The Experience of a Modern
BRIAN W. HARRISON
Nihil Obstat F. M. CHAMBERLIN
Imprimatur:L. M. CLARKE
Vicarius Generalis 9th October, 1974
In these rather tumultuous times, hardly a day goes by without one
hearing of reports of defections from the Church, or defiance against
her authority. Stories of those converted to, and not from,
Catholicism, have become rather scarce. I offer the following account,
therefore, in the hope that it may be of help to some who are confused,
doubtful or perplexed about the Church and her most Holy Faith. At the
same time, we need to remember that it is ultimately the Holy Spirit
who leads men to the Church. He does not do so on account of their own
cleverness or natural virtues. As Our Lord said, "The wind blows where
it wills . . . " (John 3:8.)
Many converts have been attracted to the Catholic Church initially
because of the awesome impression made by the dignity and beauty of her
worship. I can honestly say that this carried no weight with me at all.
I was brought up in an old-style evangelical Presbyterian environment,
and was taught that "all the gaudy pomp and ritual of Rome" was an
"abomination in the sight of the Lord". Indeed, "liturgy" was
practically a dirty word in our world. We believed that the simpler,
plainer, and more spontaneous our worship was, the purer and more
acceptable it was to God.
Other converts have joined the Church largely as the result of the
personal influence of other Catholics, particularly if these happen to
be close friends, husbands, or wives. Again, I must confess that
assistance of this sort was mainly lacking in my case. With a few
notable exceptions, the Catholics I first encountered when I started at
university were apparently apathetic about their religion, and
probably did more to "turn me off" than "on".
Catholicism on paper, however, presented a rather different picture. I
remember being quite impressed by some of the expositions of Catholic
doctrine which I found in the university library. I was quite
unprepared for a reasoned defence of the Catholic Faith, because I had
always assumed that Catholics were frightened of reason, and relied on
brainwashing (and, in Catholic countries, persecution) to maintain
their position. I had been told that many Catholic beliefs were
contrary to Scripture. But I found that the Catholic explanations of
the Scriptural passages in question often seemed just as plausible as
the Protestant ones. It was true that Catholic teaching often went
beyond the plain words of
Scripture in many ways, but that is not at
all the same thing as contradicting Scripture. The Bible does not state
that Our Lady was taken up body and soul into Heaven, for instance; but
it certainly does not state that her body decayed in the grave, as most
By the end of a year or so at university I think I had reached an
awareness that there was only one doctrine really worth discussing in
the field of Catholic-Protestant relations, and that was the question
of authority and infallibility. Once you granted Catholics the single
point that Christ founded a Church with its own inherent authority to
teach and preach in His name, then everything else they taught followed
logically; all the other Protestant objections were bowled over in one
fell swoop, as it were.
I didn't see how one could disprove the Catholic position from the
point of view of pure reason alone, but I was still very far from
becoming a Catholic. The ultimate argument, from those whom I
considered holier and wiser than myself, was always to quote Our Lord's
words: "By their fruits you all shall know them." The fruits of
'Romanism' (it was pointed out to me) were the Inquisition, the stake,
greed, idolatry, lust, ritualism, persecution, worldliness and clerical
tyranny; therefore all true, pure-hearted lambs in Christ's flock had
abundant evidence for the essentially Satanic nature of the Papacy, if
only they would follow their hearts and not be misled by the cunning
intellectual sophistries of jesuitical apologists. This sort of thing,
admittedly, I always found somewhat far-fetched and one-sided, but it
provided a sufficient deterrent for me simply to shelve the whole
As my undergraduate years progressed, however, I became more
disenchanted with what I saw of Protestantism, though without being
consciously drawn towards Catholicism. With views too 'conservative',
to feel at home with the Student Christian Movement , but too 'liberal'
to join the Evangelical Union, I spent my under-graduate days in
a kind of religious 'no-man's land', although I leant rather more to
the latter society. The evangelicals attracted me because of their
devout, and sometimes even saintly, personal example; I had no time at
all for others (including Christians) who ridiculed the evangelicals
and called them "religious fanatics", since, of course, many of the
great saints, and Our Lord Himself, were branded "religious fanatics"
by their contemporaries. The world will always sneer at holiness.
