Not infrequently, Catholics are asked to give reasons for why they are Catholic. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. After all, St. Peter himself says “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). What is often troubling, however, is the account we give. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard Catholics “make defenses” in this way:
“I’m Catholic because it suits my personal life style. Being a Catholic just feels right to me. Plus, the Catholic Faith can help us weather the many changes of a hectic and uncertain world. Its family values are solid, it has a good school system, and it strikes a good balance between being too conservative and too liberal. I just like the special feeling I get at Christmas and Easter. Ritual and a touch of mysticism are important to psychological health.”
And so on and so on. In his wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis offers us commentary on the human condition via His Abysmal Under Secretary Screwtape, a senior devil in the lowerarchy of Hell. Screwtape waxes enthusiastic about these sorts of “defenses of the Faith” because they are, in the end, useful to his nefarious purposes. Why is he so fond of them? Because they encourage the “hairless bipeds” (that’d be us) to embrace Christ and his church for shaky (and therefore easy to destroy) reasons. In the words of Screwtape, the goal of the demonic tempter, if his human “patient” shows an interest in “religion”, is to derail that patient into believing the Faith “not because it’s true, but for some other reason. That’s the game.”
If we embrace such a temptation, we will be Catholic for as long as we have “special feelings” at Christmas and Easter, or as long as the school system remains good, or as long as the Faith “suits my personal life style” or political leanings, or whatever. The moment these things-or we-change and our tastes come into conflict with the Church’s teaching we will cease to be Catholic. Or rather, we will begin to show that we never really were.
To turn Screwtape’s wisdom on its head, the remedy to this problem is to find out whether the Faith is true and, if so, believe it for that reason primarily. Why do I think this? Because, as a convert, this was precisely what I was, in honesty, compelled to do when confronted with the prospect of becoming a Catholic.
As a non-denominational Evangelical, my own theology tended to look askance at, for instance, the Catholic view of the Eucharist. There were various reasons I was taught to reject the idea of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. It was, I was led to believe, a re-sacrifice of Christ. It was a man-made ritual, I thought. It was an obstacle to grace, I imagined. It was idolatrous, I feared. In a word, I believed Catholic teaching to be beautiful, but false.
My own church, you see, had no sacraments, not even baptism or the grape-juice-and-crackers communion service. It was a charismatic church, with an enormous emphasis on the power of the Spirit. As such, we had decided that what really mattered was not physical communion but our communion with one another. The only “body of Christ” that mattered in my church’s view was the members of the church sitting next to us in the pews. It was your fellow Christian who was the true and only tabernacle and it was to “Christ in him, the hope of glory” that we should direct our reverence.
It was a good theory, but it turned out not to work as planned. Experience was to show that a group of people who try to regard themselves as a substitute for the Eucharist is a group of people doomed to be ingrown and stagnant. Life became progressively more stifling, both intellectually and spiritually. Meanwhile, I would read the (safely non-Catholic) C. S. Lewis talking about his faith in the Eucharist and it was increasingly attractive. I came to the dim realization that a healthy church was one whose members focus, not on each other, but on some third thing exterior to them all-a third thing like Eucharist, for instance. I remember, as the attraction grew, holding a sort of make-believe communion ritual with my lunch bread on several occasions. I heard a priest once talk about a woman who came into his parish asking to become Catholic. When he asked her why she wished to do so, her reply was simplicity itself: “You know that little piece of bread you give out at the end of your service?” she asked. “Yes,” said the priest. “I want that,” she said artlessly.
I could relate. But I could not, merely on the strength of that, convert. Why? For the reasons given above: as attractive, practical to church order, or comforting as the Eucharist might appear to be, I could not-must not-tell a lie. Beauty was not enough. As St. Paul said, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). If I did not believe the Eucharist, beautiful as it was, was the body and blood of Christ, then I should not receive it. The Catholic Church, as well as my conscience, demanded as much.
So I did not. But neither did I assume that I knew everything. Therefore, I reexamined my Protestant assumptions about the Eucharist to find out if they were true. I discovered they were not.
Where I had imagined the Eucharist to be a re-sacrifice of Christ (in supposed contradiction to Hebrews 9:26 which says Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself”) I discovered the reality that the mass is not as re-sacrifice, but our present participation in the one and only sacrifice that has ever been or ever will be. Where I had imagined the Real Presence was cooked up by some 8th century Roman manufacturer of man-made doctrines, I discovered it in St. Paul who said, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 11: 16). Where I had imagined the Eucharist as an obstacle to grace, I discovered it to be a means of grace (for it no more “stood between” me and God than my Bible did). And where I had imagined adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to be idolatry, I discovered this simple but salient truth: worship of the Eucharist is only idolatrous if the Eucharist is not Jesus Christ. If the Eucharist is Jesus, then it is a sin not to worship it.
And the more I read Scripture and church history, the more convinced I became that it was. For Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” Yes, the Sacrament is symbolic. Even the Catholic Church says so. My mistake, as an Evangelical, was to try to insist that it was only symbolic. But from Jesus (who said, “This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51)) to Paul (who warned the Corinthians that in receiving Eucharist unworthily they would be “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27)) to a host of Fathers, saints, martyrs, virgins, theologians, and doctors of the church, the resounding cry was unanimous: Eucharist was not only symbolic. It was, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch (a man who heard St. John the Apostle with his own ears), “the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans). This was why St. John Chrysostom, echoing the unanimous Faith of the first thousand years of the Church, declared of Eucharist: “When you see it exposed, say to yourself: Thanks to this body, I am no longer dust and ashes, I am no more captive but a free man.” Indeed, he boldly states, “This is that body which was once covered with blood, pierced by a lance, from which issued saving fountains upon the world, one of blood and the other of water” (Commentary on Corinthians).
In short, I discovered it was my Evangelical “mere symbolism” approach that was the new kid on the block. It was the Catholic picture that was the clear outgrowth of the biblical and patristic data. The Eucharist really was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It was not only beautiful, it was true and rooted as deeply in the apostolic teaching as the Resurrection. And that was why I came to believe in it and in the rest of the teaching of the Church. Beauty, practicality, comfort, happiness and the rest were glad bonuses, to be sure. But it was truth that won me.