The Faith of a Professor

J. Budziszewski has written eight books, primarily in the area of ethics, and his articles and essays have appeared in First Things, Human Life Review, National Review, World, and numerous other academic and non-academic journals and books.

Widely regarded as an expert defender of the natural law, Dr. Budziszewski came into the Roman Catholic Church this last Easter. He currently teaches Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas.

When did you convert to the Catholic faith?

I'm descended from Polish immigrants. My maternal grandfather had pastored one of the first Polish-speaking Baptist churches in America. It was he who baptized me.

The first Catholic tug came in my late teens, when I attended Christmas vigil in an Anglican church. Liturgy moved me profoundly. Not profoundly enough, I guess, because in college and graduate school I denied God and eventually denied the very distinction between good and evil.

It was during that dark time that I felt the second Catholic tug. Coming across Dante's works, I recognized the landscape of his hell. I also met Thomas Aquinas, whose theology Dante followed. These two touched me more deeply than my avatar of those days, the God-is-dead writer Friedrich Nietzsche. Around the end of that time one of my students asked, “I've been listening, and I figure you're either an atheist or a Roman Catholic. Which is it?”

When I returned from apostasy, I embraced Anglicanism. Its blend of Protestant and Catholic tradition seemed right — for a time.

You've written quite extensively on the natural law, and provided a strong, public defense of Humanae Vitaeall before you became Catholic.

Yes, that's correct. I think I was the only Protestant author to oppose artificial contraception in “Contraception: A Symposium,” published by First Things in December, 1998, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

How integral was your conversion to your appreciation of the natural law teaching of the faith?

Among thoughtful Evangelicals, interest in natural law is on the rise. Unfortunately, Protestantism as a whole has neglected or even rejected it. But why? Luther and Calvin had believed in natural law, and the Bible points strongly to it. So this raised questions.

Even so, it took me a long time to accept the plain implications of natural law concerning artificial contraception. When I did, I was forced to ask why I hadn't accepted them earlier. And I knew that I was on Catholic ground.

What person, living or dead, most influenced your desire to convert?

Not counting friends who prayed for me? Among the blessed, Thomas Aquinas modeled “mind in perfect order.” Among those in this life, John Paul II made it impossible not to believe in the Petrine ministry. Then there was Mary. The awe of her “let it be unto me according to your word” grew and grew upon me.

What Catholic doctrines caused you the most trouble, and how did you overcome your concerns?

One obstacle concerned justification. I thought the Church taught that we earn our way into God's grace. As any well-instructed Catholic knows, this simply isn't true.

A greater obstacle concerned Mary's role in the economy of grace. Her intercession seemed to contradict Paul's statement “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” But if so, what was I to make of her “They have no wine” at Cana, when he altered his plan just because his mother asked him to? I came to realize the need for distinctions. What Jesus does in reconciling us to the Father is utterly unique, but the Church has never suggested that Mary “mediates” in that sense.

We understand that you and your wife came into the Church at the same time. Can you tell us what started her on the journey?

Sandra has long been active in pro-life work. What first moved her to consider the Church was its consistency in defense of life. She was surprised to discover that the Evangelical churches had joined the battle late; when abortion was legalized, they were on the wrong side. Later she learned that the Protestant churches had flipped on another life issue too — artificial contraception — but the other way: Right up to the 1930s, they had agreed with Catholics. For standing firm in these deeply important matters, the Catholic Church is vilified the world over. It struck Sandra with great force that if there is one true Church, this is what it would look like. It would be faithful to the truth even when no one else was, and for that faithfulness would be despised.

You've written so many books, the most recent being What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2003). Tell us about this rather strangely titled work, and what book you're planning to write next.

The book is about those foundational moral principles that everyone really knows, even if we pretend to ourselves that we don't. At that basic level, the problem isn't ignorance, but denial. So it's a book about natural law, but my first goal is to bolster the confidence of plain people in the rational foundations of their common moral sense.

What am I planning next? If we are serious about setting people free from the culture of death, then we had better understand the nature of their bondage, because the door to the dungeon is locked from the inside. I want to write more about how these people, made in the image of God, pretend that they don't know what they really do know. I want to explore why they freely choose ways of life that drive them to despair instead of ways of life that open them to joy. And finally, I want to persuade them to choose differently.