by J.D. Vance
I often wonder what my grandmother—Mamaw, as I called her—would have thought about her grandson becoming Catholic. We used to argue about religion constantly. She was a woman of deep, but completely de-institutionalized, faith. She loved Billy Graham and Donald Ison, a preacher from her home in southeastern Kentucky. But she loathed “organized religion.” She often wondered aloud how the simple message of sin, redemption, and grace had given way to the televangelists on our early 1990s Ohio TV screen. “These people are all crooks and perverts,” she told me. “All they want is money.” But she watched them anyway, and they were the closest she usually came to regular church service, at least in Ohio. Unless she was back home in Kentucky, she rarely attended church. And if she did, it was usually to satisfy my early adolescent quest for some attachment to Christianity besides the 700 Club.
Like many poor people, Mamaw rarely voted, seeing electoral politics as fundamentally corrupt. She liked F.D.R., Harry S. Truman, and that was about it. Unsurprisingly, a woman whose only political heroes had been dead for decades didn’t like politics as a matter of course and cared even less for the political drift of modern Protestantism. My first real exposure to an institutional church would come later, through my father’s large pentecostal congregation in southwestern Ohio. But I knew a few things about Catholicism well before then. I knew that Catholics worshipped Mary. I knew they rejected the legitimacy of Scripture. And I knew that the Antichrist—or at least, the Antichrists’s spiritual adviser—would be a Catholic. Or, at the time, I would have said, “is” a Catholic—as I felt pretty confident that the Antichrist walked among us.
Mamaw seemed not to care much about Catholics. Her younger daughter had married one, and she thought him a good man. She felt their way of worshipping was rather formal and peculiar, but what mattered to her was Jesus. Revelation 18 may have been about Catholics, and it may have been about something else. But the Catholic she knew cared about Jesus, and that was all right with her.
Still, Mamaw looms so large in my mind—she still, more than a decade after her death, is the person to whom I most feel indebted. Without her, I wouldn’t be here. And the uncomfortable fact is that the Christ of the Catholic Church always seemed a little different from the Jesus I’d grown up with. A little too stodgy, too formal. Sallman’s famous portrait of Christ hung upstairs near my bedroom, and that’s how I encountered him: personal and kind, but a little forlorn. The Christ of Catholicism floated high above you, as a grown man or a baby, wreathed in beams of light and crowned like a king. There is no way to avoid the discomfort a woman like Mamaw felt with that kind of a Christ. The Catholic Jesus was a majestic deity, and we had little interest in majestic deities because we weren’t a majestic people.
This was the most significant hangup I encountered after I began to think about becoming Catholic. I could think myself out of most standard objections. Catholics didn’t, it turned out, worship Mary. Their acceptance of both scriptural and traditional authority slowly appeared to me as wisdom, as I watched too many of my friends struggle with what a given passage of Scripture could possibly mean. I even began to acquire a sense that Catholicism possessed a historical continuity with the Church Fathers—indeed, with Christ Himself—that the unchurched religion of my upbringing couldn’t match. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I converted I would no longer be my grandmother’s grandson. So for many years I occupied the uncomfortable territory between curiosity about Catholicism and mistrust.
I got there in a pretty conventional way. I joined the Marines after high school, like so many of my peers—indeed, the only other 2003 high-school graduate on my block also enlisted in the Marines. I left for Iraq in 2005, a young idealist committed to spreading democracy and liberalism to the backward nations of the world. I returned in 2006, skeptical of the war and the ideology that underpinned it. Mamaw was dead, and without a church or anything to anchor me to the faith of my youth, I slid from devout to nominal, and then to something very much less. By the time I left the Marines in 2007 and began college at The Ohio State University, I read Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and called myself an atheist.
I won’t belabor the story of how I got there, because it is both conventional and boring. A lot of it had to do with a feeling of irrelevance: increasingly, the religious leaders I turned to tended to argue that if you prayed hard enough and believed hard enough, God would reward your faith with earthly riches. But I knew many people who believed and prayed a lot without any riches to show for it. But there are two insights worth reflecting from that phase in my life, as they both presaged an intellectual awakening not long ago that ultimately led me back to Christ. The first is that, for an upwardly mobile poor kid from a rough family, atheism leads to an undeniable familial and cultural rupture. To be an atheist is to be no longer of the community that made you who you were. For so long, I hid my unbelief from my family—and not because any of them would have cared very much. Very few of family members attended church, but everyone believed in something rather than nothing.
