A friend recently introduced me to a blog, Mirror of Justice, that he thought (correctly) I would like, given my interest in philosophy, law, and Catholic views on both. The first posting I read discussed the recent reception into the Catholic Church of Hadley Arkes, professor of political philosophy and constitutional law at Amherst College. Two comments in particular in this posting caught my eye as I reflected on my own confirmation last year.
First, the blogger, Robert George of Princeton University's Program in Law and Public Affairs, noted that Arkes views his confirmation as "a fulfillment of his Jewish faith, and in no way a repudiation of it." I feel the same way about my Evangelical faith, which introduced me to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and nurtured me through my teenage and young adult years, along the way, sparking in me a passion for Scripture, bringing wonderfully generous and prayerful people into my life, leading me to stand continually in awe of God's grandeur in nature, and filling my heart with hymns of praise (well, contemporary Christian versions of them, anyway). I hope never to lose any of these gifts given to me from the Evangelical faith but rather to continue experiencing God in these ways while also coming to know Him more fully through Sacred Tradition, the Sacraments, and the teachings of the Church. Like Arkes, I see myself not as rejecting or disdaining the church of my youth but as encountering its full realization.
Second, the blog entry notes that Arkes was drawn by the Church's "moral witness"--i.e., its unwavering advocacy of culturally unpopular positions, including its commitment to protecting human life from the womb to the tomb--and that he ultimately concluded that the Church was a "truth-teaching institution." Both these experiences resonated with me. With respect to the Church's "moral witness," it was, in fact, the Church's teachings on Natural Family Planning and Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body--teachings that are obviously countercultural and that are less-obviously (at least to those unfamiliar with them) beautiful--that initially attracted me to the Catholic faith (much to my own surprise, I will admit).
With regard to the Church as a "truth-teaching institution," I came to this same view of the Church as Arkes, ultimately deciding to trust the authority of the Church after a few years of philosophical examination. My examination covered not only the (numerous) specific doctrines I had initially rejected (or, more accurately, "reviled" and "detested"), but also the nature of belief itself, especially the level of mental, emotional, and spiritual certainty required for departing from long-held beliefs and adopting new ones.
A critical step for me in this inquiry was the realization, facilitated by my long-suffering priest, that what I needed to determine was whether I believed the claims of the Church--not whether I could know with absolute certainty that any particular doctrine was true or that the Church was without any doubt the one established by Jesus Christ. With this license to stop seeking the unattainable bar of absolute certainty, I launched an investigation of the many different ways I arrive at the things I believe, including: beliefs based on my own research and analysis; beliefs based on prayer; beliefs based on Scripture; beliefs based on my reflections on discussions with others; beliefs based on my trust in the teacher or speaker; and beliefs based on my experiences. I realized that for each of these types of beliefs, I in fact rely on a basic faith in something at the foundational level. For example, for beliefs I hold based on my own research and analysis, I have faith in the reliability of my mental processes. Similarly, for beliefs I base on prayer and/or Scripture, I rely on my faith in the existence, omniscience, and goodness of God and on my own ability to discern His guidance.
Believing in the authority of the Church and the accuracy of its teachings, then, need not be something I do separate from a basic measure of faith* in something foundational--in this case, faith that the Church is what it claims to be. It is not that belief in the claims of the Catholic Church is unreasonable or arational, but rather that it requires a measure of faith--like every other belief we hold, though we often are unaware of the elements of faith underlying our other beliefs (such as faith that our senses do not deceive us, or that our thinking and reasoning skills are reliable). Once I realized that confirmation required belief rather than absolute certainty and that it not only permitted but presupposed an element of faith (faith in Christ and in His Church), I was ready to give my complete "Yes" to the Catholic Church.
*Author's note: As a new Catholic, I am becoming aware from time to time of different approaches to various issues that Protestants and Catholics have--in addition to different conclusions drawn or beliefs held by each group. Importantly, I have learned that Protestants often conceive of "faith" as belief in a set of propositions, while Catholics view "faith" as the beginning of the life of God in a person that enables that person both to understand spiritual truths and to accept teachings that would be very difficult to accept apart from faith (e.g., the Trinity, the Resurrection, Real Presence). Thus, I realize that my above discussion of faith sounds propositional (Protestant) in places, but I think my points (i.e., belief rather than absolute certainty as the bar for entrance into the Church, and faith--or trust--in something foundational as required with respect to all types of beliefs) remain valid. I look forward to exploring in future postings the Catholic Church's teachings on the interplay between faith and belief (including the teaching that we can have more confidence about truths accessible through both revelation and reason than we can about truths accessible through reason alone), as my continual conversion allows me to continue learning and working through Catholic philosophical and theological approaches that differ with my Protestant background.