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Q: What did you do, then, when you realized you could no longer be Anglicans? What were the practical steps that you took toward Catholicism?

We met with a priest, telling him that we wanted to begin preparation to enter the Catholic Church, but that we were still troubled by certain obstacles which we hoped he could assist us in overcoming.

For me, the last such obstacle concerned the title of co-mediatrix often given to Mary. By using such a title, was the Church contradicting her own teaching that Christ is the one mediator between God and men?

He was very helpful. A convert himself–Methodist, then Anglican, then Catholic–he understood the difficulty immediately and encouraged me to read Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium (doc). As he expected, it resolved my difficulties. After all, there are many ways in which many people may be mediators. If you intercede for someone in prayer, you are a sort of mediator. If you explain the Gospel to someone, you are a sort of mediator. If a priest offers the sacrament of Reconciliation, he is a sort of mediator. Mary has an even more exalted role in this economy of grace. Yet all these things are possible because of what was uniquely done for us by Jesus; they don’t lessen or compromise it

So that obstacle was just–gone!

Q: Was that the only major obstacle that you had to clear?

Although the doctrine of justification had at one time presented an even greater obstacle, by this time that obstacle had already broken up. The Church’s approval of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in 1999, had been especially helpful to me. We came to recognize that the Church’s actual teaching about justification is quite different from what we had always taken it to be. It was not what we had believed as Protestants, but it contained nothing to which we were unable to submit, and it made sense.

Q: With that problem resolved, did the rest of the process go smoothly?

We went through RCIA in the ordinary way. It was good to go through it with all kinds and conditions of people. One of the thrilling things about the Catholic Church is that it is so obviously drawn from all classes, all nations, all cultures. At Protestant services one tends to see only people like oneself. At Mass on Sunday morning, we saw every sort of people: professional, working-class, Hispanic, black, Asian, speaking all sorts of languages–not because of a quota system or a multicultural ideology, but because this is the Body of Christ.

Q: Were there any individuals–friends or colleagues–who were particularly important in the process?

Yes, certain Catholics we know have been deeply important to us. Two such people were our sponsors, close friends of very long standing. For years they had been saying to us, "Your whole understanding of things is Catholic. You think like Catholics. You sound like Catholics. You have a Catholic sensibility. Why aren’t you Catholics?"

We know now that many other Catholics were praying for us. And of course certain conversations with Catholic friends and colleagues had helped us along the way.

Q: Can you think of any particular example?

Some years ago, during a long conversation with a Catholic friend who knew of my attraction to the Church, I indulged in a bit of bellyaching. "I can’t call this an objection to Catholic doctrine," I said, "but you can’t deny the flat tonelessness of the language coming from some of the liturgical reforms. Besides, the Church puts up with forms of popular piety that are utterly inconsistent with its own teachings." My example was an urban Catholic church I knew that displayed the motto "MARY, SAVE US" in enormous letters. I said, "You know, I know, and the Church knows that Mary doesn’t save us. Mary points to her Son. Jesus saves us. So why is this tolerated?"

My friend leaned back and answered, "All of this is true. These are real problems. The Church knows about them. But in 200 years they’ll all be taken care of."

It was a preposterous reply, and on another evening, in another mood, I might have considered it glib. That evening, though, it struck me that my friend was viewing things from the perspective of the Church. As a Protestant, I realized that I had a much shorter timeline and that much of what I considered wisdom might actually be impatience. The mystery of the endurance of the Church through the centuries sank in a little deeper.

Q: In light of your concerns about the liturgy, and your background in the Episcopalian Church, did you have any interest in the Anglican Use?

Never. We knew about Anglican Use. But we said if we were going to be Catholics, we wanted to go all the way. We had "made God wait" long enough, and had no remaining nostalgia for Anglican ritual.

