In the following letter, a former priest of the Episcopal Church explains to those who knew him, as both pastor and friend, why he became a Catholic. He felt he owed it to them. In offering it to our readers, the editors are not proselytizing for the Roman church, nor implying that readers ought to take off running in that direction, but only that any sane man disturbed by the modern Christian accommodation to the prevailing moral chaos ought to run somewhere in search of refuge, to whatever house his lights tell him is built on rock and not sand. The author, in fact, wishes to preface his remarks with the following:
My decision to become a Roman Catholic, and the four major reasons for this, have been the subject of much thinking and praying for about ten years. Throughout this, in my morning Office, I have read “Lead Kindly Light”, John Cardinal Newman’s poetic expression of his yearnings. Many friends, clergy and laity, have been through the same dark night and have thrown their lot in with other expressions of Anglicanism that hope and work for a reformation, e.g. The Anglican Catholic Church, Anglican Mission in America and a few lesser-known efforts. I respect their agony, their search and their choice. I tried to find a home in these, but in the final analysis, I could not. I am grateful for their integrity, wish them well, and pray for them regularly.
Letter To My Friends
I suppose the place to begin is with the bedrock of all other issues, be they things that attract me to the Catholic Church or things that compel me to leave the Episcopal Church.
Some of us want a ‘final authority’ in most of life’s activities, someone or some body which says “this is right and that is wrong, this is good and that is bad, this is orthodox and that is heresy.” We want definitions in medicine and surgery, on the football field, in economics and investing, in marital relations, in moral decisions and a host of other human experiences. Many of us want authoritative religious and spiritual definitions. The attitude that “everyone is the boss of his religious beliefs” may be the democratic way of doing things but it was not the New Testament way, nor that of the Early Church which was led by those spiritual giants who went to their martyrs’ deaths defending the orthodox faith delivered to the Apostles. Nor was it the way of those Fathers of the Church in the first six centuries who hammered out the definition of the Christian Faith in many councils, beginning with the councils that produced the Nicene Creed.
There is no ‘final authority’ in the Episcopal Church, or in Anglicanism. There can never be one by the organization and definition of Anglicanism developed in the 17th century. The “breakaway churches” that use the name ‘Anglican’, AMiA, the ACC, and all the others, cannot have a final authority. Someone has said, “The most we have in Anglicanism is a gentleman’s agreement with a handshake over a glass of sherry” (obviously reflecting a British background; we would say “over a Scotch” or “Jack-and-water”).
From her beginning, Anglicanism has been content to define her theology with the dictum: “lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief”; how we pray will tell you what we believe. We define our beliefs by the words we pray in the Prayer Book, the outline of the Faith in the Catechism and the Protestant definition in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Episcopal Church. But there is no ecclesial body that has the final authority or can enforce any discipline. Again, by the definition of Anglicanism, there can be no ‘final authority.’ This structure and freedom has become a loophole, a breach in the dam that allows people to believe whatever they want to, theologians to teach whatever they want to, and bishops, priests and deacons to preach whatever they want to. Along with this is the relativistic notion that religion is a private matter and ‘who are you to tell me what is right to believe’?
The Roman Catholic Church possesses a ‘magisterium’ (from the Latin word for teacher) through which the Church claims absolute authority in matters of Doctrine, Morals, and Tradition.; The Church is the Teacher.
I want to spend the rest of my life in a church that knows who she is, what she believes and where she is going.
Now, having laid the foundation let me describe the other factors which led me to this decision.
First, the matter of history. I am convinced, along with the belief of all the Early Church Fathers, that Jesus founded the Roman Catholic Church and founded it upon St. Peter and his profession of faith, “thou art the Christ”, with these words, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” We know from the Acts of the Apostles that Peter was chief of the Apostles. As early as the middle of the second century, we find one of the patriarchs of a leading city referring matters “to the See of Peter,” the Bishop of Rome. What questions there were about the primacy of the Bishop of Rome from the leaders of the other great cities and centers of Christianity, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem, were resolved within a century.
Second, the matter of theology and doctrines of the Faith. By and large, the Early Church Fathers believed all the doctrines of the modern Catholic Church. Most of the earliest of them believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, i.e., that she was conceived without sin in her mother’s womb. Most of them believed in her bodily Assumption into heaven. Intercession for us by the Saints in heaven was never in question. Nor was praying for the deceased for their growth and perfection in Paradise. I could go on through the other doctrines, but the verdict is the same. The Fathers believed them.
They also believed that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the ‘body and blood, soul and divinity’ of Jesus. Jesus said, “this is my body....this is my blood.” The doctrine states that the substance of bread and wine is changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, though the appearance, smell and taste remain the same.
The Fathers believed it and preached it. Even one of our great Anglican Fathers, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “His were the lips that spake it, His were the hands that brake it. What His Word doth make it, that I believe and take it.” But in the face of Early Church history and the testimony of the Fathers, Anglican bishops and priests may believe and teach a broad spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. The options range from Transubstantiation to Memorialism (the belief that the Eucharist is only a historical memorial of Jesus’ death and resurrection) to Receptionism (the belief that Jesus is only present spiritually in our reception of Him, not objectively in the consecrated bread and wine). It is no wonder laypeople don’t know what to believe about Eucharistic doctrines. How, in God’s name, can we be the Body of Christ while we hold beliefs that are 180 degrees apart?
In the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox churches, all the foundational doctrines of the Christian Faith are settled and the Church has declared what is orthodox and what is heresy. Those theologians who espouse heretical doctrines (denial of the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, the virginal conception of Jesus, etc.) are disciplined and finally separated from the Church if they persist in their doctrines.
In the Episcopal Church, the bottom line is that anyone is free to believe anything he or she wants to. The Creed and Catechism are not definitive for many. We have bishops and priests today who deny the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Trinity. In the 1960s, Bishop James Pike espoused all sorts of heresy in denying the major tenets of the Faith...and yet was exonerated by the House of Bishops, with only Bishop Henry Loutitt of this diocese and nine other bishops voting for his censure. In the 1990s, Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark denied the major doctrines of the Church and no presentments were made by the House of bishops...because many of them were in concert with his beliefs. He remains a bishop with no disciplinary action taken against him and even with encouragement by our more avant-garde bishops. Some of our bishops deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his virginal conception and his atoning death. There are priests in this diocese who sit loosely to adherence to the foundational doctrines of the Christian Faith. No wonder laypeople don’t know the solid doctrines!
Another strong argument for my becoming a Roman Catholic has to do with moral and social issues. The most important issues today are abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, the definition of family and marriage and capital punishment. The Catholic Church is on the front line in the fight against these things. The Episcopal Church is not even in line (or, as bishop Howe said, “On the front line going in the opposite direction”). There are Episcopal bishops and priests who do not accept the Church’s definition of family and marriage and who have defied that doctrine and celebrated unions in violation of those definitions with no disciplinary action against them and with strong support from many other bishops. I want to belong to a church which will fight for biblical truth and for the sanctity of human life from womb to tomb.
And, finally, I want to belong to a church that is growing by leaps and bounds and in which high school and college students are on fire for the Lord and their church. Several hundred high school students in this Catholic diocese began raising money last summer, traveled 16 hours both ways to march in the March for Life in Washington back in February. High school and college students by the hundreds went to Washington or New York just to see the Pope. When I attend Catholic churches I see scores of teenagers attending the mass without any parents.
I hope you accept the fact that my leaving the Episcopal Church was not precipitated by the turmoil in our Church, but was the result of years of searching and praying. Please pray for me as I try to live out this new commitment and new chapter in my life.
Love in Christ,