But I had to admit that the Evangelical Union form of religion, in
which some vaguely defined "conversion experience" - "accepting Christ
as your personal Saviour" -was supposed to "save" you irrevocably like
a free one-way ticket to eternal blessedness, was to an unhealthy
degree emotional and even anti-intellectual.
I also became more and more and more disenchanted with the evangelical
emphasis on the Bible alone as the sole source of revealed truth.
Why should God, if He wanted to make Himself clear to us, leave us with
nothing more than a book which can be interpreted in hundreds of
different ways, even on fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity, the
Incarnation, and Justification? Even more devastating was the question
that occurred to me, "How do I know that the Bible is even supposed to
be the sole source of revelation?" It certainly doesn't claim to be. It
doesn't even claim to be inspired by God in its entirety (although
certain parts of it do). Nor does it claim to consist of the 66 books
which Protestants have put between its covers; and it certainly makes
no claim to be self-interpreting to any sincere Christian reader, as
Protestants say it is.
In other words, I came to see that Protestantism contradicts itself. In
one breath it insists passionately that all its doctrines are to be
found in the Bible. But that doctrine itself-the famous sola scriptura
- isn't there, and neither are various other special doctrines
concerning the Bible that it turns round and starts preaching in the
next breath. These doctrines are completely dependent on the authority
of Reformation tradition, and yet tradition is the very thing
Protestantism says must not
I began toying around with "High Church" Anglicanism, which purports to
recognise both Scripture and
tradition as sources of Christian
revelation; and in this I was stimulated by the
conversion of a good friend who became a "High" Anglican after twenty
years or so of unbelief. I remember being quite astonished by the fact
that, unlike 'converted' evangelicals, she did not believe she was
'saved' as a result of her conversion.
It was in this frame of mind that I went to New Guinea, directly after
my graduation, as a teacher with Australian Volunteers Abroad. I was
posted with the Lutheran Mission, since although I had never met a
Lutheran in my life, I was assured that they were fairly similar in
outlook to Presbyterians. While this turned out to be true in some
respects, the Lutherans also manifested certain traits which I had
always associated with Catholicism.
The most important of these was that they held basically Catholic ideas
about the two main Sacraments: Baptism, they said, is a true means of
grace, a washing from sin and a regeneration to the new life in Christ;
whilst (horror of horrors to a Presbyterian!) they believed that the
true Body and Blood of Christ is objectively present in the Eucharistic
bread and wine.
I came to accept this Lutheran-Catholic sacramental outlook, and in
fact practised as a Lutheran for several years. However, I never
formally joined the Lutheran Church, because while it appealed to me
more than other Churches, I still could not accept it in toto. The sola
scriptura principle seemed just as illogical as ever, and,
I came to see that in practice, as distinct from theory, the Lutherans
believe in the infallibility of their own Church, as the interpreter of
Scripture, just as much as Catholics do. In other words, here was
another contradiction. The real touchstone of orthodoxy for Lutherans
is not the "Bible alone", but the Bible as interpreted by the 16th
century confessional documents, to which all Lutheran pastors must
The same contradiction is to be discerned in all Protestant Churches
which manage to maintain any sort of coherent doctrinal message at all.
The basic dilemma for a Protestant Church which stands by any sort of
confession or faith-statement in addition to Scripture - even just the
Creed - can be put more precisely thus: either it must claim that the
confession in question is definitely and certainly a true exposition of
Scripture; or it must say, "This confession seems to us a true
exposition of Scripture, but we may be mistaken, since other sincere
Christians think differently."
If the former alternative is chosen, one is really claiming
infallibility for whichever group of churchmen formulated the
confession; if the latter, then there can be no justification for
retaining the confession at all as a binding
document on either clergy
or laity, or as a barrier to union with other Churches. Why maintain
fallible human opinions as a cause of division between the separated
brethren of Christendom? Why not open the gates to anyone as long as he
is prepared to affirm that he thinks his views are scriptural?
In practice, the latter alternative is that which has now been adopted
in the big, "liberal" Churches - Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist,
Congregational, Uniting Church of Australia, and one or two others.
