There And Back Again

Biff 1Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I always considered myself Catholic. For my family being Catholic consisted in being baptized and attending Mass on Christmas and Easter, but most of all, we were Catholic because we were Italian. I took the typical Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes and was confirmed. In high school, nearly all of my friends were Catholic, but again this had more to do with the fact that they were Italian, Czech, German, Polish, etc, than anything else. Few of the people at Mass could explain Church doctrine, and fewer still knew the reasons why we believed as we did.

I went to a state school for college in which the Bible was required reading in my history course. Prior to this course, I had assumed that all Bible stories were just made up, like stories about the Easter Bunny and other cartoon characters. My professor, who was an evangelical Protestant and a consummate historian who specialized in the Bible, archaeology and ancient languages, showed how historical the Bible actually was. It was during this time that some students invited me to a Bible study, where the leader asked me how one gets to heaven. My response was that if your good works outweigh your bad works you get in, and if not then you go to hell. He suggested we read Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where I read, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) Shortly thereafter, I prayed (using the evangelical language of the time) accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior. We read the Bible trying to understand what it taught, and why God instructed us to live. From that point forward, I became very active in the interdenominational group which hosted the Bible study. I was drawn to apologetics, the well reasoned defense of the faith. As a student leader with this group, I led Bible studies, discipled other men of God, and went on missions trips overseas to Japan and at home to the Ozarks, New York, Florida, and Chicago. I came to see being a Christian as more than weekly attendance at Mass, it was a relationship with God. It was falling in love with a person who loved me and wanted the best for my life.

After graduation, I took the next logical step in my life and became a full-time staff member with this evangelical organization. With much joy, for most of my assignments as a full-time (and later associate) staff member I worked at the same university from which I graduated. It was at staff training that I first encountered ardently anti-Catholic literature. I knew the claims were too wild to be true—for example claims like the Catholic Church invented the number zero which it stole from the pagans in order to confound the real Christians; candles were the remnant of human sacrifices—but I recognized that other claims required more investigation. Some of the most helpful authors in my journey were G.K. Chesterton and John Henry Newman, both of whom had themselves converted to Catholicism. I began to discover that the Catholic Church was not just another Christian denomination; it was totally unique. Its claims about itself were too grand—that Jesus established one Church through which to be present to the world. The Church was the authorized guardian to Jesus’ words, and teaching. I soon became involved in Catholic parish groups, and read voraciously about the Catholic Church, ecclesiastical history, and theology, from both Protestants and Catholics. In all the questions posed to Christians by the secular world, I became convinced that the Catholic Church provided the best answers to the questions I investigated. Further, as a Catholic my Protestant brothers frequently inquired regularly about distinctively Catholic practices and teachings. The Protestant inclination towards simplicity occasionally made it difficult to explain the coherence of the Catholic worldview which incorporates theology, history and reason. My friends would ask for one clear verse stating the Catholic position but this rested upon the Protestant belief in the perspicuity and self-sufficiency of Scripture. But sometimes isolated verses appear to point in opposite directions such as in the debate of predestination and free will which divides the Protestants into numerous positions. Verses favoring one reading or the other can be stacked up against one another (Protestants sometimes call this sword-fighting) but the practice does not settle the dispute.

The issues which compelled me to embrace the Catholic faith are too numerous to detail here. One significant issue was that basic question about justification and how we are saved. Protestants disagree heartily among themselves on this very central and basic question. Because of confusions between the ways Catholics and Protestants speak about salvation, Protestants have a tendency to misunderstand the Catholic view on works and on cooperation with God. While the Protestant views are beautiful in their simplicity, the Catholic view is also beautiful in its fine detail and grandeur. The technical theological language Catholicism sometimes uses can be too often oversimplified in the Protestant ear as a new form of Pelagianism, or works righteousness. I think the Catholic view, which requires some significant study and a grasp of the precision of that theological language, in reality emphasizes the fact that ultimately our salvation depends completely on God; in no way can we earn salvation apart from a free gift of God. My studies of this issue, particularly regarding Luther, led me to complete a master’s thesis on the Lutheran and Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This joint venture between Protestants and Catholics took decades of study and produced numerous illuminating documents just to get to the point where Protestants and Catholics can speak in one voice on the issue of justification.

Probably the biggest issue both for my own intellectual journey was that of authority. In college I had been taught by my elder evangelical mentors in the faith to follow the Holy Spirit. Yet this individualistic reliance upon the Holy Spirit did not seem to prevent a radical diversity of beliefs on the most basic of all Christian teachings: who is Jesus and what does it take to be saved? I discovered in the Bible what the church fathers already knew:  that Jesus founded the Church, and the same Holy Spirit that inspires Sacred Scripture has been given to His apostles and their successors to interpret and teach those Scriptures. That infallibility and authority worked together and the offices of the Church were just as much of a gift of grace as the divine pages of revelation. Being Catholic was more than mere attendance. Being Catholic was also more than just an individual relationship with Jesus. In becoming friends with Jesus, I became involved with his family, the Church. I also gained the privilege to represent him in the world to others who do not yet know him.

treeandleafJ.R.R. Tolkien, a child-convert to Catholicism, observed that people lose their sense of wonder when they encounter something repeatedly. That is why he used fantasy to reintroduce people to the wonder of the familiar by dressing the everyday up in holiday dress. One of my favorite Tolkien stories is Leaf by Niggle in which an artist paints leaves to create a tree. Later the artist finds the tree, not painted on a canvas, but standing in a field. Unbeknownst to the artist, God had allowed him to be a co-creator cooperating in the creation of the world around us. Likewise God has created the Church and as members of his divine body we not only participate in the creation but we cooperate in our own salvation and in building up the lives of others, all through the unmerited grace of God alone. “For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9).

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