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My Two Conversions

March 14, 2002

When I was 14, I fell in love with someone I have never ceased to love. She is the Catholic Church.

I became a Catholic, being baptized the following year. My parents, both lapsed Catholics, hadn’t had me baptized or raised as a Catholic. I couldn’t understand why they had abandoned something so beautiful and soul-satisfying.

To this day, when I hear people attacking the Catholic Church, I want to say: “But you don’t really know her!” The more bigoted they seem, the more I pity them. They are blind to the most beautiful thing in this world. I pity them in just the way I pity a man who has never known what it is to see color or to hear music.

This is my reaction to some of the latest attacks on the Church over the terrible scandal of pedophile priests. The betrayal of boys by priests is bad enough if you don’t believe the Church is especially holy. It’s infinitely worse if you believe she is.

There is a certain sort of anti-Catholic mind that has nothing against Catholics as people, but is always looking for reasons to despise the Church. It sums up two millennia of Catholic history in the Crusades, the Inquisition, fornicating popes, and the “silence” of Pius XII, and now has perverted priests to gloat over. It isn’t interested in the normal internal daily life of the Church during those 2,000 years, either as spiritual experience or in secular manifestations.

Yet it’s that normal Catholic life that has always fascinated me: the daily sacrifice of the mass, the Irish immigrants working long hours to send their large broods to Catholic schools, the nuns who spend their lives running those schools or working in hospitals, a thousand things like that. They don’t make for newspaper stories, and they are ignored by people who equate news — especially scandals — with history. But they are the fabric of Catholic experience.

Long before there were newspapers, radios, and television sets, the Church had her own “media” to spread the Good News. These were called martyrs. Beginning with people who had personally known Christ and the Apostles, they were so convinced of the Resurrection that they gratefully endured hideous tortures — crucifixion, burning, blinding, castration, and being fed to wild animals — to bear witness to their faith.

[Breaker quote: And two 
kinds of witness]The Resurrection wasn’t recorded on film, and the fact that a man in Rome a century later allows himself to be blinded with a red-hot poker rather than deny it doesn’t prove logically that it really happened. But when many thousands of people choose torture they could easily avoid rather than renounce their faith, you have to wonder whether there wasn’t some remarkable event behind it after all. At any rate, these were among the most believable witnesses who ever lived (martyr means witness), and within a couple of centuries they converted millions of others.

Any philosophy student would point out that their conclusion was a non sequitur. Any lawyer would point out that their evidence was sheer hearsay. But such objections run up against a conviction so deep that those who held it were willing to die in utmost agony to affirm it. That proved more impressive than any refutation.

The Church was indirectly supported by the negative witness of the furious hatred she inspired. From ancient Palestine to contemporary China, men in power have opposed Christianity — just as Christ predicted — not with mere doubt and indifference, but with violent persecution. Even when the Church was still a tiny sect, her power was sensed and feared, as if something in the unbelievers themselves was trying desperately not to believe. They didn’t trust her to die without their help, as error would.

But the persecution has always backfired. Even the weakest believers (like me) have drawn strength from the martyrs.

Not long after my first boyhood conversion, I lost my faith for many years. But the unbelievers helped convert me again. I saw how much the world still hated the Church, how it looked for excuses to discredit her. As long as she was alive, it saw her as a threat, even though she had no secular power. This puzzled me, because even when I thought I no longer believed in her, I still loved her.

But eventually I realized that my fellow unbelievers were right: she was a threat, all right — a threat to unbelief. Denying her truth was a futile effort, and I came back.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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