The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.
In summer 2021, when I realized that on April 28, 2022 it would be exactly fifteen years since I had returned to the Catholic Church, I began ruminating about the Evangelical world from which I had departed and what it was that ultimately carried me back across the Tiber. Because I am a philosophy professor—someone who traffics in concepts, ideas, and arguments, and gets paid to do it—you would think my reversion was purely a matter of the intellect, that my choosing to return to full communion with the Church was the result of a detached rational consideration of the contending arguments offered by competing Christian groups. Although a decade ago I would have agreed with that account, or at least been highly sympathetic to it, I am not too sure about it anymore.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in November 1960, I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic schools from the first through twelfth grades, and received the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation all before the age of thirteen. And yet, soon after my Confirmation, I found myself drawn to what seemed like the greener pastures of Evangelical Christianity. It was by way of a place called Maranatha House, a small Jesus People church in downtown Las Vegas, the city in which I was raised. (My family had moved to Vegas in January 1967 when my father took a job as an accountant to work for his brother-in-law, the renowned poker player and sports book-maker, Fiore “Jimmy” Casella).
I had, unbeknownst to my thirteen-year-old mind, very quickly imbibed the assumptions of my newfound Evangelical friends. These assumptions included the principle of sola scriptura (that the Bible alone is theologically authoritative), the necessity of having a born-again experience, the importance of sharing one’s faith with unbelievers (sometimes called “witnessing”), and the insignificance of the sacraments, a living Magisterium, and apostolic succession. My parents, both observant Catholics, permitted me to continue attending Maranatha House as well as several other Evangelical groups. After a brief excursion into unbelief during my high school years, I returned to Christianity but not to the Catholic Church.
Although it all seems so very strange to me now, to my teenage self—a young man who just wanted to follow Jesus—the love, fellowship, and Christian commitment of my Evangelical friends was attractive and overpowering. I felt like I was part of something new and special that was advancing the cause of Christ, but without the historical baggage of the Catholic Church in which I had been born.
My commitment was so deep that I could not imagine my life’s work being centered around anything else. For this reason, in college, I switched my major to philosophy and read just about every book I could find on theology and the Bible authored by an Evangelical scholar. I was particularly smitten by works that had an apologetic flavor, that offered arguments and proofs for why it was rational to believe in God, the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible, and the truth of Christ’s Resurrection.
I went on to do graduate work at an Evangelical school where I studied under the Lutheran scholars John Warwick Montgomery and Charles Manske. From there, I matriculated at Fordham University, where I earned my PhD in philosophy. It was at Fordham, a Jesuit institution, that I first came in contact with serious Catholic scholars—in particular, Fr. W. Norris Clarke, S.J., Fr. Gerald McCool, S.J., Fr. Robert Roth, S.J., and Dominic Balestra—who would introduce me to the richness of Catholic philosophical thought. Why, you may ask, would an Evangelical ex-Catholic want to do advanced philosophical work at Fordham, of all places? The answer: my Italian mother, who was probably prompted by the Holy Spirit, suggested I apply there. It was as simple as that.
But my Fordham experience did not immediately draw me back to the Church, since it never occurred to me that it should. I simply saw the Catholic thinkers I had encountered—St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas among them—as important and influential philosophical figures whose ideas I could appropriate to shore up my Evangelical faith.
It is clear to me now what I was really doing then. I was cherry-picking the tradition without realizing that everything I believed as an Evangelical—all the assumptions I had imbibed—were either reactions to or deliverances of the Catholic Church that I had supposedly rejected. The Church had placed me at third base while I thought I had hit a triple. I was living off an inheritance that I was convinced I had earned. I was sitting on the shoulders of giants believing that I was standing alone. Okay, that’s too many metaphors, but you get the picture.
During my Fordham years (1984-87) I lived with my Sicilian grandmother in the neighborhood of Cypress Hills in Brooklyn, commuting every other day to the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. Frances Guido (née Dimino) was a daily communicant who had become a widow in 1952 when my grandfather, Aniello Guido, died of stomach cancer at the age of 48. With four young children—13, 10, 8, and 3 at the time of Aniello’s death—she began working full-time as a seamstress at a local clothing factory, from which she retired in 1978.
When I once asked her why she had never remarried, she replied, “How can I bring a strange man into a home with two young daughters?” Yet, it would not be entirely accurate to say that she raised her four children alone. As was the custom of the day in the ethnic neighborhoods that once dominated Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, there was always an ample supply of aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins who had been habituated by their faith “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
My grandmother was undoubtedly disappointed with my apostasy, though she never directly voiced it to me. She was, of course, happy that I was attending Fordham and had hoped that under the influence of the Catholics there I would be guided in the direction of Rome. But it was not until several years after her 2002 death that I would discover that she had actually talked with one of my professors about the condition of my soul. Dominic Balestra, for whom I served as a teaching assistant, told me in a 2009 email:
In reading about [your return to the Church] I immediately recalled meeting your grandmother at one of our philosophy department’s Christmas parties and her hope that your being at Fordham might bring you back to the Catholic Church. I told her that I found you to be a true Christian and that in time Grace will bring you back to our Church . . . If she is deceased she no doubt is celebrating this “good news” with Bob Roth, Vinnie Potter and Norrie Clarke among other Fordham Jesuits who knew you.
