Monday, December 24, 2007

A Very Human Holy Family

I ran across the picture above in a magazine in my dentist’s office recently, and I was intrigued. The artist, Gari Melchers (1860-1932), lived for many years in a house just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. My husband and I lived in Fredericksburg for the first year after we were married, and we have visited the house – Belmont – and his studio. I must not have seen this particular painting, because if I had I don’t think I would have been able to forget it.

My tastes generally run more to more formal Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Nativity of our Lord, but I was very moved by this intimate portrait of Mary and Joseph watching over the newborn infant Jesus, minus the usual entourage of animals, angels, shepherds and Magi, as they contemplate the enormity of what God has done – and the task He has entrusted to them.

There is a lamp at Joseph’s feet, yet the glow cast throughout the room comes not from it but from the cradle holding the newborn infant who is the very Light of the World.

Mary looks spent, as would any woman who has just given birth. She leans her head against her husband’s cloak as she gazes with him at the child of whom the Angel Gabriel said, some nine months earlier,

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)

Of course, there is yet another profound dimension to the story of which I am only just beginning to scratch the surface now that I am a Catholic: Mary’s fiat (her declaration in response to Gabriel’s announcement):

And Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (vs.38)

A little over a year ago I read a booklet of excerpts from the writings of John Henry Newman entitled, Mary as the New Eve (Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3). It helped me to understand what lies behind the Catholic dogmas, doctrines and practice concerning Mary that protestants, especially evangelicals – including myself at the time – find so problematic. I learned that this idea – that Mary, because of her “yes” became the means of undoing Eve’s “no” – was not a new one. It was the subject of some of the writings of the Church Fathers, including St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 120-165), St. Irenaeus (120-200), Tertullian (160-240), and, later, Jerome (331-420). In other words Mary, like Eve, was a responsible moral agent, complete with the same free will that Eve perverted to her own ends. But Mary not only said yes, she did so with great joy and humility, and so, in the words of St. Irenaeus, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary.” That is, she was not merely the vessel of the Incarnation, she actually cooperated in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

I recommend this synopsis of Newman’s writing on the subject of Mary. His writing is very dense at times, and tackling a whole book like Apologia pro vita sua can be daunting. I find his writing easier to take in small doses like this. It is well worth the effort. If you are already Catholic, it will help you to be, in the words of 1 Peter (3:15), “prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” If you are protestant you may find here – as I did – clarification of some of your assumptions about the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary.

And let’s not forget Joseph. What a stand-up guy. When faced with the news that his prospective wife is expecting a child, his response reveals a man focused on her best interests: “…Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.” (Matt. 1:19) In other words, although the marriage was null and void according to the law, Joseph wanted to protect Mary from public scandal. Then when an angel explains to the real story to him in a dream, he doesn’t hesitate to follow the angel’s command and take Mary as his wife. He is the one to whom God reveals the name by which the child will be known – Jesus.

This is the first but not the last time that Joseph’s obedience to God’s direction proves crucial. It is Joseph whom God warns in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape Herod’s search-and-destroy mission. Once again, he obeys, and his obedience saves Jesus’ life.

He is never front-and-center in the story of Jesus’ life as recorded in scripture, but his role is crucial. Imagine for a moment what the Nativity story would be without Joseph. Had he not been willing to follow God's instructions in the first instance, Mary might have been exposed to public shame and even the penalty of stoning under the law. Had he not obeyed God and taken his family to Egypt, Jesus might have ended up as one of Herod's victims. Certainly God would have found a way to work out his plan of salvation, but the point is that Joseph's obedience, like Mary's, was crucial to the success of this particular plan.

The Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square in Rome this year is set in Joseph's carpentry shop in Nazareth, rather than the traditional stable in Bethlehem. It has incited some controversy, but one reason that the Holy Father did it this way was to remind us of the critical role of Jesus' earthly father and, by extension, of all earthly fathers, in protecting and guiding their families.

This picture reminds us that Jesus' Incarnation did not take place in a vacuum. He was bortn into a family, to a man and woman who, fortunately for us, were willing to obey God even when they did not fully understand His purposes. It must have seemed overwhelming at times, raising such a child, and the Mary and Joseph pictured here do seem overwhelmed - as are most parents of newborns. Yet they are also peaceful, and they will remain faithful - to each other, to Jesus, and to the task God has assigned them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

St. Nicholas of Myra

My thanks to Taylor Marshall for this recent post about St. Nicholas, which includes a link to an account of his life from the St. Nicholas Center. The artwork alone is worth a visit. His feast day, Dec. 6, has already past, but he certainly remains a prominent figure during these seasons of Advent and Christmas.

One of the great joys of entering the Catholic Church has been the opportunity to learn about her saints. I knew about St. Nicholas even before I considered becoming Catholic, thanks to my sister-in-law, who gave me a booklet on the subject for Christmas one year. Since then I have brought it out every Advent season and placed it in a prominent place in my living room through Christmas.

This is a great story about a man who lived a life of truly heroic virtue. It will inspire both children and adults during this season as we await the coming of Christ.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Children: Presents or Polluters?

