The more I read the earliest Church Fathers, the more I saw how Catholic they really were.
I was a pretty nominal Methodist as a child in the 1960s, very ignorant of theology, and didn't have a good Sunday school, or much at all to teach me otherwise. It required a huge depression that I went through in 1977 to bring me to God (as an evangelical Protestant).
I was 18, and God had to put me right on my back to get it through my thick skull that I couldn't survive on my own. I was under this illusion of “I don't need God in my daily life.” I had lived for ten years without going to church.
I have great and fond memories of my evangelical period (1977-1990). I learned all about the Bible when I was there, and good moral teaching. I was involved in counter-cult ministry and campus evangelism. I didn't have a sense that there was something more that I needed. But in 1990, I started an “ecumenical” discussion group in my home and invited two Catholics that I had recently met.
I used to think, “Catholics can't defend their views!” but my new friend John McAlpine provided compelling answers to things that I would ask him. He excited my intellectual curiosity, so that I began very seriously studying Catholicism.
At that time, being a pro-life activist, I was curious about contraception, and why Catholics opposed it and drew a connection between contraception and abortion. My Catholic friends told me that “the whole Christian Church was against contraception until 1930.”
That threw me for a loop, because I always valued Church history. I thought it was a stretch to believe that in our century we would somehow manage to get a moral teaching right, after 1900 years of Church history had supposedly messed it up. That was far too absurd of a scenario.
I started pondering that issue. Consider, for example, the analogy of comparing contraception to food. Food entails a nutritional aspect and also taste buds. People instinctively think it is strange if one is separated from the other; if we eat for pleasure only (all junk food) or vice versa (all boring but nutritious food).
At that point I started reflecting upon matters of “What is the Church?,” because I believed that there was such a thing as the Church, with a big “C”. I had a view that the early Church was more than anything else, “Protestant” – and became corrupt and “Catholic” with the Crusades and the Inquisition.
And then when Martin Luther picked up the ball in the 1500s, the Church sort of switched back to Protestantism at that point. Evangelicals were really where it was at and the Catholics had a lot of truth, but not as much as they should. They could still be saved, but were in a different league. This is how I used to think: not anti-Catholic, but extremely “pro-Protestant”.
In my discussion group every two weeks, I tried to shoot down the idea of infallibility. This was my biggest objection to Catholicism, by far. I detested it! So I started doing my own study, trying to refute the Catholic Church.
I found the typical things that people bring up, like Pope Honorius, who supposedly was a heretic, or made publicly binding heretical statements (he did not: the material in question is from private letters). There are good Catholic answers to all these so-called charges of heresy. But I was (cynically) only reading one side of things.
My friend John became totally exasperated with my constant questions, so he said, “why don't you read John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine?” – which is considered the classic on that subject. Blessed Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was a genius and an Anglican priest who had famously converted to Catholicism in 1845. I started reading that book, and it pulverized my conception and outlook: this notion that the early Church was simple and Protestant, and became corrupt.
He explained the idea that you can have a development as opposed to a corruption. A doctrine can grow, but it doesn't have to be a corruption, because it remains the same in essence. The collective Church comes to understand it better as time goes on. I think it's the key to Catholic history; why we believe that we are the true apostolic Church.
As an evangelical I thought that the early Church was a bunch of hippie-like “Jesus Freaks” (like I was!) running around, meeting in caves, who didn't believe in the Eucharist, or any of that kind of “hifalutin'” stuff. But the earliest “apostolic” fathers are in fact very “Catholic” indeed. They believed in the Substantial Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, regenerative baptism, bishops: all the things, pretty much, that Catholics believe today, only in more primitive (i.e., less developed) form.
I told myself, “I accept the Catholic viewpoint of history, so I need to re-examine the Protestant 'Reformation'.” I had read a little bit about it, but I wanted to get more in depth and read the Catholic views of it: the “other” side. I had accepted the widespread myth that Luther came around when the Bible was virtually unknown and the Church was in darkness, and Luther heroically brought the Bible to the people.
In fact, there were fourteen German versions of the Bible, from Catholics, in the hundred years before Luther. Yet we hear this notion that the Catholic Church was somehow deliberately, wickedly suppressing the Bible. It's not true. Catholics were the ones who preserved the Bible for a thousand years, with monks painstakingly translating beautiful manuscripts.
At that time I read a book called Evangelical is Not Enough, by Thomas Howard. He showed how the liturgy and the Catholic Mass had a timeless quality to it, that transcends time and space. And I read the great book, The Spirit of Catholicism, by Karl Adam. By then, it was just a matter of getting over the “cold feet” and the jitters.