It is fashionable (especially in Anglican/Episcopal circles where it is so common these days) to refer to conversion to Roman Catholicism as “swimming the Tiber.” Although Hillaire Belloc never actually had to convert (although a recovery was in order,) his The Path to Rome (which he actually walked, via the Alps) is probably a better analogy of how most people who do convert to the RCC actually accomplish it. For me, about this time forty years ago, I was pouring over Dante’s Divine Comedy and beginning my own path to Rome, an adventure that would span most of the 1970’s and pick up again in the early 1980’s before I departed for good.
It’s conventional wisdom amongst Protestants that the only way to eternal life for anyone connected with the Roman Catholic Church is for same person to leave that church. In this idea, someone who leaves a “Protestant” church such as the Episcopal Church for Rome is really taking the highway to hell. But one thing learned in following God’s plan for one’s life is that same plan doesn’t always run in a straight line, and few things in my life have driven that point home for me more than my years as a Roman Catholic.
The Episcopal church of the early 1970’s was a place with antique liturgy and radical theology which appeared to me to be the worst of both worlds. More precisely the “radical theology” was the “theology with no answers.” Although liberal theology has bad beliefs, the worst part of it in many ways is that it, by definition, has no real beliefs at all. And what good is a church which is empty handed in this way?
Roman Catholicism had its own conflicts, being in the wake of Vatican II. The Novus Ordo Missae had just been instituted, which befuddled many Roman Catholics (as it does now, for a different reason.) But when I finally got around to going to St. Edward’s in Palm Beach in May (it took two months,) I was struck with a liturgy that was modern and succinct (too much so in some ways.) I also found a church with answers that wasn’t anti-intellectual. Finally the church, in its post-Vatican II state, wasn’t emphasising the kinds of “curiously Catholic” things like Marian devotions as they used to, so the transition in that sense was much easier. Before the year ended I not only became Roman Catholic but a lector at a new parish to boot.
And that was just the beginning of the adventure…
To start with, the road to Rome was the road out of Palm Beach. As noted elsewhere, being raised in that kind of environment isn’t a good preparation for living “beyond the gates” and Roman Catholicism was a way by which I could get outside the bubble without getting into serious trouble. (Unfortunately fewer and fewer people in this country ever cross that divide these days, which is a major source of the economic inequity we face.) I got further down that path when I went to university in Texas, and was there introduced to not only the song and liturgy of the “Jesus-music era” but also the Charismatic Renewal. The combination of all of that and more was transformative; life in general has never been the same since.
But ultimately that introduction ultimately led me out of Roman Catholicism. I document the specific problems I ran into with covenant communities elsewhere, but ultimately I realised that Roman Catholicism, for all of its strong points, has some serious weaknesses as well, most of them regarding its fidelity to the idea of the “author and finisher of our faith.” These problems were underscored by the accession of John Paul II to the Holy See in 1978, which checked some of the same kinds of problems that had plagued (and still bedevil) the Episcopal Church but also forced the church back to a more “traditional” Catholicism than I had experienced earlier.
So were my years in the RCC a mistake? Certainly not. The whole objective of life is God himself. The way to God is through Jesus Christ. The simplicity of the basics do not always translate into the simplicity of the process, as is conventional wisdom amongst Evangelicals. It is the attainment of the goal that counts; as Augustine said at the start of the Confessions, “The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” I can say that, without my years as a Roman Catholic, the achievement of that goal is very problematic, and that’s something that Evangelical conventional wisdom cannot take way.