I ran across an article recently that appeared on the Adelaide (Australia) Adverstiser website on Dec. 10, concerning a proposal by a supposed "medical expert" to impose a hefty tax on parents for each baby they add to their family after the first two. The proposal was presented as a means of fighting climate change (that is, global warming) through "population control." Anyone who has followed the radical neo-Marxist faction of the environmental movement or the population control movement for any length of time will not be surprised to see further evidence of the link between the two, but it is not every day we see it on such public display, for all the world to see.

The proposal was made in a letter to the editor of the Dec. 10 Medical Journal of Australia by Barry Walters, a physician and associate professor of obstetric medicine at the University of Western Australia and the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth.

Dr. Walters states that every new baby in Australia is "a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society." He suggests that the "environmentally responsible" thing to do, then, is to charge parents for having more children than "experts" like Walters think they should have. He cites a limit of two children per couple suggested by Sustainable Population Australia, an organization described on its website as "dedicated to preserving species' habitats globally and in Australia from the degradation caused by human population growth."

In addition to an initial upfront tax of $5000 AU (approximately $4,390 USD) for each "excess" child born, parents would be assessed an annual tax of up to $800 AD ($700 USD). This would cover the expense of planting enough trees to offset the carbon emissions supposedly created by each human being over his lifetime.

The original article that prompted his comments was published in the Aug. 6, 2007 issue of the Journal and entitled, "Personal Carbon Trading: a Potential 'Stealth Intervention' for Obesity Reduction?" The author is Garry Egger, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of health sciences at Southern Cross University in Lismore, New South Wales and founder of the Gutbusters program, which fights male obesity. Dr. Egger suggests that a potential side effect of so-called "personal carbon offsets" can as a means of "reducing obesity by increasing personal energy use."

Under such a "personal carbon trading" scheme, each person would be allocated a given number of "tradeable energy units" per year. Those who end up with an excess of units could trade them in; those who go over their limit would pay a premium for their profligacy. Egger, whose expertise is obesity and weight control, suggests that, in addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, such a system would also encourage lifestyles that contribute to lowered obesity rates.

The good Dr. Egger sees growth of any sort – in the economy or the population – as the engine driving climate change and therefore an evil to be opposed at all costs. Government policies that discourage consumption of modern conveniences, like the internal combustion engine, for instance, in favor of, say, bicycles, are to be encouraged. Certainly he is correct in a sense. Government policies that make it prohibitively expensive to purchase or maintain an automobile will force citizens to get more exercise. Whether it will actually improve the overall quality of life is doubtful. In any case, few people would choose to live under such a regime. Of course, it is a scheme only a U.N. technocrat could love, and it is impractical in the extreme. Not to mention that it is based on still-unproven theories about global climate change – 1) whether it is unprecedented, and 2) whether it is man-made.

But this is beside the point. The truly insidious aspect of such a proposal is not it's unworkability but rather the notion that we are morally obligated to control the number of consumers, not just the level of consumption. By Walters' and Egger's reasoning, human beings don't just contribute to the problem, we are the problem. Population control, therefore, is seen as an unalloyed good, to be accomplished by whatever means possible.

Egger's article mentions that population control is essential to the success of such a scheme. But in his follow-up letter Walters gives us an undisguised look into the kind of thinking that leads even obstetrics professors to view children not as a gift from God but as a threat to our quality of life. In addition to his baby tax scheme, Walters suggests awarding "carbon credits" to Australians who provide or use such "greenhouse-friendly services" as "contraceptives, intrauterine devices, diaphragms, condoms and sterilisation procedures."

He doesn't mention abortion, of course, but can anyone be in any doubt that it would be ruled out under such a Utopian project? After all, abortion is aimed at the same result - the elimination of "excess" children. Moreover, even if his proposal were limited to the use of contraceptives, oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices are morally problematic precisely because they often work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg. That is, they induce abortion. Not to mention that all forms of artificial contraception are morally problematic (to say the least) for Catholics and for a growing number of pro-life protestants. (But that's a discussion for another day.)

Mr. Walters suggests that doctors have a duty, "as citizens of this world" to advocate for such programs. And he even goes so far as to say that "we deserve no more population concessions than those in India and China." Whew! It isn't often that even the most hardened zero population growth advocate holds up India or China as a standard for family planning programs, given the results of such programs there. India, where the traditional preference for boys has led to the widespread practice of aborting girls. China's one-child-per-family policy and the resulting government-enforced abortions are well known by now. Normal male/female population ratios have become so distorted by such policies that young men in both countries outnumber their female contemporaries to such an extent that they are hard-pressed to find women to marry.

Dr. Eggers, for his part, doesn't back down one inch from Dr. Walters' challenge. In fact, in his reply to Walters' letter he wonders where all of the population control advocates have gone who made such a splash in the 1970s. He suggests they have been drowned out either by politicians and economists who support growth (imagine that) or perhaps "the great religions, intent on outnumbering each other."

As I said before, there is nothing new under the sun here. Religious faith is often held up by self-described "progressives" as a foe of scientific progress, and family planning has long been advocated as a key to the prosperity of developing countries. (In this connection, see Dawn Eden's recent posts ("Ad nauseum" - parts 1 & 2) about marketing materials distributed by Planned Parenthood affiliates across the globe.) Still, it isn't often that we get to see such undisguised mutual cheerleading between Utopian environmentalists and population control advocates.

