Five Catholic teachings that just kinda made sense to me

November 13, 2007 | Atheism, Background, Conversion | 25 comments

When I began exploring religion my husband followed my search, and he ended up converting to Catholicism at the same time I did. Since he was raised Baptist, it was interesting to compare our different perspectives on the whole thing, particularly when our research led us in the direction of Rome. When we started reading up on the Catholic Church, there were some teachings that made sense to me right away that he needed to look into more before it made sense to him, and vice versa. We were discussing this again the other night and he suggested that some people might find it interesting to read a post about my impressions of Catholic beliefs, coming from my background of lifelong atheism.

I don’t have any better ideas for something to post about today, so here it is. In what will probably be a failed attempt at brevity I’ll keep it to five things, and for the sake of interesting discussion I’ll choose some of the things that I didn’t struggle with that I sometimes hear other converts say were sticking points for them.

Without further ado, here five Catholic teachings that just kinda made sense to me from day one:

1. Purgatory

I don’t know if I could have ever believed that Christianity was true without the concept of Purgatory.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was younger I had some bad experiences with Christians. I’m sure I was as much to blame as they were but, either way, I was on the receiving end of no small amount of unkindness in the name of Christianity. Frequently these same Christians would say with confidence that they were definitely going to heaven. It just didn’t sound right to me. I knew enough to know that God was supposed to be great and loving and heaven was supposed to be a really nice place, but if all these people who had been so mean here on earth could go directly heaven when they died (me included), I wasn’t interested in spending eternity there. At the same time, being mean to people wasn’t exactly the worst thing in the world, and while it didn’t appeal to reason that a just God would let people into heaven with that kind of behavior, it also didn’t seem reasonable that he should send them to hell for it either.

This is why Purgatory really made sense to me. Once I understood heaven as the place of perfect goodness, perfect joy, perfect love, I could see that allowing a soul that harbored even a small amount of animosity or unkindness or hate would taint the whole environment, like allowing someone with dirty feet to step into perfectly pure water. Yet surely God wouldn’t send us to hell for, metaphorically speaking, having a little dirt on our feet. So I could easily believe that a just God would allow for some sort of purification process in the afterlife for those who didn’t purify their souls quite enough in their time here on earth.

Some people, of course, probably do use their time on earth wisely, to purify themselves enough during this life to be able to go directly to God when they die. Which brings me to the next thing that really resonated with me…

2. The communion of saints

All my life I’d noticed that many cultures throughout the world have a belief that we can have some limited contact with those who have died before us, and that those souls are probably aware of what is happening down here on earth. I’d heard many stories of people believing that a deceased grandmother or uncle or brother was “watching out for them”. And, once I believed that we have eternal souls that live on after our bodily death, it seemed that some form of communication like that was certainly possible.

So when I read that the Catholic Church teaches that we can have contact with anyone who is already in heaven, that we can ask them to pray for us just like we can ask our neighbors here on earth to pray for us, it was a no-brainer. It sounded right from the moment I read it.

Also, on a practical level, the longer I’m a Christian the more I see the need for solid spiritual role models. Of course Jesus is the ultimate role model, but in my great laziness it used to be easy to fall into a mentality of, “Well, Jesus was divine, so a regular person like me could never come all that close to being perfect like he was. What I’m doing right now is probably as good as I can expect to do.” Yet every time I’d fall into this spiritual apathy or complacency, it only took about five minutes of reading about the lives of the saints to inspire me with wonder at the amazing things that ordinary people can do through Christ, and to re-commit to growing in faith and holiness (St. Monica, St. Frances of Rome and St. Teresa of Avila are some of my favorites). As with many other things, it was as if the Catholic Church anticipated my needs before I even knew they were there.

3. Veneration of Mary

It took me a while to even begin to wrap my mind around the concept that God exists. After I began to think that all this crazy Christianity stuff might have something to it, I walked around in a daze for a while, having to completely re-think my entire existence and the world around me. The concept of God and his power was a bit overwhelming, and I realized that my limited intellect could hardly begin to understand his greatness.

As I was thinking about this, at some point the thought popped into my head: so if God made himself a man like the Christians say he did, that means…that means that God, the Creator of the entire universe, chose his own mom. Whoa! “I want to know more about her, ” I immediately thought.

Once I thought through all this, I could completely understand why people venerate Mary. I wanted to know as much as possible about the woman who God saw fit to be his human mother. Also, per point #2, it seemed like she would probably have a special love for those of us still here on earth, and was probably praying for us and watching over us in some way. So, needless to say, when I read about the Catholic emphasis on Mary I had no problem with it at all.

