During Holy Week and Easter Sunday Mass, in Catholic parishes throughout the world, many pilgrims will be received into the Church. Most will have gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), a six-month study of the Church’s teachings and practices. This year I have the privilege of being part of the RCIA team at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center at Baylor University, where as many as a dozen men and women will soon be entering the Church.
Because it was five years ago this week that my wife, Frankie, and I decided to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, I have been reflecting on my own journey and the degree to which my own misunderstanding (and subsequent understanding) of Catholicism and its teachings were instrumental in both my departure to Evangelicalism in my teens and my return to the Church at forty-six.
Although I had attended Catholic schools from first through twelfth grades (1966-1978), my knowledge of Catholic thought was grossly superficial. Everything that I would come to believe substantively about Catholicism during my years of intellectual and spiritual formation as an Evangelical would come from Protestant authors, some of whom were deeply hostile to Catholicism while others were critical though appreciative.
I did earn my Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University (1989), a Jesuit institution, where I studied under the great Thomist philosopher, W. Norris Clarke, S. J. It was Fr. Clarke who helped fully convert me from a peeping to a convinced Thomist, though it was St. Thomas’ metaphysics and ethics, rather than his commitment to the Church, to which I gravitated.
In fact, I scrupulously avoided St. Thomas’ ecclesiastical and sacramental theology. I thought at the time (if you can believe it) that St. Thomas’ Catholicism could be safely severed from his philosophical musings. Besides, there was no reason for me to read St. Thomas on these matters since I knew that the case for Catholicism was biblically and historically weak. For I had been intellectually formed about Catholicism by non-Catholic authors, whom I trusted.
During the 1990s, soon after I was hired by the philosophy department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I began teaching and writing on issues in applied ethics and political philosophy. This was a departure from the philosophy of religion, the area of study that had initially attracted me to the discipline of philosophy. Because of these changing interests, I was drawn more to Catholic authors who seemed to have a better grasp of the underlying philosophical issues that percolated beneath many contemporary moral debates.
I found myself continually moved by the case Catholic authors made for their Church’s philosophy of the human person and what that told us about a variety of contested subjects, including the nature of marriage, the unborn, human sexuality, religious liberty, and the free market.
Although Protestant authors could cite Scripture in defense of their views on all these subjects, and sometimes quite impressively, their cases lacked the elegance and intellectual richness of the Catholic authors. Moreover, the Catholic Church could locate its moral beliefs deep in Christian history, connecting its moral theology to its predecessors, from the earliest Christians to the present day, while at the same time accounting for genuine development in these beliefs consistent with its earlier teachings.
Protestantism, on the other hand, seemed easily influenced by cultural fads and secular movements in the formation of its moral theology. So, for example, after the Anglican Church discarded its ban on artificial contraception in 1930, it took only one generation for conservative American Evangelicals to make a case for contraception and nonconjugal sex as being consistent with biblical Christianity.
In retrospect, it is clear to me now that I had, by gravitating to and eventually embracing the Catholic Church’s teachings on these matters, begun to see the Church as a “truth-telling institution,” as my friend Hadley Arkes puts it. As an Evangelical, I found myself, like Hadley, often looking to this Church, its leaders, and its great authors for insight on moral and philosophical questions, though I sometimes found theological wisdom as well.
I would eventually learn that I was mistaken about much of what I thought I knew about those Catholic doctrines that for decades prevented me from returning to the Church (i.e., justification, penance, holy communion, apostolic succession). Thus, in the last week of March 2007 I could not think of a good reason to remain in schism with the Catholic Church.
Cradle Catholics often underestimate the importance of sound catechesis in the formation of one’s intellectual and spiritual development. But for many of us who left the Church for what appeared to be greener ecclesial pastures, its absence and eventual recovery in our lives made all the difference in the world.
This is why RCIA is far more important than we often realize. It is perhaps the primary way that a local parish can obey St. Peter’s instruction, “But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.” (I Peter 3:15 – DR)