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One of Americas most respected Evangelical thinkers retraces
the road that brought him into the Catholic Church.
During the 1990s, J. Budziszewski rose to prominence as one of the leading
intellectual lights among Evangelical Christians in America. A political
theorist with a special interest in the natural-law tradition, he was
highly sought as a speaker at conferences organized by groups such as
the InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. A principal
theme of his many talks to American campus groups is captured in the title
of his 1999 book, How to Stay Christian in College.
For some Evangelical Protestants, then, it came as a jolt when, on Easter
Sunday 2004, Budziszewski was received into the Catholic Church. After
maintaining a public silence about his conversion for several months,
Budziszewski agreed to tell the story to CWR.
J. Budziszewski teaches in the departments of government and philosophy
at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recently books are What
We Cant Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2004) and The Revenge
of Conscience (Spence, 2004).
Q: Could you tell us something about your backgroundyour education,
J. Budziszewski: I was born in Milwaukee, where I lived until age
13. My adolescence was spent on the east coast of central Florida, near
the Space Center. In 1970 I began studies at the University of Chicago,
choosing it partly because of its biopsychology program (which in fact
I never entered) and partly because of its reputation as a hive of left-wing
activity. Intellectually I was obsessed with mind-body problems; politically
I was far to the left. After one year of college I married my high school
sweetheart; after another year we moved back to Florida. In those days
I viewed places like the University of Chicago as aquaria for the children
of privilege. It seemed to me that a good socialist should get out of
there, learn a trade, and join the proletariat, so I learned welding.
I worked a variety of jobs as a welder, ending up at the Tampa shipyards.
What I discovered during that period was that I belonged in college after
all. Needless to say, there was no such thing as a "proletarian"
university, but I thought I could stomach a public university, so I earned
my BA at the University of South Florida, there in Tampa. After that I
obtained an MA at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Somewhere
along the line I must have lost my prejudice against aquaria for the children
of privilege, because I did my doctoral work at Yale University. Since
finishing my PhD in 1981, Ive been teaching at the University of
Q: So when you were at the University of Chicago, you were not studying
in your current field of political theory?
Budziszewski: No, not then. My radicalism drew me into a political
science major, but I didnt even know there was such a thing as "political
theory;" that discovery didnt come until much later. It seemed
to my young self that revolutionaries need to know about a lot of different
thingspolitical science, sociology, economicsand the political
science major was more generous about such electives than those other
Q: And what about your religious background?
Budziszewski: My birth family was Baptist; in fact my maternal grandfather
was one of the first Polish Baptist ministers in the United States. He
pastored a Polish-speaking congregation.
I was a convinced Protestant. At the age of 10, I "walked the aisle,"
presented myself for Baptism, and vowed to follow Christ. Probably the
best description of my spiritual condition during adolescence is "pious,
but not holy."
In college, I abandoned my faith utterly: first faith in Christ, then
belief in God, then belief in a real right and wrong. It wasnt until
after I had finished my education and had been teaching for a year or
two that God drew me back to my abandoned Christian faith.
When I came back, though, I came back not as a Baptist but as an Anglican.
I still wanted one foot in the Reformation, but I wanted another foot
in Catholic tradition.
Q: Was your interest in the Catholic tradition part of the process that
led you back to Christianity? Or, if we could put it another way, was
your return to your Christian roots part of the overall journey that eventually
led you to the Catholic Church?
Budziszewski: Although the seeds took another 20 years to sprout,
Catholic friends and thinkers had influenced me even during my wilderness
years of atheism.
I ought to explain that during those wilderness years, I was a practical
atheist. I was never a theoretical atheist; I wasnt quite fool enough
to think that I could prove that there isnt a God. What I thought
was that there wasnt any God who could make a difference.
Similarly, I was a practical nihilist. I wasnt quite fool enough
to think that I could prove that there isnt a real difference between
good and evil. What I thought was that the difference couldnt make
a difference. You see, I denied free will. I reasoned that if the mind
is enchained, then we cant have any confidence that any of our reasoning
about good and evil has validity. For practical purposes, they would have
to be viewed as human constructs.
Of course, the hole in that line of thought is large
enough to drive a truck through. If I couldnt have any confidence
in my reasoning about good and evil, why should I have any confidence
in my reasoning about having no basis for confidence? Why should nihilism
make any more sense than morality? I papered that problem over with clever
talk about taking an ironic view of reality.
But I was going to tell you the Catholic influences that worked on me
during my wilderness years. I read St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas,
and especially Dante Alighieri. When I read Dantes imaginative description
of the center of Hellthe Lake of Cocytus, where the damned are imprisoned
in ice, unable to move a muscle to the right or to the leftI thought
that he was describing me. I couldnt move either. Id thrown
out all possible motives for movement.
Naturally I taught my students Thomas Aquinas, but I found it difficult
to do so. The problem was that his arguments presented such a strong appearance
of truth. For the very beauty of this appearance, I had to exercise strong
discipline not to weep. One of my students in those days asked permission
to put a personal question. "Ive been listening carefully,"
he said, "and I figure that youre either an atheist or a Roman
Catholic. Which one is it?"
You can see why, when I finally returned to Christian faith, I wanted
that one foot in Catholic tradition.
Yet return also meant recovery of lost elements of Protestant belief,
and I couldnt see my way to Catholicism proper.
I had the common Protestant idea that Catholicism teaches "works-righteousness"that
we earn our way into heaven, apart from the merits of Christthat
if we just earn enough "virtue points," were in. It took
a long time to get over such misunderstandings.