Perhaps the best comment on the proposal came from Angela Conway of the Australian Family Association: "Self-important professors with silly ideas should have to pay carbon tax for all the hot air they create." Well said.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Anti-Christ Christmas Movie

The December 7 release of “The Golden Compass,” a movie version of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, appears to be stimulating sales of the books. The publisher, Random House, reports a 500 percent increase in sales in the past three months, and The Golden Compass has made the USA Today Top 50 Bestseller list.

This is not good news for Christians, especially for parents who care about their children’s faith formation. Pullman is a clever writer (I hesitate to use the word “good” in connection with him), but his books have hitherto not attracted nearly the popularity of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter books, in part because they are, as the trilogy’s title suggests, dark. His explicit purpose in writing these books was to undermine the Christian faith of children and to promote atheism, and he has said so. “I am of the devil’s party and know it,” he has openly averred.

Defenders of the film point out that the more objectionable themes of the book have been downplayed in the movie version. Nichole Kidman, who plays one of the main characters, has responded to criticism of the film, saying that, as a Catholic, she would never have accepted the role if the film contained an anti-Christian message.

That may be, say Pete Vere and Sandra Miesel, the authors of the forthcoming publication, Pied Piper of Atheism (Ignatius), a critique of the Pullman books, in an interview on Nov. 14 with the Zenit News Agency. However, they warn in the interview, the movie’s popularity will likely increase curiosity about the books. As we see, this occurred already before the movie’s release. Indeed, while meaning no offense to Mrs. Urban, I am more inclined to trust the theological judgement of experienced Catholic thinkers like Mr. Vere and Ms. Miesel.

I have been warning the parents in my acquaintance about the Pullman books for years, and I don’t think I exaggerate the danger. Pullman has been very open about his disdain for the beliefs of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein and about his desire to undermine faith in God and the Church, particularly the Catholic Church. In light of this, it seems to me that the most appropriate course of action for Christian parents and their children is to shun the movie and pray for the salvation of Philip Pullman’s soul.

For an excellent analysis of the anti-Christian nature of Philip Pullman’s fiction, see “Paradise Denied: Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment,” by Leonie Caldecott, in the October, 2003 issue of Touchstone magazine.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Friendly Challenge

In my conversion story (posted here) I wrote,
I am persuaded that... anyone worthy of the name “protestant” is honor bound to ask himself from time to time why he is still a protestant – should ask himself what, after all, he is protesting. To reject the Catholic Church based on an honest assessment of its claims is one thing. But too often, protestants do what I did for many years – they reject the Church based on an incomplete or biased view of those claims.

In keeping with the goal of increasing Protestant/Catholic understanding, I would like to recommend a book I read recently, and I hope this will be only the first of many such friendly challenges to my evangelical brethren to assess fully the actual teachings of the Catholic Church before rejecting those teachings.

By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, by Mark Shea, is the story of the author's own careful investigation of the claims of the Catholic Church, partly in response to modernist attacks on the Christian faith by members of the Jesus Seminar. He ultimately concluded that Sacred Tradition, rightly understood, is an essential underpinning not only of the Catholic Church but of orthodox Christianity in general.

Written in a style that is accessible, thoroughly engaging and humorous, By What Authority? also explains why an over emphasis on a "Bible-only" defense of the Christian faith can actually undermine attempts to defend the faith against modernist attacks from the likes of the Jesus Seminar. This book should appear on the reading list of anyone - Catholic or Protestant - interested in learning more about Catholic Tradition.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Welcome to my first foray into the world of "blogging." By way of introduction, it might help to explain the reasoning behind the title, “Seward’s Folly”. It has nothing to do with the mocking title applied to the Alaska Territory when then-Secretary of State William Seward recommended its purchase from Russia in 1867. (See also, “Seward’s Icebox”.)

“Seward’s” because Seward is my surname – my married name to be precise.

“Folly” is best explained by referring to a well-known passage in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 1) contrasting the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man, in which the words “folly,” “foolish” or “foolishness” is used six times, beginning with verse 18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. “

The context of the passage is Paul’s appeal to the Christians in Corinth for unity, as opposed to the “quarrelling” among them that has been reported to him. He goes on reminds them that his vocation is not to baptize but to preach the gospel, “not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of it’s wisdom.” (verse 17)

One of my purposes for creating this blog is to promote Christian unity – a desire near and dear to our Lord, too, since it was the subject of his prayer on the night before his Passion—“ that they [His followers] may all be one, even as we [He and the Father] are one.” (John 17:11)

How do we accomplish that kind of unity among believers in Christ? I have puzzled over that question for many years, and I have concluded that the Catholic Church represents the only real hope of Christian unity. Had you asked me that question three or four years ago I would not have been so sure of my answer, but I was certainly beginning to have my suspicions. It was somewhat of a surprise even to me when the pieces finally fell into place and I concluded that the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” I’ve been claiming to believe in all of these years, was, after all, the Catholic Church.

I am also persuaded that the visible church – the church as a living, breathing institution – is essential to the task of furthering the Gospel and proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. The only institution that fits that description, it seems to me, is the Catholic Church.