There were ways of compensating for this, and one of those (at least for me) was a brief flirtation with libertarianism. To lose my faith was to lose my cultural conservatism, and in a world that was growing increasingly aligned with the Republican party, my ideological response took the form of overcompensation: having lost my cultural conservatism, I would become even more economically conservative. The irony, of course, is that it was the economic program of the Republican party that least interested my family—none of them cared how much the Bush administration slashed tax rates for billionaires. The G.O.P. became a kind of totem—I attached myself to it ever more strongly because it gave me some common ground with my family. And the most respectable way to do so among my new college friends was through a dogged commitment to neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Tax breaks and Social Security cuts were socially acceptable ways to be conservative among the American elite.
The second insight is that my abandonment of religion was more cultural than intellectual. There were ways in which I found my religion difficult to square with science as it came to me. I’ve never been a classical Darwinist, for instance, for reasons David Gelerntner has outlined in his excellent new book. But evolutionary theory in some form struck me as plausible, and though I consumed Tornado in a Junkyard and every other work of Young Earth Creationism, I eventually got to the point where I couldn’t square my understanding of biology with what my church told me I had to believe. I was never so committed to Young Earth Creationism that I felt I had to choose between biology and Genesis. But the tension between a scientific account of our origin and the biblical account I’d absorbed made it easier to discard my faith.
And the truth is that I discarded it for the simplest of reasons: the madness of crowds. Much of my new atheism came down to a desire for social acceptance among American elites. I spent so much of my time around a different type of people with a different set of priorities that I couldn’t help but absorb some of their preferences. I became interested in secularism just as my attention turned to my separation from the Marines and my impending transition to college. I knew how the educated tended to feel about religion: at best, provincial and stupid; at worst, evil. Echoing Hitchens, I began to think and then eventually to say things like: “The Christian cosmos is more like North Korea than America, and I know where I’d like to live.” I was fitting in to my new caste, in deed and emotion. I am embarrassed to admit this, but the truth often reflects poorly on its subject.
And if I can say something in my defense: it wasn’t exactly conscious. I didn’t think to myself, “I am not going to be a Christian because Christians are rubes and I want to plant myself firmly in the meritocratic master class.” Socialization operates in more subtle, but more powerful ways. My son is two, and he has in the last six months—just as his social intelligence has skyrocketed—transitioned from ripping our German Shepherd’s fur out to hugging and kissing him gleefully. Part of that comes from the joy of giving and receiving affections from man’s best friend. But part of it comes from the fact that my wife and I grimace and complain when he tortures the dog but coo and laugh when he loves on it. He responds to us much as I responded to the educated caste to which I slowly gained exposure. In college, very few of my friends and even fewer of my professors had any sort of religious faith. Secularism may not have been a prerequisite to join the elites, but it sure made things easier.
Of course, if you had told me this when I was twenty four, I would have protested vigorously. I would have quoted not just Hitchens, but Russell and Ayer. I would have told you all the ways in which C.S. Lewis was a moron whose arguments could only hold water against third-rate intellects. I’d watch Ravi Zacharias just to note the problems in his arguments, lest a better-read Christian deploy those arguments against me. I prided myself on an ability to overwhelm the opposition with my logic. There was an arrogance at the heart of my worldview, emotionally and intellectually. But I comforted myself with an appeal to a philosopher whose atheism-cum-libertarianism told me everything I wanted to hear: Ayn Rand. Great, smart men were only arrogant if they were wrong, and I was anything but that.
But there were seeds of doubt, one planted in the mind, and the other in the heart. The former I encountered during a mid-level philosophy course at Ohio State. We had read a famous written debate between Antony Flew, R.M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell. Flew, an atheist (though he later recanted) argues that theological utterances—like “God loves man”—are fundamentally unfalsifiable, and thus meaningless. Because believers won’t let a fact count against their faith, their views aren’t really claims about the world. This certainly spoke to my experience of what believers say when faced with apparent difficulties. Confronted with unspeakable tragedy? “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” In the face of loneliness and desperation? “God still loves you.” If real, obvious challenges to these sentiments were processed and then ignored by the faithful, then their faith must be pretty hollow. Our class spent the most time discussing Flew’s opening volley, and the response by Hare—which, essentially, concedes Flew’s point but argues that religious feelings are meaningful and potentially true nonetheless.
