Photo above: the tabernacle at St Joseph's Basilica, the local cathedral in our archdiocese. Copyright Brian Holdsworth and used with permission, kinda.
Three years ago, I knew almost nothing about Catholicism. I basically thought of the Catholic Church as just another denomination, and one that really liked traditional, old-fashioned practices. Sometimes, I'd hear things ranging from “Not all Catholics are Christian”, to things like “Catholics are call going to Hell because they worship Mary and the Pope”. I didn't really know what to think, but considering that the more trustworthy sources I had tended to stick with a pretty non-damning set of opinions, that's what I settled with, though I wasn't so concerned about the matter.
When my curiosity was piqued, but a combination of interesting events and encounters, I started asking more questions. The non-Catholic sources soon split in to three factions: those who said that Catholics are, in fact, Christians, but their beliefs could be improved; those who said that Catholics are doing certain key things incorrectly, and are therefore not Christian; and the largest group: those who had incorrect information, either because of a lack of research or because of deliberate misinformation, about the Catholic Church's teachings.
I decided to pull things back to the basics. Starting with the basic belief that Jesus has offered the gift of eternal life to all who wish to follow him, I walked through each of the of my initial opinions and questions, the responses given to me for each of them, and of course the new questions that arose.
Basically, I wanted to be sure of what I believed, and to be as sure as possible that I was correct. As a friend once said, “A man that becomes a Christian because 'Jesus forgives you,' and leaves it at that, one will be prone to doing stupid things and giving the philosophy to which one claims to adhere a bad name.” And much worse than giving it a bad light, if it concerns my eternal salvation, I'd better make sure I'm doing things right. Better safe than sorry, right?
But first, the backstory. I was the firstborn child of parents who had both been raised in Christian families. My father, like many Nederlanders, was raised in a Dutch Reformed family. (Unlike a large portion of Dutch immigrants to Canada, he emigrated in the 80's, and so wasn't brought up in the Canadian descendant of the Dutch Reformed church.) My mother grew up Baptist, and since before I was born, they have both been active members of the Vineyard church.
I had many of the “standard” experiences common to people growing up in evangelical churches. I remember saying some form of “sinner's prayer” as a four-year-old, went to big youth conferences with big pop-rock concerts, went up for at least one “altar call”, and briefly considered going to YWAM or another missions-training school after graduating from high school. I was “finally” baptised as a teen, after one of many “altar call”-type events at a youth event, in a local man-made lake after our annual church picnic.
I emphasise “finally” for a couple reasons. As a very introverted teen, it took a while to build up the courage to be willing to get up in front of the whole church and do something. It helped that friends were doing it as well, and the fact that, being outside and such, not the whole church was there. Before I was baptised, I remember seeing many friends, and others much younger than I get baptised, and it made me feel almost guilty that I was too scared to do it.
I also struggled with the necessity of baptism. Did I need to “get dunked”? Wasn't I already saved? Part of this confusion was because my father, though baptised as an infant back in the Netherlands, chose to be baptised again as an adult. This made me wonder all sorts of things like, “Is infant baptism wrong? Or just not good enough? Is there something that makes adult baptism better? Was he not saved until he was baptised as an adult?” For a while, these questions bugged me, but they went away I was baptised, maybe because I felt that I had finally done what I needed to do, so I didn't need to worry about it any more.
After I finished high school, I went to a music school in England, to get a certificate in live sound engineering. Being a Christian school with a focus on training people for musical ministry, we also had a religion curriculum and classes, taught by a rotating group of local pastors. (All of them were Protestant, if I remember right. Pretty sure I would have remembered a Catholic priest showing up.) My two biggest take-aways from the classes were that there was a lot that I didn't know about the history of Christianity, and that there seemed to be a lot of disagreement on the finer details between denominations.
After coming back to Canada, getting married, and moving to Alberta for work, I ended up in Camrose, a city with two dozen or so churches. We spent the first 9 months attending a Baptist church, as we had one acquaintance there, and my wife had most recently been attending one in the town she moved from. Mainly because we weren't connecting with many people (there weren't any young people, not in tertiary education, who were also married), we started attending a Lutheran Brethren church. We connected easily with a few couples and decided to call it “home”.
There weren't too many differences in the LB church to what I was used to. The music was a bit older-fashioned, though well-produced, and the service followed a similar form to the standard Evangelical-church formula that I knew. The biggest difference that we saw, from the beginning, was that for Communion, instead of breaking into groups (as done in the Vineyard church where I grew up) or passing trays of the elements (as done in the Baptist church), we all lined up and received from one of the two pastors (for the bread) and one of the deacons (for the grape juice).
A few months later, before our eldest daughter was born, we had a meeting with one of the pastors about her upcoming baptism. We both knew that the Lutheran denominations baptised infants, rather than waiting until they made the choice to be baptised. The pastor explained that if we looked at records of baptism in the New Testament, there's talk of whole households being baptised, and no clarification that only the adults should do it. Partially because we didn't want to leave the church that we were finally making friends at, and partially because of the pastor's well-explained reasoning, we carried on and had her baptised.
