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How (and why) I Swam the Tiber: My Catholic Conversion Story (I)

October 6, 2010

When I joined the Catholic Church at Easter of 2009, I had several friends in my former church contact me asking, more or less, “What made you want to do that?” For many non-Catholic Christians, but particularly those who belong to fundamentalist churches, the notion of actually choosing to become Catholic is a foreign one. It just doesn’t happen, and when it does, it comes with more than a little scrutiny.

The late Catholic bishop Henry G. Graham, who left the Church of Scotland for the Catholic Church, aptly described the situation in his own conversion account: “The common Protestant idea about the affair is that a man becomes a Catholic, somehow or other, hypnotized and deluded by Rome’s ‘glamour’ that then he is obliged to assent to all the most ridiculous and unreasonable doctrines; he has simply to open his mouth, shut his eyes, and swallow everything wholesale: He becomes, in fact, a driveling nonentity, in a state of mental stupefaction and paralysis, compelled against his will to express his formal belief in things which are too silly and childish for any man of average intellect.”

I cannot fault my friends, or you dear reader, for assessing the situation in a similar way. Although it pains me to hear such things now, the truth of the matter is that I myself scoffed at all things, and people, Catholic. To charge me with being anti-Catholic would not have been an uncharitable observation. In my mind the Catholic Church was as obscene to God as it was to men.

So to ask the question, “What made you do that?” is not an unusual one, nor is it unfair. It deserves an answer, although as I hope you come to discover, the answer is often much more conscientious and informed than one initially expects.

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I had been living a lukewarm Christianity at best when God’s grace upon my heart moved me to begin attending church regularly again. My husband and I had just relocated to my hometown when we became actively involved in a small church transplant connected with the denomination of churches we had previously attended. This ignited a hope in me that perhaps my relationship with God could finally “get back to the way it used to be.” My King in His mercy began teaching me about Himself despite my wretchedness and it is a wonder I even learned anything at all.

It was at this point in my life that I came to grapple with the issue of morality and birth control. I don’t have the foggiest idea how it happened and I am content to sum it up as purely the leading of the Holy Spirit, but I began questioning whether using birth control like the Pill and condoms were truly morally neutral, even morally positive, choices. (I had been using birth control throughout my marriage on the advice of my church; I was taught that it was “the best thing to do for the marriage.”) As I began to more closely examine the Scriptures in light of historical Christian teaching, I was stunned to find out that to deliberately frustrate the marital act of its power and purpose (to create human life) was and always had been a grave sin. In fact, all Christians – Catholic and Protestant – had affirmed this truth up until the 1930s! But 70 years after the first concession to birth control by the Anglicans, the only Christians who currently practiced rejecting contraceptives were a small contingent of fundamentalist Protestants spanning across various denominations (and the Catholic Church — but I didn’t realize it at the time, nor did I care to even consider their position because again, I was staunchly anti-Catholic).

To be clear, this was not a teaching I was eager to accept. I don’t doubt that if I could have found a plausible way around it, I would have — but the only thing I can imagine is that God preserved me and gave me the graces I needed to accept the truth. You see, I never planned on having children. I didn’t want them. I didn’t even like them. I was more than happy with using birth control and using it for the entirety of my fertile years. Besides, millions of Christians had declared it to be fine! In fact, I was often told it was more than fine: it was the responsible thing to do. “After all,” was the final condemning consensus, “it doesn’t say anything about it in the Bible.

But the more I examined the issue, the more I realized that God did have something to say about sex, childbearing, and the purpose of marriage. And the message was much different than the one my church, and almost all churches I observed, taught. I was amazed to find that woven throughout the Bible was a consistent message that the fruitful womb, which was ultimately God’s domain, was an extraordinary blessing…the highest gift of the marital act. And not only that, but it was clear in many biblical accounts that wasting seed, deliberately sterilizing intercourse (either through contraceptive means like withdrawal or “natural” means like homosexual and bestial acts), and barrenness was abhorrent in the eyes of God. I came to see passages like Genesis 1:27-28, Genesis 38:8-10, Deuteronomy 7:13-14, Deuteronomy 25:11-12, Hosea 9:10-17, Leviticus 20:13, 15-16, 18, Deuteronomy 23:1, Psalm 127:3-5, and Malachi 2:15 — just to name a few — in an entirely new light.

