How my boyhood anti-Catholicism came to an unlikely end

It is embarrassing to recall that I didn’t think my grandparents were Christians. They were Catholics, you see, and so I believed that they worshipped the chipped statue of Mary that stood atop their China hutch. I must even have thought that they intended to hoist themselves into heaven with the rosaries that hung on their bedroom mirror. As an earnest young Evangelical Protestant, I set my faith against theirs.

I only realised how stark this opposition must have been in my mind when I stumbled last week across the testimony that I read out when I was baptised at age 13. Here is what I told the people who assembled on the river bank to see my immersion:

I am a second-generation Christian, and was therefore taught the truths of the Bible my entire life, but it was not until I was three years old that I entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My mother was tucking me into bed and listening to my prayers. She was pregnant with my little brother Joseph, and it was this fact that sparked my interest in the Lord. “Mom,” I said, “Can I have Jesus come into my tummy, too?” My mother then led me in prayer as I accepted Jesus into my heart – or tummy, as it were. In a way, I was led to Christ by my unborn sibling.

I was a “second-generation Christian”. An unborn brother might play an unwitting role in a faith like mine, but aside from my Evangelical parents (one a former Catholic, the other a lifelong Methodist) I had no forebears in faith. Generations of Christians, my grandparents included, were neatly excluded.

When I became a Catholic, I did not cease to be susceptible to such unjust renunciations. If before I stood at risk of erasing my Catholic grandparents from my spiritual autobiography, I now faced the same risk with my parents. How could I be a good son despite the action of Christ’s dividing sword? In my journey from anti-Catholic to Catholic, I have tried to keep two things in mind: many criticisms of the Church are valid, and my reasons for becoming Catholic, whatever their merits, were based on lessons taught me by my Protestant parents.

Along with a whole generation of altar boys raised in the post-conciliar church, my father felt that drawing near to Christ meant walking away from Rome. In this or any age, the Church, however spotless, looks to human eyes like an unattractive bride.

No one knew this better than Boccaccio, who in the second tale of The Decameron describes a Catholic merchant who tries to convince his Jewish business partner to be baptised. The Jewish merchant decides to humour his friend by travelling to Rome and there see for himself how the leaders of this supposedly superior faith live. Upon his return he tells his Catholic friend what he’s seen: “It seems to me that your chief pastor and consequently all the others endeavour with all diligence and all their wit and every art to bring to nought and banish from the world the Christian religion, whereas they should be its foundation and support.”

Yet he nonetheless wants to convert: “I see that this for which they strive does not come to pass, but that your religion continually waxes ever brighter and more glorious.” This must be because “the Holy Spirit is truly the foundation and support thereof”.

Roland Barthes called this form of paradoxical persuasion “operation margarine” after an ad campaign that loudly repeated the objections to margarine, all the better to overcome them. Yet no such pitch, however clever, can really cover up the scandal of the Church’s faults. In our own time, the Church has failed to wax “ever brighter and more glorious” despite spiritual rot. Instead, child abuse settlements and closed parishes, bad catechesis and empty churches have come hand in hand. It was in this context that my father rather understandably found his way out.

Nothing about my childhood made me think that I would one day reverse his course and seek a way in. The reasons against the Church looked too great and overwhelming to be transformed even by the alchemy of operation margarine.

After all, boys who taunted and pushed were the first Catholics I knew. We lived parallel lives, theirs based around St Mary’s and mine around the state school. I would see them on the football field or railway tracks, where we would race down the rails, seeing who could go farthest without falling off. They didn’t like that I was bookish or that my favourite book was the Bible, and so they would come up and call me “Jesus boy” as they shoved me into the gravel.

I was not surprised that the Catholic boys mocked my faith. I had been taught to believe that they did not share it. Unlike the Catholics, I was a Christian. My job was to introduce them to Jesus, a man they could not see through the thicket of saints and popes thrown up by centuries of superstition.

Perhaps this attitude is what got me in trouble with the Catholics. Anyway, one day I must have come home bruised, for my mother told me that the next time one of the boys teased me, I should punch him as hard as I could. To my nine-year-old self, this was confusing. I knew that Jesus had told us to turn the other cheek, and I didn’t see how this could be squared with my mother’s advice. “Jesus wasn’t a doormat,” she said in reply to my objection. “Look at the moneychangers in the Temple.”

I didn’t think that the most natural reading, but she was my mother, so I decided she must be right. I punched the ringleader, a doctor’s son named Travis who was too surprised to hit back.

I now look back on that as the moment I became a Catholic. Rather than persist in my own reading of Scripture, I assented to the judgment of an authority I knew to be loving and gentle. The experience of that quarrel did not exactly overthrow my old prejudice and replace it with warm feelings towards every Catholic or every aspect of their church. Something more important had happened.

In talking to my Protestant mother, I had come to accept the principle of my grandparents’ Catholic belief. One cannot really know how to live by Scripture when there is no authority competent to interpret it. My mother may not have been that authority, but by listening to her I learned to listen to a mother Church which fully and finally is.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things. This article originally appeared in the Christmas issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe here