Approaching the Water
I was born and raised in a traditional Southern Baptist home. As a young boy my first recollections of church were at First Southern Baptist of Guthrie, OK, where I ultimately accepted Christ and was baptized at the age of nine. From there we moved to Clinton, OK, where we were very active at FSB-Clinton and I was among the ‘Youth Leadership Council’.
My family later moved back to Edmond, OK, in my eighth-grade year, but we did not immediately re-engage in a church. It was not until my college years that my parents rejoined the Community Baptist Church after it had split off from the FSB Guthrie due to internal conflicts. But that was well after I had met Jessica (my bride-to-be), and I was already in deep introspection about faith along with my involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ. Shortly thereafter in the winter of 1998, I learned my paternal grandmother had converted to Catholicism. I was livid.
I remember very vividly attending the Christmas Mass at St. Mary’s in Guthrie at her request, but I did so very begrudgingly because my father had implored us to attend out of respect for my grandmother. I left the mass spewing criticisms and vituperation all the way from the front door to the car. I was so negative and vocal that my father had to call me down for it. Now, mind you, I had never taken the time to actually study Catholic doctrine or to learn specifically what it was my grandmother believed. But we will get to that later.
At some point in the following year I learned that Ambassador Alan Keyes, whom I adored and still do, was devoutly Roman Catholic. It did not shake my honor and respect for him as a moral crusader and guiding light in America, but it left me really questioning things. In the summer of 1999, we moved to Virginia Beach to begin my graduate studies at Regent University. As God would have it, I immediately jumped into the political fray in volunteering for a local campaign. I soon learned while on this campaign that the well-respected elected official was Catholic as well. It was then that the question sparked: “How is it that these awesome men of God and very well-educated conservative stalwarts could belong to the Catholic Church? How could they be so right on everything else, but so wrong on the faith?” This boggled my mind.
But as fate would have it, it did not stop there. The commencement speaker at my graduation from Regent was none other than Father John Richard Neuhaus. I was familiar with him and his brilliant scholarship. And it struck me as odd that Pat Robertson, a strident Evangelical Protestant, would ask an eminent Catholic–and a man of the cloth no less–to speak at my graduation. What a conundrum. My admiration for Neuhaus grew because his leadership in the midst of the moral vacuum of America was well known among us at the School of Government.
What’s more, I had scanned the entire east coast looking for quality Ph.D. programs in Political Theory. Of the dozens of excellent universities along the eastern seaboard, the best program by far was at…The Catholic University of America. So I applied, and to my surprise they accepted me. So here I was, a Southern Baptist Evangelical who was a former staffer for the newly-elected Majority Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates (a Catholic), now running the presidential campaign for a former U.S. Ambassador (a Catholic), while studying political theory at a Catholic University in which I was soon to be mentored by a high-church Anglican (quasi-Catholic), Dr. Claes Ryn, who himself was the apprentice of one of the greatest conservative minds of the 20th century (a Catholic), Russell Kirk.
I marveled at how odd this was. Could all of this have been a mere coincidence? I know I had not consciously sought these things because in most cases I did not know about the Catholicism until after the fact.
Enter my time at Catholic University. It might sound a bit strange that my progress in this journey was as important outside the classroom as it was inside. My study under Dr. Ryn was some of the most challenging I have ever experienced. He challenged me to think on a higher plane than I ever had before. So much so that I am still reflecting on many of those things and coming to new insights as I continue to mature.
But I recall as well very vividly on a regular basis the solemnity and reverence that surrounded that place. It was as if the entire campus was a sanctuary…a sanctuary to Christ. And it was that solemnity and reverence that drove me to wander almost daily over to the Basilica. No matter how often I went there, the sheer majesty of the place struck me each and every time as a holy place consecrated to Christ and to His worship. I found myself often walking toward the altar with a profound sense of conviction that I should be on my knees before that altar of Christ, that I had no business standing on my feet before Him in His house. But I was torn because, after all, Baptists, nay, Protestants (with some very few exceptions) do not traditionally genuflect in the presence of God. This troubled me greatly. Should I submit to what I felt was the Holy Spirit bidding me to submit in worship of Him or should I rely on the traditions of men that I had come to understand through my upbringing?