Certainly many of my fellow believers who have happened on this site are not similarly persuaded – at least, not yet. I understand; it took me nearly 50 years to reach this point. I only ask that you keep an open mind and keep comments – if any – civil. I welcome your input.

Those of you who have found your way as I did, by God’s grace, to this side of the Tiber River, are also welcome – with the same caveats about comments, of course.

A word about content: While I expect that Catholic matters will be the focus of most future postings, I do not intend to make them the exclusive focus. I am liable to comment about most anything that strikes me as interesting, noteworthy – or funny.

Finally, for what it’s worth I have posted below my “Apologia,” which began as a brief explanation to family and friends of my decision to enter the Catholic Church. It is not particularly brief, nor do I claim any “eloquent wisdom” contained therein. There are many other convert stories much more worthy of such a claim. I offer it in the hope of encouraging others who have made or are in the process of making the same journey – or who are just considering dipping your toe in the water, so to speak. All I can say is, come on in, the water’s fine!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Long Journey Home: Why I Have Left ECUSA for the Catholic Church

September 2007

She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick – Flannery O’Connor

On Easter Eve, of 2007, at the Great Easter Vigil service in my parish church, my husband and I and several others were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. After each of us proclaimed, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God,” we were confirmed by our pastor and took Holy Communion for the first time as Catholics. It was the culmination of months of formal preparation and years, perhaps decades, of prompting by the Holy Spirit.

Other Catholic converts liken this experience to “coming home,” and so it has been for me. It feels like this is just exactly where I belong. Even so, I have long felt the need to explain, in writing, how I got here from there. The result is this document. What started out as a simple outline has become this rather lengthy paper, and it could easily have been even longer. I was moved to write it for at least three reasons:

First, I thought I owed it to family and friends, especially to those who understand why this is such a momentous step. Becoming a Catholic is not the same as transferring one’s membership from, say, the Methodist Church to the Presbyterian Church. One does not “become” an Episcopalian or a Baptist (or any other flavor of protestant) in the same sense that one becomes a Catholic.

Second, I thought it would help to explain it to myself. Writing something down always helps me to think more clearly.

Third, and most important, I believe that I have discovered a “pearl of great price” such as Jesus spoke of in His parable, something that one will gladly sell all he has in order to possess. He was speaking of the kingdom of heaven, of course, and I don’t mean to suggest that the Catholic Church is the equivalent of the kingdom of heaven (although it is a part of it, certainly). I mean that I have discovered a wonderful treasure. I can hardly contain my joy at finding it, and I want to share it.

A word of explanation: I use the term “orthodox” in the generic sense, with a lower case “o,” meaning concerning right belief. Where I speak of the Orthodox churches (i.e., Greek, Russian, etc.) I use an upper case “O.” I tend to avoid the term “evangelical,” simply because the definition is so fluid these days that it no longer has any universal meaning. I make reference to the so-called “Evangelical Movement,” as I understand it, in my discussion of the importance of the institutional church.

One request: I would ask that my readers exercise a spirit of forbearance and resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. I mean this apologia to be a springboard for discussion, not the last word from Mt. Sinai. Frankly, I don’t yet fully understand myself how this happened. Elements of this process will, I think, always be something of a mystery even to me—this side of Paradise, at least. As are all works of Grace, I suppose.

Why Leave ECUSA?

No one who has paid any attention to the recent history of the Episcopal Church in the United States will be surprised that I chose to leave. With a growing sense of gloom I have watched ECUSA’s escalating slide into apostasy for decades now, and in the aftermath of the 2003 General Convention it became increasingly clear to me that those who hold an orthodox view of scripture and of the role of the church in the world were no longer welcome. Indeed I am only one of a steady stream of Episcopalians who have left in recent decades, many, like me, for the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to explain my particular reasons, especially for the sake of those who feel some resentment toward those of us who have chosen to abandon ship rather than fight on. I understand. After all, when fellow orthodox Christians leave the Episcopal Church, those who remain become the exposed right flank, not an easy position.

First, I left the Episcopal Church because I ceased to believe that it could reform itself. This most recent apostasy is not a new development; it has been going on for decades and has gotten steadily worse. The current spiritual chaos over issues of human sexuality has only accelerated a process that was well underway in my grandparents’ time, and perhaps long before (more on that later). Conservative/orthodox/evangelical Episcopal churches and clergy have not displaced the progressive/liberal ones but have only grown more and more marginalized. And there’s no sign that this will change any time soon.

Why is this so? There are at least three reasons:†

1) The governing structure of ECUSA is held firmly by liberals.

2) There is no real end to this situation in sight, since each diocese has an equal vote, no matter the size. So the Diocese of Nevada (home of the current Presiding Bishop)—with an average Sunday attendance of about 2,400—can always cancel out the Diocese of Central Florida (whose bishop is a leader among orthodox Episcopalians)—with an average Sunday attendance of over 15,600. Since there are far more liberal dioceses than conservative ones, conservatives will never have the votes to defeat the liberals—short of a pretty spectacular miracle, that is.

3) The overwhelming majority of seminaries—and the selection of seminarians—are still in the hands of the left. And they are likely to stay that way.

