Part Nine: The Slow But Inevitable Paradigm Shift, Fr. John A. Hardon, and Another View of the “Reformation” (1990)
This is the ten-part story of my complete religious history, from nominal Methodism (1958-1967), to the occult and practical atheism (1968-1976), through evangelical Protestantism, counter-cult, pro-life, evangelistic, and apologetics work (1977-1990), and finally on to the fullness of the Catholic faith in 1991. It is found complete (75 pages) in my 2013 book, Catholic Converts and Conversion.
See All Ten Parts:
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Only a Matter of Time (After Reading Cardinal Newman)
I discovered, with the inestimable assistance of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, that the Catholic Church had far and away the most cogent, consistent claim to ecclesiological and apostolic preeminence. This, coupled with my intensive study shortly afterward of what happened in the sixteenth century, made any further resistance to Catholicism on my part, the equivalent of rearranging chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic.
Thus began what some call a “paradigm shift.” While reading the Essay I experienced a peculiar, intense, and inexpressibly mystical feeling of reverence for the idea of a Church “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Catholicism was now thinkable and I was suddenly cast into an intense crisis. I believed in the visible Church and suspected that it was infallible as well. Once I accepted Catholic ecclesiology, the theology followed as a matter of course, and I espoused it without difficulty (even the Marian doctrines).
I (like many evangelicals) had had this notion that the early Church was a bunch of “Jesus Freaks” running around, meeting in caves. Of course, I assumed that they didn’t believe in the Eucharist, or any of that kind o’ “hifalutin’” stuff. But that’s really not what we find in studying the fathers. Since that time, I’ve read the apostolic fathers, and learned that they were very “Catholic” indeed. They believed in Real Presence, and regenerative baptism — all the things, pretty much, that Catholics believe today, only in more primitive form.
What particularly can’t be found in the Church fathers is the idea of Scripture Alone / sola Scriptura. It’s just not there. People will quote the fathers, extolling the Bible, and they’ll say, “well, see, they’re Scripture Alone.” But they’re merely saying that the Bible’s a great book. Catholics agree! The bottom line is the question of authority: who has the authoritative interpretation of Scripture? No one’s denying that Scripture is God’s Word. The Catholic Church has an impeccable record on that score.
It’s a question of authority. The Church fathers would appeal to apostolic tradition, or succession. They habitually say, “we trace ourselves back to the apostles; therefore we have true Christian teaching.” That was the basis of it, rather than Bible Alone, because people would disagree on that basis, as they do today.
My Catholic friends had been tilling the rocky soils of my stubborn mind and will for almost a year, planting “Catholic seeds.” These were now rapidly taking root and sprouting, to their great surprise; indeed, amazement. I had fought the hardest just prior to reading Newman, in a desperate attempt to salvage my Protestantism, much like a drowning man just before he succumbs! I continued reading, now actively trying to persuade myself fully of Catholicism, going through Newman’s autobiography and two books by Chesterton on Catholicism.
Meeting the Great and Holy Man (Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J.)
During my intense “conversion year” of 1990, I had the great privilege of meeting Fr. John A. Hardon, the eminent Jesuit catechist and author, and attending his informal catechetics classes, at the University of Detroit. This gave me the opportunity and blessing to be able to learn personally from an authoritative Catholic priest, who is a delightful and humble man as well. This was as good an introduction to living, breathing Catholicism as anyone could ever hope to receive, and I shall always be grateful for it.
It almost felt like being in the presence of an apostle, to listen to him teach, and to take in his extraordinary insight. I have had the immense honor of knowing him personally. Meeting him proved to be a watershed event in my life, and that of my family. He helped me to convert, received me into the Church, and also baptized my first two children.
In many ways, Fr. Hardon might be said to be one of the “fathers” of Internet evangelism, since he always stressed the use of writing, the modern media, and assertive evangelism. He was fond of saying that it was great to share the faith one-on-one, but if a Catholic wrote, then potentially many “thousands” of people could benefit from Catholic truths. He would also often assert that “what you memorize literally becomes part of your brain;” in other words, that it was supremely important for us to carefully select our reading material and to monitor habits such as television-watching.
He described some of my early attempts at apologetics as “very Catholic.” I regard that as the single greatest compliment of my writing that I’ve ever received.
Fr. Hardon’s manifest virtue of humility was one of his leading character traits. He would habitually refer to himself as “this sinner,” which always reminded me of the Apostle Paul calling himself “the chief of sinners.” The last time we saw him was at a conference for Catholic radio, where he received a well-deserved award for lifetime achievement. His entire “acceptance speech” was essentially as follows: “Thank you very much. To God be all the glory — all the glory.”
Fr. Hardon is now being considered as a candidate for possible eventual canonization (his cause is presently in the very first stage: “Servant of God”). It may be, in due course, that I was received into the Church by a saint, who also wrote the Foreword to my first and most well-known book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. God is good!