They manage to avoid the trap of behaving just as "infallibly" as the
Pope; however, they have no alternative but to permit any and every
deviation from historic Christianity. The traditional Christian symbols
and formulae are given lip-service, but everyone is free to interpret
them (as much as the Bible) just as he sees fit.
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has been quoted as saying
publicly that he does not consider it dishonest for someone to stand up
and say the Creed in full, without believing that Our Lord was born of
a virgin, provided he gives a "general assent" to the overall content
of the Creed.
I disagree strongly. How can you assent in general to doctrines from
which you dissent in particular? Where will you stop in your
"reinterpretation"? The whole basic approach to religious truth in
"liberal" Christianity is diametrically opposed to that of the New
Testament and the early Church, even though it may accidentally come to
the same conclusions in many respects. It's not just what you believe,
but why you believe it that
matters, though "liberals" just cannot see
The ancient Church had a definite, coherent message to proclaim, and a
definite code of morals. She knew
the message she had received from her
Lord, and was conscious of her power to discern corruptions of that
message and exclude them. New converts had to accept the Creed because
its doctrines were revealed by the Lord.
There was no question of taking in people who wanted to make acceptance
of the substance of the Church's dogma dependent on the supposed
results of natural philosophy - what we today would call scientific or
historical criticism. A person who wanted that was called a heretic.
Such an approach would turn the whole of revealed truth into mere human
opinion. In other words, "liberal"
Churches are doctrinally inclusive, whereas the ancient Church was
And yet I could see the Archbishop of Canterbury's point. Modern
knowledge has rendered some older beliefs untenable. Not even so-called
fundamentalists today take literally the first chapter of Genesis and
the genealogies which seem to prove that the world was created in six
24-hour days in the year 4004 B.C. But once you start allowing
non-literal interpretations there is no saving the authority of the
Bible at all unless, like the Catholic Church, you can appeal to an
infallible teaching authority to act as a sort of "backstop"; such an
authority can start drawing a few definite lines somewhere, saying,
"this bit and that bit are essential parts of Christian tradition; you
have to take them literally, even if the exact historicity of other
bits is debatable."
All these considerations led me to a renewed respect for Catholicism,
with its insistence on revealed dogma. It was beginning to look much
more like the faith of the ancient Church than most Protestants
suspected. Christianity is a revealed religion. But if all we have is
something which can be interpreted in a hundred contradictory ways,
then there is really no revelation at all. A Church without dogma, or
(what amounts to the same thing), a Church wherein there is no
agreement as to what is dogma and what is merely opinion, cannot be an
authentically Christian Church at all.
I was finding other problems connected with Protestantism as well. On
the vital question of justification, St. Paul and the other New
Testament writers were starting to sound much more like Catholics than
Protestants. To insist on "justification by faith apart from works" was
all very well; but what precisely does that mean? Faith in what? Luther
and Calvin said that what justifies a man is faith in the promise of
free forgiveness of his own sins for Christ's sake alone. There is a
curious, involuted, illogical mysticism here: you are supposed to be
justified solely by believing that you are personally justified; which
sounds like the logical equivalent of trying to lift oneself up by
one's own bootstraps.
Even love and repentance were regarded by Luther as "works" which must
on no account be thought of as a necessary condition for forgiveness.
He said that even if you have done something bad and have a guilty
conscience about it, you must never, never doubt that you are in a
state of grace regardless.
Repentance follows forgiveness, he said; it is not a prerequisite for
forgiveness. All this seemed to me to be putting the cart before the
horse. I could find none of it in the New Testament. St. Paul (e.g., 1
Cor. 4:3-5, 9:24-27) and the other apostles, were not concerned to give
others (or themselves) some absolute, unconditional guarantee of their
own personal state of being accounted righteous before God. The faith
they seemed more concerned to spread
was faith in the truths later summed up in the Creed. If you accepted
this doctrine, and were baptised into the Church, you would be forgiven
and saved, to be sure, but only if your faith was accompanied by a
repentance from sin and a perseverance in trying to do the will of God.
The New Testament, I began to see, made it quite clear that God did not
forgive us our sins as a reward for any good deeds we had done; but the
Reformers wanted to exclude even good intentions
as a prerequisite for
forgiveness, even when the Catholic Church conceded -indeed insisted -
that those good intentions were themselves only possible as the result
of God's grace working in a man's heart. This was really going too far,
I thought; it made man into a mere puppet with no real say in his
eternal destiny at all. The Council of Trent was surely much truer to
the New Testament.
