I receive, not infrequently, inquiries by mail from recent converts to the Church who, after a year or so as new Catholics, find themselves wondering about this and that. All of these letters are from former Evangelicals who have read themselves joyfully into the Church. With their earnest, muscular, biblically oriented background in the free churches, or in the Episcopal Church to which they had migrated because of its liturgy, at some point they had come upon such books as Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, or Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism, or The Catechism of the Catholic Church, or one of the volumes from the recent flood of testimonials from erstwhile Evangelicals recounting their own itinerary to the Ancient Church.
In most cases, they have, in the course of this reading, been dazzled by the sheer serenity of the Catholic Church, derived from its immense antiquity, its undoubted apostolicity, its liturgy and sacraments, its Magisterium, and its unswerving fidelity to the Deposit of Faith over the last two millennia — often in the face of heresies, war, tyranny, and sin in the camp. The marks of their own piety hitherto have been the great marks of Reformation and Evangelical Christianity: sedulous personal study of Scripture, with its corollary of exhaustive familiarity with the whole Bible; an atmosphere of talkative friendliness and “sharing” of spiritual matters among their fellows; meaty biblical preaching on the part of the clergy; a somber distrust of the pitfalls to be found in 19th-century German historical/critical methods of Scripture scholarship; and a strong sense of “knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior” on the part of every individual. Until their entry into it, these good people understood the Church to be, quite simply, the dispersed aggregate of all individuals scattered across the globe who believe in Christ.
Any lifelong Catholic reading this will anticipate straightaway the questions such a convert finds himself entertaining: Why does no one greet me at Mass? There’s not much animated Christian fellowship around here. Nobody sings the hymns — and there seems to be an impoverished fund of hymnody in any case. I’m not sure what to make of the preaching: As often as not, it doesn’t sound like the fruit of studious and prayerful preparation. But most puzzling of all, the pastor seems to have identified himself with the dissenters in the Church. He appears to have espoused what Popes Pius IX and X would have called “Modernism.” The homilies often seem to reflect popular notions on morals and politics championed by the New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post.
How shall I respond to my correspondent? What would you say? What would Benedict XVI or John Paul II or Cardinal Newman say?
A start might be made by encouraging our friend to reflect on the question as to what the Catholic Church is. Certainly the ambience in a Catholic parish is different from that found in the Evangelical churches of his background. The observations are understandable; so it may be helpful for him to canvass again the reasons that moved him to make his obedience to this ancient Church in the first place. What is the Catholic Church?
It is what it claims to be. It is the Church of God’s New Covenant with man, built by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. And — as was the case with Israel, who was the bearer of God’s earlier Covenant with her — the Church is God’s people. But it is God’s people — human beings who turn out to be weak, wayward, and often untrustworthy. The Hebrews, as often as not, made a hash of things. Their very first high priest (Aaron) made them a golden calf to worship. They had wicked priests, wicked kings, unfaithful prophets, and no shortage of bad men in their midst.
But God looked on them as His Spouse, as He does on the Church. In both cases, the very thing that God Himself was bringing into being was shot through with human sinfulness and failure. God’s forbearing grace was at work, century after weary century. A faithful Catholic does not throw in the sponge over the phenomenon of bad Renaissance popes, other than to deplore their evil doings: the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, does not stand or fall with the faltering fidelity of us mortals. (It is interesting to note in this connection that no pope, be he never so wicked, ever taught from Peter’s chair that his simony, avarice, luxury, nepotism, and lechery were anything other than sin. He never substituted the euphemism “style of life” for the stark category “sin.” Dante, a fierce Catholic, had half of his popes in hell.)
Whereas Protestantism, when discord, heresy, or scandal arises, can always split off and start a new parish or denomination, the Ancient Church has no such option. As was the case with the Hebrew Covenant, earnest and faithful men had no warrant to hive off into the wilderness and start things over if there was unfaithfulness in the camp. We recall Elijah and Hezekiah, and Simeon and Anna and Joseph and Mary: faithful Hebrews in the temple, and eventually the synagogue that fell under the power of “scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites.” These faithful men and women never thought of starting up a new, pure sect.
Fortunately for us, the Church has been served by godly and faithful pontiffs for a very long time now. It is an article of faith that the Church Herself will never teach falsehood. If a given priest or bishop ever sponsors novel or unscriptural ideas in place of the Deposit of Faith, it is of course to be deprecated, and parishioners in such a parish or diocese have to try to fix their gaze on what the Catholic Church teaches. If Father X, in the name of affability, is distributing Communion to non-Catholics, or tacitly endorsing abortion, or winking at moral disorder in the parish, we know that confusion, infidelity, and disobedience are at work here. But the Catholic Church is a hierarchical Church. Only rarely might it ever fall to a layman to try, on his own authority, to set things right. He may, in a pinch of course, venture inquiries. But the Catholic’s ordinary duty is fidelity to the Church and to her teaching — which is to say, of course, to Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Petrine authority in Rome.
But all of this brings us to the question as to why we go to Church in the first place. A Protestant goes for the preaching primarily, and then for the fellowship. Why, on the other hand, does a Catholic go to Church? We go to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass; to join ourselves with the ancient and apostolic Church as she joins herself to her Head and High Priest, Jesus Christ, in his eternal self-offering to the Father, which offering was made present in our history, once and for all, at Calvary, as a perfect oblation of thanksgiving, and as the propitiation for our sins.
A Catholic lives there. This is the lodestar, the anchor point of everything, the Still Point of the Turning World. All other aspects of Catholic life — private prayer, the rosary, the divine office, the sacraments, retreats, pilgrimages, and works of mercy — find their wellspring here. This has been going on for 2,000 years. Other factors — war, plague, one’s own weaknesses and sins, domestic tragedy, clerical infidelity — can never dry up this fountainhead of Catholic life.
These remarks, of course, do not bring easy consolation to a confused or distressed new Catholic who finds things different from what he may have expected. But he will find that fidelity in his own prayer life, habitual participation at Mass, and an attitude of self-effacing expectation will draw him gradually into the ancient company of Simeon and Anna, and Bede, and Brother Lawrence, and Francis de Sales, and all men and women who have made up the body of the faithful from the beginning.