I was born into a loving and faithful family.
The Reformed Church in America is a wing of what's loosely called Protestant Evangelicalism, specifically, the Presbyterian and Calvinist version of it. And both my mother and my father loved me and each other and Jesus with their words and with their deeds, and that's the most precious gift we could possibly give to our children. So I'm eternally grateful to them for that.
At the same time, I received in many ways the typical anti-Catholic prejudices that Protestants, especially in the mid-twentieth century, had. The Catholic Church was called the Whore of Babylon. It was the Great Idolater. They worshipped Mary and they worshipped the saints, and they worshipped images and they worshipped bread and they worshipped priests, and they were just worse than pagans. And to become a Catholic was unthinkable.
I remember in high school I won a prize by writing an essay on Dostoevsky's famous parable on the Grand Inquisitor, which is an attack on a kind of spiritual totalitarianism, and I interpreted it as an attack upon the Catholic Church. It wasn't a very well-written essay, but because it fit those anti-Catholic prejudices, it was orthodox, so it got the stamp of approval. But I rarely or never experienced hatred of Catholics, or writing off Catholics as subhuman. They were probably going to hell, but it wasn't their fault; it was the fault of the priests.
The first time I ever asked a question — it wasn't really a doubt; it was just a question — about my Calvinism, I must have been maybe twelve years old. I asked my father — I had learned about population statistics of different religions. I had learned that about fifty percent of all the people in the world now believed in the God of the Bible. They were either Jews or Christians or Muslims or some other non-affiliated theists, and that among Christians the Roman Catholic Church was the largest. And second was Eastern Orthodoxy, and third was Anglicanism, and then was Baptists, and then was Methodists, and we were way down on the list. We were only half a million, or a quarter of a million. So I remember asking my father, who was a very good man, a wise man, an elder in the church, and sort of theologically self-educated, "Dad, if there's only a quarter of a million of us, and we've got the right theology, and nobody else has, how can God let that happen? I mean, all these other Christians are seeking the truth, and seeking orthodoxy, and they believe they've got it, but they're all wrong, and we're the only ones who are right. There seems to be something wrong with that." And he gave a very logical answer; he says, "Well, you don't find truth by counting noses, and sometimes just because there are more people in one camp doesn't mean they are right." And I said, "Yeah, that's true, but there still feels something wrong with it." It didn't bother me much, but it was a doubt planted in my mind.
This was like Mount Everest, and everything else was like little ant-hills. And I was enormously impressed — not just by the style, or by the theology, which I didn't quite understand, but it was massive; it was real. It wasn't silly and stupid.
Another doubt — a more serious one — came from a less intellectual source. We lived in New Jersey, and we went to New York City a lot as tourists — I'm an only child — with my parents, and we went to St. Patrick's Cathedral, just to see it, and I'd never seen anything like that before. I was stunned. It was just like the gate of heaven. It was a different kind of beauty. I said to myself, this is the most beautiful piece of architecture I've ever seen in my life. And I turned to my father and I said, "Dad, this is a Catholic church, isn't it?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "The Catholics are wrong, aren't they?" And he said, "Oh, yes, of course; they're very, very wrong." And then I said, "Then how can their churches be so beautiful?" And it was the first time in my life that my father didn't have any answer to a question at all; he was just stumped. I saw the confusion on his face. I think I was at the time much more scandalized by the fact that my hitherto-infallible father didn't have the answer to a very simple question than my doubts that the Catholic Church was as bad as I had thought it. Well, sermons in stone: You can argue with thoughts; you can't argue with beauty.
In high school, I'm not sure just when, but we went to the Jersey shore a lot. I loved the ocean; I even wrote a couple of books on surfing. There were no waves one summer. So I spent a lot of time on the beach, and not much time in the water. So I got bored. So I went to a bookstore, and I bought a book that I never saw before. It was called The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross. He was a Catholic mystic. I said, well, I'm looking for something weird and far out. So I read it, every word of it. I was fascinated. I didn't understand it; I didn't understand it at all. It was such a different thing. I had read stories of saints before, but nothing like this. This was like Mount Everest, and everything else was like little ant-hills. And I was enormously impressed — not just by the style, or by the theology, which I didn't quite understand, but it was massive; it was real. It wasn't silly and stupid.
