Monday, December 31, 2007

Mennonite to Catholic?

Back in 2006 an article came out in Christian Century describing the conversion of six Protestant theologians to Catholicism. It's an interesting article and well worth reading. I was most intrigued by the story of Gerald Schlabach. He was a Mennonite before his conversion. Here is my favorite part of the article:

Schlabach sees the Catholic Church as the best hope for a reunion of
"liberal" and "conservative," "protestant" and "catholic" visions of the
church: "Imagine a church . . . that could not sing without feeding the
poor, nor feed the poor without nourishment from the Eucharist, nor pass the
peace without living peaceably in the world, nor be peacemakers without
depending on prayer, nor pray without joining in robust song."

The Mennonites are one of the "Peace Churches" (along with the Quakers and the Brethren) and have historically been pacifists. Now, I'm not a pacifist, but as I mentioned earlier, I'm a pretty liberal guy. I've also had some involvement with peace groups in the past . So I was curious and "used the Google" and found that Schlabach has a website and sounds like an interesting guy. There is a page devoted to his conversion to Catholicism (you can view it here) and he has some interesting writings. Apparently I'm not the only left winger attracted to Catholicism.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Some Practical Concerns

Enough of the "Deep Thoughts" type issues, there are some more practical concerns about becoming Catholic. First of all, I live in a very small town and attend my church almost every service. It's hard to visit another church anonymously. It would be kind of a big deal if I showed up one Sunday at the local Catholic Church. OK, I know it's not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but these are my petty problems I'm listing. :) Additionally, our church is currently undergoing a controversy over our current pastor. (The short version is that he's a really nice guy, but it was probably a bad match from the start.) We've lost some members over the last year or so and he's gotten the blame for it. If I start publicly looking around, people will assume I'm mad at him and I don't want to undermine him any right now. I like living in a small town, but it's times like these I wish we lived in a big city and were members of a really big church.

But the biggest issue involves my immediate family. My wife and kids are very happy at our current church. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is the church my wife grew up in. Other than when she was off in college and a couple of years after when she worked out of town, she has never been a member at another church. I was told numerous times by my in-laws (who are great people, I am very lucky in that department) that our children were the seventh generation to be baptized in our church. Yes, my wife's family was one of the founding families way back when. So I hope you see how leaving this church is not really simple. And this is the only church my children have ever known. They are both active in Sunday School and other activities. Who am I to disrupt that?

There is one possibility that occurs to me, but I would appreciate any feedback from others who've tried something like this. Because the Catholic Church in our town shares a Priest with another larger Church in a nearby town, their only service on Sunday is at 9:00 AM. I guess I could attend Mass at 9 and still go to our service at 11:00. But I don't know how that would really work out. Has anyone ever tried something like this and did it work?

Thanks for the advice everyone.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

How enthusiastically must you believe?

Well, if you've made it this far and still care, I'm sure the question that comes to mind is "why isn't he Catholic already?" Before I get to some practical problems and issues about conversion, I'd like some insight into a more philosophical problem that's been bothering me. I understand that when someone becomes Catholic they must profess to believe all that the Catholic Church teaches to be true. I would not convert until I could say that in good conscience. But how enthusiastic must someone be about a particular teaching?

Take for example. women's ordination. I don't know what it says about me, but this has been the issue that has caused me the most problem as I've wrestled with my attraction to Catholicism. I've read many accounts online of people that have struggled with the dogmas about Purgatory and Mary and the Saints, but these issues have not bothered me much at all. I have no trouble believing and professing the Catholic positions on these issues to be true. But women's ordination has taken me a while longer. I first thought that this position was due to some view of women as incapable of leadership. I now understand that the all male priesthood is due to the Catholic understanding of what a Priest is and what he does.

But here is my question, do I have to like it? If I accepted and believed that an all male priesthood is required, would I be a bad Catholic for being a little sad that this is so? In other words, if you accept that something is true and you don't do anything to contradict the teaching, how enthusiastic must you be? Periodically, I read online a story about some women being "ordained" as Catholic Priests. The reaction in the blogosphere is usually either anger or derision. My reaction is much more one of sadness. I'm sad that they can't be Priests and I'm sad that they don't understand why they can't. Should I be concerned that they don't make me angry?

I know I should probably sit down and talk to a Priest about this, but doing so presents some practical problems that I'll address in my next post. Until then, I'm open to all the free advice I can get, just please be gentle on me.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Miracle

Proof of the existence of God. My six year old son and his five year old cousin made it through all of Silent Night while holding candles without setting fire to anything. I think it took ten years off my life.