Basil Mitchell’s response received less attention in class, but his words remain among the most powerful I’ve ever read. I have thought about them constantly since. He begins with a parable about a wartime soldier in occupied territory who meets a “Stranger.” The soldier is so taken with the Stranger that he believes he is the leader of the resistance.
Sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, “He is on our side.” Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, “He is on our side.” He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, “The Stranger knows best.” Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, “Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?” But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, “Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.” The partisan of the parable does not allow anything to count decisively against the proposition “The Stranger is on our side.” This is because he has committed himself to trust the Stranger. But he of course recognizes that the Stranger’s ambiguous behaviour does count against what he believes about him. It is precisely this situation which constitutes the trial of his faith.
At the time, I tried my best to dismiss Mitchell’s response. Flew had described the faith I’d discarded perfectly. But Mitchell articulated a faith that I had never encountered personally. Doubt was unacceptable. I had thought that the proper response to a trial of faith was to suppress it and pretend it never happened. But here was Mitchell, conceding that the brokenness of the world and our individual tribulations did, in fact, count against the existence of God. But not definitively. I would eventually conclude that Mitchell had won the philosophical debate years before I realized how much his humility in the face of doubt affected my own faith.
As I advanced through our educational hierarchy—moving on from Ohio State to Yale Law School—I began to worry that my assimilation into elite culture came at a high cost. My sister once told me that the song that made her think of me was “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though I had fallen in love, I found that the emotional demons of my childhood made it hard to be the type of partner I’d always wanted to be. My Randian arrogance about my own ability melted away when confronted with the realization that an obsession with achievement would fail to produce the achievement that mattered most to me for so much of my life: a happy, thriving family.
I had immersed myself in the logic of the meritocracy and found it deeply unsatisfying. And I began to wonder: were all these worldly markers of success actually making me a better person? I had traded virtue for achievement and found the latter wanting. But the woman I wanted to marry cared little whether I obtained a Supreme Court clerkship. She just wanted me to be a good person.
It’s possible, of course, to overstate our own inadequacies. I never cheated on my would-be spouse. I never became violent with her. But there was a voice in my head that demanded better of me: that I put her interests above my own; that I master my temper for her sake as much as for mine. And I began to realize that this voice, wherever it came from, was not the same one that compelled me to climb as high as I could up our ladder of meritocracy. It came from somewhere more ancient, and more grounded—it required reflection about where I came from rather than cultural divorce from it.
As I considered these twin desires—for success and character—and how they conflicted (and didn’t), I came across a meditation from Saint Augustine on Genesis. I had been a fan of Augustine since a political theorist in college assigned City of God. But his thoughts on Genesis spoke to me, and are worth reproducing at length:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.
Let us suppose that in explaining the words, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light was made,” (Gn 1, 3), one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of “spiritual light” in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until un-erring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion proposed by man in his ignorance.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would have reacted to this passage when I was a kid: If someone had made the very same argument to me when I was 17, I would have called him a heretic. This was an accommodation to science, the kind that someone like Bill Maher rightly mocked contemporary moderate Christians for indulging. Yet here was a person telling us 1600 years ago that my own approach to Genesis was arrogance—the kind that might turn a person from his faith.
This, it turned out, was a little too on the nose, and the first crack in my proverbial armor. I began circulating the quote among friends—believers and nonbelievers alike, and I thought about it constantly.
Around the same time, I attended a talk at our law school with Peter Thiel. This was 2011, and Thiel was a well-known venture capitalist but hardly a household name. He would later blurb my book and become a good friend, but I had no idea what to expect at the time. He spoke first in personal terms: arguing that we were increasingly tracked into cutthroat professional competitions. We would compete for appellate clerkships, and then Supreme Court clerkships. We would compete for jobs at elite law firms, and then for partnerships at those same places. At each juncture, he said, our jobs would offer longer work hours, social alienation from our peers, and work whose prestige would fail to make up for its meaninglessness. He also argued that his own world of Silicon Valley spent too little time on the technological breakthroughs that made life better—those in biology, energy, and transportation—and too much on things like software and mobile phones. Everyone could now tweet at each other, or post photos on Facebook, but it took longer to travel to Europe, we had no cure for cognitive decline and dementia, and our energy use increasingly dirtied the planet. He saw these two trends—elite professionals trapped in hyper-competitive jobs, and the technological stagnation of society—as connected. If technological innovation were actually driving real prosperity, our elites wouldn’t feel increasingly competitive with one another over a dwindling number of prestigious outcomes.
