But I'm a procrastinator and I kept saying, "One day, one day."
So next year after I graduated, I went to Yale. The very first day on campus — 8 o'clock in the morning — the first thing I did was knock on the door of St. Mary's church, wonderful Dominican church there, and a priest came down, very short and fat and Irish, and he was still in his nightshirt — I think I woke him up — and he smiled and said, "What can I do for you?" And I said, "Father, I want to become a Catholic" — all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. His response was, "Oh, that's nice. So who's the girl?" So he gave me instructions, and he gave me the penny catechism, and I would come to him with questions from St. Thomas Aquinas or St. John of the Cross, and he would say, "Well, let's look up the answer. Let's start with the simply stuff. First you crawl, and then you walk, and then you dance, and then you fly. You're just a baby, so let's start with the simple stuff." That was a great lesson in humility.
At the time, when you became a Catholic, they re-baptized you conditionally because non-Catholic baptisms are valid as long as they are not done in direct intention to contradict the Catholic Church. They didn't know whether the anti-Catholicism of the preacher was functional there or not. So I was conditionally re-baptized. I didn't know any Catholics at the time, except one of my friends at Yale. I didn't know any Catholic women at the time, so a girl that was dating one of my friends from Calvin, who was a New York Catholic named Maria, was my godmother. So she joked at the baptism, "Hey father, what if I fall in love with this guy?" The priest said, "Oh, that would be a big problem. You can't marry your godmother, that's spiritual incest. You'd have to get a special dispensation from the Pope, because in the Middle Ages, godparent was a very serious thing, almost as serious as parent, and the laws are still on the books." Well, two years later we go to the same priest and say, "Hey Father, you remember that conversation we had? Can you get that dispensation for us?" So I married my godmother.
I found at Yale that the Catholic community was very small but very strong, because of a lot of anti-Catholic prejudice, or at least there was at the time at Yale. And I had another great musical high in singing in a Gregorian chant group, which was not just great music, but music and worship at the same time. Augustine says, "He who sings prays twice."
At my baptism, when I received my first communion, nothing mystical happened, but everything got very, very quiet, and all thoughts and feelings just ceased, and I absolutely knew, without any feeling at all, that that was Jesus Christ. And ever since, I've been very grateful for the Eucharist, not merely for its objective reality, that first of all, but also for the fact that it doesn't taste like Christ, it doesn't look like Christ, it doesn't produce miracles like spouting blood, and it doesn't even produce great feelings, in me anyway, and that's good because I think most of us, especially here in America, we idolize our feelings. God is often just a means to our religious experience. And God doesn't want that. He doesn't want us to get a spiritual sweet tooth. So, yeah, he gives us some highs, but not too many. It's like the honeymoon, it doesn't last; it gets into something deeper. So like Christ and the cross, he didn't have many feelings; his feeling was, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" That's hardly a religious high, but that was the most important thing he ever did. So this has been a great exercising of deep spiritual muscles that have nothing to do with feelings. I remember one of the things that struck me in reading the lives of the saints was that they all say the same thing about feelings: They're not important. They're not important. Forget them. In this relationship with God, it's the will that counts. It's the heart that counts. Heart is not sentiment. Heart is the very center of a person, that mysterious center that has a mind, and a will, and feelings, and all this other stuff. And that's what God wants. Feelings are good. They're not bad. But they're extras; they're the sugar on the cake. They help, but they're not important. Ignore them, and they'll come. Don't ignore them — worship them — and they'll dissipate. And that's been true.
The divisions that exist now are very different than the divisions that existed when I became a Catholic about fifty years ago. The divisions between Catholics and Protestants are far less important to both sides now, even though they still exist, than they were fifty years ago, because we are facing a common enemy, a culture of death, a society that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian. When a common enemy threatens, then warring brothers put their civil wars on hold for a while, important as they are. Like the Irish and the English, who've had a lot of troubles, but fought together and died for each other in the trenches in World War I and again in World War II.