Q: Thus far weve been talking about the intellectual origins of
your return to the faith
Budziszewski: When you speak of "intellectual origins,"
youd better put scare quotes around the phrase. For several years
after returning to the faith, it disturbed me that I wasnt able
to give a coherent intellectual account of why I had done so. That came
What actually led me back was a growing intuition that my condition was
objectively evil. I didnt believe in objective evil, so that seemed
to make no sense. But the intuition became so strong that I could no longer
ignore it. It wasnt a "feeling." I was forced to regard
it as a perception of truth.
At this point I suppose intellect does come in, because I was familiar
with Augustines argument about evil. Evil is deficiency in good;
there is no such thing as an evil "substance," an evil-in-itself.
So if my condition really was evil, there had to be some good of which
my condition was the ruination. And if there really were both good and
evil, then I had been so wrong, for so long, so profoundly, that it seemed
that almost anything might be trueeven the faith that I had abandoned.
So I began studying all those Christian things I had forgotten. There
was no distinct moment in time at which I could have said, "I believe,
but a moment ago I didnt." One day, though, I realized that
without having noticed it, I had been believing for some time.
But if the Christian revelation about Jesus Christ is true, then it makes
no sense to do anything else except to follow him. So we took up the life
of faith again, both of us. My wife never had lost her faith as totally
as I had; you might say that her faith had gone into remission. She had
compartmentalized Christian belief, allowing her life to be guided by
other beliefs that were incompatible with it. But although her path back
to faith was somewhat different from mine, she too was ready to return.
Q: And upon your return you were an Anglican; what prompted you to move
on from that point?
Budziszewski: The first push was the discovery that Anglicanism was
dying and all but dead. When my wife and I resumed Christian worship,
we assumed that the reason the congregation recited the Nicene Creed together
was that they all believed it. After years of self-imposed exile, this
was indescribably wonderful. The "cloud of witnesses" of which
St. Paul speaks was almost palpable; we felt that you could reach out
and touch those millions of Christians from bygone generations.
Then came the day when the college chaplain, who
happened to be giving the homily that day, announced to the congregation
that he "was no longer able" to believe in the Resurrection.
I wanted to ask, "What happened to your vows?" and "How
dare you continue to call yourself a priest?" But I merely asked,
"I see you every week, reciting the Nicene Creed like the rest of
us. If you dont believe it, how can you?"
He responded, "I do it as an act of solidarity with the community."
In other words, it meant nothing at all. I came to realize that this was
true for a great many Episcopal priests. The principle of doctrinal education
in our parish was "anything goes"that is, anything but
historic Christian doctrine. If you stood up for Holy Scripture and Apostolic
Tradition you would quickly find yourself on the outs.
The question we faced was whether it would be more pleasing to God to
get out of the Episcopal communion altogether, or stay behind as a "faithful
Q: Was that the point of your departure from Anglicanism, then?
Budziszewski: No, not yet. Instead we transferred our membership to
another Episcopal parish where it seemed that historic Christian doctrine
was still taught. We remained in that parish for years, and still bear
a deep love for the people we knew there.
But the ongoing collapse of the Episcopal enterprise forced us to ask
deeper questions about the nature of the Church. Our ecclesiology was
very nearly Catholic, long before we actually joined the Catholic Church.
This fact made our picture of ourselves as part of a "faithful remnant"
inside the Anglican communion harder and harder to believe in. After all,
if what the Catholic Church teaches about her nature and authority is
true, then how can you justify not becoming part of her?
Although we continued to disagree with a number of Catholic dogmas, we
suffered a growing suspicion that where we disagreed, it was we who were
wrong, not the Church.
Not all converts come into the fold in the same way. For some people on
the way into the Catholic Church, the ecclesiastical objection is the
last one to be overcome. First they become convinced about doctrine A,
doctrine B, and doctrine C, and then at last they becoming convinced that
the Church has authority to teach about these matters. For me it was the
other way around. First I became convinced that the Church has authority
to teach. That didnt mean that my various difficulties about doctrine
A, doctrine B, and doctrine C disappeared, but it converted my "objections"
After several years of wrestling, becoming convinced on one point after
another, I finally found myself able to say with respect to the remaining
issues, "I am ready to obey." That turned out to be crucial.
As Augustine said, we believe in order to know. There are some things
you have to understand before you can accept thembut there are others
you have to accept before you can understand them.
Q: How long did that whole process take?
Budziszewski: Much too long. About eight years, ending in 2003. We
made God wait.
The last three of those years were really difficult. My wife and I had
not yet reached that point of obedience. We were still in "faithful
remnant" mode. In a sort of a compromisewhich, in retrospect,
seems rather unsatisfactorywe decided that if the Episcopal church
ever came to incorporate the prevalent abominations into its canons, that
would be our signal to get out.
The signal we were waiting for came unmistakably during the summer of
2003. It was bad enough that the Episcopal general convention ordained
as bishop a man who had abandoned his wife and children in order to live
in sin with another man. That might have been viewed as an aberration.
Much worse was the fact that the general convention authorized drawing
up rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. That converted the aberration
into a rule.
But the signal turned out to have been unnecessary, because we had already
crossed our Rubicon. That summer, we visited an Episcopal church in another
town. No sooner had we entered than we encountered a "tract table"
offering visitors free pro-abortion bumper stickers bearing the Episcopal
That was the last straw. We knew that we could never consider ourselves
members of the Episcopal Church again.
Read Part Two of "Objections, Obstacles,
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