However, as I soon came to find out, most of my fellow Christians saw nothing there. “I’m not convicted about it,” they told me when I pointed out what I thought then was a rather novel discovery. “It doesn’t explicitly say ‘Thou shalt not use birth control.'”

Not to be so easily deterred, I figured surely if the Scriptures weren’t plain enough for them, they could at least be reasoned with when presented with the consistent testimony of the early Christians – those least removed from the time of the apostles, and who were “still preserved” with “some” truth. (I didn’t realize it at this point, but I had just made a very Catholic move. I had appealed to the Tradition of the faith as another source of authority in the Christian life.)

For example, there was Clement of Alexandria who testified, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.” And, “To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.”

There was Epiphanius of Salamis: “They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption.”

There was Augustine of Hippo: “This proves that you [Manicheans – a heretic sect] approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore, whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage and makes the woman not a wife but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion.” And: “I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility… Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction.”

“Surely this was an apostolic teaching!” I cried. “It has always been this way, even well after the dawn of Protestantism!” (Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and numerous other major and minor Protestant figures all continued to proclaim this belief down through history until, as I said, the 1930s.)

I figured with that, my case was sealed. But I was wrong. Next to no one I spoke with saw any reason to consider the testimony of the early Church, nor were they much concerned with what “Christianity had always taught.” I came to find that the only thing that mattered much was what one was personally interpreted from the Bible and what their pastor or favorite Christian author taught them. If they didn’t want to believe something, they didn’t have to. It was exactly the same way I had dealt with the Christian faith for several years, but I was beginning, very slowly, to see just how maddening and destructive it could be.

To put it mildly, my soul was deeply unsettled. Begrudgingly I had to admit that considering the Scriptures alone, it was not 100% clear and undeniable that birth control in all its various modern forms was to be refused. I was sufficiently convinced due to Scripture and historical Christian teaching, or Tradition. But many more were not. Who was to say was correct? The short answer is: no one. No one is correct or incorrect because there is no authority in Protestantism. It is one’s own private judgment versus another’s, and no one is obliged to believe anything because nothing can be agreed on in any definitive way.

As Catholic bishop and convert Graham put it: “[Protestant] ministers and members do not believe their church is a teacher sent from God, and they acknowledge no infallible authority except the Bible, interpreted by each one’s individual judgment. Practically speaking, therefore, among them there is no such sin as a sin against faith interiorly, just as there is no such sin as a sin against authority exteriorly. There is no fixed, definite, circumscribed, cut-and-dried body of religious truths which must be believed under pain of sin.”

I didn’t understand all this yet, but the seed of understanding and thus my ultimate conversion to the Catholic Church had been planted somewhere in my next-to-fruitless attempts to speak about this issue with my Christian brothers and sisters. (I say next-to-fruitless because there were in fact a small handful of commendable souls who by the grace of God had ears to hear and rejected birth control.)

For the time being I stayed in my church, but many things started changing interiorly. I spent a lot of time wrestling with the reality that concerning birth control, Scripture alone was insufficient to make an open and shut case (yet for 1,900 years Christians managed to be united on the issue…how and why was that?). I was also frustrated with the chaos, conflicting beliefs, and lack of orthodoxy in Christianity more than ever. I didn’t realize it then, but that frustration and dissatisfaction of living in Christian muddle was a beautiful grace from the Lord. If it were not for that gift, I would have never made it out of that doctrinal stew in which I was swirling, with no perceivable end in sight.

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One Comment
  1. Vita Consecrata permalink

    i’m excited to read more! what an awesome testimony!

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