If Catholicism is True, Then What?
Maybe you're an atheist who has been reading and commenting here for a while. Or perhaps this is your first visit to Strange Notions. Whatever the case, the question remains: what should you do if Catholicism begins making sense? Leah Libresco faced that question head on in June 2012 when, after months of wrestling with her lifelong atheism, she decided to enter the Catholic Church. In this article, Leah offers advice for those in the same boat today:
So you think you might be a Catholic?
Maybe you’re a former atheist who plans to convert to Catholicism, or maybe you’re still an atheist but are a little uncomfortable with how plausible Catholicism seems as an alternative hypothesis. Either way, you want to spend a little time exploring Catholicism and figuring out how and whether to convert. This article is for you.
But I don’t know what to decide!
Luckily, you don’t have to decide. Catholicism is either true or not, before and after you change your mind. Gravity doesn’t fluctuate between true and false depending on your beliefs, and neither does the Church. So your job isn’t so much about deciding as it is learning about and recognizing the world you already live in.
Recognition does carry certain responsibilities. If you try to ignore gravity, you’ll quickly find yourself bruised or worse. If Catholicism seems to be true, but you choose to ignore it, you deny yourself opportunities for healing and strength in the face of Man’s broken nature. So, if you think Catholicism might be true, due diligence calls for at least some further investigation.
Ok, what then? How do I investigate?
Sites like Strange Notions will certainly help, but you may also want to join a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) class. Contact a nearby parish and ask to be connected with the RCIA teacher (the priest or office staff should be able to help.) If you’re looking on the parish website, you probably want to email the Director of Religious Education (DRE). RCIA classes are meant to help you understand Catholicism, so you can figure out whether you accept it. When you say ‘Amen,’ we want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into, and are consenting with a willing and joyful heart. RCIA classes cover basic Catholic theology and help you get a handle on how your new faith is lived.
But what if I’m not sure?
Enrolling in RCIA classes isn’t a promise to convert. The first time I attended RCIA classes, I didn’t plan to convert; I just wanted to learn about Catholicism directly from the Catholic Church. And I was still unconvinced by the time Advent rolled around. The other students in the class were making a public declaration of their intention to convert, so I dropped out of the class. The next year, after a bit more reading, arguing, and thinking, I enrolled again, this time meaning to stay to the end.
What should I tell my parents/friends/coworkers/cat?
It’s fine to take a little time before discussing your thoughts with friends and family. You’ll want to speak to them eventually, but you’re allowed a little time to come to peace with your decision before you wade into fights or discussions. Remember, there’s a lot of philosophical diversity among atheists, so the points that were convincing to you may not be compelling to someone who starts with very different assumptions. I find it helpful to approach stressful discussion not as debates, but as explanations. At the end of the conversation, I want my friend to understand what my reasoning was even if she may still disagree with.
But what if a friend brings up a question I don’t know the answer to?
It’s alright not to have answers to every question you get asked. If your friend says something like, “But isn’t the translation of the third word in the second Epistle contested?” It’s fine to say, “I don’t know. But that word isn’t really what my conversion hinged on. So I might be curious about looking it up, but I don’t know the answer now, and that’s not what changed my mind.” It can also be helpful, for you and your friend, to table a disagreement until you speak to an expert or consult a reference. If you weren’t already an expert in Church history or other specialized topics, you should expect to encounter a lot of questions you don’t know the answers to offhand. Your friend’s questions may help spur your interest, but you shouldn’t treat them as a high-stakes pop quiz.
What if my strained interactions are with the Catholics I’m newly meeting, not the atheists I already knew?
The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints, but that saying is a lot more comforting when we’re thinking about how we’ll be welcomed and healed, instead of about who we’re likely to encounter in the waiting room. The Church is small-c catholic—it’s for everyone—so you’re at least as likely to run into some people who rub you the wrong way as you are at a dinner party.
The Church is different, not because it promised that everyone you meet will be well suited to you or kind, but because it informs you that you have a familial relationship to all these strange, abrasive people, and they to you. Catholics across the world are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we sometimes struggle to live together as a family, but we always desire it.
When you enter the Church, you may find it easier to receive patience or to know how to love your less-than-neighborly neighbor when you can ask Christ for grace and light through the sacraments. For now, ask for help in prayer, and ask other people or priests for help navigating a difficult relationship.
What will happen after I convert?
I would say that the terrifying and wonderful thing is that you’re in direct, personal contact with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Every moment of wonder you’ve experienced as the resolution chord booms in a symphony, every moment of humble awe as a stranger or friend went out of their way to show you love (or every moment of surprise as you discovered the depths of love you were capable of giving), and every moment you felt the sudden relief of pieces falling into place (whether doing a puzzle, writing a math proof, or reaching the denouement of a mystery novel) were all shadows and images that were trying to point you toward God, the Person they resembled.
Think of what you would do if you were trying to teach someone a new language. First you’d point to objects and declare the nouns that corresponded. You might be able to act out verbs. And, after a while, your student might begin to pick up grammar by trial and error.
God shares himself with us through these glimpses of the transcendent. He meets us where we are, and tutors us in the language we speak. But, as you cleave to Him and His Church, you begin to have the opportunity to speak back and learn what was always meant to be your natural language.
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