Patrick Madrid on ‘Why Be Catholic?’
Author about why being Catholic — and knowing why you’re Catholic — is so important.
Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the print Q and A.
Patrick Madrid has been explaining, defending and writing about the Catholic faith for more than 27 years. He has written many books on everything Catholic and is the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Madrid’s Why Be Catholic?: Ten Answers to a Very Important Question is based on a talk he has been giving for 20 years. In it, he outlines the objections and reasons for being Catholic. He draws heavily on his own experiences and offers perspectives that are insightful and fresh. He spoke with the Register about why being Catholic — and knowing why you’re Catholic — is so important.
How did you pick just 10 answers to the question “Why be Catholic?” Is there one answer or approach that’s more compelling for you?
I have been giving the talk by this name, “Why Be Catholic?” for the better part of 20 years, and I’ve honed the fine details that really hit home with people. Some things are more important to some people than others. There’s always going to be some variety in what grabs people. For me, personally, what was most important was the historical argument that I detail in the second chapter of the book. Without ever having heard the name John Henry Newman — or, at least, maybe hearing about him but not knowing much about him — I went through a process of looking at the Church historically, much like he did, but he did it at a much deeper, more erudite level than I ever did. I saw what he saw, which is that, working my way backward from the present to the time of Christ and the apostles, there was simply no way to account for the fact that the Catholic Church is there at every step and every generation, all the way back to the first century, even being called the Catholic Church as early as 107 by Ignatius of Antioch.
That deeply impressed me, because I knew the Mormons claimed to be the true church or the restored church. So many groups out there claim that they are the authentic expression of Christianity. When I approached the subject, I found wherever the clues were in the Bible. For example, in Matthew 5, there’s the clue that the Church is visible, where Jesus says that you are the light of the world, and no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but, rather, it’s put on a stand where it can give light to everyone in the house.
As I talk about in the book, I looked at that and thought, “What good would it have served the Lord to go to all the trouble to establish a Church but to hide it under a basket and make it so obscure that no one could ever know for sure that they had ever found it?” It seems like that would be counterproductive. Whatever church it is [that he founded], it’s got to be visible, and one of the aspects of visibility would be what it teaches.
I used that as a criterion as I looked at the Church through history, and I saw that it had not only a consistent presence, but also a continuity of its teaching, even though in the beginning the teachings were in their seminal form and did not have the precise theological vocabulary that the Church developed over time. But that’s to be expected, because if you look at a baby picture and then look at a full-grown adult, you know that’s the same person, even though he or she looks different. The Church is a living organism that is growing and maturing, and it will look different over time.
The other clue is the fact that I was looking at was that all the other groups seemed to trace themselves back to a particular person, a man or woman, whether Martin Luther or John Calvin or Joseph Smith or Ellen Gould White or Mary Baker Eddy or whoever. These different groups and movements all seemed to be founded by human beings; and I saw in Matthew 16 where Jesus is speaking to Peter about the keys and he says, “On this rock I will build my church.” So I took that to mean that whatever that church is, it’s his church, and it must be able to trace itself back to him and not to some other person.
In Matthew 28, at the Great Commission, Jesus says to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing, and then he says, “Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” That was the last clue for me that was really part of the puzzle. I realized that Jesus was promising that he would be with the Church until the end of the world. That immediately rules out Mormonism, because Mormonism claims that that promise basically failed and that there was a great apostasy and that the Church did collapse under the weight of heresy and had to be restored. So I could put a red line through that claim right away.
I looked around at all of the other churches and saw that, if we go back in time, these groups begin to disappear, because they didn’t exist [then]. You go back to the year 1800, and Mormonism didn’t exist; Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t exist; all the nondenominational denominations didn’t exist. Go back to the year 1500: Martin Luther was still a Catholic; there wasn’t such a thing as Protestantism as we know it. Go back another 500 years, go back another 500 years, and at every step, you’ll see the Catholic Church, but all these various groups? They just simply vanish, because they didn’t exist.
The only church that can trace itself back to the very beginning is the Catholic Church. And a little asterisk here: I go out of my way to emphasize that I include the Eastern Orthodox Churches in this claim, because they were part of the Catholic Church until the 11th century, and we go back all the way to the time of Christ.
That, to me, was extremely compelling. All the other things made sense too, but the historical argument, for me, carried a lot of weight.
What made you dive into Church history? Were you away from the Church, or did you have your doubts?
I do love history, and I always preferred things like history and languages over math and science, but that wasn’t it. I’m happy to say I’ve never doubted the Catholic Church. My whole life, I’ve never been tempted to leave. Nothing like that, ever.
What happened was, as you can read about in the book, I was dating this really cute Protestant girl the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Her dad was a hard-core anti-Catholic. So when I would come around to her house to pick her up and go somewhere, her dad would make sure that I sat down in the living room with him, and he would give me the third degree about the Catholic Church.
This happened two or three dozen times over the course of the summer. It was intense. I realized that was the price of admission: If I wanted to go out with this girl, I had to put up with that, and I was willing to do it because I wanted to go out with her.
He was challenging me with everything from the “Chick Tract” comic books — those little fundamentalist comic books. I talk about one of them, “The Death Cookie,” in the book. He would give me those; he would argue from the Bible. I don’t think he really knew that much about Church history, because he was a Bible-only guy. Some of the arguments he was giving me were historical in nature. Little by little, I had to take up the cudgel and try to respond to these arguments, so I started doing my studying.
I mention in the book how my mom and dad had a really nice Catholic library in our home, so there were plenty of good books to refer to, including some apologetics books. That really opened my eyes. That’s when I became aware of the historical argument. I wasn’t really aware of it before that. When I discovered it, it was kind of like discovering Atlantis or discovering the lost City of Gold or something like that. I never knew it was there, but it made all the difference. That really helped me an awful lot in my conversations with him, because I realized that the things he was saying were not historically true. That tempered any effect his arguments might have had on me otherwise.