As we continued to attend the Lutheran Brethren church, we started to pick up more of the little traditional things that they did which set them apart from the Vineyard. More times of reverence, different coloured banners because of the time of the year, and more times where the congregation would recite something, usually the Apostles' Creed, together. I enjoyed reciting the Creed, as it was a good reminder of what we all believed, though the fact that they swapped in Christian, instead of catholic, in one of the lines rubbed me the wrong way. We had discussed this back at school in England, and I thought that the explanation that “catholic” used in the Creed was meant to mean “universal” made sense, and I didn't see why they couldn't just say “catholic” and explain why if anyone had questions. (Looking back, I'm somewhat surprised at the lengths some Protestant churches go to explain how “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” can apply to them. Maybe that's why so many churches avoid the Creed.)
We were comfortable in our state in life. I had a good job, we had friends, a nice home, and we were happy with the way things were going. But everything was about to change. I was surprisingly laid off from work one day, and that sent everything into chaos. I spent three months working for a friend's stucco company, and then that fall, my parents offered our family a surprising gift. We had family friends in South Africa who ran a school with the goal of training people to become missionaries, and my parents offered to send the three of us there for their 2-month program. We jumped on the opportunity, as it's not every day that you get to do longer travelling as someone in a career path, along with your family, and the added benefit of some solid faith formation was attractive.
In our two months below the equator, I did learn a lot. I was shocked, however, at how anti-Catholic the primary instructor was. He didn't give much opportunity to ask questions or to go into much detail, but his basic verdict was, “Most of them worship Mary, and that's idolatry, so they're wrong”.
When we came back to Canada, I got a job at a digital marketing company, working for someone who was not only Catholic, but a passionate convert to the faith, and had similar tendencies when it comes to research and argumentation. (Aside: those perspectives of his, along with the skill-set that our office offers, has since driven him to create a “vlog”, where he shares video essays on things that he's passionate about.) This sudden switch from the anti-Catholic teacher in South Africa to someone who not only was willing to explain his beliefs, but also had a solid amount of resources to refer back to, gave the perfect opportunity to start asking questions.
Over the next two years, I asked lots of questions.
What defines a Christian? The Apostle's Creed seemed like a good starting point. Many churches at least teach it at some point, if not regularly recite it. Catholics adhere to it, so they are Christian, assuming they aren't breaking any instruction in the Bible, right? If I was to play devil's advocate (irony 100% totally intended), that I should find every possible reason why Catholics are not Christian. I knew so little about the Catholic Church and their doctrines that I didn't have much of an idea where to start, other than that teacher in South Africa saying that they idolatrise Mary, so that's where I started.
This turned out to be a very simple and complex answer. No, they don't worship Mary, but they do recognise the special role she had in our salvation. To the casual observer, especially one who doesn't know the intentions of the people they are observing, it does sometimes seem to be like worship. That was the simple part to understand, but there was two deeper conversations that needed to happen as well: statues and prayers.
The Protestant traditions that I was familiar with weren't explicitly anti-statue or iconoclastic, but they weren't pro-statue either. When I talked with Protestant leaders, they usually gave the reason that they would rather be “better safe than sorry” and therefore not have a statue of a Saint, or even Jesus, so as to not risk worshipping the statue.
The Catholic perspective on statues and other religious imagery can be simply summed up that it's like having photos of loved ones. They're not worshipping the statue that they have, but using the statue as a prompt to remind them of that particular person, the life that they lived, and to maybe take some encouragement from that person's accomplishments as a Christian.
Icons and statues also used as a prompt for praying for the intercession of the Saints, which was the next major topic I decided to address. I did a blog post on this while researching the topic, as it was one of the biggest issues that I didn't understand, and I wanted to post it in several places for feedback. I should say that I understood the Catholic explanation, but I didn't understand why Protestant denominations didn't allow it. Like having statues, it seemed that for most Protestant churches, it was one of those “better safe than sorry” things, as they didn't want to risk accidentally worshipping a Saint or performing divination, and for the others, it was an outright (maybe intentional, maybe not) misinterpretation of the Bible and the Catholic Church's teaching.
This was roughly the point where I publicly, and to my friends and family, declared my intentions to consider Catholicism. Up until this point, it had basically been conversations on Reddit (where very few IRL friends would have seen them), with my boss, and with my wife. Since making this public knowledge allowed a whole new group of people to put in their two cents, I had a new volley of topics to discuss.
What quickly became a very common (maybe the most common) argument thrown out there by many as their only reason why Catholicism is wrong was that the Bible quotes Jesus saying that we shouldn't call anyone “Father”and the fact that the Catholic Church titles their priests “Father” means that they're wrong. It doesn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny. The verses cited, in context, are hyperbolic and meant to emphasise the sin and pridefulness of Jews who called themselves titles like “teacher”or “father”but didn't direct that reverence to God. Even from the devil's advocate perspective, I had a hard time seeing how they could misconstrue the teachings like this, and the fact that it was frequently the only argument against Catholicism, and was commonly given as the reason why Catholics are completely, 100%, totally wrong made it seem like a lousy, unresearched, anti-Catholic stance without much in its favour.