I went to Calvin College, which is a very good college, a sort of little Ivy League type liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and learned a little more about Western culture and Western history, including the Middle Ages, and began to fall in love with things medieval, which of course are things Catholic. So I said to myself, this is a temptation — I'm falling in love with the Whore of Babylon. I can't quite figure out how she can be that smart, and how she can be that beautiful, and how she can produce that many saints, and still be such a whore, but this is wrong. I've got to deal with this temptation. I'm falling in love with the wrong woman here.
So I took a course in church history from a very orthodox, very correct, very smart professor, who was also a Calvinist preacher. And the very first day of the course, he tried to get the class involved. He said, "This is a course in church history. Let's start by defining the church; what is the church?" Nobody had an answer. So trying to get the class involved, he said, "Well, Catholics have an answer to that question that is different than ours; what's the difference?" And again, nobody had an answer to that question.
So he went on. He said, "Someday, you're going to meet a Catholic friend, and they're going to say, 'Are you a Christian?' And you are going to say, 'Yes.' And the Catholic's going to say, 'What church do you go to?' And you're going to say, 'Well, I'm a Calvinist.' And they're going to say, 'Well, you're in the wrong church, because you're in the church that John Calvin founded five hundred years ago, but we're in the church that Jesus Christ founded two thousand years ago.' What do you say to that?" I'd never heard anything so sharp and clear and simple before. I said, wow, that's a darn good question; he's got courage to ask that question. He's playing devil's advocate there. He'd better have a good answer to it.
Immediately, I thought of the Book of Ecclesiastes, because the first ninety-nine percent of that book is a question. Life looks like vanity of vanities; it's all meaningless. He sounds like an existentialist, like John Paul Sartre, and only in the last couple of verses does he give the answer. And the rabbis must have had a lot of courage to put that book in the Bible, because a lot of people forget the last two verses, and say, oh, vanity of vanities, that's it. So here he was playing devil's advocate, defending the Catholic Church, and nobody had an answer to the question.
I'm falling in love with the Whore of Babylon. I can't quite figure out how she can be that smart, and how she can be that beautiful, and how she can produce that many saints, and still be such a whore, but this is wrong. I've got to deal with this temptation. I'm falling in love with the wrong woman here.
Somebody said, "Well, the Catholic Church is not the church in the Bible, because in the Bible it's just a simple little thing, and the Catholic Church is this great big and messy thing," and he said, "Well, size has nothing to do with it; a seed is very small, but a plant is very large." So why isn't that the same church?" And nobody had an answer. So he said, "Well, here's the Catholic theory of what the church is, and what church history is: Jesus started the church, and he planted a seed. And it gradually grew, and it's one plant, and only one plant, and that's the Roman Catholic Church. And then, about 1500, it got so corrupt that some people like Luther and Calvin said, we can't be in this church anymore; we're going to start a new one. So they lopped a branch off and planted it in the ground somewhere else. But you can't do that, because there's only one Christ, and only one church. That's the Catholic argument. What's wrong with that argument?" And I thought to myself, that's why I took this course — to find an answer to that question. And nobody had an answer to it.
So I was waiting for the professor's answer, and he said, "Okay, here's the answer to it — here's what's wrong with it." Still, nobody had asked a question; he was trying to get the class involved. He drew a picture of Noah's ark on the board. There were little bumps on the bottom. He said, "Anybody know what those are?" "Somebody said, "Theyre barnacles." "Right; you know what barnacles are? Well, they're little hard limpets that attach themselves to the bottom of the boat, and they're hard and they weight a lot, and there's too many of them, and they'll sink the boat because they're too heavy. So what do you have to do? You just have to scrape them off. All right, here's the true theory of church history. Jesus founded a church that was described in the New Testament, and then it gradually got a lot of barnacles on it, especially in the Middle Ages, all these pagan accretions that came from Roman legalism and Greek rationalism. And around 1500, a couple of the sailors, named Luther and Calvin and Knox, said hey, there're so many barnacles on the ship that we'd better scrape them off before the ship sinks. So they went overboard and scraped off the barnacles, and now we've got the church that Jesus founded. So Catholics say that we're the new kids on the block; it's only five hundred years old. It's just the opposite. The Catholics are the new kids on the block. We're the traditionalists that go back to Jesus. The Reformation wasn't something progressive; it was something traditionalist."
So I said to myself, gee, that's what I want to believe to justify my staying a Protestant. So I remember raising my hand and asked the first question, and the professor was glad to have a question. He said, "Yes," and I said, "I love science fiction. Imagine a science fiction story where there's time travel" He said, "Where are you going with this question?" and I said, "Well, just wait. So I and my Catholic neighbor both get in this time machine, and we go back to the first century and we find the primitive church, and we go to worship together. Are you saying that I as a Protestant would be more at home there than he as a Catholic?" And the professor said, "Well, that's a weird way of asking the question, but he said, "Absolutely; definitely." I said, "Good."
I remember thinking to myself, these Catholics believe so many strange things that I'll never figure them all out, even if I have a lifetime, because they say it took the church thousands of years to figure them out. But I've reduced it to one question now: what was the early church like? Did Jesus found a Protestant church that went bad, that is, Catholic, in the Middle Ages, or did he found a Catholic church that went bad, that is, Protestant, at the Reformation? And I can find that out just by reading the Church Fathers, the earliest Christians. So I'll read the earliest documents of church history, prove to myself how Protestant they were, and justify my staying a Protestant, and that'll overcome my temptation to become a Catholic. Well, you know the rest of the story, especially if you've read Cardinal Newman's conversion story; that was basically his point. It was really one basic point: is it a historical fact that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, or not? Is there continuity between the Catholic Church today and the thing the Gospels tell us that Jesus founded? If yes, be a Catholic; if no, don't. And you don't have to be a theologian to figure that out — just read the books.
I was absolutely astounded to discover that unlike Protestants, every Christian in the world believed in the Real Presence. It was never doubted by anybody for a thousand years.
Well, I found out that there was of course gradual development of these doctrines, but at no point in church history for the first thousand years was there ever a church-splitting controversy about anything that today divides Protestants from Catholics. There were a lot of controversies, and there were a lot of heresies, but for a thousand years everybody agreed who was orthodox and who was heretical, and it wasn't a Protestant-Catholic divide. And these gradual developments like the understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, who was later called the Pope, or figuring out how many sacraments there are, or what the sacraments are, what's the proper devotion to saints, and what's the role of Mary — these things developed, but they developed gradually, and nobody ever called out heresy during their development.
And the thing that blew me away totally was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was absolutely astounded to discover that unlike Protestants, every Christian in the world believed in the Real Presence. It was never doubted by anybody for a thousand years. The first person who doubted it was a heretic called Berengar of Tours around the tenth century, and he was universally labeled a heretic and kicked out. And nobody raised that again seriously until around the time of the Reformation.
So I said to myself, wait a minute; this is not just some little issue. I mean, if the Catholics are wrong about this, and we Protestants are right — if these are just sacred symbols, then Catholics are not only idolaters, but they are the stupidest idolaters in history. They're bowing down to bread, and they're worshipping wine, thinking that it's Almighty God. How could they be that stupid, and more important, how could the Holy Spirit fall asleep for fifteen hundred years, and wait until the Protestant reformers to tell us that that was a mistake? On the other hand, if the Catholics are right, then we Protestants who don't believe in the Real Presence are missing out on the most amazing and astounding and intimate union with God that is possible in this life. We're, like, reducing a marriage to a friendship. So that really bothered me. I didn't know where to go with it.
But I had a very good philosophy professor, a very good strong Calvinist who made me a philosopher — we usually choose our vocations by personal example: "I want to be like him" — and I confided my doubts to him. I'm a coward, and therefore I don't do courageous and rash things, so I'm a procrastinator, so I thought to myself, maybe someday I'll become a Catholic, when I'm forty or fifty or something, but it'll take me a long time. But I confided to him that I was thinking seriously about Catholic claims, and they seemed very reasonable to me — I'd read a lot of Catholic apologists and theologians, and they dispelled my prejudices and they explained that Protestants had it all wrong, that Catholics didn't really worship Mary and the saints and all that. I said it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. And he astonished me by saying, "Well, you know, when I was your age and I went to college, I had exactly the same thought — I almost became a Catholic myself." "Oh, You?" "Well, yes, but I didn't. There were other options." Hmm.
Theologically, the issue that seemed to me to be the umbrella issue that covered all the others, that explained the difference between Catholic theology and Protestant theology in all of its details, was the issue of the relation between nature and grace, or nature and super-nature. Protestants tended to separate the two and make them rivals. More faith, less reason; more miracle, less science; more God, less man — as if they were rivals.
Whereas in Catholic theology, grace was always a friend to nature. Grace perfected nature; grace redeemed nature; grace used nature. And therefore Catholics had a very high view of human reason and of human culture and of human art and of the human person and of human things. Matter, for instance, in the sacraments. It seemed to me that if God loved nature into existence by creating it, He wouldn't just leave it alone, but He would use it and perfect it and raise it up like a good father did to his children. He wouldn't rival His children. He doesn't have an ego problem. He wants His children to grow.
And the professor sort of agreed with me. He said you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to believe that. I was told years later by his daughter, who was at his deathbed when he died, that his last words before he died — and she said he sort of sat up in his bed, and a little smile came into his face, and he said, "Everything is grace." I didn't know at the time that those were the dying words of St. Theresa. Hmm.
Well, the issue of nature and grace was a very important issue, not just abstractly, but personally, concerning salvation. Were you saved by grace alone, or did human effort and free will and works play a necessary part? And the Calvinist doctrine is that there is predestination but no free will. And I think that Calvin meant by that, we don't have the freedom to save ourselves, but it certainly sounds as if predestination does everything, and free will doesn't have any real reality at all. So I said, well, I'd better see what the Catholics say about this. So I read the treatise on grace in the Summa Theologica, which is as Catholic as you can get. And I read the decrees of the Council of Trent, which condemned and anathematized Luther on grace. And they both said the same thing, they said what I believed as a Calvinist, namely, that it's all grace. But then they added, but grace perfects nature, and therefore faith perfects good works, and faith perfects reason, and all the rest.
There are twelve questions in Aquinas's treatise on grace: Can man be saved without grace? Can he seek salvation without grace? Can he merit anything without grace? Can he do good works without grace? Can he perfect his nature without grace? Can he ask for grace without grace? And the answer to every question is No. I said, oh. Well, if I ever became a Catholic, I wouldn't have to stop believing anything that I believe as a Calvinist; I'd just have to start believing in a lot of other things like free will and the importance of good works. Hm.
I took a class in Shakespeare and I knew enough about Catholicism then to recognize a Catholic author when I saw one, and I remember having a course-long argument with the very good professor. I was certain that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, and he said, "No way; no way". And the evidence hasn't been in until the last ten years, but now it's almost certain that he was. But you can just see it; you can sort of smell it.
When Napoleon kidnapped the pope, he said, "We will destroy you." The pope said, "Ha. We haven't been able to destroy ourselves for two thousand years. You won't be able to do it, either."
There was another powerful clue from the arts. I had never heard Palestrina's music before, and I bought a record and put it on, and I almost had a mystical experience. I said, this is the music of angels. This doesn't come from earth; this comes from heaven. This is a different kind of music, just as a cathedral is a different kind of church. And I said, what horrible heresy called the Whore of Babylon possibly could produce music that heavenly? It was a kind of argument that couldn't be answered.
We sometimes ignore that third dimension of our faith. You know, there's the good, the true and the beautiful. We tend to ignore the beautiful. We didn't in the Middle Ages. Catholics produced all the greatest art, but not so much anymore. I personally know three ex-atheists or agnostics — one is a philosophy professor, one is an apologist, one is a Benedictine monk — all of whom told me, independently of each other, that the reason they are not atheists today is the "St. Matthew Passion" of Johann Sebastian Bach. And they all said, in almost the same words, "Here is the most powerful argument for the existence of God: There is the music of Bach; therefore, there is a God." And I intuitively understood that.
Some of my Calvinist friends tried to deter me from becoming a Catholic by giving me ant-Catholic literature, and some of it was simply silly, but some of it was kind of funny. I remember in particular that somebody gave me a copy of Boccaccio's Decameron. Boccaccio was a Renaissance Italian anti-clerical comedian, who told a lot of funny stories about Catholic corruption. And one of them moved me in the opposite direction from the direction they wanted me move me in. If you go to Italy today, you'll go in taxis and ask what's the latest scandal at the Vatican and of course they'll tell you; they love the scandals. And Boccaccio did too. And this was during the Borgia papacy. The Borgia family was basically the Mafia and they controlled the papacy. And the pope at the time was, I think, Alexander or John XXII. He had a common-law wife Lucrezia Borgia, who was one of history's most famous poisoners, and the pope had a whole bunch of bastard children, and it was made public, and he was filthy rich, and it was horribly scandalous.
Well, the story takes place in Paris. There's a pious Bishop of Paris who has a friend who's a Jew. His name is Abraham; he's a businessman. They're good friends. They talk theology together, and the bishop discerns that Abraham is perhaps interested in becoming a Catholic — he may even ask for baptism someday. One day Abraham comes to the bishop and says, "Hey, Bishop, wish me good-speed; I've got to take a ship tomorrow. Won't see you for three months; I've got to do some business in Rome." "In Rome?" "Yeah, I've gotta live with the papal family and do business with the Vatican bank." "Look, Abraham, I know that you're on the verge of baptism. Why don't you do that first?" "Why?" "Well, things are foggy down there — you don't see clearly down there. You see much more clearly up here." "No," Abraham says, "one of my rules is, do business first, then pleasure. If I get baptized, that'll be a pleasure, but I gotta do my business first. I'm off to Rome. See you in three months."
So he takes the ship the next day, and the bishop says, I've lost him. He'll see the corruption there and never become a Catholic. He comes back in the spring and he says, "Alright, I guess I'm ready for baptism now." "Oh, you didn't go to Rome?" "Yeah, I went there." "You didn't live with the papal family?" "Oh, yeah; I met them all." "You didn't do business with the Vatican bank?" "Oh, yeah; I did." "And now you want to become a Catholic? I dont get it." Abraham said, "Look. I'm not a theologian. I don't disdain your theology. But I'm a businessman, and I know one thing for sure: no earthly business that stupid or corrupt could possibly last fourteen weeks; yours has lasted fourteen centuries. It's a miracle; I'm convinced!"
That's not only funny; that's a serious argument. How could any merely human institution, without supernatural help, manned by such idiots as us, possibly be the institution that has lasted for two thousand years and been faithful to its traditions without changing them? When Napoleon kidnapped the pope, he said, "We will destroy you." The pope said, "Ha. We haven't been able to destroy ourselves for two thousand years. You won't be able to do it, either."
Peter Kreeft. "Dr. Peter Kreeft's conversion to Catholicism - Part 1" 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: You Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, Fundamentals of the Faith, 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, Prayer for Beginners, 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
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