Second, I could no longer see how to carry on effective ministry, either to those inside or outside the church, under the current conditions. It was an adversarial situation. Nothing was a “given,” everything was up for grabs and subject to change by a vote at the next General Convention. In 2003 General Convention decided to disregard the scriptural condemnation of a particular sexual sin; maybe next time they will undo the work of the early church councils and decide that Jesus was, after all, not really God. No doubt some of them would be inclined to do so even now.

Third, I couldn’t see an end to the conflict precisely because it was a conflict between competing views of scriptural interpretation. For protestants/evangelicals scripture is regarded as the final arbiter of truth about God and man and the relationship between us. And I have no doubt that it is God’s Word and as such, authoritative. But I have come to see that, without an agreed-upon standard of interpretation, the inevitable result will be a lack of unity. In talking to our more liberal Episcopalian brothers and sisters, my husband and I often found ourselves engaging in “cross talk.” We were using the same words, but our meanings were entirely different. There was no outside authority to lend weight to our moral assertions. We were, in effect, hoist with our own protestant petard of substituting our personal judgment for the authority of the Church.‡

This issue of authority was absolutely central to my decision. It became clear to me that, without an outside, institutional authority making the final call, it is impossible to maintain either orthodoxy or unity in the church. To be sure, there are plenty of dissenting Catholics, but no one need be in any doubt what they are dissenting from. The buck stops somewhere. Ideally it stops at the desk of the parish priest; if necessary it will go all the way to Rome, but it stops there. Not for nothing do we have the saying, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” (Rome has spoken, the case is closed.) Imagine trying to substitute “Canterbury” or “Geneva.” It just doesn’t work.

Why not an Anglican Alternative, Existing or Future?

Many people may wonder why I have not taken the Anglican option. Certainly there are alternatives for those who wish to remain Anglican. As far as the “continuing churches” are concerned (those that split from the Episcopal Church in the 1970s over women’s ordination and the revised Book of Common Prayer), many of them are very attractive. They are theologically orthodox and liturgically consistent. But in terms of numbers they are a drop in the bucket, even compared to the relatively small Episcopal Church, so their influence on the wider culture is diluted. They are also bishop-heavy. Furthermore, they fell to fighting amongst themselves almost immediately after 1977 and have split several ways since then. This does not inspire confidence for the future. Finally, because they are not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, their historic link to the Anglican Communion is tenuous.

Then there are the more recent alternatives for orthodox believers. AMiA (Anglican Mission in America) churches and those affiliated with CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) are certainly theologically orthodox. They are also decidedly evangelical, and this tends to keep them spiritually alive and vibrant, in contrast to some of the continuing churches. I thank God for the Global South Anglican bishops who oversee these churches; they have been faithful to “the faith once delivered to the saints.”

But I foresee potential problems. The absentee bishop situation is not, I think, sustainable in the long run. We are told that this is a temporary solution until a permanent one can be found. But what will the permanent solution look like? Can they avoid the divisive issues that plague the continuing Anglicans to this day? Will the transition be a smooth one? CANA, AMiA and the ACN (the Anglican Communion Network) are not in complete agreement about how to proceed. How will the relationship among them work itself out?

Yet even if such organizational problems as these can be solved, there are other difficulties that present even greater potential for conflict. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to call them Irreconcilables. For example:

1. The ordination of women. Let me state for the record that I believe women are entirely capable of doing the tasks typically done by ordained men. However, that is not the issue as far as Anglican unity is concerned. The Catholic practice of ordaining only men stems mainly from the Catholic view of the priesthood. Namely, when a priest is administering the sacraments he is acting in Persona Christi (in the Person of Christ). In the Confessional he says, “I absolve you of your sins,” not “Christ absolves you….” Christ was a man, so a priest must also be a man.

The continuing churches and dioceses like Ft. Worth, who take a more Anglo-Catholic view of the priesthood than their evangelical brothers and sisters, will continue to be alienated from Anglicans who take a more liberal view of women’s ordination. Evangelical intransigence on this issue will also seriously impair any chance of eventual reconciliation with Rome or Constantinople. Some may not view this last issue as a problem. I do, for obvious reasons.

Another hindrance to unity is the militancy of many ordained women. Unfortunately, many of them treat the priesthood as a career choice rather than as a vocation, a calling. This tends to foster the attitude that women have a right to be ordained. But there is no such thing as a right to ordination. It is a gift of grace. Those who treat it as a right lack the necessary humility, in my view, to be an effective priest.

2. The Eucharist. The Episcopal Church’s teaching on the Eucharist permit a wide range of individual beliefs. This is often represented as a strength of Anglicanism. But I am persuaded that it is a weakness, and a fatal one at that, because it leads to disunity among Anglicans about this, the most important sacrament of the church. It seems to me that either it is merely a remembrance (“The Lord’s Supper”) or it is literally the body and blood of Christ. It can’t really be both. The doctrine of the Real Presence is either objectively true or it isn’t. Although faith in the receiver is necessary for the sacrament to be effective, it doesn’t change the substance of the bread and wine. God does that—or he doesn’t. I believe that the lack of clear teaching on this subject in the Episcopal Church—and in the Anglican tradition in general—gives rise to a dangerous subjectivism regarding doctrine. In other words, if it’s up to me to decide whether or not Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, then why shouldn’t I apply that same subjective test to every other traditional doctrine of the church? The bodily Resurrection, for example, or the Trinity, or for that matter the authority of scripture? This is, in fact, exactly what has been taking place in the Episcopal Church for many decades. And I see no particular reason to believe that this problem will not eventually resurface in a new orthodox Anglican body.