All these difficulties haunted the back of my mind for years, but for
most of the time I pushed them aside and carried on with the business
of everyday living. Deep down, I think I was frightened of facing up
once again to the challenge of the Catholic Church's absolute claim on
my allegiance, because I instinctively sensed that there might be
traumatic emotional and social ramifications if I was converted, and I
was more secure and comfortable the way I was.
Conversion, when it did come, came as a sudden, overwhelming, and
unexpected experience, and it was precipitated by reflection on what is
probably the most unpopular of the Church's teachings.
People are often surprised enough when I tell them I am a convert; they
are frequently quite astonished to hear that my conversion was largely
due to the Pope's teaching on birth control. Like most non-Catholics
today, I had always more or less taken it for granted that
contraception was O.K. But when I began to think more closely about it,
I came to see that much of the current argument about this matter is
quite inconsistent. There is no question of the Church ever allowing
contraception alone, because
any argument for admitting contraception
is also an argument for admitting all sorts of other ugly sexual
deviations which a man and woman can practise together, and which the
Church has always condemned just as definitely as contraception, though
with much less publicity. When pushed further, the argument will
ultimately admit masturbation, sodomy, and any other kind of sexual
Anyone who wants to justify contraception must argue either that it is
a bad thing in itself, but can be justified in some cases as the lesser
of two evils; or he must argue that it is not a bad thing in itself.
If he takes the first line, he will point to the evils of
over-population, or the hardships that extra births might bring to
individual families, as the greater evils he wishes to see avoided.
However, this end-justifies-the-means philosophy can be used to condone
all manner of hideous evils, as Hitler and Stalin have shown the world
all too clearly. To admit that an inherently evil means can be used to
control population would be to admit abortion, infanticide, euthanasia,
compulsory sterilisation, and so on, until everyone's life is at the
mercy of the State. Furthermore, contraception never is necessary. To
assert that it is is to imply that periodic continence is simply
impossible-that man is an animal with no means of voluntarily
controlling his sexual impulses. Periodic continence is not easy, to be
sure, but modern advances in the ovulation method have made it much
easier, and much more reliable, than the out-dated rhythm method.
Most Christians can appreciate the above points, and thus, the great
majority of those who wish to defend contraception do so by taking the
second line of approach. They maintain that it is not inherently evil.
Protestants often rely simply on the argument, "It's not condemned in
Scripture." In view of Genesis 38:9-10, this is at least highly
debatable, but even if it were true, such an argument would be
simplistic and inadequate. Neither are masturbation, necrophilia,
sado-masochism, abortion, pornography or sterilization condemned
explicitly in Scripture. But this surely does not mean we can simply
approve of them all without further ado. The Christian must look for
the principles underlying the God-given meaning of sex, and apply them
Much confusion stems from a rather idle discussion about the "primary"
and "secondary" purposes of sex considered abstractly. But all that
really exist are particular sex acts. And particular acts between a man
and woman, if not interfered with chemically or mechanically, are
either fertile or they are not. But in the case of a fertile act, there
can surely be no doubt for the Christian as to what its primary purpose
is in the sight of God - the creation of a new human being in His own
image, endowed with an immortal soul. This is a result with eternal
significance, obviously far more important than the transient pleasure,
or expression of love, which was occasioned for the couple by that
It follows that the application of some contraceptive technique to this
particular act, to deprive it of its natural procreative power, is a
deliberate contravention of God's clearly discernible purpose. Of
course sex is also for mutual love and pleasure; you can even say that
is the primary purpose in naturally infertile acts, if you wish. But to
snatch at the pleasure on occasions when you deliberately frustrate its
natural consequences is to lay down the pernicious principle that God's
designs and purposes, made manifest in the way he has created our
bodies and their sacred procreative functions, can be distorted and
subordinated to serve those of man.
