I am truly fascinated by conversion stories because conversion is predicated on a reorientation of the heart itself, a fundamental change in how one sees and approaches the world that may require shunning close friendships, family, and careers.

As a Catholic, it certainly is a source of pride in my Church to know that its faithful and perennial witness on a number of moral issues has led people to embrace the Catholic Church as the fullness of the Church of Christ. It’s also true that people convert for a number of reasons that are all indicative of the grace of God, including family, friends, teachings, structure, liturgies, the Sacraments, and so on. And we continue to receive more converts to the Catholic Church even as the Church is roiled by scandals, yet another sign of God’s powerful grace.

I’ve considered deeply the phenomenon of conversion as it might apply to my own life: could I ever be led to choose another Church besides the Catholic Church? After reflection, I realize that we do not choose a church among available options, as if in a vacuum. From both a theological and practical perspective, we have faith because of the Church, likely first represented by our parents, but also others, including teachers, friends, priests, authors, and saints. It is the Church which proclaims the Gospel to each of us; we listen and respond. At the core, my being Catholic has much less to do with appreciation for a set of teachings or a particular liturgy. Rather, it has everything to do with participation in a living Body of Christ by which we can be joined to God for eternity.  

This extended quote from Lumen Fidei describes this phenomenon in more detail:

Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others. Christ’s word, once heard, by virtue of its inner power at work in the heart of the Christian, becomes a response, a spoken word, a profession of faith. As Saint Paul puts it: “one believes with the heart … and confesses with the lips” (Rom 10:10). Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed. For “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14). Faith becomes operative in the Christian on the basis of the gift received, the love which attracts our hearts to Christ (cf. Gal 5:6), and enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world. For those who have been transformed in this way, a new way of seeing opens up, faith becomes light for their eyes.

The Church is true not because her teachings are true. Rather, more properly speaking, we know its teachings are true because the Church itself is true. This is not a “disembodied Church” but, as Lumen Gentium describes, it is a complex reality made up of the “visible communion” of believers and its mystical elements. “[T]he visible social structure of the Church serve[s] the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.” The Church is true because God himself established it and sustains it. This fundamental distinction, I think, has circumscribed so much of the angst over Francis’ papacy.  

Everything else is a question of history: Assuming that the Church Christ established and which the Holy Spirit sustains has not disappeared from the face of the earth, in which Church extant today does the Church of Christ subsist? For my part, I choose the living Church with the Bishop of Rome, who is a visible sign of the unity of the Church and who governs the Church with those bishops in communion with him.

If our faith is owed to the Catholic Church, then who are we to shun the Church over any perceived differences? Everything that is salvific comes from outside ourselves, but some continue on as if they already possess or have “ownership” of what is only God’s to give through the Church. If we do not submit even our hearts to the Church in all matters of faith and morals (yes, even regarding the Church’s teaching on capital punishment) then how will we ever obtain the holiness to which we are called? Why do people continue wasting time over the “how” question–that is, how can the Church teach this or that–when they could be working on accepting and incorporating the Church’s teachings into their lives?

To emphasize the point, it should be made clear that no one can come to the faith through the use of reason alone. While faith is inherently reasonable and true, we must maintain that the faith that saves is a gift from God through the Church. This faith is “otherworldly.” It is entirely outside our limited earthly experience. As Pope Francis has discussed in Lumen Fidei, this is a faith that gives new horizons and new vision. At the same time, this gift of faith is constantly opening up to us, revealing more and more, so that when we are ready, we can see even God as he is and faith is no longer necessary.  

There is a vast distance between our present sinful lives and “seeing God as he is.” Vast. By the grace of God, however, this is a distance that is no longer insurmountable. But since we are not yet experiencing the joys of heaven, how can we presume to know what it is that we do not yet know? How can we ever think that what we know today is sufficient for tomorrow? More to the point, if our knowledge is limited, how then can one ever presume to suggest that the Church is “doing it wrong”, on matters either great or small?  Either we trust the Church, or we don’t. Either the Church is true, or it isn’t. Either the Church has the authority to guide all Christians in holiness, or it doesn’t.

