It’s not about me, Part II: the courtship

Part I

Part III

Continuing with GK Chesterton’s stages of conversion:

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. This is not so much a stage as a progress; and it goes on pretty rapidly but often for a long time. 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. This process, which may be called discovering the Catholic Church, is perhaps the most pleasant and straightforward part of the business easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life. It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable. To give anything like a full account of that process would simply be to discuss about half a hundred Catholic ideas and institutions in turn. 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. For instance, the convert discovers that “scandal” does not mean “gossip”; and the sin of causing it does not mean that it is always wicked to set silly old women wagging their tongues. Scandal means scandal, what it originally meant in Greek and Latin: the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good. Or he will discover that phrases like “counsel of perfection” or “venial sin,” which mean nothing at all in the newspapers, mean something quite intelligent and interesting in the manuals of moral theology. He begins to realise that it is the secular world that spoils the sense of words; and he catches an exciting glimpse of the real case for the iron immortality of the Latin Mass. It is not a question between a dead language and a living language, in the sense of an everlasting language. It is a question between a dead language and a dying language; an inevitably degenerating language. It is these numberless glimpses of great ideas, that have been hidden from the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture, that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage of the conversion. It is, broadly speaking, the stage in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted.

When I left off, I was at the stage when I was becoming fair to Catholics, and learning a whole lot about the intellectual and historical underpinnings of Christianity, but I had not yet encountered apologetics for Catholicism. One day, out of the blue, I ran across a page run by a prominent Baptist convert to Catholicism. I had not thought about the weaknesses of my own Baptist faith particularly, nor the strengths of the arguments for Catholicism. I won’t rehash the countless avenues of argument available to the apologist, but suffice it to say, for me, they all had the ring of truth. I was smitten. I could not answer them. I knew they were right in the deepest core of my being. I read for hours, which turned into days, weeks, months. I raided the Catholic section of the university library for numerous books, which I devoured. Those that I couldn’t find, and which weren’t terribly expensive, I bought.

I didn’t just read Catholic apologetics; I started digging deeper into the history of the Church to try to determine whether these intellectual arguments had the backing of history. I read St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, Eusebius’ History of the Church, and any number of other documents. Since I was concurrently teaching Sunday School at my Baptist church, I devised a series on “What the Early Church Taught On…,” to try to see whether what was becoming clear to me might be interesting to others as well. I didn’t end up bringing anyone along for the ride (and to this day, I don’t understand how), but by teaching others about the teachings of the Early Church Fathers on Baptism, on the Eucharist, on worship, on confession, and on many other subjects, I came to the profound conclusion that the early Christians were not Baptists, they were not Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Pentecostals: they were Catholics. (Well, they were also Orthodox, but why I ultimately ended up a Western Christian, not Eastern, is a subject for another time.) So, I became persuaded of two things: that the Catholic faith was intellectually coherent and compelling, and that the Baptist faith was not historically grounded. The early Christians would not have recognized Baptist praise and worship, but they would have been right at home in the modern Mass (despite its awful music).

But, I was still not ready to make the plunge for reasons that I’ll expound upon later. At the same time, I also started to think more about the issue of authority in the Church. I was, and am, deeply disturbed by the ramifications of the Baptist style of church polity. Every serious decision is effectively made by majority vote of the congregation. I asked friends whose judgment I trusted within the Baptist church, including the chair of the board of deacons and my pastor, how we would be protected from making serious errors. What would keep us from, if 51% of the congregation agreed, following the liberal Baptist church down the road and ordaining and marrying active homosexuals? How would we keep from voting in a statement of faith that contained Arian heresy, or worse? The answer was singularly unsatisfying to me: that the Holy Spirit would keep us from error, and that we could always leave and form another congregation if things got too bad.

I couldn’t mesh that mentality with what I knew from reading the New Testament. Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, prayed to the Father that we Christians would remain one. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, lambasted his audience for its divisions. Division is contrary to the desires of God, so the Holy Spirit cannot be leading us into it. From the Bible alone, combined with our subjective feelings and interpretations, we could not adjudicate between our conservative conclusions and the liberal ones of the church down the street. We had to fall back on tradition, no matter how much we wanted to deny it. So I realized that not only was my Baptist church practicing a version of Christianity that was quite different from the early Church, but that in denying a role for tradition, it left itself open to any wind of change that might come blowing in the future.

I was intellectually convinced that the Catholic understanding of the role of Tradition and a Magisterium to keep the Church on the right track was both viable and compelling. I was thoroughly persuaded that the Baptist/Evangelical understanding of the subjective role of the Holy Spirit, private interpretation, and democratic governance, could not prevent further fissuring of the Body of Christ nor a steady drift toward accommodation of our liberal, decadent culture.

But, yet, I could not make the move. I was stuck going to Mass when time permitted, and falling in love with the Church. But, I was still committed to my Baptist church family, my Sunday school class and my piano playing, and most of all, my Protestant family roots. Next installment, I’ll try to explain how I finally made the break.


5 Responses to “It’s not about me, Part II: the courtship”

  1. 1 cburrell May 27, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Wonderful posts, these last two, on your conversion. I myself made the journey — I won’t say the same journey, since it’s different for each of us — but the journey from evangelical Protestantism to Catholic orthodoxy. My baptism and reception into the Church are now just over four years past. I applaud your efforts to put your story into shape, and to share it.

    Since you’re quoting liberally from Chesterton, you might enjoy a blog I maintain dedicated to his writings: The Hebdomadal Chesterton. I post one excerpt each week.

    I also note that your patron is Edmund Campion. A few months ago I wrote up some thoughts about Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Campion. If you’d care to read them, you’ll find them here.

    Have a happy and blessed Pentecost!

  2. 2 E. Campion May 27, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks, Craig. I’ll bookmark the Chesterton blog–I’ll enjoy reading it.

  3. 3 Theo May 30, 2007 at 3:23 pm


    Thanks for sharing this story. I look forward to the next installment.

  4. 4 runningmom May 31, 2007 at 8:06 am

    I got here by way of Tiber Jumper’s blog. It’s so good you’re putting your story down in words. Even if it’s sprinkled with the emotional zeal of a convert, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I chuckled that none of your baptist friends were interested in your series on the Early Church. I continue to be amazed at how Christians today don’t see the relevance of the Early Church or the Fathers. Just the other day, a good friend of mine (baptist) came right out and told me she rejects Apostolic Succession. I just don’t get how you can turn your back on the history of God’s people. I look forward to reading more on your blog.

  5. 5 ladder February 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Hi, I log on to your blogs on a regular basis. Your writing style
    is awesome, keep up the good work!

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