Catholic Apologist Tim Staples Recalls His Conversion

“I believe that it is God’s will for there to be one Church and one shepherd,” he says.

Tim Staples
Tim Staples (photo: Tim Staples)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

More than three decades ago, after much searching, Tim Staples, 56, Director of Evangelization for Southern California-based apologetics organization Catholic Answers, was surprised to discover his own pearl of great price in the teachings of the Catholic Church. A former Baptist, Tim was “saved” (declared his belief in Christ) at age 10 and, after several “prodigal” years, became an active minister at an Assemblies of God church while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, Tim’s heroes were noted evangelical preachers such as Billy Graham. He was also an avowed anti-Catholic.

After the Corps, Tim attended Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, during which he became convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith. He was received into the Catholic Church during the 1987-88 Marian Year declared by Pope St. John Paul II, which was fitting, since he noted, “I attribute my conversion to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

After four years in the seminary for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (for which, Tim proudly noted, his brother was ordained in 1995), he came to the Diocese of Orange in California in 1994 to serve as youth minister for St. Justin Martyr Parish in Anaheim. A committed evangelist, Tim was an active lecturer for St. Joseph Radio before going to work for Catholic Answers, sharing his conversion story and teaching about the Catholic faith.

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You tell your audiences that a pivotal point in your conversion to the Catholic faith occurred when you met a Catholic in the Marine Corps who really knew his faith. What do you mean by this?

At that time, I felt one of my callings in life was to bring Catholics out of the Catholic Church and get them “saved.” I thought it was God’s call. And it seemed he led me to Catholic after Catholic. Unfortunately, none of them ever knew their Bibles, so I ended up leading a lot of them out of their Church. In my last year in the Corps, however, I met Sergeant Matt Dula, a Catholic from a strong Catholic family, the oldest of eight kids, all raised in Opus Dei — a rock-solid family.

Matt was the first Catholic I ever met who could respond to my one-liners (e.g. “Matt, why do you call priests ‘Father, when Jesus says, ‘Call no man your father?’”). His answers rocked me. His Opus Dei spiritual director, who later became my spiritual director, gave him James Cardinal Gibbons’ Faith of Our Fathers to give me, an excellent book which became instrumental in my conversion.

In the following year, Matt and I spent the majority of our time debating. We were great friends — we lifted weights together, played basketball and shared the same pro-life convictions — but, when it came to religion, we fought like cats and dogs. Matt knew his stuff, and over that year he really got through to me.

 

What were some issues he got through to you on?

The key issue that Matt helped me to see was Church authority in Scripture. He showed me Matthew 16:18 (“Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”) and really took apart my Protestant response to it. He showed me things I hadn’t seen before, such as Acts 15 and the first Church council.

He really got me thinking: Is the Pentecostal church, the Evangelical church, the Fundamentalist church, really the Church of the New Testament? That was his challenge to me, since the New Testament Church is the Church which wields the authority of God. When she speaks, believers are bound. I couldn’t say the same for my church. Pastor Gary just didn’t have that kind of authority and didn’t claim to.

Another major doctrine he got through to me on, the first that I admitted to Matt and myself that the Catholic Church was right about, was artificial contraception. Matt showed me Genesis 38 and the story of Onan, which St. Augustine classically used to show the immorality of contraception. Onan was not, as I erroneously believed as a Protestant, struck dead after spilling his seed on the ground because he rebelled against God in raising up seed for his brother. Onan was killed for the very act of spilling his seed. Other scriptures corroborate this fact.

Continuing his case, Matt helped me see how Romans 1, where St. Paul talks about the natural law, says that homosexuality goes against nature. A light went on, and I ended up agreeing with him.

Matt also convinced me that the Church was right about confession. In John 20:21-23, Jesus breathed on the Apostles, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven, whose sins you shall retain are retained.”

He asked me, does Jesus have the power to delegate his authority to forgive sins to men? Could he forgive people through a priest? Certainly he could, I had to admit, and that’s exactly what we see in Scripture and what we’ve seen in action for 2000 years in the history of the Catholic Church. 

A fourth area where Matt reached me was regarding the mistaken Protestant notion of justification by faith alone. Scripture says we’re justified by faith, yes; Romans 3:28 says we’re justified by faith apart from the works of the law. However, it never says faith alone. James 2:24, in fact, says just the opposite (“faith without works is dead”).

