Making My Way to the Church Christ FoundedFeb 13th, 2012 | By Fred Noltie | Category: Featured Articles
Readers of Called To Communion will recognize the name Fred Noltie, since in July of last year he wrote a guest post for us titled “The Accidental Catholic.” Recently we invited Fred to join the CTC team, and we’re delighted that he has agreed. Fred was in the Presbyterian Church in America for twenty years, attending both Covenant College and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. On the Easter Vigil of 2005 he, his wife Sabryna, and their son were together received into full communion with the Catholic Church at St. Lawrence parish in Monett, Missouri, where they are presently members. In this article Fred tells the story how he and his family became Catholic. Fred, welcome to CTC! -Eds.
In The Accidental Catholic I described how I realized that Protestantism’s proposed means for discerning revealed truth in the Bible do not afford us any basis for certainty about what that truth actually is. This fact, which struck me like a bolt out of the blue, forced me to realize that I could not remain a Protestant. But on the day that I decided that I was no longer Protestant I was equally certain that I would never become Catholic. I was just not interested in that at all, because – after all – it was the Catholic Church, and I just “knew” it was wrong! Why did I change my mind?
The short answer to that question is that there aren’t very many alternatives. In setting aside Protestantism I also rejected any sort of individualistic approach to Christianity—and for the same reasons. If Billy Bean decides he is going to make his way in the world as a sort of Lone Ranger Christian, and if I do the same, how are we to know which of us is right about what the Bible teaches when we disagree? We can’t know that, for the reasons I described in The Accidental Catholic. So if I set aside Protestantism as unworkable, I likewise had to set aside any sort of idiosyncratic or individualist Christianity; consequently I had no choice but to consider historic Christianity. It took a little while, but I slowly began to realize that I would have to consider the claims of the Catholic Church.
The first step I necessarily had to make in that direction was to grasp fully the consequences of the question that I mentioned near the end of The Accidental Catholic: If I believe X about a certain doctrine, but the Church (not necessarily the Catholic Church yet, in my thinking at the time) says Y about it, who is right? I don’t recall if I was ever faced with that question as a Protestant, but I think it’s an important one. Is it not just obviously absurd to suppose that I could be right, and that Christ’s Church could be wrong — to suppose that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth in some important doctrinal matter, but not the Church? It was easy to see that to ask the question was practically the same as to answer it: if the Church and I disagree about some dogma or other genuinely important doctrine, it’s obvious that I must be the one who is mistaken, and consequently I need to change my views to match the Church’s. If the Church could be wrong — if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error somehow — then there is certainly no reason to believe that I am right either. Because if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error, why on earth would He protect me from error? And as I wrote in The Accidental Catholic, it’s not enough for me to say that my exegesis (or that of some modern scholar whose brilliance I happen to appreciate) just obviously is correct while the Church’s is not. Given that brilliant and godly men stand on every side of practically every theological question, the appeal to mere scholarship proves nothing.
So far so good. But that doesn’t help so much with identifying where the Church is. It confirmed my decision to abandon Protestantism, since no Protestant denomination (none of which I was aware, anyway) claims that its doctrine is certain to be true; they all acknowledge that they can and do err. As I was slowly coming to realize, though, a necessary attribute of the Church must be that it cannot err – some how, some way, in some manner, the Church cannot err with regard to at least some things, and those things must include doctrine. Because if that’s not the case, then the answer to my question becomes absurd. It becomes possible for me to be right about some dogma or important doctrine and for the Church to be wrong about it. It becomes possible for the Holy Spirit to have allowed the Church to fall into doctrinal error, but to have protected me instead! And once again, that was and is absurd even to imagine. It seemed, then, that it was definitely reasonable to suppose that the Church must possess infallibility in some fashion or other, even if only because the alternatives are simply untenable.
And whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.
And John 20:23:
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.
As I contemplated anew the significance of these passages, it became clear to me that implicit in them is some form of a guarantee. Why? Because these promises are unconditional: whatsoever you bind…whatsoever you loose; whose sins you shall forgive…whose sins you shall retain. These are not promises to honor what Peter and the Apostles do only when they bind or loose rightly. These are promises that whenever or whatever they bind or loose, it will be honored in heaven. There must, then, be some sense in which God protects them in the exercise of their authority, so that they do not exercise it in such a way as to make it impossible for Him to fulfill His promise. So I concluded that there must be some sense in which the Church must enjoy an infallible exercise of authority. Obviously more would have to be said in order to connect a promise made to the Apostles with the Church of today, but the point for me at the time was that at least the argument for infallibility could credibly be made from Scripture.