Not Another Protestant Denomination?

I do not dismiss and, in truth, can never repay the great debt I owe to the Reformation churches and the Evangelical Movement for my own spiritual formation. It was there that I learned such essentials as the centrality of scripture and the necessity of a personal relationship with Christ and personal holiness. I see my becoming a Catholic as a fulfillment, not a repudiation, of my protestant/evangelical heritage. My journey into the Catholic Church was the logical end of a thorough assessment of the truth as recorded in scripture.

For me, the really fatal flaw of protestantism—evangelical and otherwise—is the tendency to splinter, to regard schism as a legitimate means of reform. According to people who study such things, at last count there were anywhere from 20,000-plus to 30,000-plus different protestant denominations. I firmly believe that this is not what our Lord had in mind when he prayed for his followers the night before his death “that they may all be one, even as we [He and the Father] are one.” (John 17:11)

Going to another protestant denomination ceased to be an option for me when I became convinced that the twin Reformation principles of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and sola fides (faith alone) were theologically and historically insupportable. Why? A thorough explanation would require a lengthy digression, and many others have made this case much more eloquently than I could ever hope to do.

For me the historical argument against sola scriptura is particularly compelling. After all, someone had to sort through the early church writings in the first place and decide what constituted the canon of scripture. Someone also had to work out doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, which are certainly strongly implied in but not fully formulated in scripture. That “someone” was the early Church Councils, and it took them several centuries to iron out the particulars and beat back the early heresies that challenged those essential doctrines of the Faith. The result, of course, was the creeds of the Church. Certainly the Gospel writers were guided by the Holy Spirit. But so must the Church Councils have been, in discerning what should and should not be considered scripture.

In fact, as far as scripture is concerned I have found the Catholic interpretation of certain passages more convincing than the standard protestant interpretation. To take just one example, the passage in John 6: 53b-55, where Jesus describes himself as the “bread of life”: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” Further on in the passage John tells us that “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (Verse 66)

If Jesus was not referring here, as many protestants would have it, to what would become the sacrament of Holy Communion, then what was he was talking about? If so many of his followers fell away over a misunderstanding, then why did Jesus not go after them and explain further, rather than just allow them to walk away?

The inadequacy of sola fides took longer to grasp, and I still find the Catholic explanation of justification and sanctification hard to understand. However, I have found equally puzzling the tendency of protestant Christians to pass over or even dismiss James’ discussion of the role of good works in the Christian life. Luther even wanted to drop the book of James from the New Testament canon. The bottom line for me is that the Catholic view of justification and sanctification tends to encourage one to take more seriously the business of sanctification. Here’s how Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, put it in an interview with Christianity Today when he “reverted” to Catholicism:

The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtue—not because virtue saves you, but because that’s the way God’s grace gets manifested.... [I]t doesn’t say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something. It’s important to allow the grace of God to be exercised through your actions....
Why Not Orthodoxy?

I have to admit up front that I did not fully explore the option of joining an Orthodox church, in part because the sheer size of the task is so overwhelming. There are so many different Orthodox churches. What I do know about the Orthodox tradition is mostly good, and may God bless my brothers and sisters who have chosen this option. But the bottom line is that I don’t feel drawn to the Orthodox churches as I do to the Catholic Church.

For one thing, there is no Orthodox Church in the sense that there is a Catholic Church. There are Orthodox churches, and although they are all theologically “orthodox,” to be sure, they function more like a federation than a communion, and in this sense they remind me of what the Anglican Communion is starting to look like.

Furthermore, most Orthodox churches are very closely identified with a particular ethnic group, and, with the exception of the Orthodox Church in America, they are decidedly non-Western. The Catholic tradition is certainly different from the protestant tradition, but it is still more familiar—and more “catholic” (i.e., “universal”), in my view, than the Orthodox tradition.

Crossing the Tiber

Why Rome? Here is the real heart of the matter: I am Catholic because have come to believe that the claims of the Catholic Church are true. That’s the only really good reason for identifying oneself with any institution, anyway, and it’s the primary reason I have made this journey. After a prolonged period of exploring those claims in depth, it became clear to me that, as a matter of conscience, I had no choice but to enter the Church.

I believe that the Catholic Church is that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” I’ve been claiming to believe in all of these years. I am persuaded that the visible church – the church as a living, breathing institution – matters at least as much as and probably more than the invisible church. I have long identified with the Evangelical Movement because of it’s insistence on a personal relationship with Christ and the authority of scripture. But I diverge from many evangelicals who tend to dismiss the role of the institutional church in furthering the Gospel and proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. In my view the role of the institutional church is essential.

This may be a good place for a point of clarification, and it is worth emphasizing: I am NOT saying, and the Catholic Church does NOT teach, that non-Catholics are not Christians. In fact, the Catholic Church takes a much more expansive view of membership in the Body of Christ than do some protestant denominations. In the Catholic view, anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is a Christian. That’s why I did not have to be re-baptized when I entered the church. (Although, ironically, if I had decided instead to become a Baptist, I would have had to do so.) The official Catholic view is that non-Catholics are in “certain but incomplete” communion with the Catholic Church.

