Today’s topic will touch on a question JSN asked me via email: “I’d be interested in how you made your conversion to Roman Catholicism and how it, and some of the the church’s strict doctrines play out with your Libertarian beliefs.”
As to my conversion, I wrote a bit about the topic on a blog called Sons of Frater Louis, so I encourage you to go wade through as much of that as you can stand.
Basically, though, my conversion was the culmination of a lifelong search. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, so I had to figure things out for myself. Fortunately, though, I was raised in a household with a very firm sense of basic morality, decency, and self-giving, so I had a foundation for the search, if not the details.
I never went to church until I was about 15. Fundamentalist Protestantism was my first ecclesial experience, and I kept to that, with steadily decreasing enthusiasm, until I was about 20. After that, somewhat disillusioned with religion, I drifted. I decided to let my own desires and my own wisdom be my guide through life. But, having, as it turned out, a surfeit of the former and a dearth of the latter, this was a plan doomed from the start.
Every now and then I would try again with religion, either going to another flavor of Protestant church, or dabbling with eastern religions and such. I found the scriptures of the Hindus and Buddhists fascinating, but was never tempted to follow them whole-heartedly. The Bible, on the other hand, became more mysterious and less helpful as I went along, to the point where I basically gave up.
So I found myself in my 30′s as an agnostic. I had given up trying to bother finding out the truth about God, assuming it was impossible, pointless, and definitely inconvenient to my increasingly self-centered lifestyle to do so.
But in the back of my mind, I always wondered about, and always thirsted for, that elusive thing called the truth.
So about 8 years ago I stumbled upon some books that changed my life. Two books by Thomas Merton, The Ascent To Truth and The Seven Storey Mountain; two books about Thomas Aquinas, one by Robert Barron and one by Ralph McInerney.
The common theme in these works that caught my attention was the idea that there is such a thing as truth.
The twofold implication of that idea was that first of all there is such a thing as untruth, and secondly, that although all religions and philosophies claim to proclaim the truth, some of them are dead wrong.
These implications turned my life upside down.
See, the easy thing about being an agnostic was, for me anyway, that it absolves you of all responsibility. Once you have determined that it is impossible to know God, then truth becomes irrelevant to your day-to-day existence. If it’s unknowable, then what possible effect can it have on my life? Indeed the only thing I had that resembled a moral code was my belief in libertarianism, which can be boiled down to the maxims “do no harm” and “do not coerce”. Those were my beliefs simply because they made sense to me, no more, no less. They aren’t a bad place to start, as far as living in a civilized society goes, but they do nothing to explain the great questions of life. Not to mention the fact that I was entirely incapable of following even such a stripped down morality with any consistency.
The other common thread in the four books I mentioned is that they are all works by Catholic authors. This got me thinking that just about the only thing I hadn’t looked in to, religiously speaking, was the Catholic Church. This is easily explained by my time as a fundamentalist of Baptist leanings. I was involved in that strain of the Baptist faith that treats Catholics much as Monopoly treats players who get the Go To Jail card: “go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200″.
I was by this time, as it turns out, far enough removed from those days to have no regard for any of those teachings. Thus I was wide open to the idea that the Catholic Church might be what I had been searching for. For the next six months or so, I went on a reading spree, devouring every single thing I could find about Catholicism, finding to my surprise and chagrin that nearly everything I’d been told as a young Baptist was completely and utterly wrong. Not just wrong, but wrong-headed, and often malicious and ridiculous.
Thanks for that, folks. Thanks just bunches.
About a year later, Easter of 1998, I was received in to the Church. I recieved the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion. That night was perhaps the only night of my entire life when I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
Politically, I’m still a libertarian, though not a Libertarian, if you get my drift. I believe with Jefferson that that government is best which governs least. I guess the difference is only to be found in my definition of Liberty. Previously it meant the freedom to whatever the hell I wanted with no regard to the consequences to either myself or others. Now it means the freedom to become more fully human by living as best I can by the truth. Not that I’m particularly successful at it, but it’s truly a saner approach to life. Indeed, as Merton taught me, the definition of sanity is living in accord with reality. What’s more real than God?
As far as the strictness of the Church’s doctrines, there are only a couple that I find strict at all. I’m sure you can hazard a guess as to which ones they may be. They are in fact many of the ones I found difficult when I was a Baptist. The difference is that the Catholic Church doesn’t just tell you “this is the way it is, shut up and do it” (or, don’t do it, as the case may be). The Church actually has well thought out, intellectually honest, rational reasons for the positions it takes. If you look into the real reasons behind any doctrine of the Church you disagree with, you may still disagree at the end of the day, but you will be forced to admit there is nothing arbitrary or capricious about it.
So that, dear J. Scott, is the Readers Digest version of it all. There are of course details left out, not the least of which is how my life fell apart completely during the time of my separation and divorce in the late 90′s, which not only led me back to a serious search for the truth, but which was only survived because of my discovery of same. But that’s another story, best told over a case of brew.