Peter’s talk remains the most significant moment of my time at Yale Law School. He articulated a feeling that had until then remained unformed: that I was obsessed with achievement in se—not as an end to something meaningful, but to win a social competition. My worry that I had prioritized striving over character took on a heightened significance: striving for what? I didn’t even know why I cared about the things I cared about. I fancied myself educated, enlightened, and especially wise about the ways of the world—at least compared with most of the people from my hometown. Yet I was obsessed with obtaining professional credentials—a clerkship with a federal judge and then an associate position at a prestigious firm—that I didn’t understand. I hated my limited exposure to legal practice. I looked to the future, and realized that I’d been running a desperate race where the first prize was a job I hated.
I began immediately planning for a career outside the law, which is why I spent less than two years after graduation as a practicing attorney. But Peter left me with one more thing: he was possibly the smartest person I’d ever met, but he was also a Christian. He defied the social template I had constructed—that dumb people were Christians and smart ones atheists. I began to wonder where his religious belief came from, which led me to René Girard, the French philosopher whom he apparently studied under at Stanford. Girard’s thought is rich enough that any effort to summarize will fail to do the man justice. His theory of mimetic rivalry—that we tend to compete over the things that other people want—spoke directly to some of the pressures I experienced at Yale. But it was his related theory of the scapegoat—and what it revealed about Christianity—that made me reconsider my faith.
One of Girard’s central insights is that human civilizations are often, perhaps even always, founded on a “scapegoat myth”—an act of violence committed against someone who has wronged the broader community, retold as a sort of origin story for the community.
Girard points out that Romulus and Remus are, like Christ, divine children, and, like Moses, placed in a river basket to save them from a jealous king. There was a time when I bristled at such comparisons, worried than any seeming lack of originality on the part of Scripture meant that it couldn’t be true. This is a common rhetorical device of the New Atheists: point to some creation story—like the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh—as evidence that the sacred authors have plagiarized their story from some earlier civilization. It reasonably follows that if the biblical story is lifted from somewhere else, the version in the Bible may not be the Word of God after all.
But Girard rejects this inference, and leans into the similarities between biblical stories and those from other civilizations. To Girard, the Christian story contains a crucial difference—a difference that reveals something “hidden since the foundation of the world.” In the Christian telling, the ultimate scapegoat has not wronged the civilization; the civilization has wronged him. The victim of the madness of crowds is, as Christ was, infinitely powerful—able to prevent his own murder—and perfectly innocent—undeserving of the rage and violence of the crowd. In Christ, we see our efforts to shift blame and our own inadequacies onto a victim for what they are: a moral failing, projected violently upon someone else. Christ is the scapegoat who reveals our imperfections, and forces us to look at our own flaws rather than blame our society’s chosen victims.
People come to truth in different ways, and I’m sure some will find this account unsatisfying. But in 2013, it captured so well the psychology of my generation, especially its most privileged inhabitants. Mired in the swamp of social media, we identified a scapegoat and digitally pounced. We were keyboard warriors, unloading on people via Facebook and Twitter, blind to our own problems. We fought over jobs we didn’t actually want while pretending we didn’t fight for them at all. And the end result for me, at least, was that I had lost the language of virtue. I felt more shame over failing in a law school exam than I did about losing my temper with my girlfriend.
That all had to change. It was time to stop scapegoating and focus on what I could do to improve things.
These very personal reflections on faith, conformity, and virtue coincided with a writing project that would eventually become a very public success: Hillbilly Elegy, the hybrid book of memoir and social commentary I published in 2016. I look back on earlier drafts of the book, and realize just how much I changed from 2013 to 2015: I started the book angry, resentful of my mother, especially, and confident in my own abilities. I finished it a little humbled, and very unsure about what to do to “solve” so many of our social problems. And the answer I landed on, as unsatisfactory then as it is now, is that you can’t actually “solve” our social problems. The best you can hope for is to reduce them or to blunt their effects.
I noticed during my research that many of those social problems came from behavior for which social scientists and policy experts had a different vocabulary. On the right, the conversation often turned to “culture” and “personal responsibility”—the ways in which individuals or communities held back their own progress. And though it seemed obvious to me that there was something dysfunctional about some of the places in which I’d grown up, the discourse on the right seemed a little heartless. It failed to account for the fact that destructive behaviors were almost always tragedies with terrible consequences. It is one thing to wag your finger at another person for failing to act a certain way, but it is something else to feel the weight of the misery that comes from those actions.