By the way, "concerns about the liturgy" is a little strong. I was too ignorant to be "concerned." I was merely annoyed. Besides, submitting to flattened language is an exercise in humility. Who am I to say, "The Church must live up to my aesthetic standards?" We are supposed to become saints, not aesthetes. We don’t need to waste time complaining about plaster statues, plastic Rosaries, or words that don’t come up to our poetic standards.

"Flattened" is also a relative term. The Catholic liturgy retains deep beauty. It is a deep grace to be given the opportunity to say before receiving the Eucharist, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

Q: Were there any doors that you found either opened or closed– socially or professionally–after your conversion?

That’s a difficult question, because much of this is still sorting itself out. We did wonder what would happen after our conversion. Would our Protestant friends think that we weren’t Christians any longer? But although there have been a few isolated problems, most of the Protestants we’ve worked with have said to us, "We know you are following Christ. If you’re still glad to work with us, we’re still glad to work with you."

We were Catholic-friendly Protestants, and of course we intend to be Protestant-friendly Catholics. The teaching of the Church strongly encourages us in that intention.

Q: Has anything surprised you about being Catholic? Have there been any difficult adjustments?

There have been many adjustments, but they seem more like an adventure than a difficulty. One thing we’ve found is that it takes much longer to learn Catholic culture than Catholic doctrine. There are so many things that we had misunderstood!

For example, when we first began to visit Catholic parishes, we had the reaction most Protestants do: They seemed cold. You go in, and no one but the greeter says anything to you. You sit down, and at the end of the service everyone leaves. We concluded from this that parish community doesn’t exist. What we’ve discovered is that this isn’t true. Parish community exists, but it doesn’t manifest itself at the door as it does in Protestant congregations. It manifests itself in the multitude of ongoing ministries. That is where you meet people and form friendships.

One Sunday after Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, our Austin home parish, we found our perspective turning upside-down when a new acquaintance warmly said to us, "I’ve noticed you coming for several months, and I’ve wanted to talk with you so much, but I was afraid of speaking for fear of scaring you away." I’m absolutely convinced that she was sincere. She plainly wanted us to become part of the community, but we wouldn’t have known it. What might have seemed like chilliness was really an expression of her warmth. It was rather touching, rather amusing, and a little bit bizarre, like finding yourself in a tribe where you express your gratitude for the meal by belching loudly.

Q: It’s also a different style of welcome, isn’t it? You can come into a parish church and sit in the back anonymously, and you’re free to do that; no one will bother you.

That’s right. The idea is, "Take your time. We’re not going to greet you so aggressively that you become alarmed and run away." You have to appreciate the consideration in that.

While getting used to these fascinating aspects of Catholic culture, we’ve also been "translating" them for our Protestant friends. Let me tell you about one of our most interesting experiences as translators.

The modern university, you know, is an aggressively agnostic place–operationally atheist, if not theoretically atheist. People of faith often feel isolated on the university campus. This is especially true of graduate students. So for several years my wife and I have hosted a weekly meeting in our home for Christian graduate and professional students in various disciplines. We supply the dinner; they supply the discussion.

Most of these young people are conservative Evangelicals. When they found that Sandra and I were becoming Catholic, they were stunned, simply floored. They couldn’t believe that we were no longer Christians, but they couldn’t believe that Catholicism was Christian, either.

Discussion at these dinners is wide open, so they knew that they were free to raise their concerns. For weeks, the only topic they wanted to discuss was their objections to Catholicism. It was a great introduction to Catholic apologetics. We view it as part of our catechesis. To answer all those questions, we had to learn a lot, really fast.

It was also fun. We saw barriers dissolving and prejudices breaking up. Another interesting result was that the Catholic members of the group, who had always felt outnumbered, found their voice–and grew, unexpectedly, closer to the others.

Q: Have you encountered any altered expectations about your professional work? You recently published an article in First Things about the death penalty, for instance. Are there people who think that now, since you’re a Catholic, you should think in a certain way about specific issues?

