People who know my story realize I am a graduate of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University.
It’s pretty much of a stretch therefore that I not only ended up as a Catholic priest, but I was ordained and now serve here in Greenville, South Carolina on the doorstep of BJU.
Sometimes people ask if there is animosity between us. There isn’t any on my part, but I can certainly understand their point of view if some people from that world regard me as a traitor, a heretic and a seriously deluded person. I get it.
For my part, I have always thanked God for my strong Evangelical upbringing and I have always seen my progress from Bob Jones University to the Catholic priesthood as being a case of simply adding more to the riches I had received in that world. I’ve outlined that in my book More Christianity--which explains the Catholic faith not as something essentially different from Evangelical religion, but something more.
Protestantism is, after all, a reductionist movement. The Reformers were sincere in their attempts to prune back the excesses, the extra traditions and superstitions of medieval Catholicism. Everything good in Protestantism is derived from the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church, so becoming first an Anglican, and then a Catholic, and then a Catholic priest was a matter of adding more and more to my faith–not reducing it or changing it in any essential way.
Of course, in this pilgrimage the Blessed Virgin Mary looms large. Fellow convert Kimberly Hahn was asked what were the three things that were the biggest problem for her as she became Catholic. She is quoted as saying, “Mary, Mary and Mary.” The sincere Protestant really believes that Catholics put the Blessed Virgin Mary where Jesus should be. This is probably the biggest problem for most Evangelicals about the Catholic faith.
I confronted these problems in my discussions with a fellow Bob Jones graduate, David Gustafson. We wrote a book together which was our conversation about Mary. The first edition was called Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate. It went out of print, but I have recently re-published it as Our Lady?-A Catholic Evangelical Debate. I think it still stands as the best book on the subject which is treated in this way. David and I discuss all the Marian doctrines and the book really does not only help Evangelicals understand the Catholic beliefs, but it also helps Catholics understand and sympathize with Protestant objections.
As we celebrate the Immaculate Conception this week, it is worth explaining why Protestants object to the Marian dogmas. First of all, most of them don’t understand the Immaculate Conception. Many think it is the same thing as the Virgin Birth. Some think it has to do with the Annunciation and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Others confuse it with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
However, when I have explained it to Evangelicals very few object to it. I explain it like this: Jesus is God’s Son. They agree. He took his human flesh from Mary. Sometimes there is confusion about this because many Evangelicals (innocently) have a docetic view of the incarnation…that Jesus was a kind of squeaky clean superman who sort of slid through Mary’s body as if it were a conduit into this world. But once they think it through they usually see that an orthodox view of Jesus means that he took his flesh from his mother. If he took her human flesh it had to be free from any taint of original sin otherwise he would also share in that sin and would not be the perfect Son of God. So far so good. Therefore we believe that God preserved Mary from any taint of original sin. The only remaining question is “When did that happen”? Logic points us to say it must have happened at the beginning of Mary’s life and if life begins at conception, then it began when she was conceived (by natural processes between her mother and father).
Once Evangelicals understand this dogma they usually do not object so much. They object (as I did) that the Catholic Church has declared it to be a dogma which must be held by the faithful. They prefer that we had kept it as a pious opinion. That was my view also until I finally came to believe in the Immaculate Conception not only with my head but also with my heart. I have recounted that story before. You can read it here if you wish in a blog post entitled Fr Paul, Fried Chicken and the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception is therefore a great gift to the church. Why do Catholics insist that it is a dogma that must be held by the faithful and not simply a pious opinion? It is true that a full understanding of the Blessed Virgin Mary is necessary for a full and complete understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ her Son. When we come to understand fully Mary’s role in redemption we can accept and affirm most fully the work that Jesus Christ has done.
In other words, knowing, understanding and loving Mary helps me have a closer personal relationship with Jesus.
Or as Catholics would put it: Through Mary to Jesus.