So here I had two grounds for thinking that some form of infallibility could very reasonably be understood as an attribute of Christ’s Church: first, the alternative seemed clearly to be doctrinal chaos, which I now knew to be intolerable; secondly, there were at least some passages of Scripture that support a claim of infallibility for the Church. And so, over the course of a few months, I was forced to concede that I probably ought to investigate the Catholic Church just because it claimed infallibility of some sort, which was precisely what it seemed the Church that Christ founded ought to have.
And so my investigation of the Church began. In the Lord’s providence I was unemployed at the time, and this gave me the opportunity to spend a lot more time studying than I could otherwise have done. I read thousands of pages of books and countless web pages about the Catholic Church. And as I read, two things gradually came into focus for me. The Church’s claims were coherent and consistent. She did not contradict herself. On the other hand, She also had reasonable answers to the charges and criticisms made by those those who opposed Her.
It was serendipitous for me that a former pastor gave me an unabridged copy of Salmon’s Infallibility of the Church at about this same time, since infallibility was such an important subject in moving me to investigate the Church in the first place. Unfortunately it wasn’t hard to see that Salmon’s argument rested almost entirely upon a straw man. Ignoring what the Church actually teaches about infallibility, he formulated an entirely different version of it (on grounds that his version was stronger than the actual Catholic doctrine) and then refuted that. His straw man thus included the following:
- Agents of the Magisterium (and not just the Pope or ecumenical councils) should be infallible under certain circumstances (p. 249-250)
- Any official utterances of the Pope should be infallible (pp. 250, 435)
- Infallibility should (under certain circumstances) apply to private communications of the Pope (p. 438)
- Church discipline should be infallible (p. 250)
None of this has anything to do with what the Church actually teaches. On the other hand, it certainly made it easier for Salmon to throw dirt on the Church, because by saying that infallibility should include the points mentioned above, it becomes child’s play to find instances of error. And those errors would then refute the Church’s claimed infallibility. But in reality, what the Church teaches about infallibility simply doesn’t match what Salmon says.
In the end, Salmon’s book had exactly the opposite of its intended effect on me. Its best arguments were sufficiently answered by Catholics. Its straw-man treatment of infallibility was essentially worthless. Its invective and outright falsehoods against the Church and Catholics completely undermined any claim to scholarly detachment he might otherwise have merited. The Church’s teaching concerning its infallibility emerged unscathed.1
After a period of initial study, when it became obvious that there were no glaring red flags popping up in my reading, it became reasonable to think about attending RCIA — not because we had already decided that we wanted to become Catholic but as an additional way to learn more about the Church. So with some trepidation we made our way to a nearby parish. Well, one of the first things we discovered was the truth that refuted an old canard about the Church. Protestants often like to say that the Catholic Church hates or fears the Bible, but in one of our first RCIA2 classes the priest said that if Catholics are unable to answer Protestant criticisms, it is because Catholics do not read the Scriptures! Here was a priest who, right off the bat, encouraged parishioners to read the Bible! And so it went. As months went by and our study (now both private and in RCIA) progressed, our objections to the Church were being answered at every turn. Protestant errors and misconceptions about Her crumbled; the truth became clearer and clearer to us.
Eventually it became pretty obvious that we really should join the Church, but I at least struggled with a few things — primarily the Marian dogmas. After all, there was nothing explicit in the Bible concerning them (at least, not the way that I had been trained to read the Scriptures in college), so I was really forced to take the Church’s word for them. I could see that they didn’t contradict the Bible, and they certainly passed the argument of fitness, but was that enough?
I didn’t put it this way at the time, but I think an excellent summary of how I became settled in my mind with respect to these dogmas may be found in one of the Pontificator’s Laws: “If a Catholic cannot name at least one article of faith that he believes solely on the basis of the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, he’s either a saint or a Protestant.”3 The point is that we’re talking about articles of faith here, and not mere theological niceties. Remember The Question above: if I say X about Mary, and the Church says Y, who is right? Well, who am I to sit in judgment? I had no reason left to doubt that the Catholic Church is indeed the Church that Christ founded, so I really had no reason left for doubting the truth of these dogmas. Certainly I had no grounds whatsoever for doubting them on the basis of the Protestant paradigm. If the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded — as I had already come to believe — then there was no good reason to hold back just because I didn’t understand some doctrine or other. The truth of a dogma isn’t measured by my comprehension. God expects me to receive as true what He has revealed; He does not expect me to understand things that are above my pay grade, so to speak.
It’s probably worth pointing out what the reader may have noticed already: I haven’t spoken solely about my investigation of the Church, but also about our investigation. Fairly early on in the process I made my concerns about Protestantism known to my then-equally-Reformed wife. She would undoubtedly have more to say about this if she were writing this article, but when I explained my thinking about it to her she recognized that indeed there were serious problems with the way that Protestantism proposes that we find revealed truth. Before very long she was investigating things on her own, and so it happened that we began seeking the truth about the Catholic Church together, and we entered the Church together at Easter, 2005.