4. The belief that non-Catholics and non-Christians could go to heaven

Once I began to understand a bit more about the Judeo-Christian concept of God, I could not believe that a just God would bar entry to heaven to people who didn’t know about him or his church through no fault of their own. I didn’t think I would ever be able to be a Christian if I were required to believe that. So when I started reading the Catholic Catechism and came across stuff like section 847 here, it removed a major roadblock to faith. Not much more to say on that one.

5. Sacred Tradition

One thing that is absent from the topics above is any discussion of whether or not the teachings above are Biblical. In the beginning, that’s not the metric I used for evaluating whether or not these concepts were likely to be valid, for a couple of reasons:

First, I just could not make sense of any discussions about the Biblical basis for these claims. Catholic authors and non-Catholic authors each offered a bunch of Bible verses to support their claims about the truth or falsehood of Catholic teaching and, honestly, neither case jumped out to me as obviously right or wrong. Even after I’d read the New Testament, I could see both sides. Also, I hadn’t yet read the entire Bible cover to cover so for all I knew there was some verse hidden somewhere that cleared it all up that neither side was telling me about. I was so confused.

My other problem was that, coming from a background of atheism, I wasn’t sure that I even believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God. All my life it had been just another book to me and, though I liked what I was seeing of Christianity and was really trying to open my mind, I was having a hard time believing that God was the ultimate author of these texts. The four Gospels did sound like the authors were telling the truth, and the epistles were very interesting, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. As I wrote about here, whenever I read the Bible I was left with lots of big questions, and there seemed to be as many answers out there as there were Christians. I just didn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile, the more I looked into the Catholic Church the more it seemed to be, to use G.K. Chesterton’s phrase, a “truth-telling thing”. Reading about its beliefs was like having the natural law that’s written on the human heart poured out into actual words. I saw behind these teachings something far more wise than humans, a force that understood us better than we understand ourselves.

So when I read of the Catholic concept of Sacred Tradition, the notion that God uses this one church to act as a sort of divinely-guided Supreme Court that always speaks the truth on matters of doctrine and morals, a lot of things fell into place. For one thing, it explained how this church could have such deep wisdom behind its beliefs — it had seemed so incredible and unlikely that a group of people could come up with insights this great and keeping them going for 2, 000 years, so in a way I wasn’t surprised to hear the theory that this church and its teachings didn’t come from people at all.

It explained how Christianity was able to flourish before the “Bible” as we know it today was created, how the early Christians knew what books to include in the canon in the first place, how illiterate people could grow in faith, how Christianity could flourish before the printing press, how people with low reading comprehension skills could grow in faith, etc.

It also made my struggles with the Bible disappear. Based on my difficulties knowing how to correctly interpret it and how to know it was the inspired word of God when it didn’t even say so itself, it immediately sounded plausible that this static word of God was meant to go hand-in hand-with the teachings of a living church.

These five teachings, as well as a few others, allowed the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place so that I could put my heart into giving Christianity a try. I’d known from the beginning that I would never be able to know for sure whether or not God exists and Christianity is true by simply reading books. At some point, I was going to have to put my heart into it. In the beginning that just wasn’t possible — I had more questions than I had answers, and way too many concerns about Christianity to approach it with anything other than an arms-folded-across-my-chest skepticism.

But the more I read about the Catholic Church’s beliefs, the more my skepticism melted into interest, my cynicism turned to curiosity. I’d found so many good answers to all my tough questions — logical, reasonable answers — that I was ready to give it a try. Though I still had doubts and major spiritual dryness, I found the ideas of this church compelling enough to bet it all that what it said was true. I would take a leap of faith. I would change my life to do what the Catholic Church said I should do, in hopes that it would lead me closer to God.

As I’ve said before, the results were more amazing than I could have ever imagined.

Anyway, I apologize that this post doesn’t even begin to do justice to these huge theological concepts — volumes of books have been written about each of them, so I probably butchered their explanation by trying to fit it all into a blog post. Please keep in mind the same disclaimer applies to this post as to everything else I write: I’m just a fool with an internet connection who likes to talk about how and why I believe in God after years of atheism — I’m no scholar or theologian, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. 🙂

25 Comments

  1. TheGnome87

    What a wonderful post! I’m glad this has been a good journey for you.

    I myself am a cradle Catholic so sometimes I feel myself slipping into the opposite direction but time and time again when I read some of the Saints’ insights (regular people like you and me who probably had many of our same skepticisms, questions…failings) encourage me to keep trying, questioning, and understanding.