Flannery O'Connor, the great Southern Catholic writer, back in the fifties, living in I think Alabama, or was it Georgia, where there were very few Catholics, addressed an audience of Southern Baptists and startled them by saying, "You don't know it, but you guys are closer to the Pope than you are to some of the theologians in your own northern Baptist churches, and I'm closer to you than I am to some of the theologians in my own Catholic Church, because the modernists who don't believe in the supernatural and don't believe in miracles and don't believe in a literal resurrection, they're not even Christians, although they say they are. And whether Mary was assumed into heaven is pretty important, but it's not as important as whether Jesus rose from the dead. So the real arguments are against the heretics in each of our churches instead of against each other."
They didn't understand that at the time, but most people are understanding that now, increasingly, and the common enemies that we face are doing exactly the opposite of what the devil wants to do, namely, dividing us; they're uniting us, in profound ways sometimes. A common action against a common evil like abortion has united Catholics and Protestants in their hearts and in their works, even though not in their heads. I heard a story — I'm not sure whether this is literally true or not, but some people say it is — in the early days of the prolife movement, about a dozen Southern Baptists and a dozen Roman Catholics were marching together outside an abortion clinic and they got thrown in jail together (for not observing the bubble zone or something), so they shared a common jail cell, about twenty-four people in the same great big cell. And that night, they didn't sleep; they just prayed and sang hymns together all night. In the morning, the Baptists went home and asked their family, "Why don't we love Mary like the Catholics do?" And the Catholics went home and asked their family, "Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" Now that's evangelism of the trenches. I love it.
If you read one of the encyclicals of John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint (That They May All be One), you'll find that he is the most ecumenical pope in history. He says that the ecumenical movement, the demand for reunification of the church without compromise is an essential dimension of the gospel. It's not an extra. It's as important as the social gospel. You can't be a full Christian unless you love the poor. You can't be a full Christian unless you want, and seek for, reunion. But how can that be done without compromise? And you can't compromise truth. And each side, which seems to contradict each other, believes that they have the truth.
Well, maybe some of you don't even know this, but a miracle has already happened in ecumenism. The single most important issue that divides us has been solved without compromise. You ask any evangelical Protestant what is the most important difference between Protestants and Catholics, and they would always say: Are you saved by faith alone, or are you saved by faith plus good works? You Catholics believe that there's a two-part ticket to heaven — you have to do good works as well as have faith — and we believe it's a only one-part ticket. So you don't know how to get to heaven. And we say to them, well, you don't know how to get to heaven, because the Bible says faith without works is dead.
So fifty years ago, all the Protestants I knew thought that Catholics didn't even know how to get to heaven — they were probably all going to hell. And most Catholics thought the same about Protestants. So how can you compromise on that? That's the most important question you can ask. You can't compromise on that. Well, the Council of Trent anathematized Luther for teaching salvation by faith alone. And Luther anathematized the Catholic church for teaching that you must do good works to be saved, as well as have faith. And no side can compromise on that. How could that possibly be negotiated?
Well, I've got news for you; it has been negotiated. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has been approved by the Vatican, and by the Lutheran World Federation, first in Germany, and then throughout the world. And most of the Anglicans have signed on, and many of the Methodists. It's not united all Protestants, but most evangelical Protestants have signed onto that statement. And the statement says that we are teaching essentially the same thing here about salvation by faith and works, but we're using different language, because the Bible itself uses different language. There seems to be a contradiction between what Paul says in Romans and Galatians, where he says you are saved by faith alone, not by the works of the law, on the one hand, and what James says, that faith without works is dead. And Paul in I Corinthians 13 says you need three things: faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is not faith, but charity. So if the Bible doesn't contradict itself, maybe the two sides don't contradict themselves.