Practically everyone is instinctively revolted by the thought of at
least some of the lowest forms of sexual perversion. But if someone
defiantly insists that for him,
such behaviour brings love, joy and
fulfilment, there is no coherent criticism that can be brought against
him by the advocate of contraception. Any attempt to pinpoint some
rational reason why his action is immoral and degrading will inevitably
fall back on ideas of "unnaturalness", or
of sex being "designed" for something else, or of using our bodies in
the way they are "supposed to be used". But these are criteria which
can be urged equally against contraception. The critic is trying to
have his Pill, as it were, and eat it too.
The last-ditch stand of the contraceptionist is to protest that if the
Catholic Church were consistent, she would condemn the use of periodic
continence as well, since it is also "unnatural" for couples to
restrain their natural sex impulses. But notice carefully the
implications of this argument. For one thing, it forgets that our sex
impulses are not now as God originally planned them to be. They have
become distorted, and rendered much less subject to the control of our
wills, as a result of Original Sin. If it had not been for this,
periodic continence would be no more difficult than refusing a drink is
for a non-alcoholic. Since the fall, not everything about our "natural"
impulses can be said to have God's unqualified stamp of approval.
Furthermore, those who argue that periodic continence is "unnatural"
are seldom themselves consistent. They seem to be suggesting the
conclusion, "therefore, let's do away completely with the whole idea of
'naturalness' or 'unnaturalness' as a criterion of sexual morality."
But those who talk this way, especially Christians, will nearly always
be found to disapprove of sexual deviancy in at least some of its most
degraded forms-say bestiality or necrophilia. But as we have just seen,
these perversions can be condemned rationally only by an appeal to some
sort of objective
"natural" norms. In other words, those who use this argument are
themselves making an unacknowledged distinction between one kind of
"unnaturalness" which is wrong, and another kind which isn't which is
precisely what the Church does. The fallacy in the argument is, of
course, that it fails to distinguish between the non-use and the abuse
of a gift given by God.
The mere word "unnatural" is
neither here nor there, since it is so
vague and ambiguous in popular speech that it has a whole range of
meanings. Nobody imagines for a moment that the sort of'
"unnaturalness" which is nothing more than a self-restraint of one's
spontaneous drives or impulses is morally wrong - least of all the
Catholic Church. If it were, then we should all be morally obliged to
behave like animals, obeying every impulsive dictate of our bodies. The
only kind of "unnaturalness" condemned by the Church is that in which
we use our God-given drives, but do so in a manner which subverts or
frustrates the ends for which God has designed them. If my friend gives
me a beautifully-bound book by my favourite author, he will not be
offended if I don't read it all the time; but he will certainly be very
hurt if I tear it up because its thin rice-paper rolls a very good,
In other words, we all make the kind of distinction between non-use and
abuse, restraint and distortion, that the Church makes in this case.
Sex-acts during the fertile hours of a woman's cycle are designed for
procreation just as plainly and obviously as sexuality as a whole is
designed for union between man and woman, rather than between man and
man, man and beast, or man and the hideous masturbatory devices now
being offered for sale in sex shops and pornographic magazines. If
God's purposes may be ignored in one case they may be ignored in others
When I came to the conclusion that contraception was wrong, I was
converted almost overnight. It was as though scales fell from my eyes,
and I saw the Church, and indeed the whole world, in a totally new way.
The Catholic Church appeared now, in spite of the great wickednesses of
so many of her members throughout history, as a city set upon a hill,
as a sign of Christ in a world where the forces of evil were
progressively eroding away man's dignity as a creature in the image of
God. Everything suddenly "clicked"; all the jumbled bits and pieces of
my experience, all the anomalies, contradictions, and "loose ends"
which plagued all the other forms of Christianity, rose up from the
back of my mind, where they had nagged and troubled me for so long, and
resolved themselves by falling together like the pieces of a great
jigsaw puzzle. And the picture that appeared when they did so was that
of a single, visible Church, founded by Christ to last until His return
- a Church which all men could trust as a teacher of his revealed
truth. It seemed strange that ecumenical dialogue between the Churches
was proceeding so vaguely and ponderously.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that most ecumenical dialogue is not
nearly radical enough; Catholic theologians are sitting down politely
with Protestant theologians and trying to work out how much they have
in common on what appears to be a "Bible alone" basis. We are getting
"agreed statements" about the Eucharist, Orders, and even the Papacy.
