Protestants on the Roman Road
Over ninety years before I entered the Roman Catholic Church, The Apostle of Common Sense laid down a few mile markers. G.K. Chesterton shows adult-converts what they can expect to see along the way. Uncannily, he was spot-on. It is good to find another soul who sees it the same way. In The Catholic Church and Conversion, Chesterton provides more than a few of those moments. Almost like hand in glove was Chesterton’s reflection that when a person stops fighting against the Church, resolving to be fair, the person develops a fondness for Her. Before the fondness flowers into the fullness of the faith, however, there is something like fear.
I crossed the Rubicon when Sola Scriptura failed the tests of Scripture and logic, history and practice. Amazingly, I would discover, the Lord had put in place a better system than the one relying upon my own subjective interpretation of Scripture. At that point, I found myself on a slippery slope toward Rome. Chesterton observed something similar: “There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.” (Id., 23, Kindle Edition)
There seems a knee-jerk reaction to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church having plenary, interpretive authority over Sacred Scripture when it comes to faith and morals. Perhaps it is a vague idea of mindless subservience; a resignation of one’s will. Like Chesterton, I found the opposite to be the true:
The man who has come so far as that along the road has long left behind him the notion that the priest will force him to abandon his will. But he is not unreasonably dismayed at the extent to which he may have to use his will. He is not frightened because, after taking this drug, he will be henceforward irresponsible. But he is very much frightened because he will be responsible. He will have somebody to be responsible to and he will know what he is responsible for; two uncomfortable conditions which his more fortunate fellow-creatures have nowadays entirely escaped. (Id., 22)(emphasis added)
Man, moved by God’s grace, is capable of real good and, when cut off from the life of God, real evil. Far from tending toward the abandonment of the will, the fullness of the Catholic faith gives man objective boundaries within which to exercise his will. Redeemed man acts as a moral agent; destined for, as C.S. Lewis put it in my favorite essay, that eternal weight of glory.
Fairness precedes fondness
Fairness is Chesterton’s first mile marker. This stage in my journey was bright and clear.
The first phase is that of the young philosopher who feels that he ought to be fair to the Church of Rome. He wishes to do it justice[.] (24)
I had believed and repeated the worst things about the Church and the Pope. Over the course of many years and much reading, I came to realize I had been unfair. In my prosecution of the Church, I had called only hostile witnesses to testify; not allowing the Church to testify on Her own behalf. The conviction was based on unreliable hearsay evidence. Unjust, I resolved to be fair to Rome.
Fondness follows fairness
Chesterton’s second stage likewise proved true in my own experience. One is snared in the fishnet of Rome when he begins to treat Her fairly.
The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth and is enormously excited to find that there is far more of it than he would ever have expected. (Id., 25)
Fifteen centuries of treasure within Christendom laid largely cut off from my former died-in-the-wool traditions. I likened the discovery to visiting a foreign land, with all its peculiar history and people, complete with ancient sites and traditions; an exotic land where I already knew the language. It was at once strange, and familiar. Chesterton discovered the same thing:
It consists in discovering what a very large number of lively and interesting ideas there are in the Catholic philosophy, that a great many of them commend themselves at once to his sympathies, and that even those which he would not accept have something to be said for them justifying their acceptance. (Id., 25)
It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable. (Id., 26)
While there was a common language, some translation helped clear away some of the misunderstandings and prejudices that flowed from Protestant pamphlets and unproven assumptions:
I might remark that much of it consists of the act of translation; of discovering the real meaning of words, which the Church uses rightly and the world uses wrongly. (Id., 26)
For example, my Catholic neighbors had not been worshiping Mary after all. That happens in Protestant pamphlets, not the real faith. Nor did I find a church where people “work their way to heaven”. I had never seen such Christ-centered worship until discovering the Mass.
It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure.
The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. (Id., 26)
And the third stage is perhaps the truest and the most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted. He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion. He is filled with a sort of fear, which makes him feel like a fool who has been patronising “Popery” when he ought to have been awakening to the reality of Rome. (Id., 26)
I crossed the Rubicon and was headed toward the Tiber. The slope was getting more slippery. There was that feeling of something large and palpable. The Catechism kept proving itself true to Scripture, and then its goodness and beauty started coming through. There was a point where I started to be afraid it might be true after all. When that happens, new mental categories are required, at least when you grow up believing what I believed about Rome.
As Chesterton put it, I was that iron filing that got too close to the magnet. As I put it, my slippery slope became a free-fall. My conscience required entrance into the Church.
The man has exactly the same sense of having committed or compromised himself; of having been in a sense entrapped, even if he is glad to be entrapped. But for a considerable time he is not so much glad as simply terrified. (Id., 27)
I was trapped by the truth.
The whole point is that the man himself has made his way towards the trap of truth, and not the trap that has run after the man. All steps except the last step he has taken eagerly on his own account, out of interest in the truth; and even the last step, or the last stage, only alarms him because it is so very true. (Id., 27)
Remember, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And, “there is generally an interval of intense nervousness . . . a fear which attaches to all sharp and irrevocable decisions . . . the fear of a fuller sacrament and a mightier army.” (Id., 28)
He is not now in the condition which may be called the last phase of real doubt. I mean that in which he wondered whether the thing that everybody told him was too bad to be tolerable, is not too good to be true. (28)
How’d that ancient Hebrew feel? Encamped in the wandering wilderness of Sinai, prostrate and fatally snakebit, he’s told by a seemingly-healed neighbor of a bronze snake and a second chance. Certainly, it’s too good to be true. Or maybe not.
There is in the last second of time or hair’s breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe. The space between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast. (28)
Still I am amazed to be part of the very Church I spent years condemning. How great and how unfathomable the condescension and grace of our Lord. As Saint Augustine remarked, He turns us to Himself by such wonderful means.