Now I come to a final point, but this is not one which convinced me to join the Catholic Church, for at this point in my search, I had become convinced at first intellectually, and then with my whole soul, that the Catholic Church was what she claimed to be: the one, true, holy, apostolic and universal Church founded by Christ, adorned as His bride, and also forming His mystical body on Earth. This final point is one I discovered only after I entered communion with the Catholics, and which I could have only discovered then.
The final point is the centrality of the sacramental life to the Christian life, and the luminous, supernal reality of the sacraments as a conduit for divine grace.
In a Catholic Church, you do not only praise Christ with your lips, you eat him with your mouth in an act of intimacy shocking alike to the Muslims as to the Gnostic, who regard all matter as evil, and God too good to be incarnate. The shock of incarnation is still alive here, and still offending people.
It is like the jump of a live electric wire. If a layman offers me a bit of bread and asks me to eat it as a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, this is surely a profound and reverential thing, but it is not a living thing, it is merely a symbolic act of piety. It is like tipping your hat to a lady as a sign of respect for the fairer sex, or covering your heart with your hand to salute the flag.
If a priest who has consecrated the Host offers me the soul and body of Christ Himself under the appearance of a bit of bread, this is as different from a mere sign or mere salute as marrying a lady and carrying her off to the honeymoon is from a tip of the hat, as different as serving the nation in wartime and taking a bullet for the flag as from a mere salute.
It is real.
What the Protestants have, by their own admission, is not real. What they have is symbolic.
The first time I entered the confessional booth, and had to confess an entire lifetime of sin, I was painfully aware that the Priest could impose any penance he saw fit. Instead he imposed, thankfully, a rather light penance. When I expressed surprise that so many years upon years of blackest sin could be forgiven with so little suffering on my part, the Priest commented only that a little leaven raises the whole loaf.
The burden of suffering for sin had been shouldered by another, which is something all Christians of whatever denomination know and for which we give thanks. But not all denominations know the sensation of having the Holy Spirit abolish and absolve you of sin. It is a matter as profound as baptism, but, unlike baptism, it is recurrent.
I have heard Protestants dismiss the sacrament of confession on the grounds that the Priest has not the power to absolve sin. Likewise, I have heard members of younger denominations dismiss baptism on the grounds that water has not the power to install new life. Likewise again, I have heard my hippy friends living in sin together dismiss marriage on the grounds that a little bit of paper called a marriage certificate has not the power to bind two souls together in love. All such argument are based on a very simple error into which a certain degree of willful ignorance or self deception is involved.
It is all strawman argument. No one claims the marriage certificate in and of itself could make a couple lawfully wed; nor that the baptismal waters have the power to baptize without the baptism (for then zealots could save all souls by running down the street with waterpistols filled with water from the baptismal font, consigning souls to heaven with a squirt as they ran by); nor does any man claim it is the man serving as Priest, rather than the power of Christ Himself, by His sacrifice on the Cross, who performs the absolution of sin.
In each case, the critic confuses a sacrament, which is a visible sign of an invisible reality, with a symbol, which is an arbitrary sign related to reality only as an arbitrary convention. The word ‘sorrow’ in English is an arbitrary sound vibration linked by the convention we call language to the invisible reality of a soul in grief. Tears, however, are an outward sign of grief. The mere fact that the tears can be faked, for example, by hiding an onion in your hankie and pretending to cry, does not by itself break the link between tears and the sorrow which causes tears. On the other hand, when a Judge says the words ‘I condemn the prisoner to death’ or a Bride and Bridegroom say the words ‘I do’ the last act in the reality of the murder trial or the marriage ceremony has been performed; and the prisoner really is condemned, and the pair really is wedded, as of that moment. But the words are the audible outward aspect of a terrible and permanent inward and inaudible reality.
My hippy friends are not actually married. That is the reality, albeit it is an invisible reality, and they are correct, but irrelevant, when they say the visible marriage certificate does not create the marriage. My Christian friends from a denomination that considered baptism to be a mental act only, one not requiring an act of baptism, are not actually baptized. So why should I assume my Protestant friends are absolved of sin whenever they perform a mental act of contrition without the benefit of clergy? More reasonable to assume they will work off the debt of sin in that selfsame Purgatory in which they do not believe.
Why assume they have in them the new life of Christ when they did not eat the body of Christ and drink His blood precisely as commanded? While it is certainly possible that they might be saved such as they are, for the mercy of Christ is measureless, they are willfully not making use of the helps Christ has provided for them, and dismissing the means of salvation as unworthy, which Christ instituted as worthy.