I do not discount the dynamism that defines our increase in understanding over time. Our Church grows through discussion and debate, particularly among those who have dedicated their lives to to the study of God’s revelation, namely, theologians. And so, trust in the Church does not preclude the contributions of those who wish to see the Church grow or change in certain areas. I think this was best articulated by the CDF in its document Donum Veritatis. Yet, this same document makes clear that even when the conscience appears violated there is never a right to dissent from the Church or to set oneself up in opposition to the Magisterium. Discussion, debate, and growth occurs within the context of trust, not from the perspective of skepticism. Otherwise, the “bond with Christ” would be “irreparably compromised.”

I generally despise articles which attempt to mix theology and psychoanalysis, articles like, “Which camp do you belong to? I’ll tell you why you’re wrong.”  But it’s important to make a distinction here. If a person is Catholic only/primarily because the Church’s teachings are true, then they are missing out on the fullness of our faith. (Or, if a person is NOT Catholic because they disagree with the Church on a specific point of doctrine, then they too have made an error in judgment.) Every Sunday, Catholics profess their belief in God and in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Church is the way Christ’s mission of salvation is effected on earth, and we belong to the Church by our baptism, warts and all. We’re bold enough to trust and proclaim that the Holy Spirit is guiding THIS living Church to heaven.

Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.

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  1. carn says:

    “Why do people continue wasting time over the “how” question–that is, how can the Church teach this or that–when they could be working on accepting and incorporating the Church’s teachings into their lives?”

    And i wonder why it is so hard to understand why people are bothered about the “how” question.

    If one is to accept some teaching, one has to understand its content first; if one does not understand the content of some teaching, then one cannot submit to it.

    If i am totally at loss, what the word “virginity” might mean, there is no way to assent or dissent regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary.

    The usual way to resolve any such issue is to either gather more information about the issue from those who seem to have knowledge about this to get over one’s own lack of knowledge and/or ask such people questions for the same purpose.

    But if the first option does not help, cause one fails to understand what those people say/write, AND if the second option does not work cause for example one is unwilling to formulate questions which these people are willing and able to answer, then one is stuck and cannot submit to anything.

    One critical criteria for me and i think for a lot of other people is, that if i cannot explain it in my own words in a way that it does make sense, i have not understood it.

    And based on that criteria, i have not understood much of what Pope Francis teaches.

    Take the issue of death penalty:
    “(yes, even regarding the Church’s teaching on capital punishment)”

    If i were to explain what Pope Francis says there to someone else, it would in the end include something like this:

    And even in case your are sincerely convinced that the only thing you can do to keep a serial child killer from murdering your and/or your neighbors children – for example because you happen to end up in a country torn by civil war and are busied with things like survival and therefore cannot guard the serial killer sufficiently – would be to kill him, when you have tied him up or let him simply starve in that state (which is little different from directly killing him), you should refrain from doing so, even in a repeat of the situation after the serial killer has again killed a further of your children.

    And furthermore you have to accept it as an article of faith that today’s prison system in every single country around the world and in every future country for all the centuries that might come is capable of protecting the public from serious criminals, no matter what contrary evidence from the science of criminology you might be aware of.

    Based on that nonsense explanation i would end up with, i conclude, that i have not yet fully understood what Pope Francis teaches in that regard. Hence, i have no idea to what i should submit to.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but I struggle to understand the notion that personal confusion about a specific point of doctrine necessitates questioning the authority of the one who teaches. As my article attempted to illustrate, we don’t submit to a set of teachings anyway. Whether one is confused or not about a specific point of doctrine is not the defining criterion of what it means to be a Christian. In reality, we have a trust in God and in his Church to lead us to salvation. We hope and work for increased understanding over time but my faith is not dependent on perfect understanding today. It’s more important to remain attached in mind and heart to the Church.

      • carn says:

        “I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but I struggle to understand the notion that personal confusion about a specific point of doctrine necessitates questioning the authority of the one who teaches.”