I'll continue navel gazing in a couple of days. Until then, Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

My Attraction to Catholicism, Part Two

Some other things that appeal to me about Catholicism.

I'm a history nerd. (Minored in it in college.) I like the fact that history goes back further than the Reformation. I'm sure this is a gross generalization, but judging by my completely unscientific recollection of a lifetime of Sunday School and sermons, the history of Christianity goes something like this: 1. Jesus 2. The Book of Acts 3. The Protestant Reformation 4. Everything since. I know I'm exaggerating, but I do hate that I almost never hear about the early church as a Protestant. There is a whole legacy of sacrifice and nonviolence (even to the point of laying down one's own life) that would be helpful and inspirational to Christians today.

Also, no matter how brilliant Luther and Calvin were, Christian thought did not begin with them. Protestants are in many ways cut off from great minds like Augustine and Aquinas. (Or if we receive them and other early fathers of the Church, we receive them as interpreted by Reformation thinkers.) I like the intellectual tradition of Catholicism. As I wrestle with issues today, I like knowing that people a lot smarter than me have been thinking about them for two thousand years.

I'm also a big believer in the consistent ethic of life. For as long as I've been able to think seriously about such things, I've been opposed to the death penalty. My views on abortion have changed over time. Before marriage and children, I was pro-choice basically on women's rights grounds. I thought the notion of forcing a woman to have a child she didn't want was cruel and represented government intrusion into an area beyond the competence of government. I also thought that as a man, I lacked the standing (to use a legal term) to be against abortion. In other words, if I was physically incapable of having babies, I shouldn't be offering an opinion on whether a woman should have one or not.

Like many things, marriage, and most importantly having children of my own, has changed my thinking on abortion. Let me begin by saying that I am still very sympathetic to women facing an unplanned pregnancy. They face pain and difficulties (both financial and to their health) that are extremely severe. But it's hard to have watched ultrasounds of my children and view abortion as just another medical procedure. Even before the ultrasounds, we heard fetal heart beats very early on. I don't see how you can argue that there is not a life in there. And when it comes to what protection this life deserves, I think we as Christians should err on the side of protecting these most vulnerable members of the human race. That comports with the command of Jesus to care for "the least of these."

Now I understand that all issues are not equal. But to be against both abortion and the death penalty makes sense to me. In fact, the whole range of positions the Catholic Church holds on social justice issues has a logical consistency that I find lacking in most Protestant denominations, whether they are liberal or conservative. And while the test for good doctrine is certainly not "does it agree with me?" I find that on issue after issue in the social justice area (immigration, torture, war, euthanasia, and many others) I find my positions aligning more and more with that of the Catholic Church.

Well, if you've read this far on this blog, you may be asking yourself "so why isn't he Catholic already?" The answers to that question will begin in my next post.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

My Attraction to Catholicism, Part One

So what do I find in Catholicism that attracts me? There are lots of things, but here are the main ones:

The Eucharist. I believe the Catholic position on the Eucharist is correct. I'm far from a biblical literalist, but it's hard to overlook the words of Jesus in John 6:53 to 58. And when you add to that Paul's language in First Corinthians about eating without discerning the body and so forth, I think you can make a compelling scriptural argument for the real presence of Christ in the elements. But scripture aside, it just feels right to me. I know this is not logical and I have real trouble explaining this, but it just feels right and I believe it.

And even more importantly to me, I want it in worship. And I don't know where else I get that outside a Catholic Church. At my Presbyterian Church, we believe Christ is with us while we participate in the sacrament, but not in any special way in the elements. After church, a very nice man I know takes home the leftover bread to feed the ducks on his pond. In the Episcopal Church, there are some who believe in the Real Presence, but like so many other things, it doesn't appear that this is required. In a small town in rural South Carolina, the only way place to find my view of the Eucharist is in the Catholic Church. I hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to receive the Body and Blood of Christ myself.