I am persuaded that the Protestant Reformation – in both it’s Anglican and Continental forms (Lutheran, Calvinist, etc., etc.) – has run it’s course, and that anyone worthy of the name “protestant” is honor bound to ask himself from time to time why he is still a protestant – should ask himself what, after all, he is protesting. To reject the Catholic Church based on an honest assessment of its claims is one thing. But too often, protestants do what I did for many years – they reject the Church based on an incomplete or biased view of those claims.

Furthermore, I am convinced that the current chaos in ECUSA (and in other mainline protestant churches, though to a lesser degree so far) is symptomatic of the protestant insistence on private, individual interpretation of scripture. And this, I think, is at the heart of the protestant impulse to use schism as a means of reform.

The Episcopal bishop who has presided over the splintering of my own diocese has been fond of saying since 2003 that he prefers heresy to schism because if you have schism you cannot remedy heresy. I have come to agree with him, though only to a point. The irony that he is a bishop in a church born out of schism appears to have been lost on him. Nevertheless, he is right; schism does make it difficult, if not impossible, to remedy heresy. Maybe that is the very reason for the Episcopal Church’s contemporary slide into apostasy. And I am persuaded that the seeds of this were sown in the 16th century. Henry VIII obtained an unlawful divorce from the Roman Catholic Church for the Church of England so that he could obtain an unlawful divorce from his wife. We are still paying the consequences.

In contrast, the Catholic Church has, rightly, refused to tolerate either schism or heresy, and they are able to remedy heresy without schism. Orthodox Episcopalians have no other way to address it.

The Journey

… I suppose every one knows this fear of getting "drawn in" – the moment at which a man realises that what had seemed mere speculations are on the point of landing him in the Communist Party or the Christian Church – the sense that a door has just slammed and left him on the inside.

C.S. Lewis
Perelandra, Chap. 1
When did this happen? I really can’t say. It is often difficult, of course, to trace exhaustively the work of God’s grace in one’s life. Mostly one sees only glimpses, but occasionally there are moments of clarity. C.S. Lewis describes his ultimate conversion to Christianity in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Several days after a prolonged conversation with his friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, about Christianity as the One True Myth, he got in a motorcycle side car and was driven by his brother to the “Whipsnade Zoo.” When he left he believed in God but not in Christ. By the time he reached his destination he was a believer. He could never say exactly when or how it happened, but he knew once he arrived that, somehow, the pieces of the puzzle had finally fallen into place, and he believed.

In a sense that’s what happened to me. It wasn’t so much a matter of deciding deliberately to become Catholic. I simply realized at a certain point that I was no longer protestant. At that point, I could no longer remain outside the Church in good conscience. It became clear to me that obedience to Christ entailed obedience to the Catholic Church.

Some people who have taken this hard would have, I suspect, liked the chance to talk us out of it before we decided. But they would not have succeeded. No one talked us into this. We did not talk ourselves into this. We resisted it for a long time, and when we went we did so with our eyes wide open, knowing that some people we care about and whose good opinion we value would not understand. This was a sobering realization for me, and I agonized over it for many months. Nevertheless, I knew I had to go.

The idea of returning to the Catholic fold did not just pop into my head a few months ago, or even a few years ago. It has been brewing in my mind for a very long time. The truth is I have been curious about the Catholic Church since childhood. Who isn’t? It was strange, yet in some ways very similar, to the tradition in which I grew up. The Anglican Church is supposed to be the “Bridge” church, after all, between the Catholic and protestant traditions. Not that I have ever really bought into the so-called “Bridge Theory.” Admittedly, I have always been more Anglo-Catholic than low-church protestant, aesthetically speaking. But I think John Henry Newman, the great 19th century Anglican convert, was correct to conclude that there really is no such thing as an Anglo-Catholic church, except on paper.

A part of me has always regarded the Reformation as a tragedy, and my conscience was especially troubled on this score when I wrote a paper on the Anglican Reformation in graduate school. I saw then that the Anglican Reformation was not altogether the great boon to the English-speaking world that many (mostly protestant) historians make it out to be. It was, for example, one of the greatest government land grabs in history. Furthermore, it was not a grassroots movement that worked its way up to the elites, as some Anglican historians would have it. It was a thoroughly top-down movement, and Elizabeth I had considerable trouble getting everyone to go along with the program. Catholics were officially persecuted by the powers-that-be in Great Britain for more than two centuries after her reign.

Having been involved in the pro-life movement since the 1980s, I have long been impressed with the consistency of Catholic teaching on this issue. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church has been positively prophetic about the likely consequences of the sexual revolution. Long before I became a Catholic I was persuaded that the Catholic Church has been right all along about the relationship between artificial contraception and abortion—that divorcing sex from procreation would devalue both marriage and the fruits of marriage. The consequences are there for all the world to see. Once life is devalued on one end of the continuum it becomes expendable on the other end—or at any point. And now we have the Brave New World of designer babies and sex-selection abortion and all the rest of it. Not to mention the weakening of the institution of marriage.

