Just in time for Holy Week, embracing the Church for its density: "There is a 'there' there."
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For thirty years I labored away in parish ministry as a Lutheran pastor. Then for another four years, I was a district dean for the North American Lutheran Church (a supervisory work I enjoyed about as much as tooth decay).
Now, as I write this in the run-up to Holy Week, I am about to become a Roman Catholic, along with my wife; me for the first time and her for the second.
You may blame her for my conversion (though I think of it as a natural transition, as you’ll see). She was raised Roman Catholic and became Lutheran. Her father was raised Lutheran and became Catholic. Life is a darn strange thing at times. Her father died two years ago, and in the throes of watching that good man give up his life to ALS, she felt a tug back to her childhood faith.
To my surprise — hers too, I think — I said I’d tag along. Actually, it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. From seminary on as I became enmeshed in the Lutheran confessional documents from the sixteenth century, I progressively became more catholic in my thinking. What I sought for my faith was an ecclesial density; the feeling that there is a “there” there. The state of Lutheran church bodies in America simply does not approach it.
But it isn’t only out of disappointment as a Lutheran that I am becoming Roman Catholic. There is conviction behind this move. That rises along several avenues.
1) Some of my seminary class work, back in the late 1970s, was done at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. I had classes in Sacramentology and Marian studies, taught by two old school Jesuits. I found myself in a classroom, the lone Lutheran surrounded by a horde of Salesian seminarians. It was exciting.
What impressed me was how close Lutherans and Catholics really are in basic doctrines and in the respective theological formulations. We ― Romans and Lutherans ― do theology alike, and possibly in a way nobody else does. We pay close attention to our words. Each word is weighed and compared to alternative words that might be used but pose less precision. Precision in wording, it seems, will keep us out of theological hell, and if the exact words aren’t the exactly proper words placed in the exact proper order, well, do not doubt it, we are all certainly doomed.
When you think about it, it’s actually a pretty charming approach. It also means that when Lutherans and Catholics do sit down together, they have a common language and speaking it together often results in surprising outcomes, as in 1999 with the doctrine of justification.
That’s one level. At the parish level, there is no consistency in how catholic a Lutheran congregation will be or can be. It’s that density thing I mentioned; pointedly, Catholics got it, Lutherans don’t.
2) When my wife said she was thinking of turning Roman again, I started wondering just how Lutheran I still remained. I had the influence of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus tugging at me. I was his successor at Forum Letter, a Lutheran publication he edited for 16 years (I did him a year better). In his years as a Catholic priest he would often nudge me, come home. The last correspondence we exchanged was on that topic. After his death there were a couple nights in my dreams when he whopped me upside the head because I hadn’t done it. The man had, in his Lutheran years, deep impact on my pastoral life as a Lutheran, and that only intensified in the years he was a priest. I enjoy telling people I discovered Neuhaus wheedles as well dead as he ever did alive.
The more I thought things through the more I realized most of the Lutheran clerics I admired most — and with whom I enjoyed the comradery of the Lutheran pastorate — had, one by one, left for Rome. It seemed I knew as many priests as I did pastors, and after a while, not a few of those pastors had became priests. There I was on the shore, hailing good-bye as they left.
For a short while after Neuhaus’ death I helped edit the magazine he founded, First Things. Though not explicitly Catholic, it is usually regarded that way. For the last six years, coming up on seven, I have been a regular columnist at the website; I was a Lutheran writer; now I’m a Catholic writer.
3) It became very easy for me to become Roman Catholic. But the key of course is not convenience, but conviction. I came to believe that the essence, more like fullness, of the Church of Christ is found in churches in communion with the Church of Rome.
I reject nothing of being a Lutheran. That is the transition, not the conversion; I am moving, but the Christian faith that has marked my life is coming with me. I learned my prayers as a Lutheran, memorized the catechism, and when I was struggling out of the well of agnosticism tending to atheism every third or fourth day, God put in my life some challenging, passionate, authentic Lutheran pastors who taught me well. For a guy who in those years did not believe Christ was raised, it was in a Lutheran community founded in the Resurrection of Christ that I first believed there had been a resurrection. What may I do with that, save give God praise?
Being a Catholic isn’t a finished job — not for me, not for any of us, as I think about it. We do not occupy a perfected Church. But then it is not our job to make it perfect; that’s God’s responsibility. But we are promised a holy Church being perfected. There are always discoveries of faith awaiting each of us.
Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached on Twitter: @RESaltzman.