresh, something whole, something fulfilling. They will have glimpsed the unity of Christianity for the first time.” (319)
Without question, I discovered truth and goodness and beauty. I saw something fresh and whole and fulfilling. Eventually I would come to discover, or at least begin to discover, almost fifteen centuries of richness, and a unity in Christendom that stretched back to the pages of the New Testament. No longer would I be flying my flag atop a lonely outpost cut off from historic Christianity.
Keating’s book did not iron out all the peculiar Catholic doctrines for me, but it was enough to get me back on the hunt:
“Their basic problem, of course, is that their own religion is frozen in apostolic times. They fail to see that the true Faith may alter its appearance, although not its content, as the centuries pass, and that later events can shed light on earlier, just as the New Testament allows a deeper appreciation of the Old; and they forget, it seems, that Christianity, although not of the world, is certainly in it.” (326)
Other writings, particularly by John Henry Cardinal Newman, would shed light on those Catholic doctrines that are so foreign to our Protestant sensibilities. Keating provides suggested readings for various subjects, to include Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I plan to cover Cardinal Newman’s Essay later.
Since coming into the Church, I have come to appreciate Venerable Fulton Sheen. I had never heard of this colorful bishop before his passing. Now, I watch old videos on YouTube. As Fulton Sheen famously stated, “there are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is quite a different thing. . . . If, then, the hatred of the Church is founded on erroneous beliefs, it follows that [the] basic need of the day is instruction.”(335, citation omitted) And so it was with me. All the bad things I ever said about the Catholic Church, I said about what I wrongly believed the Catholic Church to be.
Keating rightly noted that “truth really matters” to fundamentalists (324). I would add, truth really matters to sincere Christians of all stripes, even those who have never been as hard-lined as I was. Since truth matters, when I allowed Catholics to testify on their own behalf, the biblical and historical and philosophical and common-sense arguments convinced me: Rome was right and I was wrong. My conscience did not allow me to stay away.
Before me, many, many years ago appeared one I mistook to be a dirty and persistent widow. She looked for justice but I refused. I ignored her. Many, many years later, somehow and by God’s grace, I came to see that I had been an unjust judge. It is hard to see through error and arrogance. Who had stood before me? She was not a persistent widow. No, she was the very Bride of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ.
As for me, I know that my vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him: my inmost being is consumed with longing. Job 19:25-27
* all Scriptural quotes taken from New American Bible Revised Edition, 3d.