A Somewhat (Im)Personal Interlude

In my last post, I indicated that part of the reason I am (still) Catholic (and you can, too) is that, besides not being driven away by bad Catholics, I came to understand that God’s existence can be demonstrated (to at least as high a level of certainty as one finds in other areas of life, yet short of absolutely apodictic or geometric certainty), and so one prerequisite for believing that the Catholic faith is true (that God is real) was for me met and never in much doubt, for as long as I can remember.

I had indicated in earlier posts that I attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Orange County, California, which at least in my memory of that time in the early 1980s was not, in its daily culture, terribly Catholic or religious. (Or, maybe it did prioritize the religious formation of us boys, and I was too absorbed in other things to notice.) But it was there that I was exposed to some more rigorous philosophical and theological thinking, in particular in my sophomore and senior years, and these left a lasting impression on me. And despite the social and cultural inertia of that time and place that was carrying me along toward the study of engineering, these classes probably planted in me seeds which would take root in my later academic choices.

Saint Thomas Aquinas writing.

I remember in the religion class of my sophomore year, which was ostensibly on Church history, sometime in the fall being introduced to proofs for the existence of God, in particular the proofs of Saint Anselm (later known as the Ontological Argument) and the Five Ways of Saint Thomas Aquinas (of which I presented a distilled version of the Third Way). I remember finding them really interesting, though not understanding them well (especially Anselm), and being quite interested in them for the three or four weeks we went over them in class. But then, quite abruptly, the instruction and discussion about them ceased, and Church history resumed its ponderous march past the middle ages. Looking back, I think the teacher must have been told to move the class along to cover the necessary material in time. But I think that foray into medieval metaphysics must have been when I came to the conviction that belief in God was rational (and not merely some kind of emotional attachment, or irrational conviction). My experience of growing up Catholic did not, of itself, lead me to think religious faith might be irrationally emotional; Mass had a routineness to it, and I know some of my contemporaries found it, as no doubt many still do (and tbh sometimes I still do), rather boring and attended with only perfunctory attention. Emotional exuberance it was not, and that was fine by me.

I think the only experience I had of people being emotionally and irrationally religious were those zealots from that era who were burning rock albums and Dungeons & Dragons books for their alleged Satanic effects. Being the nerdy kid I was in the late 70s and early 80s, I knew these to be great cultural achievements and no threat to souls beyond the normal temptations of the flesh and the world. 

Around this time, however, a friend’s girlfriend came into the Church, and I first discovered that every year Catholics celebrate a quite elaborate and beautiful Easter Vigil Liturgy and Mass, which until then, I had never even heard about. This beautiful liturgy – beginning in darkness with a bonfire lit outside from which the paschal candle is lit (symbolizing the Resurrection of Jesus into a world darkened by sin), and that light spreading into and throughout the church as each congregant has their own candle lit and lights, in turn, their neighbor’s candle – was really quite moving for me.

15th century Gothic armor

This discovery of hidden depths to Catholic liturgy, more than any personal religious experience from attending the Easter Vigil, led to an interest in attending the old (Tridentine) Latin Mass, which had just been made available by special and unusual permission. (I was blissfully unaware of the fraught history of this rite of the Mass, nor of any ecclesio-political implications my attendance, much less any “statement,” might be taken to be making.) I didn’t really get what all the hype about the Traditional Latin Mass was about, so I didn’t pursue it further. But the wealth of Catholic history and tradition, coupled with the aforementioned interest in Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy adventure literature, also led me to learn more about the middle ages: knights, castles, and monks.

It was also about this time that I had a pretty bad accident while biking to the aforementioned all-boys Catholic high school, on account of which I broke my back and spent some weeks initially in bed, and then saddled with a back brace. At the time, I thought it a pretty trivial mishap, but looking back it could have been much worse. This pretty significant personal injury affected my religious outlook almost not at all, though it is fairly common for such accidents to lead their victims to confront their own mortality and discover a greater need for or connection and reliance on God. I experienced neither, though perhaps I should have.

At this point, I have the feeling that at least some readers’ interest in why I am Catholic might be aroused by these more personal reminiscences of my religious upbringing and awakening. But, at least one underlying point to this my exercise in giving an apologia from a cradle Catholic is to provide an intellectual and reasoned account of my Catholic perdurance (fidelity is too strong a word to describe one so prone to moral failure). These personal experiences, and personal experiences in general (mine or others), just didn’t have as much impact on me as did intellectual considerations and philosophical and theological arguments. I am not saying that no one should be swayed or affected by a person’s encounter with God or spiritual experience of the sacraments of the Church (or whatever), but my own personal and emotional experiences and that of others just does not affect me as much as arguments do and have.

Blessed Bartolo Longo

If you are inclined to find such experiences moving, there are many, many more and more dramatic stories of saints or other converts to convince you to become (or return to being) Catholic. For instance, in 1841, Blessed Bartolo Longo converted from being a priest of Satan (of all things), to becoming a devout Catholic and a lay member of the Dominican Third Order. Or the case of Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish man who reported seeing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a side chapel in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome in 1842, which led him to convert to the Catholic faith from vehement opposition to it (his conversion itself being declared miraculous). If such stories interest you, or they might spur or deepen your own Catholic faith, that’s great, and is all for God’s glory. But, of course, one has the problem of there being dramatic stories of non-Catholic conversions, too, so which story to believe is already, it seems to me, a case of selection bias. Which is precisely why I am not as moved by such stories, my own or of others.

I suspect that the interest in personal religious odyssey over and beyond argumentation is linked to the nominalism that was implicitly adopted (at least in part) by Protestantism and Scientific Materialism with their emphasis on personal faith or sense experience (in the absence of knowledge of objective essential natures), to which the Catholic faith, in opposition to these alternatives, provides a salutary remedy. Offering a reasoned defense of the Catholic faith and highlighting it in terms of an alternative to counter such latent nominalism is another underlying point of my apologia.

Philosophy and theology (with some history in the mix) are definitely the major reasons why I am (still) Catholic, and you can, too. If you’re just not that into this kind of thing, this may not be the apologia for you. I, however, will return to a consideration of the arguments against the anti-theistic position of Scientific Materialism, as well as arguments in favor God’s existence which I have previously presented, and in another post, I will address objections to these arguments.

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055).

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