But what is the point of trying to live the Christian life without the aids of the Christian sacraments? Why attempt to build a bridge yourself armed only with a redacted Bible and your own imagination, when the entire communion of saints, on Earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven, not to mention the whole Kingdom of Heaven, stands ready to aid and assist and inspire?
The Christian life without the Christian sacramental life is like the one-legged man at the dance. He can do a jig, indeed a sprightly one, and may well shame many a two legged man who dances with less enthusiasm, but he will never find the balance and gracefulness the dance requires. It is awkward, but it can be done.
Now at this point I depart from rational argument altogether, and recount a mystery before which reason stands mute and amazed. I recall the most profound sensation as of an eternal force moving through my soul when the words of the absolution were said over me. It was like coming to life again. I do not mean I suffered a strong emotional reaction—I surely did, but this was not that. I mean that I sensed something supernatural. I can no more doubt it than I doubt my own self-awareness, or the sight of the sun at noon.
Obviously, this is not an experience I can reproduce before the eyes of a skeptic, nor even relate to a Protestant or anyone who has never gone to confession. I do not even know if Catholics or Orthodox tormented by no deep sin or mired by many decades of spiritual grime coating their souls could sense a sensation like that I did. Nonetheless, I am an eyewitness. It happened to me. I have no logical reason to doubt its reality.
But this is a reality closed to those who deny the reality and sanctity of the sacrament of confession, and a similar reality to closed to those who deny the reality and sanctity of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The final point of difference between the universal Church and the various national denominations and church-flavored prayer meetings of laymen is the fundamental difference of the nature of what they say the church is, and what they say happens at services.
The most obnoxious accusation I heard leveled at the Catholic Mass was from a member of a denomination that is not technically Christian, since they neither baptize nor confess Christ as divine savoir, but they call themselves Christian, and take Jesus to have been a wise prophet after the fashion of Elias or Moses (albeit one whose laws they need not take literally). He accused the Catholics of practicing magic, of attributing spiritual powers to bread and wine and mere bits of matter. To him, this was not merely repugnant to the dignity of God, who is a spiritual being incapable of either creating the material world or incarnating Himself, it was a bar or hindrance to true spiritual unity with the divine.
Of course, the opposite is the case. The belief that symbols and signs are sacred is a magical belief, because it conflates the symbol with the reality. The belief that reality is exactly what it says it is, that is a non-magical but supremely rational belief.
The only point in being a Christian as opposed to a Jew or Muslim is to believe Jesus was Christ, that is, that the promised messiah of the Jews was indeed the God of the Jews who took on human form and became man, the Word made flesh, and dwelt among us. The only reason to be a Christian is to believe that Christ has died, and is risen, and shall come again.
To believe that the Eucharist was merely a symbol and not literal but that the Resurrection was literal and not a symbolic resurrection is an oddity, perhaps even a contradiction, for it argues that a God who has the power to incarnate Himself in Man has not the power to incarnate Himself in bread. It is like saying an author can write an autobiography, and portray himself on paper, but cannot write a fable about the gingerbread man, and portray himself under a figure of speech.
A less obnoxious but far more widespread criticism is that the sacraments and the apparatus of clergy is a barrier or bar to a man’s attempt to be reconciled to God. Many a proud Protestant during my search told me with a sneer that he needed no stinking Priest to introduce him to God, or act as a chaperone, nor to intercede, and that God intended the scripture to act as the only way and truth and life and bridge binding man to heaven.
These sneers were the single most revolting and repellant aspect of the whole debate between Protestant and Catholic I was forced to endure during my search, because they were nakedly satanic. It was the sneer of pride. It was the look on the face of Lucifer boasting that he could place his throne above the stars.
One reason for my great affection for Greek Orthodox celebrants and even Mormons is that I have so far encountered no sneering dismissal by their laity against everyone who was not a layman. I have not heard an Orthodox boast that he can confess by himself his sins to God and be granted absolution without the aid of a priest, nor have a I heard a Mormon claim that his relationship with God needs no aid from temple nor tabernacle nor prophet. That boast of self-sufficiency I have heard from Gnostics, and Deists, and Lutherans, and others of like ilk.
But putting that revulsion aside (for it is, after all, merely an emotion) I could not help but notice the logic of the argument. The argument was that the instrumentality Christ Himself had put in place to build a bridge between Man and God was not only insufficient when compared to, say, the institutions put in place by Calvin or King Henry, they were actually counterproductive.