More often than not they are vague and even compromising. Protestants
have a deeply-rooted conviction that
we simply cannot go beyond what the Bible says, and it is this, I
believe, that is the major barrier to reunion. If Catholics insisted
more firmly on pointing out that Protestants have already gone well
beyond "what the Bible says" in their doctrines about the Bible itself,
we might see a few more genuine "breakthroughs."
There were still, however, barriers ahead of me before I was finally
received into the Church. Conversion brought with it emotional
difficulties, especially since I was almost wholly isolated; I had no
friends and few acquaintances who were practising Catholics. My whole
personality was still that of one who had been brought up outside the
Church in an anti-Catholic environment. Then, shortly before I was due
to join the Church formally, there came a major setback. I 'discovered'
I had assumed that the Roman Catholic Church alone claimed to be the
one true Church of Christ, and that she alone claimed that infallible
teaching authority which is the only alternative to doctrinal chaos or
self-contradiction. But now I found that the great Eastern Church - the
second largest in Christendom- also makes the same claim. Orthodoxy,
furthermore, is opposed to contraception just as much as the Catholic
Church. How was I to decide
This led to a period of considerable doubt and anguish, and I began to
feel like giving up religion altogether. If God was really there at
all, and if he wanted me to do anything about it, why didn't he make
himself clear, instead of throwing countless religions at me, all
claiming to be Ultimate Truth? How did God expect me, an ordinary young
Australian, to come to any decision to which, if any, was true, when
all the experts - the philosophers and theologians and mystics of all
countries and all ages - continued to wrangle and argue interminably
with each other?
Nevertheless, I did cling to a belief in God throughout all this. The
idea that there is no God always seemed to me irrational. So did
Pantheism in all its multifarious forms; if everything is God, then I,
as a real, individual self simply do not exist; I am an illusion.
Personally, I find the idea of my own non-existence sheer madness, even
though great, holy and learned men from all over Asia and elsewhere
have believed it firmly. I suspect that their insights are really, in a
sense, a distorted approximation to a truth which I am too dull to
perceive for myself, and can know only by revelation -that there is a
sense in which we do become part of God. The Christian knows that by
grace, we become incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, and yet
that even in Heaven, this will not destroy our individuality, but
rather fulfil it.
So, through all my long period of confusion, which lasted six months or
so, I did retain a trust in Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. The
gospel of a God who loved us so much that He was willing to become one
of us, to share our weakness and even suffer the worst agonies that we
have to pass through, in order to give us eternal life, was a love
story my heart could not resist. And in this case, my head supported my
heart. A God who was not the Christian God - who could have done all
this for us, but preferred to remain comfortably ensconced in paradise
above - would not be as perfect and loving as He might have been. In
other words, he would not really be God at all.
This fact of two contenders
for the title, "One, Holy, Catholic and
Apostolic Church", though, threw me into considerable confusion, and I
began to wonder whether there was any "right" or "true" denomination at
all. Finally, however, I was led to see that the Eastern Orthodox
Church cannot sustain her claim to infallibility. Infallibility implies
some sort of readily recognizable authority which can make infallible
decisions, when necessary; but Eastern Orthodoxy has no such authority.
The Orthodox claim to recognise the doctrinal decisions of ecumenical
councils as infallible, but they offer no coherent criteria for
deciding which councils are "ecumenical" and which are not.
Anglo-Catholicism, which sees the absurdities of the sola scriptura
approach, and insists that Scripture must be interpreted in the light
of "early tradition", breaks down for similar reasons. Whose early
tradition? There were dozens of contradictory versions of Christianity
in the early centuries, as there are now. It so happens that
Anglo-Catholics choose the tradition of the majority, and we have just
seen what happens when we apply that criterion consistently. And how
early? Some Anglicans appeal to the tradition of the "first five
centuries"; others to what they call the period of the "undivided
Church", meaning, in fact, the Church which recognised the primacy of
Rome in its first thousand years, before the East broke away. But the
whole idea of a Church which was infallible for a certain period of
time and then gradually became fallible, which is what the
Anglo-Catholics claim, is self-contradictory.
