I was received into the Church early in 1978, within what turned out to be the last months of the reign of Paul VI.
Although thirty-five years is surely a mere blip in the life of the Church, and there are many who have had much longer experience of Catholic life than I have, still I think it might be of interest to record the impressions of a convert after this many years, just as we might want to know the impressions of an immigrant after thirty-five years residence in a new country. For the Church is something like a new country, not fully knowable from the outside, which explains in part the sometimes ridiculous misunderstandings non-Catholics will have about Catholic doctrine or praxis. Although my experience as a Catholic includes living in seven dioceses, necessarily the account of Catholic life which I am about to set down is subjective and partial, based on the parishes and institutions I have been part of, the publications I have read and the people I have met.
Let me begin with the liturgy, through which, according to the Second Vatican Council, "the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." (Lumen Gentium, no. 2) When I entered the Church, after worshipping for many years in the Episcopal Church using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, I found the language of the English Novus Ordo liturgy hard to stomach. The phraseology was often pedestrian, and I knew that the translation from the Latin was extremely loose. Still I gradually got used to it and came to expect nothing more. In fact, there were some aspects of the liturgy at that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, which I think were better than they are in the Novus Ordo liturgy today. These concern chiefly the music. When I entered the Church it was only thirteen years after the Council concluded, and though the whole tenor of Catholic life had already altered, there were some things which remained from an earlier era. For example, at the time I frequently heard hymns such as "To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King," "Holy God We Praise Thy Name," or "Immaculate Mary," hymns that I don't hear much anymore, especially the first of these. Today, when I attend a Novus Ordo Mass, the hymnology often seems more like dance music than sacred music. Hymns such as "On Eagles' Wings" have a dreamy and subjective quality that I find particularly inappropriate to divine worship.
Of course there has been one big change in the worship of the Latin church since I became a Catholic, and this is the revival of what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Roman liturgy. I had attended Novus Ordo liturgies in Latin from time to time in the early 80s, but the first Tridentine Mass I attended was in 1986. I expected an experience similar to the Latin Novus Ordo liturgy, and I was surprised at the richness of the prayers of the traditional Mass and its spiritual superiority to the new rite. The only aspect of the 1962 missal that I found difficult to adjust to was the silent canon, but eventually that no longer bothered me, and by the late 90s I had become a firm adherent of the traditional Roman liturgy. Nowadays, except if I am traveling or sometimes on weekdays, I attend the old rite, and my attachment to it continues to grow. I have been fortunate to have a high or solemn high Mass every Sunday for the last several years, and I think that it is only in its more solemn forms that the full beauty and richness of the traditional Roman rite can be appreciated. The contrast between a Tridentine solemn high Mass and the typical English Novus Ordo Mass is so striking that it is difficult for me to fathom why some Catholics apparently prefer the latter.
I realize though that there is more to the question of the liturgy than merely its external beauty and solemnity. For some, the 1962 missal symbolizes everything about the Catholic Church which they hate and fear: clarity of doctrine, exclusive claims about being the one, true Church, real fears of the possibility of sin and hell, obedience to ecclesiastical authority. All these things are remembered or misremembered or imagined from the days before the Council in the worst possible light. Of course there were real abuses then and the 1950s were hardly an Arcadia. But whatever amount of scrupulosity or of a mechanical approach to piety or of rigidity of thought that existed then should not be exaggerated. Clarity of doctrine is not the same thing as narrowness of thought, real spiritual hopes and fears are an important part of the Gospel message not a sign of Christian immaturity, and a recognition of the need to avoid sin is not the same as scrupulosity. It is easy to see why a modernist will reject the kind of Catholic thought and life that is associated with the period before the Council and will insist that Vatican II be understood as a revolution in the life of the Church, but I believe there are many who, while not actually modernists, fear what they think is an over-rigid approach to the Faith and as a result are dead set against a more widespread use of the traditional Latin liturgy. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the best remedy for such fears is a better acquaintance with the thought of the Church in the first half of the past century, a period which produced so many outstanding converts and such amazing monuments of Catholic thought and letters. Frank Sheed, who lived through this entire period, summed it up in his book, The Church and I in this way:
In the explosion which accompanied and followed Vatican II there grew up a contempt for the pre-Conciliar Church which might have had some application to the time before Benedict XV, but had none to the twenties and onwards. In those years the intellectual activity was enormous.