Could it be possible, Matt would ask me, that you’re accepting the traditions of men? Consider the source, Martin Luther. Here’s the man who invented this doctrine, which never existed previously in the 1500-year history of the Church. He challenged me to discover anywhere in any writing of a father, doctor or apostle, where justification by faith alone is taught. It isn’t.

In fact, Martin Luther, the first to teach this doctrine, referred to the Epistle of James as the “Epistle of Straw.” Luther himself saw that James 2 was incompatible with his doctrine, and not only did James 2 have to go, but he had to add a word to Romans 3:28 (faith alone).

Matt would present these Scriptures to me with thunder. He believed in them. He presented them with a passion and a love. I hadn’t met a Catholic like that before.

 

And, after you left the Marine Corps and discontinued your weekly debates with Matt, you had an interesting experience with a former Catholic priest at Jimmy Swaggart Bible College.

Yes. When Brother Jimmy got wind of the fact that I was converting, they sent me to speak with an ex-priest who taught Church history at JSBC. This Cuban-born priest had left the Church, married and had children. I remember going into his office with my girlfriend and arguing with him for an hour and a half. But his arguments against the Church were weak. It became obvious that he left the Church not because he had “found” the Bible, but because he had had bad experiences with other priests involved in liberation theology. When I insisted to him that you can’t leave Peter because of Judas, he became infuriated with me.

He said very angrily, “The Church you’re talking about does not exist. It may exist on paper, but, when you get in there, you’re going to find out I’m right.” He was mad. And he continued, “I’m going to tell you something else, you’re not going to be Catholic, you are Catholic!” So I left, not knowing whether to thank him or what.

I can understand how he could have had bad experiences. I’ve run into bad priests — as well as bad deacons, sisters and laity — however, my experience is that the overwhelming majority of priests I know are holy, wonderful men of God. I have found a depth of spirituality in Catholic people who are committed to the Church like I never experienced as a Protestant. Not even close.

I don’t mean this as a put-down to Evangelicals. They love God, but without a sacramental relationship with him you can’t go to the depth that you can in the Catholic faith. Many Catholics I know may not run around preaching all the time or being loud about their faith, but they have a spiritual depth about them which is incredible. 

I find just the opposite to be true than what that ex-priest at JBSC would have me believe.

 

Were you troubled by the lack of unity among Protestant churches?

Yes. I went to my pastor one day to speak with him about the things I was finding regarding authority in the early Church and the unity they had. He said, “Tim, you’re naïve, you’re young. I appreciate the zeal you have in wanting to see the Church as one, but there’s no way. It’s impossible.”

I couldn’t accept that because in John 17 Jesus prayed that we be one. Is Jesus’ prayer going to be unheard? No, he is one in being with the Father. I could not accept what my pastor said, so I continued to be disturbed while looking at the hopeless, continuous splintering in Protestant churches.

 

Does God call us all to the Catholic faith?

Absolutely. I believe that it is God’s will for there to be one Church and one shepherd. True, our separated brethren have a relationship with Christ through their baptism — or Buddhists or Hindus through their desire for God — but God does not want them to stay there.

I find it unbelievable that someone can say to me today as a Catholic that God doesn’t want the Baptist to have what I have. That’s unthinkable. I have experienced such a depth of healing through the sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacrament of Penance, which I never experienced as a Protestant.

Had I remained a Protestant, I wouldn’t have the Eucharist or Reconciliation, which I have found a crucial source of overcoming sin in my life and drawing closer to Our Lord.

 

You stress the importance of the sacraments. It seems to me that with the many dangers of falling away from the Lord and the so-called “path of righteousness” in this life, that the sacraments are a great aid to us in the process of working out our salvation.

St. Peter says if the righteous scarcely will be saved, what shall it be to those outside? (1 Peter 4:18) We desperately need the Eucharist. Jesus said unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you (John 6:54). The life the Protestant is experiencing in his church is only coming by his desire for God. He is not receiving the sacramental graces that come only through the sacraments.

 

And if he falls into sin, it seems that much more difficult for him to get out of it.

Absolutely. And I speak from experience. My life has been transformed through the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. Catholics need to reconsider what a nuclear arsenal they have in the sacraments. They are weapons against Satan and sin, and are gifts from God which He gives us so that we may be in union with him. I challenge my Catholic brothers and sisters to rediscover what they have and who they are as Catholics.

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