  2. Veronica Mitchell

    It may be worth pointing out that communion of saints is not a uniquely Roman Catholic idea. Protestants believe in it too, just not in a way that includes venerating saints.

  3. maggie

    #4 is the kicker for me. If I had to pick a solid concrete reason why I am Catholic and not something else, I’m pretty sure I’d pick #4. It’s the thing that made sense to me.

  4. Abigail

    Very nicely put Jennifer! It’s odd, that four of your “no brainers” are things that I still struggle to believe as a former Protestant. In some ways, it must be a blessing to enter the faith with a clean slate inside of trying to undo years of non-truths that are still running through your head.

    Thanks again for all the clarity and insight you bring to the issue of conversion!

  5. Jennifer F.

    Veronica – good point. Thank you for mentioning that.

  6. Kristen Laurence

    I love reading all the aspects of your conversion story. May it reach the hearts of many, many people.

    Your readers, myself included, are blessed to have you, Jen.

  7. Tertium Quid

    Five great points. Your blog is refreshing because you don’t have a master’s in theology.

    It reminds me of Barbara Tuchman noting that she was not cursed by a graduate education. She proceeded to write great narrative histories uncluttered with attempts to win over specialists.

  8. Christian

    I stumbled across your blog via another blog (The Shady Characters) and after reading this post love it. I added a link to here from my own.

  9. Roger

    How sad to see that you abandoned reason for faith. would it not be even better if you started living your life as if it mattered in it’s own right and not just so that you could get into a special heavenly club.

    I think doing good for no other reason then such a selfish desire is despicable.

    Have a reasonable day.

    Roger

  10. Sarahndipity

    This is a great post! A lot of those things are the same reasons I believe Catholicism is true, especially purgatory, sacred tradition, and the belief that non-Catholics and non-Christians can go to heaven. Without those three things, I don’t think I could believe in Catholicism, either. Christianity just doesn’t make sense otherwise. I think Catholicism acknowledges the complexities of life better than any other religion.

  11. AveMaria

    Roger:

    And a big Bronx Cheer to you too!!!!

  12. Warren

    Roger,

    You sure seem to have a lot of faith in reason. 😉

    And if there is no God, and we are all only meat robots, then nothing whatsoever “matters in its own right.” It is reason itself that demands this conclusion.

  13. Terri

    I love reading your blog and learning about the Catholic faith. I think for me, some of these doctrines would be sticking points especially the concept of purgatory because I’ve always been taught that when we accept Christ, he cleanses us from all sin, and we are made righteous. Having said that, I do have a few sticking points of my own when it come to my own Protestant beliefs. For example, why pray to ask forgiveness of sin if they are already forgiven? My head knows the answers that I’ve been taught, yet still I question it.

  14. Ave Maria

    Terri:

    In the Catholic worldview forgiveness of sin isn’t a one and done sort of proposition. Catholic conversion of heart is a lifetime of striving toward holiness and of constantly examining our behaviors, thoughts, and activities to see if they line up with Christ’s teaching and example.

    Forgiveness and expiation of sin are not the same thing. If they were we would no longer be living in a fallen world. Once Christ appeared humanity would have returned immediately to the garden rather than continuing to have to contend with the effects of the fall.

  15. Erika S.

    Roger-
    As a Catholic I do not do good things to get into heaven. I do good things because all good things come from God and I find my purpose in life to be: to love, honor and please God, because I love Him and if that gets me into heaven then cool. If not I know that I have been and done all that I could. I do not think that that is selfish at all.
    If you choose to believe that Catholics are selfish so be it.
    Pax Christi,
    Erika

  16. SH

    Roger-
    Are you saying there is a special heavenly club? Cuz if there is, I will do anything and everything to get into it. I’ll even respond to rude comments charitably! I love you Roger!

  17. Andie

    I’m a big fan of all five of those things. I’m sort of a convert/revert (“raised” Catholic, found it for real on my own), and without much in the way of religious ed, those things always made sense to me too.

  18. NotMarian

    Ok, Roger, I’ll say it too – I do live my life doing good and loving others and God because it is the good and right thing to do.

    My reward (not my goal) is heaven.

    As for reason – I don’t see my Faith as the opposite of reason. Check out Catholicism for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

    Finally, as far as heaven being a special club – didn’t you see her post on reason #4? It isn’t a special club and you could and may and probably will end up there after your life on earth is over.

    See you on the other side!

  19. Jarin

    I don’t think we need to be embarrassed about doing good things to get to heaven. All things naturally desire their own perfection. This is what heaven is. Of course, we understand our perfection as rational men to be union with God.