Unfortunately, however, there is another reason besides fear of a partly imaginary Catholic past, which deters people from embracing the traditional Roman liturgy. This is the behavior and outlook of many of those who have constituted themselves as the stalwart defenders of the traditional Roman liturgy and who have, more or less unwittingly, grouped themselves into a church within the Church, and unconsciously tend to restrict the True Church to their movement or "sect." I speak of course of traditionalists or trads (I mean no disrespect) for short. Later I will discuss how, despite their sometimes grotesque exaggerations, traditionalists often raise the right questions and generally remember that the most important intellectual questions for a Catholic are theological, not political. But here let me just note that a group that exhibits a tendency to separate itself from the rest of the members of the Church, and which often judges anything in the life of the Church since the Council in the worst possible light, is not likely to attract many others to the traditional Mass. Again, I can think of no better prescription for moderating this mentality than a wide reading in that very tradition which they claim to revere but too often have little acquaintance with or understanding of. The best Catholic writing before the Council possessed a serenity based on a secure confidence in knowing the fundamental principles of both natural and revealed truth. There was nothing crabbed or shrill about it. This is the real spirit of the Faith, and trads could do nothing better than to cultivate the kind of irenic spirit that a St. Thomas possessed, a spirit that sought to discover whatever truth was contained in a position instead of rushing immediately to condemn it for its errors.
The Church in 1978 was suffering of course from the incredible amount of heresy, dissent, and just plain stupidity that followed the Council. A reaction against all that was just getting under way. At the time of my conversion the main subjects of complaint in Catholic publications that sought to promote orthodoxy concerned Catholic life and thought, matters such as bad catechetics, inauthentic liturgy, advocacy of error in faith or morals. But shortly after things began to change. It was Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 that was responsible for this. Gradually the preoccupation of many who were rapidly becoming what I will call conservative Catholics shifted from bad liturgy and poor catechetics to political activism, at first mostly about the right to life, but more and more to conservative political causes in general, economics or foreign policy, for example, so that today it appears that many cannot mentally distinguish the Republican party platform from the doctrines of the Faith. It was one thing to work with the Republicans to restrict or try to stop abortion, but altogether another thing to embrace uncritically the Republican and conservative political outlook. Not only does this sometimes result in actual dissent from tenets of Catholic teaching - for example about economic justice or war and peace - but it identified the Church with a particular political and cultural outlook, so that many who otherwise might have seen the Church as an ally, or even found their way into the Catholic fold, were repelled by the attitudes and politics that often characterize conservative Catholics.
Conservative Catholics, moreover, have come to adopt the American attitude that conduct matters more than ideas. Americans have always been a pragmatic and a moralistic people, and American religion has had a decided moralistic cast. Questions of pure doctrine, although obviously antecedent to moral questions, have often been of little interest, and among conservative Catholics it is one's political and moral principles that matter. Some conservative Catholics, in fact, are remarkably loose on doctrinal questions, and openly advocate the reshaping of Catholic teaching to fit with their political agenda, something that, when it is done by liberal or modernist Catholics, is condemned out of hand.
Here we must note the important difference between conservative and traditional Catholics that I alluded to above. Though I am not uncritical of many aspects of the thought and conduct of the latter, it is to their credit that many of the questions they raise about theological trends since the Council are good questions, questions that are frequently glibly dismissed by both conservatives and liberals alike. I can understand their frustration at the fact that the important issues they raise are so often ignored. Moreover, trads generally understand that theological questions are more important than political, and when they do turn their attention to political matters they are more likely to come close to genuine Catholic positions. This is because of their desire to adopt an integral Catholic outlook, and avoid the mentality of so many conservative Catholics who are content to be Catholic in personal matters but whenever questions of politics or nationality arise, adopt an essentially secular outlook. Some of the less well-informed trads do likewise, but a significant number realize that both conservative and liberal Catholics are imbued with Americanism, and as a result traditionalists often reach conclusions at odds with conservative Americans on the economy or on war and peace, conclusions that are a credit to their effort to put Catholic teaching first in their thinking.
As I mentioned at the outset, Paul VI was pope when I entered the Church in 1978. This was soon to change, of course, with first the short reign of John Paul I, then of his successor, John Paul II. And it is with the latter that, it seems to me, there began a not altogether healthy preoccupation with the personality and personal views of the reigning pontiff. Although it may have been simply my inexperience and unfamiliarity with Catholic life at the time, I cannot remember much interest in the personality, early career, views or tastes of Paul VI. He was simply accepted as the pope. But for several reasons this changed with John Paul II. Not only was he the first non-Italian pope in centuries, but he had had a colorful previous life, under both the Nazis and the Communists, had written a shelfful of books, had trained as an actor and written plays and poems. Most importantly, he possessed a larger than life personality which he made use of fully on behalf of, I am convinced, what he thought was the good of the Church and of Catholic life. But I am not sure if all this attention to the personality and previous career and writings of the reigning pope is for the good. For one thing it distracts our attention from the fact that the vast majority of the Church's teaching is simply handed on from year to year, decade to decade, as part of her ordinary and universal teaching. Our primary loyalty must be to the Church, to her deposit of faith, and above all this, to Jesus Christ, the invisible Head of the Church. When we focus too much attention on the present pontiff, we tend to give too much weight to his personal opinions, opinions which do not necessarily have any magisterial authority at all, and treat his views and policies as we would those of a political leader. There is even a tendency to regard the current pope's pre-pontifical writings, or those written as simply a private teacher, as somehow endowed with a quasi-magisterial authority, a tendency which was especially observable under Benedict XVI.