The argument is that the sacraments, or some of them, are hindrances or distractions from true reconciliation with God, and that the priests and the saint, by interceding for us and helping to carry our prayers, actually block those prayers.
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that it is so. Paging through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I see nothing which says a man cannot read the Bible by himself, pray by himself, ask for forgiveness by himself, and be granted forgiveness by the grace of God. Indeed, since the Catholic and Orthodox Church recognizes and encourages hermits and monastics and other forms of consecrated life, if anything, the Church is more eager than the denominations that one can encounter God in isolation.
But there is nothing in scripture or tradition or natural reason which says that this isolation is necessary.
Nothing I have read says that the Catholic Church teaches that you need a saint to help you pray or need a priest to confess in prayer your sins to God. Nothing says God cannot shed His grace as He sees fit beyond the confines of the official walls of the Church; and indeed, several passages in the Catechism say the exact opposite in no uncertain terms.
Most, if not all, of the criticisms I have heard directed against the sacramental life of the Church and the new life it grants to those of us who are born again in Christ are based on woeful ignorance of what the Church actually teaches about these things, or a woeful misunderstanding of the wonder of what the Church offers.
The first time I had the opportunity to eat the bread and drink the wine in memory of Christ, nothing could have stopped me, not even if a thousand swords and pikes had risen up to block my way, not even if I were to die the next second. That is how hungry, after my barren life of proud atheism, how hungry I was for Christ, or any memorandum of Him. As I recall, this was at an Anglican service to which a friend had invited me: that was how profoundly I was moved at what was, by all accounts, merely a sign or reminder of Christ. No one claimed it was He Himself.
The Roman Catholics (and, of course, our brothers the Orthodox) make a much stronger claim, one that is shocking. They claim the bread and wine is Him. It is God.
Compare those two claims, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. If the Protestant claim is correct, and no man has the authority to consecrate the Host, and no priest in the history of the world has ever done so, this means that all billion or so of Catholics and Orthodox Christians since the First Century onward, all over the world, were committing an act of satanic blasphemy and idol-worship, literally bowing down to a wafer of bread they made with their own hands as one would bow to a divine being. It was not until the Fifteenth Century that the good Lord in His divine wisdom revealed to a few German theologians or English princes that the practice of the Eucharist had been in error during all those centuries and in all those lands. Calvin concluded God intended from before their birth the souls unlucky enough to be born in the First through Fifteenth Centuries to be damned.
If the Catholic claim is correct, then God is as shocking and surprising in His incarnation to us, here and now, as He was to the astonished and appalled Jews in First Century Palestine. If the Catholic claim is honest, what happens at Mass is a miracle more intimate than marriage and childbirth.
Lest someone should say that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a recent invention, adopted by the Council of Trent, let us keep in mind that no Christian doctrine is defined by the Church until a heresy arises to question it. The date at which a doctrine is formally recognized has to do with the date at which a heresiarch first doubts it. What no Christian has ever doubted, no Council has ever affirmed.
At this point in my search, my search was over. For I had come to the same point during my atheist days in reference to Christianity as I now came in my nondenominational days in reference to Catholicism.
In my atheist days, the more I looked at Christianity, the more I realized it was not merely one religion among many. It was fundamentally different, an oddity, if not a monstrosity. I will not here list those differences: that would require an essay, if not a book. It is sufficient to say that there is no other religion, aside from Christianity, which forms a Church, which defines itself by a Creed, and which promises rebirth in this life and eternal life in the next. The despair of Oriental religions and the dreaminess of pagan religions have nothing in common with the sharp, hard, electrical and alarming reality of the Christian faith, which has given rise to Christendom which has conquered the world both physically and intellectually.
Most atheists pay lip service to the idea that Christianity is a superstition no different from any other, no different from the philosophy of Confucius, the mysticism of Buddha, or the pathetic rites and practices of the Cargo Cult. But that is not what they believe in their hearts. In their hearts, all their enmity is reserved for Christianity. They regard it as more dangerous, more insidious, and more outrageous than other beliefs. Most atheists, sooner or later, come to realize that the claims of Christianity are so immoderate, so over-the-top, so shockingly outrageous, that Christianity is either shocking in how utterly and supernally true it is, or else Christianity is shocking in how depraved an abomination it is.
Hearing the message of the Christians, most atheists, soon or late, come to the realization that if Christianity is not the Word of life from Heaven, it is surely the gabble of madness from Hell. It is not merely one opinion among many. If it is right, it is absolutely right, shockingly right. If it is wrong, it is as utterly wrong as it is possible to be, shockingly wrong.