"Infallible" does not mean "is not
in error"; it means "cannot be
error". If the Church eventually came to err, then she always had the
potential for error, and was thus never infallible in the first place!
If the Council of Florence and the First Vatican Council were capable
of error, then so were the Council of Nicaea and the Council of
Chalcedon. Whether they or any other councils erred in fact must be
decided by some independent criterion.
The overwhelming majority of Protestants can see that once you admit
the principle of subjecting scripture to the interpretation of
tradition, Roman Catholicism is the logical result, and thus they
reject the Anglo-Catholic theory. But yet they remain unaware of, or
unconcerned by, the contradictions inherent in their own "Bible alone"
And so, my long and rather meandering journey through all the
Christianities had led me once more back to Catholicism. The road to
the East turned out to curve right round and lead back to Rome. So did
the road to Canterbury. All the traditional non-Catholic forms of
Christianity - that is, all those who believed in a Church with
definite, revealed dogma-turned out to be full of logical leaks. The
Catholic Church alone, the old "ark of salvation", as the Fathers used
to call her, remains watertight.
One was forced to conclude that, as the Catholics claimed, papal
infallibility must have been implicit in the original deposit of faith,
even though Christians in the first few centuries were not clearly
aware that Christ's promises to Peter carried this implication. It was
not so much that you could prove the papal claims by a purely empirical
survey of what people actually said and wrote about Peter and his
successors in the early centuries. It was rather that you could
disprove all the other traditional theologies and were thus left with
Catholicism by a process of elimination.
The only alternative to all this was the modernistic, non-traditional
approach, which rejects the whole idea of any authority - book or
Church or Pope or Creed - which can be trusted to speak the truth about
God. But this non-traditional approach, an unbridled individualism
which would give us a Church in which everyone is free to believe
exactly what he likes, was incredible for me precisely because it was
so obviously alien to the whole spirit of historic Christianity.
Tradition is simply inescapable for the Christian. Insofar as he
acknowledges its authority (even if only that part of it which affirms
that the Bible is inspired by God), he is on a road which will lead him
to Rome if he follows it consistently. Insofar as he rejects its
authority he is on a road which will lead him just as surely away from
Christianity altogether. There was no way out. I had reached the stage
where I was simply incapable of resisting the Church's absolute claim,
made in the name of Christ, on my allegiance. I was received into the
Church and made my first communion at the Easter Vigil on the night of
Holy Saturday, 1972.
OF A MODERN CONVERT
But even then there were ominous signs-signs which I have since
discovered were indicative of a widespread cancer which is at present
gnawing away at the very vitals of the Catholic faith. The priest who
was preparing me for entry into the Church would, if I had taken any
notice of what he told me, have prepared me much more effectively for a
speedy exit. I simply would not have joined the Church if I had shared
his beliefs. He had apparently fallen into the fatal Protestant trap of
individualism from which I myself was just escaping - the trap which
says that it is up to each individual Christian to decide what the
Christian religion teaches and what it doesn't.
He hinted to me that these days it is no longer necessary to believe in
the Infallibility of the Pope; consequently, other defined dogmas such
as Purgatory and what he called "all these doctrines about Mary", also
had to be considered pretty much "optional", so he seemed to think.
In other words, infallibility - the very doctrine which had provided
the key which led me to the Catholic Church, because it is the only
logical alternative to chaos and apostasy - was to be thrown out as
excess baggage! The trouble is that many Catholics, suddenly released
from the old pre-conciliar "ghetto" mentality, have now gone completely
overboard with ecumenical zeal. The "new theology" of today is really a
revamped version of trends which have been around for centuries. The
idea is that we are to "peel off" layers of supposedly unnecessary
dogmatic accretions, which have become encrusted like barnacles on the
Church's hull as she has sailed down through the centuries.
Finally, it is hoped, we will reach the pure, simple essentials-the
solid core of Christianity-so that a renewed, streamlined Church,
uniting all Christians, will be ready once again to face the challenges
of a new age. But instead, the process turns out to be like peeling the
skins of an onion. You peel away merrily with your tools of rationalism
and existential philosophy and biblical criticism, until you suddenly
find to your consternation that there is no "solid core" in the middle
at all, but just smaller and smaller skins, and finally - nothing. The
supposedly "external" layers have turned out to be the essence of the
onion itself, which now lies torn to shreds.