Secondly, this excessive concentration on the views and policies of the reigning pope gives rise to the idea that the pope has the authority to alter previous established teaching. Although perhaps they were not altogether in good faith, many conservative Catholics argued that John Paul II in Centesimus Annus had somehow, as Fr. Robert Sirico put it, begun "a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty." But regardless of whether one would welcome or deplore such an alleged change, is it not strange that the Church could teach one thing about economic morality one day, and be able to change her teaching the next? Are the teachings of the Church mere political positions enunciated according to human opinion, or do they represent the teaching of Jesus Christ, formulated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? If somehow John Paul had fundamentally changed, or wanted to change, Catholic social doctrine, what would prevent some successor of his from reverting to the previous teaching, much as citizens of democratic nations are accustomed to administrations succeeding each other with their differing party platforms? And if that is so, why should any Catholic feel bound to give reverence or adherence to a teaching that depends on the personal and human opinions of the reigning pontiff and can be altered at will by his successor?
It seems to me that Catholics need to look again at the Church's doctrine of the papacy, and realize that not every policy or action, not every non-magisterial utterance of the pontiff carries a guarantee of the Holy Spirit's protection. Certainly the Holy Spirit protects the Church and does guide the pontiff, but even a little acquaintance with Church history will show that the often contrasting policies of successive pontiffs, not to mention their downright sins and weaknesses, show that not everything they do is equally divinely guided. In Msgr. Ronald Knox's book, Let Dons Delight, a charming fantasy of imaginary conversation held in Oxford at fifty year intervals beginning in 1588, one of the characters, about to leave England to become a Catholic, responds to some criticism of the then reigning pope as follows:
But as for me, I know not whether he doth ill or well; only I know that if he doth ill, Christ will judge him for a most unworthy Vicar; for he is but a man. But, Sir, it is not the man as he is a man that all good Catholics should reverence, for he may err in judgement. It is his office that all good Catholics should reverence....
Once a Protestant acquaintance of mine, wanting to assure me about another Catholic, told me, "He really loves the Pope." She took this as a badge of Catholic loyalty and it is easy to understand why she did this. But I think that the attitude expressed by Msgr. Knox's character is closer to the correct Catholic view of the papacy and its occupant. Too much emphasis and concentration on whoever currently sits in the chair of Peter is apt to bring the wrong kind of enthusiasm when his policies agree with our own ideas, and disillusionment, perhaps even apostasy, when they seem to us wrong-headed. Considering the divided state of the Church today, it is inevitable that no pope can always please everyone. But if every Catholic will remember that Jesus Christ has promised that hell itself cannot overcome his Church, then we can take the virtues and the vices, the insights and the blindnesses, the successes and the failures, of St. Peter's successors in a more measured stride.
I have criticized here conservative Catholics, liberal Catholics, traditional Catholics, and some may wonder which party in the Church I consider as somehow above criticism. None, actually, for there is no party, and perhaps never could be one as such, that stands simply for what every Catholic should stand for, orthodoxy, a whole-hearted acceptance of "all those things...which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed," as the First Vatican Council taught. Furthermore, we need to place the center of our thinking squarely within Catholic tradition and the mind of the Church. Both conservative and liberal Catholics have worldviews which are essentially secular, to which each adds a bit of Catholic window dressing. Both are, in their own ways, Americanists, followers of John Locke, dedicated believers in progress, and in both cases, adherence to their political-cultural stance frequently leads them to adopt positions actually at odds with those of the Church. But the matter goes beyond these instances of overt dissent to the question of their fundamental worldviews. This is where the real problem lies and it is this which must be addressed first.
The Catholic Church has incredible riches to offer, liturgical, spiritual, intellectual and cultural. After thirty-five years as a Catholic I cannot conceive how anyone living within her spirit and tradition could become dissatisfied - provided that it is her genuine spirit and tradition with which he is acquainted. I cannot understand the attraction of a shallow and boring mass culture as compared with the depth and richness of Catholic culture. I cannot understand the attraction of liberalism, including that liberalism which in the United States calls itself conservatism, or of other religions, which do not and cannot offer us the whole truth about God and man. And so despite the turmoil in the Church, the beauties of Catholic faith and life are as attractive as ever, for the Church is both the ark of our salvation and, as Hilaire Belloc said, "the natural home of the Human Spirit."