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Conversion & Reconciling Narratives

A reader asks ex-Catholics who worship in other churches how they reconcile their past beliefs with their new profession
Interior of St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, where my faith was rescued (Vladimir Grigorenko photo)

A reader named Chrisacs posted on the thread about why some Catholics leave the Catholic Church, and why others stay. Because I’m trying hard to keep that comments thread one for storytelling, not debate, I chose to take his good questions below, sincerely asked, and put them in another thread. I invite readers to engage below, but please, be respectful. I’m going to police the thread closer than usual.

Chrisacs writes:

What a great article with great posts above. Many thanks for the testimonials.

For those who left the Faith, may I ask how you reconcile your new beliefs? I understand the circumstances of leaving (pain, hurt, boredom, cynicism, relevance, poor pastors, hypocrisy, etc) but what I respectfully can’t understand, but I’m trying, is how after leaving the Church you can accept tenets of faith contrary to what you previously believed? Did you never really believe nor understand the fundamentals of Catholicism, is environment and delivery more important, is pastoral style tantamount or does the presbyter secrecy, hypocrisy and self protection outweigh your beliefs? Eastern Orthodox and RC have significant theological differences (the Holy Spirit and papal primacy for example). Knowing this, how do you reconcile or is to more a journey and if it is how do you deny one and be open to the other?

In keeping to the authors ground rules, I’ll answer no questions posed; I’m not here to debate or evangelize. Please help me understand how this is an intellectual and not an emotional decision, or is it?

I’m confident that everybody’s got their own story. Here is mine, in a very concise version. Regular readers have read this before, and can feel free to skip it.

Catholic doctrine, and faith in Catholic doctrine, kept me Catholic for several years, despite everything within me wanting to run the other way. A knowledge of church history also helped a lot. It got to the point, though, writing about the scandal, where I was being consumed by anger. I knew the bishops were lying. It chewed at me like a cancer to read stories about how many of them, like Mahony of L.A., helped child-raping priests flee abroad to escape prosecution. In 2004, The Dallas Morning News reported:

Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children are hiding abroad and working in church ministries, The Dallas Morning News has found.

From Latin America to Europe to Asia, these priests have started new lives in unsuspecting communities, often with the help of church officials. They are leading parishes, teaching and continuing to work in settings that bring them into contact with children, despite church claims to the contrary.

The global movement has gone largely unnoticed — even after an abuse scandal swept the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002, forcing bishops to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and drawing international attention.

Starting this week and continuing in coming months, we report the results of a yearlong investigation that reaches all six occupied continents. Key findings include: Nearly half of the more than 200 cases we identified involve clergy who tried to elude law enforcement. About 30 remain free in one country while facing ongoing criminal inquiries, arrest warrants or convictions in another.

Most runaway priests remain in the church, the world’s largest organization, so they should be easier to locate than other fugitives.

Instead, Catholic leaders have used international transfers to thwart justice, a practice that poses far greater challenges to law enforcement than the domestic moves exposed in the 2002 scandal.

Police and prosecutors, however, often fail to take basic steps to catch fugitive priests.

Church discipline, such as the U.S. bishops’ new policy, doesn’t keep all offenders out of ministry. Dozens of priests who are no longer eligible to work in this country have found sanctuary abroad.

Things like this would appear in the newspaper, and … nothing would happen. People in the parishes just carried on as if this it weren’t happening. I found this maddening. I had two little boys at the time. I was tortured — the word isn’t too strong — by the certainty that if a priest had raped one of my sons, my bishop likely would have treated my wife and me as the enemy, and might even have helped my child’s rapist escape abroad. I knew that most of them saw the scandal as a public relations problem, and that even the best of them were too timid to clean out the Augean stables. I came to believe that all of them lied as a matter of course. Remember, I knew the truth about Cardinal McCarrick in 2002, and I had to read and listen to him go on and on with his lies.

