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.