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Why I am joining the Catholic Church

April 19, 2010

This article comes from Emily, a friend of several of our contributors. Emily recently decided to join the Catholic Church, and we thought it might be interesting for our (mostly Protestant, we believe) readers to hear her thoughts on this decision. Without further ado, here are Emily’s thoughts.

The task of explaining why I am joining the Catholic Church is immediately beset with perils, not the least of which is that the very question can be asked innumerably different ways: “Why are you joining the Catholic Church when they are a bunch of idolatrous child-molesters?” is a different question than “Why are you joining the Catholic Church when they believe [insert strange doctrine here]?” which are both entirely different from “How has your particular journey of faith led you to join the Catholic Church?”

Of course, as an internet blog unfortunately has the quality of including every form of the question among its readers, it is impossible to gage my audience. For now, avoiding both the specific and biographical questions, I shall try to answer the question broadly as if it were “Why do you think the Catholic understanding of the Church is true?” I am certainly willing to engage any specific issues if I should be invited back by editors or readers.

Another unfortunate aspect of the question is that it by nature involves the implied “…as opposed to a non-Catholic church,” and I therefore run the risk (yea, almost the inevitability) of stepping on the toes of my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I have grown up beside. I do not mean to sound condescending where we disagree nor to ignore where we agree. To all the people to whom any crushed toes belong, receive my apologies ahead of time

The Right Answer, the Wrong Question
A dear friend of mine (who is not Catholic, if that increases his credibility) often uses the analogy that we approach the Bible like a group of amateurs trying to play basketball. In our enthusiasm we gather the players, the jerseys, the court, and the balls, and we eagerly get out the rulebook to learn how to play. The only problem is that what we assume is a basketball rulebook is actually a soccer rulebook.

Many of the rules make sense: there are two halves of the “field” with a “goal” on either end. There is a ball, a “goalie box,” and boundaries around the field. But other rules seem strange and even impossible, as twenty players try to kick the heavy rubber ball along the small polished court without getting out of bounds, and the task of kicking the ball into the tiny goals hanging from the ceiling is as impossible as it is ridiculous. We can play, but we are doomed to frustration; our book does indeed have the answers, but to a different question.

Scripture, according to the analogy, is bound to frustrate us when we approach it to teach us the answers to a different question than it was written to reveal. We read it to learn how to be Godly people when it is instead written to teach us how to be the people of God. Scripture, from cover to cover, is not a story of God raising individual followers but of God raising a people. This is not only true in the Old Testament stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, the twelve tribes, Moses, David, the prophets, the blessings, the curses; it is indeed fulfilled in Christ with his twelve disciples and his message that the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us, in Peter who receives a vision that the nations of the earth are indeed being blessed as the Gentiles enter the Church, in Paul who proclaims in accordance with Christ’s High Priestly prayer that we have been brought together in one body. God is raising a people called Israel; God is raising a people called the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us.

I am joining the Catholic Church because I have been kicking a rubber ball around a basketball court for decades despairing of anyone ever managing to score a goal, and somewhere along the line I began to get an inkling that either the game was a little fishy or I was entirely inept. Imagine my joy when I stumbled upon a soccer game, and, though initially the players seemed to be doing everything wrong (not to mention that they looked ridiculous in their silly long socks and spiky shoes), it eventually became clear that it was exactly the game my well-thumbed rulebook had been teaching me to play.

To be explicit, I saw the Church functioning as a single body with the confidence that she was bringing the Kingdom to the world. The Church is not the result of individuals being redeemed; it is the very mechanics of that redemption. In Paul’s words, the Church is body in which God “has made the two one and in this one body has reconciled them both together to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility.” The Church is the body through which we are redeemed.

On Earth as it is in Heaven
Of course, no Bible-believing Protestant would deny that our call to follow Christ involves a call to be a part of this body we call the Church, and no Catechism-reading Catholic would deny that the Protestant is indeed already to some extent a part of that body. But when the Catholic Church believes anything, she does not merely believe it in principle; she believes it sacramentally.

Sacramental theology is the belief that what we might be tempted to call the spiritual realm and the physical realm are actually the same realm; it is the belief that the physical matter and the spiritual substance are inseparable. It is the belief that Christ who entered the world physically in the Incarnation enters our bodies physically in the Eucharist, which is why feeding hungry souls on the mission field cannot be divorced from feeding the hungry bodies in which they are housed. The call to transform the “world” as an abstraction cannot be divorced from the call to transform the physical places we live in and the laws that govern them. Therefore the Church’s call to be a body cannot be divorced from her functioning as a body.

It is commonly anticipated in most Christian communities I lived among that the fullness of the unity of the Church will not be realized “until Heaven” (as if Heaven were so ephemeral that is can be referred to as a time). I have grown up with the assurance that the Gospel of the Kingdom was a gospel about Heaven, which, as it turned out, felt to me more like a gospel of despair, a gospel that proclaimed the bad news that the only hope we had of escaping the pains of the world was to leave it.

I was in my early twenties before I paused to wonder why Christ would teach us to pray for his Kingdom to come “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” I was in my mid-twenties when I realized that a significant portion of Christians not only prayed that prayer but believed it was being answered, and I longed for them to be right. I am in my late-twenties as I come to believe that they are, and am receiving hope in the place of long despair.

The Foundation
Those two principles, the unity of the Body and the sacramentality of salvation, seem to me to be the foundation of every doctrine that initially seems strange to Protestants: the Immaculate Conception, Apostolic Succession, the Assumption, the Communion of the Saints, the emphasis of the sufferings of Christ, the authority of tradition. As I may try to articulate later, they fit together in a compellingly rich and comprehensive understanding of God’s work in history that involves a good creation that has been twisted and created again from the inside using death itself to bring its own redemption.

In summary then, I believe the Catholic understanding of the Church is true because it sees God’s calling for the Church as a body and his promise to be with her as fundamental in his redemption of the world, as a physical reality rather than a mere ephemeral idea, and as a hope worthy of working for on earth as it is in heaven. Human fallenness aside, the Catholic Church believes that the Holy Spirit will not abandon the Church, that his voice will win out over our sin and frailty. I used to imagine that there was no voice of the Holy Spirit so loud we could not manage to bungle it somehow as Christians have done throughout history; but the Church’s belief that God is stronger than we are frail sounds downright Christian. I am a more hopeful Christian as I come to believe it.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

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