Secondly, I want the unity found in the Catholic Church. Jesus prayed that his disciples remain united. The current divisions of Christians into so many different denominations surely disappoints God and it should certainly should sadden us. I know that real unity of all Christians certainly won't occur in my lifetime (and maybe not ever in this world) but that doesn't mean I shouldn't seek to be in communion with the greatest number of other Christians possible. I also like the fact that there is some real diversity in the Catholic Church. The United Methodist Church that I grew up in, the Presbyterian Church USA that I currently belong to, and the Episcopal Church where I occasionally worship all welcome worshipers of all races and nationalities. But every church I have ever belonged to has been all white. The Catholic Church has plenty of divisions also, but at the three or four different Catholic Churches I have ever attended I saw some non-white faces. Latinos, African Americans and Asians aren't seen too often in my small town Presbyterian Church. And outside of my wife and I, few others seem real concerned about that.

This post is getting a little long, so I'll continue with more reasons in part two.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mixing in Some Politics

To further round out the autobiographical details, I should probably mention something about my politics. I'm a liberal and not ashamed to admit it. In 1976 I was Jimmy Carter's campaign manager at my middle school. 1984 was the first year I was eligible to vote in a presidential election and I proudly cast my vote for Walter Mondale. I think I was one of about twelve or thirteen people to do so in South Carolina. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) I like to hike and will readily admit to being an environmentalist. Heck, my wife and I went to a Sierra Club meeting on our first date. And our first out of town trip together was to Clinton's first inaugural. The only issue where I part ways with many on the left is abortion, and my position on that issue has only changed since we had children. (I'll save the story of my evolving views on the abortion issue for another post.)

I say all these things not to start a political argument, but to point out that I really should have been comfortable with the Episcopal Church. Worship was focused on the Eucharist and to the extent they took positions on public issues, they agreed with me most of the time. But here's the problem: despite being pretty liberal on politics and social issues, I consider myself fairly orthodox when it comes to Christianity. I believe that Christ's resurrection was a real event that actually happened and not just a metaphor for us changing our lives. I believe Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time. I believe Christianity is more than just one way to God, but is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Light. In short, I really believe the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed when I say them in Church.

My problem with the Episcopal Church is that I'm not sure these beliefs are required any more. Over the last several years, I've been to several different Episcopal Churches and heard a lot of sermons that sound like they could have been delivered at the Unitarian Church down the street. Now as they said on Seinfeld "not that there's anything wrong with that" but I don't want to be a Unitarian. The Episcopal Church (like all the mainline denominations) has suffered through a lot of controversy over the role of gay folks the last few years. But it seems to me that this drift toward Unitarianism and Universalism should be a whole lot bigger worry than whether two men hold hands on their way back to their car after the service.

The early Christians changed the world. They converted the greatest empire in the history of the earth. They were willing to die for their faith. Many were indeed martyred. I'm currently a member of a Presbyterian Church USA congregation. I try to attend services at an Episcopal Church whenever I'm out of town. I don't hear a lot of sermons that would inspire us to the point of laying down our lives for our faith. I don't mean this as a critique of the oratorical skills of the pastors, but to point out that when following Jesus is just one of a good number of equally acceptable alternatives, why would anybody sacrifice to be a Christian?

So off the soapbox and back to my problem. What's a socially liberal but theologically conservative guy going to do? I actually got desperate enough to consider Catholicism.

My religious background, part three

To make a long story short (which I doubt is possible at this point) I decided I should visit some other churches in some other denominations. The problem was that I lived in a small town. Unless somebody in the family was sick, we were in church every Sunday. If I all of a sudden showed up at another church on Sunday, people would assume we were mad at our minister or something. Plus my wife and kids were perfectly happy at our church, so who was I to rock the boat? What I finally decided was to make a point to attend churches of other denominations whenever I found myself out of town on a Sunday.

So one week we went on vacation to a pretty little town in the North Carolina mountains. In downtown Blowing Rock, North Carolina was St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church. All I knew about Episcopalians was that they usually celebrated communion every week and I enjoyed worship services with communion. I had been to a service at an Episcopal Church with a friend once in high school and I remember being very confused about which book to use, but I thought, hey, I'm a college graduate, surely I can follow along now.

Well I went. And I was wrong, I still didn't have much of an idea where they were in the service and kept mixing the bulletin and the prayer book and the hymnal. But here's the thing: I loved it. It was so completely different from any worship service I had ever been to before. From beginning with a processional (we usually only did that at Easter) to all the candles, multiple acolytes, a cross being carried in, etc., etc. They even had incense. I'd never seen such a thing in my life. But here is the kicker: Real Wine. Let me repeat that: Real Wine. I'd never had anything but grape juice in little plastic cups and here I was drinking actual wine out of a common cup. I felt like I was doing something scandalous.