Another common topic given was that the Catholic Church teaches that we have to do “good works” to be saved. The whole justification argument seemed somewhat frivolous to me. Catholics don't teach that you must do works to be saved, but that doing works is a part of having true faith. The Catholic Church doesn't say you have to do “good works”to be saved, because we're saved by the grace of God, but they're saying that your good works are a sign of your faith.
(A song from my pre-teen CD-buying years, “Deeds” by Sanctus Real, frequently ran through my head while researching this.)
It was almost like those arguing against Catholicism didn't bother to learn what Catholicism was actually teaching on the topic, and this really bothered me. It really seems that, to this day, 19 in 20 of the people I have conversations about Catholicism with, no matter how vehement their anti-Catholicism is (if you can even call it that), was because of things that the Catholic Church doesn't teach, like blatant misinformation from the Jehovah's Witnesses or just a lack of reading about what they are against. If you want to fight against anything, be it climate change, capitalism, or the Captials (wow, a sports reference!), you really should know who your opponont is.
The Venerable (that's a title that the Catholic Church gives to people who are in the process of being confirmed that they are a Saint) Fulton Sheen, who was an archbishop in the United States in the mid-twentieth century and was especially well-known for his forays into using “new”(at the time) media for evangelisation, once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” When I found this quote, it really hit home. The more I researched, the more I realised that so many of the seemingly huge, disastrous reasons why the Catholic Church was wrong were really easy to disregard because they were unfounded, uninformed, or just downright dumb.
There still were things that actually made sense for reasons that the Catholic Church was wrong in their teaching, but many hinged on Petrine and Papal primacy. If Jesus did, in fact, name Peter to be the head of the Church, the vicar of Christ, that we'd darn well be following what the office of Peter was instructing.
Wouldn't it be worse to reach your final judgement only to discover that you were going against the instruction of one placed in authority over you, than to reach your final judgement and discover that you were following a guy who didn't actually have authority to give instructions? This is, of course, assuming that the Pope isn't going around breaking God's instructions, which I believe is arguably not the case.
It's commonly stated that Catholics added things to the faith when they should just take the Bible alone (sola scriptura) as their final authority. Once I actually learned that this Protestant teaching existed, it made no sense to me. Nowhere in the Bible is there an instruction saying that the Bible is the only authority, and if there was, that would be a self-refuting argument. (Because you can have something be your sole authority without something to give it that authority.) The Bible had to be compiled by someone with some level of authority to say what should be included. Once I understood this, the Catholic Church's concept of the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magesterium (the leadership of the Church) made a lot of sense, and it became a lot easier to argue for the Catholic stance on certain issues, especially the ones surrounding marriage and birth control, Papal infallibility, and priestly celibacy.
Frequently, arguments about sex scandals or support for certain bad governments would get presented, but never were able to last. I can understand if someone is worried about paedophilia within the Church leadership, especially because of the news coverage it gets, but there were to things that I'd always fall back on. First, news coverage always has a message. It's pretty easy to realise that our modern media doesn't like the Catholic Church, and now that things like the #MeToo “movement”have become en vogue, it became even more easy to say there's sex scandals happening everywhere, not just in the Catholic Church. Also, if someone in the Catholic Church sins, it doesn't make the Church invalid. After all, no one's perfect. Try as I might, I was never able to find any sign of the Church actually condoning paedophilia or Nazism or any other of this type of reason why we should shy away from it. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has been trying harder and harder to address these issues head-on, and combat them before bad actions are taken.
I began to realise that if we are to love God with all of our heart, as Jesus instructed, and if Jesus did in fact give some level of authority to his Disciples to set up the Church, then we aught to follow the Church's instructions. If it’s true that all the extra rules are put in place by people who have God I’ve been given authority to put set rules in place, then I’m better off are following them. If it’s not true that they have any particular authority, and my following their rules doesn’t counteract any of the rules in the Bible, what harm is there? (This is something of a conditional Pascal's Wager, assuming the Catholic Church is not negating their Christianity.) Either I do some extra work here on earth and look like a fool for doing things I don’t need to do, or my extra work helps in some way. If, by following the teachings of the Catholic Church, I end up with a stronger relationship with God, then that is what I needed to do.
At some point in this journey through history, doctrines, and discussions, my wife decided to join me, and last fall, we joined a local Catholic parish's “Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults” (RCIA) class. This class is one that all parishes put on, and usually runs from September through Easter. It's designed to take people from any situation, whether they're just curious, or already decided that they want to be Catholic, and walk them through the teachings of the Church, so as to help the attendees be sure that they actually want to become Catholic. I though this was a great idea, because so often, I'd hear of people who decided to become Christian on a whim, not fully understand what they're doing, and not have anything to fall back on once they made the leap. The classes end at Easter, specifically the Saturday night before, when all the new Catholics are welcomed into the Church. Those who had not already been validly baptised in another Christian church were then baptised, we all made a statement confirming that we believe the teachings of the Catholic Church and will strive to follow them, and then we (finally, after nearly a year of watching everyone else, but not being able to participate) were able to receive Communion, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, physically present in the form of bread and wine. And that, dear reader my friends peeps, is why I'm Catholic.