Alright, then, what about salvation? Well, there's two meanings to that, too — a broader sense and a narrower sense. In the narrower sense, it simply means getting to heaven when you die, passing the last judgment. In a broader sense, it means becoming a saint, because God won't let you go until you are. "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." So it's the difference between justification and sanctification. Having your sins forgiven, and becoming a saint.
Well, both sides were right, because when Luther said faith alone is sufficient for salvation, all he meant was that saving faith (faith in the broad sense) is sufficient for justification (salvation in the narrow sense). It'll get you to heaven. And when the Catholic Church said no, it's not; you need good works too to be saved, faith alone is not enough, they meant intellectual faith is not enough; it must be supplemented by hope and charity. And they meant by salvation not just getting to heaven, but becoming a perfected saint, which is why most of us will get to heaven only through purgatory.
So both sides were saying the same thing, namely, the thing that the Bible is saying, but both sides were using different language systems. And when they sat down with open minds and good will, and understood each other, they said, Good grief! We've been slaughtering each other on battlefields and condemning each other to hell for five hundred years, and that was a mistake. Oops! Short act of contrition: "Oops!"
Nobody thought that could happen, fifty years ago. Except one person. I remember reading in the 1950s at Calvin College a book by John Paul II's favorite theologian, von Balthasar. It was Luther and Thomas Aquinas on Justification. I remember saying, this is a crazy book because he says that these two people don't disagree. They obviously do disagree, I said. Everybody in the world know they disagree. But he was a prophet.
Well, if the Holy Spirit and divine providence can solve that problem, then I think the other problems can be solved, too. I don't know how; nobody knew how this was going to happen. How can we compromise on the Eucharist? How can we compromise on the authority of the Church? We can't. But maybe since God wants it — that's very clear: in John 17 Jesus prayed with tears "that they may all be one" — if we each love, above all, our common conductor, Jesus Christ, then though we seem to be playing different instruments and at cross purposes, we will play in harmony, because His will is harmony. So if we really want it with all our hearts, we'll get it. And that certainly will change the world.
Well, let me just finish by saying, if anybody asked me for the three best reasons to become a Catholic, I'll say they are the three things that everybody wants the most, the three things that nobody wants only a finite amount of, but an unlimited amount of, the three things that you're not bored with even in heaven for all eternity: truth, goodness and beauty. The only honest reason for believing anything is: it's true. You don't believe in Santa Claus anymore. Why not? It made you very good, when you were three years old. It made you very happy, when you were three years old. And being good and being happy are terribly important. But truth has to trump everything. So the only honest motive for believing the claims of the Catholic Church is that they are true.
Secondly, it's good; it'll make you good. Look at all those saints; where did they come from? You can't argue with a saint. Nobody ever won an argument with Mother Teresa. You can refute a person; you can't refute a saint.
Finally, beautiful. Not just esthetically beautiful, artistically beautiful, but truly beautiful. The most beautiful thing, the most shatteringly beautiful thing we've ever seen in the history of the world, is Jesus Christ. I was once talking to some monks in Connecticut, and they were very wise and very holy, so I have no idea what I said to them; it couldn't have been terribly important. And at the end, the abbot said to me, "Here's the question we ask all of our speakers, and all of our visitors. If you could ask God for one gift for all of us, one grace for all of us, and He assured you that He would grant that grace, what would you ask for?" I said, "Wow; that's a very profound question." He said, "Answer it!" So I had to answer it right away. So I blurted out, "that each of you would fall totally in love with Jesus Christ for every moment for the rest of your life." And they all began gently to laugh. They weren't laughing at me. And the abbot explained, "The reason we're laughing is, Mother Teresa was here last month, and that's exactly what she said. So I can't end on a better note than that. Now I invite your questions.
Dr. Peter Kreeft's conversion to Catholicism - Part 2
Peter Kreeft. "Dr. Peter Kreeft's conversion to Catholicism - Part 2" a talk given at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Naperville, IL (Dec 10, 2012).
This transcript is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2013 Peter Kreeft
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.