But it felt so very right. I know there is much controversy about the Episcopal Church. I'll talk more about that later when I discuss why I'm not sure they are the correct answer for me. But I will always be grateful for them allowing me to experience liturgy and Eucharist like I had never experienced before. I understand why the Catholic Church does not allow open communion, but I sometimes wonder how many opportunities for evangelism are missed because of it. Anyway I was very happy, and thought I might have found a home. Next, I'll try to explain why I'm not so sure about that anymore.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My religious background, part two

First, an editorial comment about my wife. She is smarter than me, much nicer than me, and much, much beter looking than me. To this day (almost 14 years later) I can't understand why she married me. Thank God for miracles.

My wife is a life long Presbyterian. Other than her time in college and a couple of years right after college when she worked in another town, she has attended the same church her entire life. It is a member of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) which is the largest and most liberal of several denominations of Presbyterians in the United States. We were married in her church. For the first couple of years of our marriage, we sort of alternated between my her church and mine. But then we had our first child.

Having children changes your perspective on many things. (One day maybe I'll write a post on all the things it changes.) But one thing it made me do was to think seriously about my faith and how we were going to raise our children. To begin with, we decided we should both belong to the same church. It seemed logical to me that I should join my wife's church. It didn't make sense to me to ask her to leave a church she grew up in to join one that I had only been a member of a few years, so about 11 or 12 years ago, I became a Presbyterian.

There were a lot of things I liked about this church. The people were very nice to me. They were also (and, in fact, still are) very good to our kids. The first two ministers we had after I joined (we're on our 3rd now) gave good, thought provoking sermons. But there were things that bothered me.

I hated the way we celebrated communion. I grew up in the Methodist church going up to the communion rail to receive the elements. In this church, we kept our seats and the bread and juice were passed out like the collection plates. I hated it. My wife tried to explain the theology behind us serving each other, but I still didn't like it. It's hard to articulate a logical reason behind my dislike, but it just didn't feel right. And I didn't think it evoked a proper sense of decorum about the whole process. I'd be receiving the bread and I would hear the couple on the pew behind us discussing where they were going to eat lunch. Ugh.

I also thought we needed more "worship" during the worship service. The sermon was clearly the focal point of the service. Sometimes this made the whole thing feel like a glorified bible study. I know that this characterization is probably unfair, but I'm trying to give a feel for some of the reasons I felt dissatisfied.

More later.

My religious background, part one

My heritage is as a mainline Protestant. I grew up in the United Methodist Church and was baptized there as an infant and confirmed when I was middle school age. Throughout my childhood, we were always members of a church and attended more Sundays than not. My parents did a good job of making sure I usually went to Sunday School and participated in the youth group when I was of an age to do so. One thing I remember as a child that made me different from the rest of my family (and was probably a harbinger of where I am today) was that I loved when we had communion. We usually only had it on the first Sunday of each quarter and on Christmas Eve, but I really enjoyed and looked forward to it. Many folks I knew (including some of my family) weren't happy about having to go up front and having the service run a little longer, but not me. I really enjoyed it.

Like a lot of people, I drifted away during college. I went to the methodist church near campus once in blue moon (usually when they had a free meal afterwards) but generally stopped attending when nobody was making me. But even then, my attraction to communion still remained. I remember that there was a methodist church not too far from my law school that always had a communion sevice on Good Friday that I made a point to attend. Sometimes that was my only visit there all year.

When I got a job out of law school in a small South Carolina town, I joined one of the local United Methodist churches. Honesty compels me to admit that it was as much out of a sense of social obligation as it was real conviction, but at least I went. And going did me some real good. There is value in hearing the scripture read regularly and good sermons preached. I began to pay attention more and think more about God and what I should be doing with my life. And then I met the woman that was later to be my wife. Thank God. More about her in part two.

A little about me

This is my first try at a blog, so please be gentle. I've been reading them for a while, so I thought I'd finally give it a shot.

I'm a happily married father of two who lives in South Carolina. I'm a lawyer. (Don't hate me.)

I'm a left wing liberal democrat with a somewhat inexplicable (at least to me) attraction to Catholicism. In the beginning at least, I want to use this blog to talk about that attraction. What I see that attracts a liberal like me to this conservative religious institution and what gives me some pause.

As a long time reader of blogs about religion, I'm a little wary about some of the vitriol that I sometimes see. I'd like to avoid that here. I'm fine with folks disagreeing with me. I'm also fine with people correcting the inevitable errors I will make. Just please be nice about it. Thanks.