Dom’s mention of grace really floored me. As a philosopher, even when I was thinking about returning to the Church in the mid-2000s, I had never thought that much about the indelible effects of grace, except as an important issue over which Protestants and Catholics disagree. I was like an expert in the science of hearing who happened to be deaf. However conversant I was with the arguments about the nature of sound, I still could not hear the music.
Over the subsequent years after Fordham—through academic appointments at UNLV, Whittier College, Trinity International University, Princeton, and finally, Baylor—I slowly began to think more and more like a Catholic, though I was not conspicuously aware of it. It was, nevertheless, so blindingly obvious to many friends, acquaintances, and family members that I was sometimes asked why I was not Catholic. Finally, in late April 2007, while I was serving as the fifty-eighth president of the Evangelical Theological Society, I went to Confession for the first time in over thirty years. My parents, thank God, had lived long enough to see me return to the Church in which they had baptized me.
In my 2009 memoir, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic, I carefully explain what I thought were the primary reasons for my reversion. As I note in that volume, I was impressed and moved by the Catholic Church’s liturgical and doctrinal continuity with the earliest Christians, its unity and apostolicity even when enduring dissent and courting controversy, its uncanny ability to have within its ecclesial leadership both the wheat and the chaff while never abandoning the rule of faith, and its remarkable dexterity in remaining rooted in unchanging truths while faithfully addressing the theoretical challenges and practical problems endemic to every age and culture.
But now I realize that that cannot be the whole story. Becoming Catholic is not like buying a car, selecting a health-care plan, or picking out a pair of slacks tailored to one’s specifications. It is not just a matter of weighing pros and cons and making a choice. It is more like falling in love. Yes, you have your reasons, but you are also moved by something that is not directly under your control. It took me years after returning to the Church to figure this out. I was initially under the illusion that I had made my decision exclusively as a result of successfully addressing several theological issues that I was convinced were preventing my return: the doctrine of justification, apostolic succession, the sacrament of Penance, and the doctrine of transubstantiation.
But in retrospect, I now see what was really going on in my soul. I was drawn back to the Church, not merely by a compelling argument or a set of seemingly unassailable propositions, but by the whole shebang: the example of the Church’s incomparable saints for two millennia; the beauty of the liturgy, even when it is done poorly; the witness of faithful friends and family over many decades; the Church’s humane and realistic account of the relationship between faith and reason; its down-to-earth and non-idealistic appraisal of the human condition; its scientific, humanitarian, charitable, artistic, civilizational, and educational accomplishments; the efficacy of the sacraments and their accessibility to everyone, from the captains of industry to the cooks at the greasy diner; the fact that Dorothy Day, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kobe Bryant, Buffalo Bill Cody, St. John Henry Newman, St. Joan of Arc, Bob Newhart, St. Martin de Porres, Edith Stein, and St. Francis of Assisi can all be part of the same Church without seeming to be out of harmony with each other; ad infinitum. This is why fifteen years later it seems like such an astonishing conceit for me to have thought that I was in any position to interrogate the Church in order to assuage my puny challenges.
Conceit, of course, is an equal opportunity vice. Catholics show signs of it when we come to believe that the works and gifts of the Holy Spirit are limited only to those who are in full communion with the Church, implying that non-Catholic Christians cannot be recipients or conduits of God’s grace. The Church explicitly rejected this idea in its 1964 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio):
Some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ (§3).
As if to provide confirmation of this passage, my life for decades was teeming with Evangelical friends, family members, teachers, and pastors who have truly exhibited “significant elements and endowments . . . which come from Christ and lead back to Christ.” I have no doubt that it was those very aspects of Evangelical life that drew me away from the Church as a young man that nevertheless helped me to keep the faith (however deficiently) for decades afterward.
Every conversion story is at bottom a love story with the same telos, but each one is often remarkably different. Its central character can be a thief on a cross, a Roman emperor (Constantine), a North African dissatisfied with both his character and his Manichean faith (Augustine of Hippo), an agnostic Harvard undergraduate from a prominent Presbyterian family (Avery Dulles), a Polish philosopher of Jewish descent (Edith Stein), a Japanese physician who survived the atomic bomb at Nagasaki (Takashi Nagai), an ex-communist (Dorothy Day), an African-American Supreme Court justice and ex-seminarian (Clarence Thomas), or a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. And what prompts them to finally embrace their newfound (or long-lost) faith can be something as simple as overhearing a neighbor’s child chanting “tolle lege, tolle lege” (Augustine) or, as in my case, the subtle and mysterious movement of grace on a heart stirred by the realization of one’s own smallness.