Since becoming Catholic in 1993, I had learned not to expect anything of parish life. Bad sermons, lousy music, banality, mediocrity — this was normal. If you got better than that, be grateful. But don’t expect more. I became deeply fideistic, in a way, just to hang on. I kept telling myself that no matter what, Christ was in the Eucharist, and that’s what mattered. My Protestant friends find this hard to understand, but at no point did I ever consider going back to Protestantism. For all its failings, I found the case for Catholicism, and the history of Christianity, far stronger than any Protestant claims.

As regular readers know, finding out that a priest who was growing close to our family was in fact an accused molester was what broke my wife and me. We had chosen to go to a parish that had conservative bona fides, even though we had to drive 45 minutes one way on Sunday mornings. We were finding a home there. And then we made that discovery by accident. We learned that this assistant priest was working off the books, and that the pastor had welcomed him into the parish and put him to work in ministry, despite his background. The pastor and the parish council chose not to tell the local bishop, or the congregation.

My wife and I thought we couldn’t be fooled. But we were. We went back to our old parish, but we were zombies. I was so angry by then that I routinely left the church during the sermons, walking around outside praying my rosary. My only experience of the faith was anger and anxiety, and it was constant. It was toxic. It was destroying my ability to believe in Jesus. On the day my wife came to me in tears and told me that “for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m losing Jesus” — well, I knew then that we couldn’t go on like this.

We started attending an Orthodox parish just to be in the real presence of the Eucharistic Christ — the Catholic Church teaches that the Orthodox have valid sacraments — even though we knew we were not permitted to receive communion. The atmosphere was very, very different there. It felt like a church, not a sacrament factory. Now, I’ve been to Orthodox parishes that felt like sacrament factories, so I know it’s possible. But this parish was not like that. At all. The priests took the pursuit of holiness seriously, and so did most of the congregation. And the liturgy — well, it was like something from another world. After a few times there, I confessed to my wife that this was what I thought Catholicism would be when I converted.

I give you all that background because it’s important to answering your question.

We reached the point where we had a decision to make. I shouldn’t speak for my wife, but in my own case, I wanted to leave for Orthodoxy. But I couldn’t just walk away. There was all that doctrine, which I believed. I began reading both Catholic and Orthodox apologetics, comparing and contrasting their ecclesiologies. It was a draw. I would read a Catholic book, then say yes, the Catholics are right. Then I would read an Orthodox book, and conclude otherwise. It was driving me crazy. I wanted a clear answer.

(One thing I did learn, that I had not known: how dodgy the procedure in Vatican I was for formally declaring that the Pope is infallible under certain conditions. I had never looked into it, and had simply accepted that everything the Catholic Church taught was true, because it had sole teaching authority. I didn’t realize how Pius IX strongarmed infallibility through the council. It shook my trust.)

It finally occurred to me that I was approaching all this in a flawed way — in a purely intellectual way. Did I really believe that life in Christ was essentially about assenting to propositions and doctrine? I guess I did. I had to, because how else would I have justified staying faithful to a Church where parish life was so spiritually dead? I had trained myself to affirm doctrinal truths in the face of a great deal of evidence that these truths didn’t make a difference in the lives of more than a few of my fellow Catholics — most of all the bishops.

I had been learning through my exposure to Orthodoxy that conversion of heart is the primary thing. God wants the mind and the heart — but the heart is more important. As a Catholic, I recoiled from that, thinking of it as anti-intellectual. But my understanding of the Orthodox teaching was superficial. Plus, I’d heard it said that Orthodoxy is a way that has an institution attached to it, whereas Catholicism is an institution with a way attached to it. That was a glib saying, but it fit my experience. I had always assumed that Orthodoxy was Catholicism with Byzantine characteristics. That’s not really true. The ethos is different in a number of ways that are not worth bringing up here.

The point is, Orthodoxy had started to change my way of thinking about life in Christ. Orthodoxy taught that the end goal of every human life, the thing we all must strive for, is theosis — complete union with the Trinity. (That teaching is explained here.) It became clear to me that for reasons having to do with the condition of the Roman church in this time and place, and having to do with my own brokenness — the overwhelming anger over the scandal, and my total inability to trust the institution — I saw no way I could achieve theosis by remaining Catholic.

(I have tried over the years to be clear that my loss of Catholic faith had a lot to do with my own intellectual pride, which led me to overintellectualize the faith; that is my fault, not the Catholic Church’s.)