This I believe points to the grave responsibility facing the Catholic
catechist in today's high schools - the responsibility to take a firm
stand for orthodoxy in doctrine. Let us give young people something
definite, something solid. Let us fight this growing "inferiority
complex". We must show them the rationality of Catholicism, and not be
ashamed to point out to them clearly the illogicalities of our
separated brethren. Let us try to develop an appreciation for the lives
of the great saints and martyrs in the Church, and well-authenticated
miracles such as those of Lourdes and Fatima. In short, let us
emphasise that Christ established one Church, with a definite, clear
gospel of salvation for all men, and that the divinely appointed
guardians of this gospel are the bishops and the successor of Peter.
I see no reason why this approach need degenerate into the
"authoritarianism" which everyone seems to be frightened of today. We
need not suppress honest questioning with threats of hellfire. But
neither should we neglect or misrepresent the Church's teaching on
authority and conscience, so as to give students the impression that it
is up to every individual to decide for himself what the content of
Christ's message is. Certainly it is up to every individual to decide
for himself whether he is going to be a Christian at all; from that
point of view I believe the modern catechetical emphasis on personal
commitment is very healthy.
But it must be made clear that personal commitment to Christ logically
implies commitment to the Catholic Church, and a willingness to listen
to her divinely appointed magisterium. The lines, I believe, must be
clearly drawn and catechists who feel that they themselves cannot in
conscience argue in support of the Church's official teachings
-especially on the sexual matters which are perhaps the major rock of
offence for modern teenagers - should, I think, be honest enough not to
continue in their job. Commitment to some vague, ill-defined
"Christianity", in which all the emphasis is placed on a safe,
uncontroversial message of social justice and brotherly love which will
arouse no criticism from unbelievers, is not an authentic Catholic
commitment at all.
I have heard the view expressed by influential catechists, "kids today
just won't listen to doctrine of the sort we used to give them. They're
not ready for it. We can only discuss life-situations." I doubt whether
this is true. Human nature and psychological growth are not much
different from one generation to the next. Provided it is expounded and
defended reasonably and interestingly, young people will listen to
I have been living in a whole seminary full of young Protestants who
have listened to it. The catechetical methods used in Lutheran schools
today would be considered quite out-of-date by current
Catholic standards, and yet they are succeeding where the modern
Catholic approach largely seems to be failing. They are turning out a
relatively high proportion of confident, keen, and informed Lutherans,
while Catholic schools are apparently turning out a pretty low
proportion of confident, keen and informed Catholics.
The infallibility of the Church, or of the Pope, is not an
"inessential" doctrine which we can dispense with while retaining other
"essentials". It is the "glue", as it were, that holds the whole
Christian Revelation together in one piece. To say that the Church is
infallible simply means that she knows what it is that she is supposed
to go and teach all nations. The Church which Hans Kung and others
believe in, which could claim nothing more than to preserve the truth
"in spite of all ever possible errors", could plainly teach nothing at
all to the nations with any certainty, because it would have no way of
sorting out the truth from the error.
If the Pope is not infallible then neither are Councils, because it was
a Council that declared that he is. And if Councils are not infallible,
then neither is the Nicene Creed that we say at Mass every Sunday,
because it was Councils that
laid down that Creed.
Most other big Churches, including the Anglicans, have already reached
this conclusion, as we noted earlier, and everyone is free to reject or
"reinterpret" anything in the Creed which he finds doubtful. But if we
can no longer be certain of the Creed, then obviously we should stop
saying it; in fact, we might just as well admit, in that case, that the
whole Christian religion is completely uncertain,
and give up practising it.
There is a remorseless chain of logic involved here, so it is no wonder
that so many today who start treading down the "liberal", "progressive"
road end up leaving the Church altogether, even priests and nuns. Once
you jump on the
current bandwagon of protest against "excessive dogma", there is no
rational stopping place short of a complete rejection of the Church.
But there is no need to jump on it! The Church is still founded on
Peter, the Rock. And if only we stand faithfully by his successor, and
listen to his voice, we shall retain intact the faith which Our Lord
has revealed to the world.