Time to Read a Non-Protestant “Take” on the “Reformation”
After many tense weeks of alternately questioning my sanity and arriving at immensely exciting new plateaus of discovery, I knew that if I was to leave Protestantism, I had to examine its historical roots: the so-called Protestant Reformation. I had previously read some material on Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, and considered him one of my biggest heroes. I accepted the standard textbook myth of Luther as the bold, righteous rebel against the darkness of Catholic tyranny and superstition added on to pristine “early Christianity.”
When I studied a large portion of the six-volume biography Luther, by the Jesuit historian Hartmann Grisar (1845-1932), however, my opinion of Luther was turned upside down. Grisar convinced me that the foundational tenets of the Protestant Revolution (where they contradicted Catholicism) were altogether tenuous.
I learned many highly disturbing facts about Luther; for example, his radically subjective existential methodology, his disdain for reason, his dictatorial intolerance of opposing viewpoints, including those of his fellow Protestants. These and other discoveries were stunning, and convinced me beyond doubt that he was not really a “reformer” of the “pure,” pre-Nicene Church, but rather, a revolutionary who created a novel theology in several respects. The myth was annihilated.
Luther (though he had many fine traits and retained important elements of tradition) was not this perfectly noble guy who was merely bringing the “gospel” back from darkness. The actual facts of what happened during that volatile time were immensely more complex than I had been led to believe as a Protestant: hearing only one side all those years.
This myth (that I held to a large extent) holds that when Luther came onto the scene, the Bible was in chains and the Church was in darkness, and Luther heroically brought the Bible to the people. In actual fact, in the hundred years before Luther’s time, there were fourteen versions in German of the Bible: translated by Catholics. Yet the popular notion is that no one had the Bible, and they were all chained up by the evil, wicked Catholics, so no one could read them.
Widespread literacy and mass printing of Bibles didn’t happen until the advent of Johann Gutenberg’s movable type printing press, in the 1450s. A lot of the prevalent mythology (that I had soaked up like a sponge) is anti-Catholic at its core: the idea that the Catholic Church was somehow deliberately suppressing the Bible.
Chained Bibles (so cherished in anti-Catholic polemics) had to do with the scarcity of Bibles before the printing press made them widely available at an affordable price. Libraries would chain Bibles in order for people to have access to them and to prevent them from being stolen, since there were so few copies. It was the rough equivalent of today’s “special collections” in libraries, under lock and key.
The Catholic Church also opposed what it regarded as bad translations of the Bible (for example, St. Thomas More’s opposition to Tyndale’s translation): not the Bible itself. Catholics and Protestants alike do that to this day. But the anti-Catholic Protestant mythology would have us believe that the Catholic Church was “against” the Bible itself: scared that folks would read it and see how “unbiblical” Catholicism supposedly is.
Concern for good translation flows from love and respect for the Bible: not disdain. The historical truth was exactly the opposite of the myth. Good solid, fair-minded history is the friend of the Catholic Church, not its enemy.
Now I was “unconvinced” of the standard Protestant concept of the invisible, “rediscovered” church. In the end, my innate love of history played a crucial part in my forsaking Protestantism, which tends to give very little attention to history (necessary in order to retain any degree of plausibility over against Catholicism).
“Big Three” Intellectual Causes in My Conversion, and Faith
My conversion, then, in summary (considered apart from God’s grace; I am talking specifically about my thought processes), was a combination of the cumulative effect of three different “strands” of evidences (contraception, development of doctrine, and the Catholic perspective on the “Reformation”): all pointing in the same direction. This was perfectly consistent (epistemologically) with my apologetic outlook that I had developed over nine years: the idea of cumulative probability or what might be called “plausibility structures.”
The Catholic arguments were considerably better than the ones I had been setting forth previously. I was simply ignorant about early Protestant history; I had come to agree on my own with Catholic moral teaching, and the historical arguments of Newman blew Salmon and Küng and all their ilk out of the water, revealing them to be mostly special pleaders or sophists with an ax to grind (which is the way I myself had been acting, in my arguments about papal infallibility).
All of this led me to the notion that the Catholic Church had a unique status, and so I accepted its authority in faith. I hadn’t answered every jot and tittle of the arguments I had myself produced (no one ever answers everything; it is unreasonable to think that they can), but I had seen more than enough to come to a place where I was more than rationally justified to accept the authority of the Catholic Church and to reject the Protestant rule of faith (private judgment and sola Scriptura).
Of course, faith is involved; just as in any religious view. I always say: “Christianity is not philosophy.” But at the same time, I was following the direction that my mind and thinking had led me. I would never adopt a view that was contrary to my reason or intellect.
Photo credit: Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (c. 1845) [public domain]