So, once again, I reached that same point as a nondenominational Christian looking at the various denominations. I did not then and do not now see any real difference between, say, Baptists and Methodists. They look like two difference and respectable opinions about the nature of the discipline and doctrine of the Christian life that are reasonable.
But between them and the Roman Catholic Church is an outrageous gulf. The Church claims to be the one and only Church. She claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit. She claims absolute authority over all matters of faith and morals. She claims to be in the lineage of Melchizadech. She claims continuity with Paul and Peter. She claims to be the Bride of Christ. She claims to be the Body of Christ. She claims that at daily mass Christ is present under the appearance of Bread and Wine. She claims what is loosened on Earth by her ministers is loosened in heaven, and what is bound, is bound. She claims to know the names of some of the saved and blessed Elect in heaven, and commends those saints to your prayers. She claims the Church will endure until the End of Time itself.
There is something in the mood and atmosphere of these claims that rings familiar to me. Do you recognize it? Who else made claims that sounded both blasphemous in their outrageous scope, and also too good to be true? Who else made claims so shocking that all the respectable people were stirred not just to dispute and disagreement but to anger and indignation, indeed, to bloody violence?
Read the Gospel. Christ made claims this outrageous. He promised eternal life and prayers answered before they were asked and mountains to jump into the sea. If He was not a lunatic and not a confidence trickster of spectacular ambition and suicidal incompetence, then He was telling the truth. He was the truth. If Christ is lying, then He is worse than a devil from Hell. If Christ is lying, He is the antichrist. But if He is telling the truth, if He is the truth, then He is the Christ.
Likewise, with his bride, the Church. If she is not the Bride of Christ, as she says she is, performing miracles at every mass and absolving sins at every baptism and confession, then she is the Whore of Babylon and the archenemy of Christ.
In my survey of the width of theological and doctrinal opinion that agitates the minds of the faithful since the beginning of the faith, there were many mansions I inspected, some large and some very small indeed, some small and humble and some bright and colorful. And then there was one titanic and ancient tower, taller than a mountain, tall enough to crack open the sky like the ladder seen by Jacob, and from the echo of the resounding bells and singing choirs rang out a word so unearthly and yet so wide that it surely came from the other side of the firmament.
In the same way, among the many men who are sages or mystics or prophets who founded or inspired a religion, there is one who towers above the others, and speaks words at once so mild and so outrageous that the nations shake to hear them, either in the terror of the Godfearing or the terror of the rebellious angels.
My experience is that Catholics (and I include Orthodox) when I spoke to them, said the most shockingly wondrous things, things too good to be true, but they said them in a humble and unassuming way. In this case, they told me that the bread and wine was the Incarnate Christ, and that I could literally take a divine substance into my body, in a union more intimate than marriage.
My experience with non-Catholics is the opposite. They would say doctrinal ideas which I could have made up myself, claiming these ideas came from God, things too obvious or too boring to be true, and they said them in an arrogant and self-righteous way.
I admit this could have been sheer accident. Perhaps I just happened to meet humble Catholics and arrogant non-Catholics. But the attitude seemed, to me at least, not to be due to their personality type but to the nature of the message they were saying: The Catholic mourned because the dissenters had departed from the Mother Church, their home. The Non-Catholic scolded because the faithful were too gullible or too wicked to depart from the cathouse of the Whore of Babylon.
And when I asked politely what made her a Whore rather than a Mother, I was answered with trifling bits of hairsplitting, arguments about metaphysics baffling even to a philosopher, and wild accusations.
Like the bandits in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE who say that they don’t need no stinking badges, one too many Protestant boasted of his ability to find his way to heaven without any stinking priests, needing no support of stinking saints, no help from the sacraments of confession or the Eucharist, and needing nothing whatever from the stinking Virgin Mary. Again, I am not saying this is normal Protestant doctrine, but I am saying it is natural. The nature of Protestantism makes this stance natural and reasonable, whereas the nature of the ancient forms of the Church do not.
This haunted me. For there was one other whose manner was the same. He said the most astonishing and shocking things, promising that mountains would jump into the sea and so on, but in the most humble and unassuming way.
I believe the Catholic Church is the bride of Christ because she talks like Christ talked.
So, finally, having tasted Christ in the bread He gave us, and heard His pardon and peace bestowed by the ministers He left with us, I am finally and fully convinced that His Church is who she says she is: the Catholic Church is the body of Christ because she speaks with His voice, and, if you peer into the signs and wonders which surround her like the bright cloud around ark and altar, you will discern His living features.