        There is from my part and from i think a few others no questioning of authority. Just whether what the authority tries to teach does make any sense at all or if there is too much self-contradiction and inconsistency.

        “As my article attempted to illustrate, we don’t submit to a set of teachings anyway.”

        But we must follow what applies to ourselves.

        For example in AL there seems to be implication that sacraments and the Eucharist is nourishment for the weak, who struggle to do what is right but often fail, and that it is therefore good if such people find a way to approach the Eucharist.

        Just some days ago the Pope said something along the lines of better being an atheist than attend mass daily, but act outside Church against their teaching by being judgemental, etc.

        So if someone struggles with living up to Church teaching “outside mass” should he understand Pope Francis in that he should strive nonetheless to receive the Eucharist – so it helps him with his weakness about being judgemental, etc. – or should he try to abandon faith and become and atheist – cause that is according to the Pope somewhat better than regularly attending mass but constantly failing to act accordingly in daily life?

        “How many times have we witnessed the scandal of those who go to church and spend all day there or attend every day, and later go on hating others or speaking ill of people. This is a scandal,” the Argentine pontiff said.
        “It would be better to not go to church. Live like an atheist. If you go to church, then live like a son, like a brother, like an authentic witness, not a counter-witness.”

        If some fellow catholic often struggling with his tendency of “hating others or speaking ill of people” and asked me, how he is to understand the Pope’s words and heed his advice, i would probably shrug my shoulders and tell him to ignore the Pope in that regard, cause i cannot make sense of what he says either, and would instead advice him to go to confession and mass (maybe i would advise against daily and suggest just Sundays and other days of obligation) regularly and concentrate on keeping his mouth shut about other people.

        • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

          Respectfully, it doesn’t even seem like you’re trying to understand the Pope’s words within the Christian tradition, creating false dichotomies between various statements of his. Not everything a person says can convey the whole truth at all times. It’s just how rhetoric works. You say one thing to make a point in one context and say another thing to make a point in another context.

          Francis, in my mind, seems to be echoing Luke 17:2. If you’re going to cause scandal about the faith and lead people astray, better than “a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea.” It’s a scandal against the faith, to take what ought to help one become more holy (daily Mass) and turn it into a wedge or a platform to castigate others. I believe that’s what the Pope was suggesting. Go to Mass daily but then don’t be a scandal to others, who might think your public sins constitute the essences of Christian holiness.

          • Lisa M says:

            Exactly!

          • carn says:

            “It’s just how rhetoric works.”

            Then i still have to conclude that how the Pope uses rhetoric has the result that i and many others do not understand how various statements of him fit together and fit with Chuch teaching so far. And that the use of rhetoric by many of those trying to explain it does not help either in understanding.

            How i am to accept some teaching or even be obedient to the teaching (*) if i know for certain that i am incapable of handling the rhethoric of Pope Francis such, that i understand what he is “suggesting”?

            Whatever the Pope might try to bring across, i know it does not reach me; so how could i be obedient to what he teaches?

            It seems to be an impossibility.

            (* https://wherepeteris.com/links-of-interest-week-dec-30-2018-to-jan-1-2019/
            “Catholics obedient to Pope Francis’ Laudato ‘Si have”; so apparently Catholics should be obedient to what the Pope teaches)

            “I believe that’s what the Pope was suggesting.”

            Maybe.

            But being obedient to “maybe” does not seem very reasonable.

  2. QED says:

    Even before converting, I now realize, that I was a realist. Many of my generation (millenials) seem to go about seeking any religion that teaches things they already agree with or are willing to believe. Where we seem to differ seems to be in our understanding of truth and reality. We do not have the right to invent our own reality. Reality is something that imposes itself on us. To basically invent you own God or choose for your doctrines based on what your apriori believe or feel is mental paganism, almost delusional. Who are we to tell God what He’s allowed to be? Why should reality require my approval to be what it is? Must I not rather conform my own mind to reality, whether I like it or not? The alternate is mental delusion.

    I could also choose to go through the religious buffet, inventing my own religion, taking doctrine from here and there. The problem is I would know with certainty that the god I choose is an idol I made up mentally.

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