I wondered if that might be the case. But the view that I take on capital punishment is compatible with Catholic teaching, you know. It’s not disobedient for a Catholic to believe that capital punishment still has a place even today.

Q: Certainly it’s not disobedient. But it’s also not popular.

Right; it’s not popular. The general tendency in Catholic discussion runs the other way. Frankly I think that one side of the debate has seized upon certain papal teachings and exaggerated them to its own advantage.

I had expected that some people would say, "See here, no sooner do you convert than you become a dissident!" That hasn’t taken place. People may think I’m seriously wrong–I’ve received a certain amount of email telling me how mean I am–but they rarely claim that I’m heterodox or disobedient.

Writing the article did involve some struggle for me. The main difficulty doesn’t lie in submitting to the magisterium–that I can do–but in trying to understand what submission means in this case.

The Holy Father is obviously deeply uncomfortable with capital punishment. This is not an infallible teaching, and as a scholar, I am supposed to present the best arguments I can. Yet even with respect to teachings that fall short of infallibility–and with respect to discomfort that falls short of explicit teaching–I should try to think with his mind, and I am glad to do so. But what does it mean to think with his mind, when, with respect to some applications of capital punishment, we would probably disagree? I’ve been trying to work that out. I hope I’m succeeding.

Q: Are there other notable discoveries that you have made since becoming a Catholic?

Your request to interview me illustrates something else that my wife and I have discovered since becoming Catholics.

We had always thought that the telling of conversion stories was an Evangelical Protestant custom. Evangelicals love such stories so much that when two Evangelicals meet, the very next question after "Tell me your name," and "Tell me where you live and work," is often "Tell me your story."

We have been surprised, and affectionately amused, to discover that Catholics love conversion stories, too. But what Catholics especially love is the stories of Protestants who convert to Catholicism!

Lifelong Catholics sometimes tell us, "It’s so good for us to talk to people like you, because people think we’re crazy to be Catholic. We’re so encouraged whenever we find someone who isn’t Catholic discovering that Catholic faith makes sense."

Q: Your story can also be encouraging in another way, since it gives us a window into the thinking of people who are not Catholics, but might be interested in the faith. Your story may give us some insight as to how we can encourage others to enter the Church.

That reminds me of another discovery we’ve made about Catholicism. Catholics are said to be uninterested in evangelism. Of course they are interested in evangelism. But they approach it in different ways.

A Catholic young woman whom my wife and I know well always had a strong negative reaction to the term "evangelism." We were surprised to learn that she has a very strong positive reaction to the term, "evangelization." When she thinks of "evangelism," she thinks of Protestants throwing Jack Chick tracts into the windows of passing cars. But when she thinks of "evangelization"–the term that we’ve found is more commonly used in Catholic circles–then she thinks of sharing the Gospel!

Differences in vocabulary and language needlessly inhibit understanding between Catholics and Protestants. It has been awfully good to discover that some of these barriers are smaller than we had expected them to be.

Q: It’s a bit more than simply a linguistic difference, isn’t it? There’s a cultural difference behind that use of different terms. Catholics are more inclined to take what one might call a Hippocratic approach to evangelization; the principle is: "First, do no harm."

Yes, but "First, do no harm" might seem to Protestants to be a euphemism for doing nothing. What we’ve found is that although Catholics "do something" about evangelization, what they do is different.

For instance, a Catholic is more likely to think: "If only I can get my friend into church, then he may be willing to talk about the Gospel, because the liturgy itself is such a teacher." Whereas an Evangelical is more likely to think: "If only I can talk with my friend about the Gospel, then he may be willing to come to church."

Q: And neither approach is right. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that each approach is both right and wrong.

Each is partly right. There’s something to be said for each approach. They need each other.

I believe the Catholic Church to be the true Church, but I don’t think that I attenuate my Catholic faith by saying that we can learn some things from Protestants. We ought to be in dialogue.

This interview originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Catholic World Report. Read Part One of the interview here.

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