    Like C.S. Lewis says, the idea that one should not be happy for doing good comes from Kant, and not from Christianity.

  20. Mary

    I like your comment on the Communion of Saints,
    “The longer I’m a Christian the more I see the need for solid spiritual role models.”
    I love reading the lives of the saints too, and feeling that I have extra “aunts” and “uncles” watching out for me, and even that people like Chesterton & Father McNabb, uncanonized, are sort of “fair game” to ask for prayers (at least that is the impression I have gotten from better-informed Catholics).

  21. Anonymous

    As for Purgatory, I don’t think there is one place called Purgatory. I do however speculate that there is a different judgement for each person and some might be given a sort of “work camp” or “parole” and some redeemed might “need more training”. It is not mentioned in the Bible but I don’t have the abhorance some Protestants do for it.
    The idea that non-christians can escape hell has one flaw. If they are saved by Christ they are by definition Christians whatever we call them on Earth or they call themselves. The real question is, “does everyone who fails to give intellectual assent while on Earth go to hell”. I don’t think that true. Or if it is then God would make special interventions when necessary-like appearing in a dream at the last momment of life.
    However I think the point about Mary is flawed. There is no reason she need be a particularly special person. One of the main themes of the Bible is that anyone can be chosen for God’s tasks, whatever their station. After all have you ever wondered what if Athens had been the Chosen People? “How odd of God to choose the Jews?” is an old anti-semetic taunt, but it comes back to bite when one realizes that it was indeed odd-and that was the whole point. The same way Mary could have been chosen for her task for any reason.
    It probably is true though that she prays for us down here-as do all that have gone before.

    Jason Taylor

  22. ryple

    Roger,

    I for so many years of my life shared your view that trying to get into some heavenly club was selfish and despicable. It was what took me so long to get here. I think this: There are a lot of hurdles to clear. Heaven is an eternal concept. It is difficult for the earthly mind to grasp. We all struggle, and many write about it. It remains a mystery. Neither did I have any ambition to be good just to ‘save my arse’. It seemed like cheating on a test you didn’t study for rather than knowing the material. Being faithful and good is more like knowing the material, and loving and choosing it, vs. scrambling as a last ditch effort to pull it out of the bag.
    The more I know this Jesus I have come to love, the less I want to spend eternity away from him. That’s worth seeking. (And) as for those who aren’t more inherently nice, who better for a saviour? Haven’t you ever wished to be saved FROM yourself? Have you ever said or done something you wish you could take back? What if believing in a natural order consistent with an intelligent design and ultimately leading to a knowable, loving God, helped you understand what makes you do things you wish you could take back? What if it somehow DOES make us better people?
    I was pretty good to begin with. I believe in RIGHT and WRONG. (Black and white. The greys start to pull to one side or the other, eventually….) The kind of absolute thinking I tended toward led me on a very natural path toward a creator. I would never worship anything malicious, creator or not, so the creator had to be benevolent. God is just such a benevolent being. If we try to grasp the scope of Him always being the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, before long, you get a sense of an eternity that is too difficult for us to really absorb.
    We can just stand in awe, and learn, and hope. I hope you get to know enough Christians of deep faith to see that we’re not all ‘arse savers’.

    God Bless!
    He is Risen!

    Renee

  23. Deb

    This was an interesting post for me. I was raised Catholic in Ireland, so very very conservatively. Given this and the horrific recent history of the church in our country I wandered. I have recently realised something is missing in my life and have begun coming back to God. I have researched several religions, but keep coming back to Catholicism. Maybe it is like the mafia! 😉 I agree with all your points except for number two. Purgatory is a big issue for me. It was actually invented in the middle ages so as to extort money from the congregation for indulgences. I discussed this with one of my religious role models, a priest who recently passed away. I told him I had issues with a Dante style hell and purgatory. He told me the only way of looking at it that made sense to him came from an eight year old child. “Hell is where God ain’t.” So I guess maybe pergatory is where I am right now… where God is “sort-of!” I will continue reading with great interest. Blessings!

  24. Jennifer F.

    Purgatory is a big issue for me. It was actually invented in the middle ages so as to extort money from the congregation for indulgences.

    I researched that when I was looking to Catholicism, and that’s not what I found. Here is a decent summary of the info I found if you’re interested.

    Thanks for your comment!

  25. Michael

    Love this post, just unsure about one point though:
    ”Some people, of course, probably do use their time on earth wisely, to purify themselves enough during this life to be able to go directly to God when they die.”

    I’m not certain, but I once heard that only one person ever avoided purgatory and went directly to God: Padre Pio. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Many thanks

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