"Irresistible" Grace

...Truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion ... 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. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair ... When he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.

G.K. Chesterton
How did this happen? It was a combination of factors, some of which pushed and some of which pulled me toward the Catholic Church. I was pushed by the gradual decline and the continued splintering of ECUSA and of other protestant denominations. I was pulled – drawn really – to the Catholic Church not only by the rich history and theology but also by the faithfulness of her saints,§ and her living adherents. Among them (just to name a few):

* St. Thomas More, Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, one of only a handful of prominent English statesmen who resisted Henry’s attempt to usurp the authority of the Catholic Church in England. For refusing to sign the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England, Thomas was beheaded by the king in 1535. He is my patron saint—and my husband’s.

* Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert and currently the editor of First Things magazine, of which I have been an avid reader since the late 1980s.

* Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, and J.R.R. Tolkien, through whom I first imbibed the Catholic view of the world.** I will include C.S. Lewis in this list, too, although he was a lifelong Anglican. I am convinced he would have entered the Catholic Church had he lived to see the current chaos in the Anglican Communion.

* St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who offered himself to be starved to death by the Nazis in the place of another prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941.

* John Henry, Cardinal Newman, probably the most famous Anglican convert of all time. A founder and apologist for the Anglican “Oxford Movement” of the 19th century.

* Pope John Paul II (The Great)

* Pope Benedict XVI

* Mother Teresa of Calcutta

* Catholic friends, among the most serious, thoughtful fellow Christians it has been my privilege to know.

When I finally examined the claims of the Catholic Church from the Catholic point of view this time, I discovered that most of my theological objections were due to a misunderstanding of the Church’s actual teachings. What remained difficult were the usual sticking points for evangelicals – the Church’s teachings about Mary for instance, in particular the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. But when I discovered that there is sound reasoning behind those doctrines, my attitude began to change. Eventually, my whole way of looking at the problem changed. I saw that the central question was one of authority rather than doctrine. In other words, the real question is, does the Catholic Church have the authority to rule on questions of doctrine?

I have come to believe that the answer is yes, because I believe that Catholic Church is the instrument through which God has preserved, from the days of the Apostles, the “faith once delivered to the saints.” I trust that God will not allow her to go utterly astray, that His Holy Spirit will correct her where she does. In short, I am willing to trust the Church because I have come to love the Church. I have come to love the Church because I trust her teachings.

A Severe Mercy

My journey “across the Tiber” has not been without its challenges. I was there intellectually long before I was there emotionally, and I still find this sobering, even in the midst of indescribable joy. The truth is that I have left a church with beautiful liturgy and inspiring architecture and a rich musical tradition, to which I have a lifelong attachment and to which my ancestors have belonged for hundreds of years. And for what? I have gone to a church that – in the United States, at least – is only just beginning to emerge from several decades of experimentation with tacky, uninspiring modern architecture and even tackier modern liturgy and music. Furthermore, there is much about Catholic culture (American and otherwise) that I don’t understand, and in some ways it probably will always be something of a mystery to me. And let’s not forget the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. The worst of it is behind us, thankfully, but it will be a long time before the Church recovers fully from this, financially and spiritually.

But recover she will, as she has so many times in the past. The Catholic Church is so much bigger than the latest scandal, and she has been around so long that there is very little new under the sun, little she hasn’t seen and dealt with already. No institution in the world has a longer institutional memory. There is plenty of reason for hope. The younger generation of Catholics, for example, are far more orthodox than their 60’s-generation predecessors. Many of them can’t remember a time before John Paul II was Pope – a Pope who, in the words of one prominent American Baptist, “really knew how to Pope.”

That description fits the current Pope Benedict XVI, too, although he is a very different man than his predecessor. One of the defining moments for me in this journey was the day that the white smoke appeared from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel a little over a week after John Paul II’s death. When then-Cardinal Ratzinger appeared on the balcony a few minutes later, I knew beyond doubt this is a church that is not captured by the spirit of the age. I had read enough of the current Pope’s writings to know then that the Church would be in good hands, and I think I knew even then that I would not remain a protestant much longer.

For better or worse, I am here to stay. I started this journey with some trepidation about what I would find when I arrived. I have found nothing less than the whole universe. I now understand what Chesterton meant when he said that “the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.” I have found evidence of God’s grace in so many places – in the fellowship of others who have discovered the same pearl of great price that I have, in the Communion of the Saints, and especially in the sacraments. That my husband and I have traveled this road together is the icing on the cake. Our paths have converged at almost every major point in this journey, and I have had the great privilege of sharing my joy at entering the church with him. I look forward to seeing how the rest of this story unfolds.


† I am indebted to Sarah Hey, an orthodox Anglican thinker, writer and speaker, for articulating this problem so well. For her complete article click here.

‡ For those who object that I am confusing “Anglican” with “Protestant,” I should clarify that the particular tradition in which I was raised, and the Christian communities which formed me in later life, were much more protestant than catholic (or “Anglo-Catholic”).

§ I should note that only two of the people listed have officially been declared “saints” by the Catholic Church. I use the term in a generic sense.

** All in this list except O’Connor were converts. Tolkein was baptized in the Anglican Church and became a Catholic as a child when his mother converted.