I recall, too, watching the movie Amistad with great fanfare when it was released in the theaters. It is still one of my most favorite movies. There is a scene in which the young judge (a Catholic) goes to the church on the day before the big court battle, over which he would preside, in order to pray for wisdom and prudence. As he approached the altar alone in the dark, dimly-sunlit sanctuary, he knelt and prayed. I was envious of his humility and piety and genuinely troubled that I had never had an opportunity nor even an expectation by the church to perform such a profoundly simple act of worship and devotion.
But with the tumult of our lives in DC and with the birth of our first daughter, Rebekah, along with our move back home, it was easy to put all of this in the back of my mind. I had no time or patience to delve any further into such matters when getting back on our feet and paying the bills were so pressing.
Wading in the Surf
As our time back in Oklahoma settled down and we got our feet on the ground, I had time to rekindle relationships with old friends. And the group with which I have remained closest are the pals with whom I helped found the first conservative newspaper at the University of Oklahoma. We have been as close as brothers and though we all moved away for school and work, we have all come back home and remained close-knit.
We’re a group that is as much an accountability council as any are. We challenge each other to resist the tide of secular culture; to hold fast to the call that Christ has placed on us; to lead our wives and raise our families to fear God. We are iron forever sharpening iron. It is within this group of men that my intellectual sword is constantly sharpened. We challenge each other never to become idle, to stay on the leading edge of the mandate that is on our lives. And chief among these things is our spiritual lives.
Within this group are men who represent several denominations: Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist. Though we have differences of opinion on non-essentials, we are all unified in the centrality of the Gospel and the truth of the Apostles’ Creed. And among all the deep conversations that we have–on politics and family and economics and politics and faith and marriage and politics and culture and politics–one thing continued to goad me as a thorn in my side. Whenever the conversation turned to doctrine, the Reformation, and church history I always fell silent. I had nothing to contribute because, though I have always had a deep love and understanding of history, I had never delved specifically into the history of Christianity and the development of the Church over the last 2000 years.
This troubled me greatly because my one fear in life is not knowing, not having an answer. But I kept pushing this to the back of my mind. Finally, one night in late 2010, four of us men went on our annual camping trip to Lake Eufaula. This is an iconic manly expedition in which we pitch some cheap tents on the shore of the lake and lounge around a small bonfire drinking various malted libations, eating fish we’ve caught and other fire-roasted meats while talking all things politics, culture and religion. On that night my three comrades launched into a two-hour conversation about the differences between con-substantiation and trans-substantion. I had no clue what they were talking about, so I sat in conspicuous silence. I was ashamed that my knowledge of the doctrine and of its history in the church was dismal. That night I drew a mental line in the sand and committed to myself that, come what may, I would no longer rest in ignorance of the history of my faith. I knew what I had learned in church, but I had no clue about where our faith came from and who had played critical roles throughout history in addition to the Apostles.
So, I began to dive into church history and began reading like a madman…
But I must stop there and roll back a bit. After my father died in 2008, I began writing my book about his legacy and our family’s history of service to our nation. And as I began to lay out the book and conduct research on our family’s history, I discovered (which should not have come as a surprise) going back well over 300 years that our Irish family in America was overwhelmingly Catholic.
But this was true, of course, of all the Irish that came to America and of those over the preceding thousand years. And what I discovered as well was that the Irish Catholics were not just Catholic, they were the culture that saved Europe from the brink of self-destruction in the late first millennium. Through the leadership of St. Patrick, Irish culture led the way in establishing new universities and families and culture that revivified Christianity when the occult threatened, first in France, and then throughout Europe to take over. This deep-seated faith in Christ and close-knit, family-oriented culture was brought to America at a time when it was needed most.
But something struck me as odd. How could these devout Irish Catholics, so many of whom migrated through the South into Georgia, then Louisiana, and finally to Oklahoma end up becoming Baptist and Methodist and Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ and so many other various denominations? So I dug for more information. What I discovered was that the poverty that was so rampant in the South after the Civil War and moving westward, combined with the lack of parishes, forced people to do precisely what we had done after our move from DC…to pay attention only to putting food on the table. So faith winnowed and flagged until it was no more because there was no institution to support it. When finally communities had sprung up in the rural south, including Oklahoma, the later generations had no memory of their family’s faith. So they gravitated to congregational denominations that offered a place — any place — in which to worship.
