In 2001, just months before the clergy sex abuse scandals in Boston broke, I came back to the Catholic Church.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
I had left six years before, although I didn’t really know what I was leaving. At the time, a cute Protestant boy asked questions that my badly catechized self couldn’t answer. Even after eight years of Catholic schooling, I knew next to nothing about my faith. Few of us catechized in the 1980s did.
I suppose I could have looked for the answers. But cute Protestant boys and bad catechesis make for a dangerous combination. So, without much thought, I left the Church for more evangelical climes.
Then, when I was 25, I met a Catholic boy. He also put questions to me that I couldn’t answer. He talked of bishops and popes, sacraments and liturgies, marriage and sexuality, all in ways that reminded me of my grandmother and great-grandmother. He also prayed the Rosary. He took Holy Days of Obligation seriously. And he didn’t eat meat on Fridays.
I tried to tell him there had been this thing called the Second Vatican Council, that Catholics no longer needed to go to Confession or listen to bishops. It was a matter of conscience now. Besides, most of what the Catholic Church taught was just man-made nonsense. It was mere rules. I didn’t need rules: I had Jesus.
Nevertheless, the pesky questions didn’t stop: How did I know Scripture was the Word of God? Who put the canon of Scripture together? Why did Jesus lose so many disciples in John 6 if he was only speaking metaphorically about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood?
Then, there were the books my friend gave me. Many were old books, some very old, containing the writings of Christians who lived almost two thousand years before. Surprisingly, they all said the same thing. It didn’t matter if the person doing the writing was a bishop from the early second century or an English professor from the mid-twentieth century, when it came to teachings such as the Eucharist and the priesthood, Church authority and the papacy, sin and salvation, they were all of one mind. Without interruption, for two thousand years, these people proclaimed and practiced the same Faith. And that Faith was the Catholic Faith.
The evidence of history became plain: The early Church was a Catholic Church. The Scriptures that made Jesus present to me were her Scriptures. She wrote them. She assembled them. She preserved them. She translated them. She understood them. To argue with her was to argue with those Scriptures. It was to argue with Jesus. And I wasn’t about to do that.
Years before, I’d thought my way through the problem of him, of the claims he made about himself in the Gospels. Based on those claims, I knew he was either a megalomaniac of the first order, a lunatic of the same degree, or the Son of God, one with the Father. Oddly enough, option number three seemed the most plausible.
I did the same with the historicity of the New Testament. I evaluated the various numbers, types, and ages of early biblical manuscripts. I compared them to other historical accounts of the time. I did my research on what made them credible. And I did find them credible.
That’s why coming back to the Church was the easiest decision I ever made. I knew Jesus was real. I knew he spoke to me through the Scriptures. Once I recognized that without the Catholic Church I could know neither, it took all of a minute for me to acknowledge her authority and see her for what she was, the Body of Christ.
After that, I read. Oh boy, did I read. In fewer than 12 months, between December 2000 and December 2001, I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cover to cover. I read papal encyclicals. I read conciliar documents. I read G.K. Chesterton and Frank Sheed, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Alice von Hildebrand, Christopher Dawson and Gertrude vonLefort, Caryll Houselander and Hilaire Belloc, Karl Adams and Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft and Scott Hahn, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. I read Tolkien. I re-read almost the entirety of the Lewis canon. I read so much that I’m not entirely sure how I had time to breathe, let alone work two jobs and have a life. But read I did, and as I read, I asked one question over and over again: Why didn’t I know this already?
What I came to see was that thanks to the inanity of the post-Vatican II years, I had been cheated of the truth. I had been cheated of my birthright. So had countless other Catholics. There was rich savory meat to be had in the Church’s doctrines and disciplines, but instead we were fed the thinnest of broths, the spiritual equivalent of soy-laden chicken bouillion. When we should have been learning our Catechism, we were making banners. When we should have been reading the Scriptures, we were singing “Friends are like Flowers.”
Discovering just how impoverished my Catholic education was made me sad. But more than that, it made me want to do something to change the situation. I wanted my friends and family to know that there was so much more to the Church. There was history. There were reasons. There were answers.
So, I quit my job in DC and moved to Steubenville to begin my graduate studies in theology.
That’s where I was when the scandals broke. I was immersed intellectually in the riches of the Catholic Faith. I was also immersed in her sacraments, receiving the Eucharist daily and Confession regularly. Perhaps most importantly, I was immersed in her history.
As I came to terms with my own history—the years of inexcusably bad catechesis and formation–I learned to see it in the context of salvation history. I saw the bad popes and the weak popes, the sinful priests and the evil priests. I saw the heresies. I saw the abuses. I saw Israel.
But I also saw truth. I saw beauty. I saw goodness. I especially saw that in the saints—those inexplicably radiant men and women who showed the world the face of Christ. And, in their constant witness to the truth of the Church’s teachings, as well as their constant fidelity to the Church’s authority, I saw what makes holiness possible.
In all that, I saw a Church that endured, weakened by the tares and goats in her midst, but never defeated.
That was good enough for me.
In 2002, as one horror story after another emerged, I never once questioned the truth of my Catholic faith. I’d already done the questioning and found the answers. There was no going back. Once you see that two plus two equals four, you never ask yourself if it equals five.
Don’t get me wrong: As the scandals unfolded, I mourned for the children horrifically abused by sons and daughters of the Church. I still do. I also mourn for all the men and women who are still being cheated, who are still being hurt.
Today, far too many Catholics live as the culture tells them to live and think as the culture tells them to think. They wound others as others wound them. Likewise, in far too many places, the Church’s sons and daughters are helping them do that by continuing to proclaim the Milquetoast “Be Nice” Gospel I learned in school.
That doesn’t just make me sad; it makes me angry.
But it doesn’t make me want to leave the Church.
Rather, it makes me want to work harder to give others what I’ve been given. I want them to find the healing, peace, and joy that comes from knowing the truth, loving the truth, and living the truth.
I can’t do that, however, if I deny the truth. And that’s what leaving the Catholic Church would be—a denial of the truth.
Popes and priests come and go. So do good moments and bad in the life of the Church. If our faith rests in those people or is a product of one moment, it will be a faith without roots. It will never grow strong. It will never mature.
Why am I writing all this? Because someone I respect has written something different. My heart grieves for him. My heart grieves for all who’ve done the same. Not only are they missing out on the graces that come from full communion with Christ’s Body and Bride, but they’re also missing out on the very real renewal taking place in this moment.
So many problems exist within the Church, but there is also so much good: a whole new generation of priests committed to proclaiming the fullness of the Faith; orthodox religious orders bursting at the seams with bright, young sisters; Catholic colleges rediscovering their mission; parishes flourishing; apostolates growing; families forming.
As this moment unfolds, each of us has a choice to make. We can choose to see only the problems that still exist. We can focus on the tares and the goats. And we can leave. We can choose to walk away, blaming the scandals, the bishops, or our fellow Catholics.
Or we can choose to be a part of this moment. We can struggle against the times, leading lives of radical fidelity. We can keep our eyes on Jesus and walk with the Church Triumphant, the faithful men and women of history who wrestled with the spirit of their age, embraced the cross of their moment, and emerged victorious and glorious, shining like the sun.
That’s every Catholic’s choice. I’ve made mine. And it’s still an easy one.