Is that where your interest in apologetics comes from?
It might be. I can’t say for sure, because, in those days, that was not anything of interest for me beyond “How do I get this guy off my back? I wanted to go out with this girl without all of the hassle attached to it. For me, that was my motivation. But it could very well be how the seeds were planted.
Who should read this book? Is it aimed at a certain person or group, or do you see it as a resource for every Catholic?
I envision myself walking through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport or Chicago’s O’Hare airport between flights and walking past the bookshop and seeing this book facing out into the busy airport full of Muslims and atheists, Jews and Christians, Catholics and every kind of person — and seeing that title, Why Be Catholic?, and saying “What?” And then stopping; and for some, it’s going to be, “Yeah, why would anyone want to be Catholic?” Or others say, “Well, huh, I’ve never thought about that.” Or “Well, I’m Catholic. Are they tearing down my religion? What’s happening there?”
I wrote the book with the title as a question intentionally to intrigue people of all backgrounds. Specifically, my strategy was to begin the book at the worst possible place, to say, “Let me start by telling you how ugly the Catholic Church can be in its members — not the Church itself, but its members.” I wanted to meet the scoffer or the cynic first in the opening pages to say, “Let’s get this part up front, now, so that you can at least be willing to take a look at the beautiful parts of the Church.”
I wrote the book primarily with the skeptic in mind, the person who is either irreligious or maybe anti-religious or maybe very religious but not disposed to like the Catholic Church. I want to win those people over. Hopefully, in so doing, the book will serve as a reinforcement and encouragement for those who are already Catholic.
What stories did you share within this book to make it accessible to those of us without theology degrees?
I tell a lot of stories. I tell a story about a woman I met at a conference who was really angry, and I didn’t know why. I said hello to her and she said, “Don’t even try it!” And I said, “Don’t try what?” And she said, “Don’t try to convert me to the Catholic Church. I hate the Catholic Church.” I unravel that story. It started out like it was going to go south on us, because I was getting angry because she was angry, and she was saying a lot of mean things about the Catholic Church.
I had an intuition to be quiet and just listen, which is not at all what I felt like doing. It turns out that, over the course of this conversation, she clearly and unexpectedly revealed what the issue was. It wasn’t Mary; it wasn’t the Eucharist; it wasn’t the Pope or any of those things that she was saying. It was that she had had an abortion when she was 18, and the one person that she reached out to for help was a parish priest who didn’t help her. He didn’t pray with her, and he didn’t counsel her.
This story is in the chapter on confession (Chapter 5). She experienced all these anguished emotions of self-hatred and remorse for what she had done. Those feelings kind of attached to her anger that this priest didn’t help her. But that quickly became her anger at the Catholic Church, because he represented the Catholic Church to her. Every time she went to Mass, she was just angry, because she felt betrayed.
So we had this conversation, and that story is an example where something profound happened in a moment that I totally didn’t expect. I said something that I thought was really stupid, but it turns out that it was the very right thing that she needed to hear. Not only did it sound stupid when I said it, but she got angry all over again and left, and that was it. I thought, “Well, I blew that chance.”
Only later did I find out, because she got back in touch with me, that she couldn’t stop thinking about that, and it actually brought her back. She went to confession, and she was able to make her way back to the Church.
Stories like that really impacted me. I want to share them, in hopes that they will have an impact on the reader, too.
What’s your favorite part of this book? What did you most enjoy writing about?
I love talking about the things of the Church that really are profoundly meaningful to me. Every part of the book [has information] where I can relate something to the reader in the way that I talk about toward the beginning of the book, about how it’s like seeing a stained-glass window from the inside. As a Catholic, I appreciate the beauty and the colors, and it makes sense to me, because I can see it with the light coming through it.
But for many people, including many of the people I’m trying to reach out to with the book, they’re from the vantage point of seeing that stained-glass window from the outside. There’s no light coming through it, so it’s dark and dreary, and there’s no meaning to it. It’s just certainly not something that would attract them.
My favorite parts of the book would be those places where I’m more successful in gently leading that reader to the other side of the wall, so he can see the stained-glass window from the same standpoint that I’m seeing it. To whatever extent the stories or the explanations are helpful in that regard, then I would say those are my favorite parts.
One thing I did feel good about was that I came up with an analogy for the Eucharist and the Mass that I had never encountered anywhere else. We’re all borrowing things constantly from other people. I always think, “Oh, that was a really great way to explain things,” and then I find out that St. Augustine said that more than 1,000 years ago.
It’s the analogy of the orchestra and the music (shared in Chapter 4). That was a lot of fun, to hit on something, and I said, “Yes! That works! That gets the point across!” Then it’s doubly gratifying when somebody who read it or somebody who heard it in a talk says, “That really makes sense for me.”
What do you find is your greatest challenge as a Catholic? What struggles do you face?
There are three, and they go together: the world, the flesh and the devil. The biggest challenges that I personally face are temptations to sin and temptations to become complacent and coast.
I’m no different from anyone else. It would be untrue if I weren’t up-front about that. All of those temptations that beset other people, they beset me too.
Being a convinced Catholic doesn’t make me, therefore, a successful Catholic, or successful from a religious standpoint or a spiritual standpoint. I’m convinced, but I still have to struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil and to strive for virtue. That is, for sure, challenging. And trying to recognize that it’s not my doing, in any case: It’s God’s grace that I have to cooperate with. I can’t take credit for it. That’s always a lifelong struggle. I expect it always will be.
- Nov. 15-28, 2015