I learned also of the tragic event in which my great-great grandfather (having emigrated to Louisiana after his father’s death in the Civil War) choked to death on a toothpick. Left with six children and a set of twins on the way, his widow did what any desperate widow would do in rural Louisiana at the turn of the century: remarry immediately. And so she did. Georgiana Farley became Georgiana Cherry and followed her new Protestant husband to Oklahoma. Soon after, my great grandfather and his twin brother were born and with no memory of their Catholic father and heritage, save what little could be passed on from their mother. After coming of age, my great grandfather moved to Edmond to dive into the booming oil patch. And voila, the Farleys have been Protestant Edmondites ever since.
This reality answered another pressing question that had plagued me: why was I Baptist or even Protestant? I did not choose this tradition, rather I practiced it merely because it was all I had known. But confronted with the reality of our family’s history through so many hundreds of years, the Baptist trend was a mere novelty, a new thing. I started to yearn to return back to the things that made our Irish culture what it was. Not just religion, but family, food, education, marriage, child-rearing, everything. As John Quincy Adams’ character is quoted in Amistad, “Who we are is who we were.”
So back to my research into church history…
Swimming Full Stride
The more I dug and read, thousands of pages in fact (more than I had ever read in undergrad and grad school combined), written by titans of the faith (on both sides of the Tiber), I began to discover the real history of the Church of Christ, and it was this truth on which so many of my questions about Catholicism were finally answered. I learned that Christ had charged Peter — the head of the Apostles — with founding his Church on Earth, the visible, unified Body and Bride of Christ. To Peter were given the ‘keys to the kingdom’ and that, aided, encouraged and educated by the Holy Spirit, the ‘gates of Hell would not prevail against it’.
Peter and the Apostles set out quickly in establishing new churches all over the Mediterranean region, Peter founding the church in Rome. Each of them took charge over these churches and the subsequent churches founded by their leaders in those respective regions. I learned that these Apostles has become the first bishops of the churches. When they grew too old and frail to continue their leadership, they handed over their authority to the next generation of bishops, giving them charge to teach and train all that they had learned from the Apostles who had been with Christ and had been taught by the Holy Spirit. Thus began an apostolic succession.
Peter, I discovered, had always been the head of the church, the ‘rock upon which Christ founded his Church’. All bishops looked to Peter for final authority on doctrine and church matters. Thus began the papacy which continued on in Peter’s line of succession. It was this succession of leaders who continued the teaching and authority given directly to the Apostles by Christ that formed the authority charged with finally canonizing the Bible, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, after nearly 400 years. But until that time, the Gospel, the doctrine of Christ, had persisted consistently and authoritatively as an oral tradition. During those four centuries, Christianity was not the written word but rather the Gospel of Christ writ on the hearts of the leaders of the Church and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. I learned further that this authoritative oral tradition both informed the authority of the resulting canon of Scripture and legitimized it. Thus the Tradition of the Church fathers, handed to them by Christ through the disciples, rested alongside the Bible as the basis of all faith…precisely because they both were the word of God writ on the hearts of the leaders and on the pages of the Bibles they translated and trasnscribed. Together they were the Gospel.
This Tradition, both oral and written, remained consistent and unchanged for 1500 years. What I found was that for a millennium and a half, Catholics did not often refer to themselves as Catholics. They were simply Christians. To call oneself Catholic was to state the obvious. ‘Well of course we are’, would have been the response. Save for periodic heresies, there was no other kind of Christian. Then I discovered that the Reformation, haplessly begun by Martin Luther, was as much a political revolution as it was a doctrinal fight. And what resulted from it was as far from what Christ had charged the disciples with as anything could be. He charged them with unity, ‘above all things’, and St. Peter agreed, exhorting that ‘there be no divisions among you’. And yet this new movement under Luther (and later Calvin and others) declared that the individual was the final authority and could decide for himself what the doctrine of Christ was. And so they did, and new churches with new versions of Christianity began springing up all over Germany and then Switzerland and England. And it was on this basis that Henry VIII declared the Church of England to be free and independent of Rome. And the story goes on and on and on into America where the splintering of denominations runs into the tens of thousands, all fighting with each other over this doctrine or that. Is this really what Christ wanted? I knew it surely was not.