I asked myself: what is the truth that saves? Is it a doctrine? No, it is Jesus Christ, who was and is God incarnate. It came to me that I no longer believed that my salvation depended on being subject to the Roman See — and in fact, given how spiritually desolated I had become, my salvation probably depended on me breaking that communion.

When I made the decision to become Orthodox, I prayed, Lord, I hope I am doing the right thing. I am going on faith here, and if I am wrong to do this, I beg for your mercy on my soul. 

That’s how I justified it to myself. It was messy, and it is messy — I agree! It will not satisfy strict intellectuals. I know that by that same logic, someone could justify leaving Catholicism for Protestantism. There was a time in my life when I would have judged them harshly for that. I can’t do that anymore, and don’t have any desire to. I know from experience how fragile we all are. There’s a reason why the Lord taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation.” Still, the fact that Orthodoxy shares deep apostolic roots with Catholicism, and the same sacramental mindset, made it easier to consider Orthodoxy as an alternative. In fact, it was the only alternative. If Orthodoxy didn’t exist, or there had not been an Orthodox parish nearby, we probably would have remained Catholic … or I would have quit going to church altogether.

The thing is, if I had waited until I had all the intellectual pieces sorted out before becoming Orthodox, I might not have done it. I mean, I might just wasted away spiritually, until something died within me, and I quit searching. This was a real concern. We all have to live, to get on with our lives. In my case, I had children to raise. It weighed heavily on my mind and my conscience that at the rate we were going, my children would grow up seeing their father and mother consumed by anger, distrust, and cynicism about religion. If those children grew into adults who left Christianity behind because of our own example, that would be on my soul forever. It was unfortunately easy for me to conjure a scenario in which our family remained formally Catholic, but in our hearts had left Christianity. From my work as a journalist, I knew how precarious it would be for those of my children’s generation to hold on to a real faith as America de-Christianized. This was a factor in my thinking. You can call that “emotional” if you want, and it surely was. The loss of my children to Christ would be the worst thing I could imagine for them. Our family was headed into that spiritual death trap.

You don’t see me advocating publicly for Orthodoxy because I know that I have no credibility on that front. I had gone all in for Catholicism, in a very public way, and lost my faith in a very public way. I will have to spend the rest of my life repenting from overintellectualizing my faith, and having to resist my tendency to retreat into abstraction. This is a constant temptation of mine, though it’s gotten a lot better for me over the last decade or so. You can find Orthodox apologists everywhere on the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with being an Orthodox apologist. But that kind of thing is a trap for me.

Don’t get me wrong: doctrine is vitally important! But it is not God; it is a clear signpost on the way to union with God. Without knowing what I was doing, I had made an idol of the Catholic institution. I can recall in my early years as a Catholic, making a point to emphasize in conversation with secular people that I was a Catholic Christian — implying that I was not one of those unintellectual Evangelicals. See what I mean by intellectual pride? Spiritual pride too. I’m ashamed of myself for ever thinking that way about the faith. Again, that was my fault, not Catholicism’s fault. I’ve met some Evangelicals over the years who are prideful about Evangelicalism in the same way I was about Catholicism. This is a chronic condition in young male intellectuals, especially converts. It set me up for a big fall — but God brought good out of it. I am so very grateful to be Orthodox. I was proud to be Catholic, and that was a fatal flaw.

In talks, I sometimes warn Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — not to be like I once was. Don’t ever take your faith for granted. Don’t ever think that just because you assent to doctrine that your faith is built on a solid rock. I used to think that I would be able and willing to die as a martyr to the Catholic faith, but when I was put to the test by the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, I failed. I was prepared to die as a Catholic, but it turned out that I couldn’t live as one. By the grace of God, I won’t make those same mistakes as an Orthodox Christian.

I’ll stop here. I’m eager to read other people’s answers to Chrisac’s questions. Please be kind to each other.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that on the “emotional” versus “intellectual” distinction, it would have made as much sense to ask a man gripping the handle of a cast iron skillet over a hot flame how he reasoned himself into letting go.



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