So, I had to ask myself the fundamental question. If the Church that Christ charged Peter and the Apostles with founding and growing and spreading, which ultimately became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, had the authority and wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to give us the final, canonized Bible and to be sure that the letters and books floating around that were not inspired remained out of the canon, then when did those church leaders lose that authority and inspiration from the Holy Spirit? If the Reformation which resulted in so many feuding denominations had been justified, then I should be able to find a point in history when the leadership of the Church renounced or lost its authority and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I searched for that point in history. Alas, I could not find it. I asked so many knowledgable Christians where and when it was that this had happened. No one had an answer.
I was in a quandary. How then could the Reformation have been justified? Why was the authority given to Peter and passed down through the ages to the men who canonized the Bible suddenly gone in 1517? There was no credible explanation.
If I could not absolutely trust that Luther was justified and correct in his assertions about Rome, then how could I trust the authority of the denominations who had built their doctrines and traditions on Luther’s words? An interesting aside: I also found ironically that much of what Luther preached was still in agreement with Rome (as were John Calvin’s teachings) and that most of modern day Protestant faiths do not believe what Luther believed. So where did all of this modern Protestantism come from and where did the authority come from for these men to start their own movements with so many various contradictions among them? The Reformation clearly was a disaster for Christianity and for Western culture.
So I had to dig back into what the Fathers of the early church (in the first 100-200 years after Christ) believed. These leaders in many cases had been taught personally by the Apostles or in other cases taught by those who succeeded them. What I found was ground-shaking. They revered Mary and ask her to pray for them, just as they might ask a living Christian. They regarded Peter, and his successors, as their Holy Father, the Pope. They believed in infant baptism, the Eucharist and the real presence of Christ in it, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and that God the Father had created all things through Christ, given His only Son to die for the penalty of our sins, and sent the Holy Spirit to sustain and guide us in all salvation unto the end that we may run the race to the finish.
This was the faith of the earliest Christians…in their own words. So I was perplexed. I had either to conclude that I had been wrong all this time or that the Christianity that began from the very outset under the leadership of the Apostles was wrong, that it was wrong for 1500 years (despite that these men who believed the wrong things somehow maintained enough inspiration to correctly canonize the Bible) until finally some very odd fellows in Germany stumbled onto true Christianity. I have my prideful moments, but not so much to think I know better than 1500 years of brilliant Christian scholars, many of whom are cited and admired by Catholics and Protestants alike (Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Cyprian, et al).
I then turned to modern day leaders. I looked for other imminent Christian leaders who had once been Protestant but converted to Catholicism. What I found was nothing short of amazing. Here is a list of just a few of them. I began to realize that so many of the major Catholic thinkers throughout the last 150 years were converts. This had escaped me before. Even C.S. Lewis, though Anglican at the time due to his birth in Ulster, Ireland, believed almost all of what Catholics believed. So many of the great leaders of the Catholic faith were once members of other denominations and often-times did not become the leaders they were until after they converted.
So, again, I was in a quandary. Should I trust my own judgment or should I give some credence to the authority of so many trusted men and women of God? No one I consulted could offer answers to the fundamental questions I had asked. And all of these questions boiled down to one: by what (or whose) authority did they believe and practice the things they did? Either Christ’s authority given to Peter and the Apostles was final or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t then Christianity was a sham religion. If it is was then that I had to trust in that authority and in the Church that the Apostles built in His name and by His power.
The rest was simply a matter of rediscovering that faith which they labored to protect under threat of torture and death. And it is a beautiful thing. After 13 years of searching in the wilderness – we have finally come home. On November 20, 2011–The Feast of Christ the King–we entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
[For a list of many of the resources that aided my journey ‘home to Rome’, click here]