The left’s intellectuals focused much more on the structural and external problems facing families like mine—the difficulty in finding jobs and the lack of funding for certain types of resources. And while I agreed that more resources were often necessary, there seemed to me a sense in which our most destructive behaviors persisted—even flourished—in times of material comfort. The economic left was often more compassionate, but theirs was a kind of compassion—devoid of any expectation—that reeked of giving up. A compassion that assumes a person is disadvantaged to the point of hopelessness is like sympathy for a zoo animal, and I had no use for it.
And as I reflected on these competing views of the world, and the wisdom and shortcomings of each, I felt desperate for a worldview that understood our bad behavior as simultaneously social and individual, structural and moral; that recognized that we are products of our environment; that we have a responsibility to change that environment, but that we are still moral beings with individual duties; one that could speak against rising rates of divorce and addiction, not as sanitized conclusions about their negative social externalities, but with moral outrage. And I realized, eventually, that I had already been exposed to that worldview: it was my Mamaw’s Christianity. And the name it gave for the behaviors I had seen destroy lives and communities was “sin.” I remembered one of my least favorite passages from Scripture, Numbers 14:18, in a new light: “The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
A decade ago, I took this as evidence of a vengeful, irrational God. Yet who could look at the statistics on what our early twenty-first century culture and politics had wrought—the misery, the rising suicide rates, the “deaths of despair” in the richest country on earth, and doubt that the sins of parents had any effect on their children?
And here, again, the words of Saint Augustine echoed from a millennium and a half earlier, articulating a truth I had felt for a long time but hadn’t spoken. This is a passage from City of God, where Augustine summarizes the debauchery of Rome’s ruling class:
This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed.
It was the best criticism of our modern age I’d ever read. A society oriented entirely towards consumption and pleasure, spurning duty and virtue. Not long after I first read these words, my friend Oren Cass published a book arguing that American policy makers have focused far too much on promoting consumption as opposed to productivity, or some other measure of wellbeing. The reaction—criticizing Oren for daring to push policies that might lower consumption—almost proved the argument. “Yes,” I found myself saying, “Oren’s preferred policies might reduce per-capita consumption. But that’s precisely the point: our society is more than the sum of its economic statistics. If people die sooner in the midst of historic levels of consumption, then perhaps our focus on consumption is misguided.”
And indeed it was this insight, more than any other, that ultimately led not just to Christianity, but to Catholicism. Despite my Mamaw’s unfamiliarity with the liturgy, the Roman and Italian cultural influences, and the foreign pope, I slowly began to see Catholicism as the closest expression of her kind of Christanity: obsessed with virtue, but cognizant of the fact that virtue is formed in the context of a broader community; sympathetic with the meek and poor of the world without treating them primarily as victims; protective of children and families and with the things necessary to ensure they thrive. And above all: a faith centered around a Christ who demands perfection of us even as He loves unconditionally and forgives easily.
It was this insight that took me from a few informal conversations with a couple of Dominican friars to a more serious period of study with one in particular. I almost wish it hadn’t been so gradual—that there had been an “aha!” moment that made me realize I just had to become Catholic. There were some weird coincidences that hastened my decision. One came about a year ago, at a conference I attended with largely conservative intellectuals. Late at night, at the hotel bar, I questioned a conservative Catholic writer about his criticism of the pope. (My growing view is that too many American Catholics have failed to show proper deference to the papacy, treating the pope as a political figure to be criticized or praised according to their whims.) While he admitted that some Catholics went too far, he defended his more measured approach, when suddenly a wine glass seemed to leap from a stable place behind the bar and crashed on the floor in front of us. We both stared at each other in silence for a bit, a little startled by what we’d just seen, before ending our conversation abruptly and excusing ourselves to turn in for the night.
Another took place in Washington, D.C., during a particularly grueling week of travel. I hadn’t seen my family in a few days, and hadn’t even had the time to call my toddler on the phone. In moments like this, I sometimes listen to a beautiful setting of of a psalm performed during Pope Francis’s visit to Georgia in 2016 by an Orthodox choir. I listened to it on the train from New York to Washington, where I knew a Dominican friar whom I decided to ask to coffee. He invited me to visit his community, where I heard the friars chanting, apparently, the same psalm. Now, I know it’s easy to make the skeptic’s case: J.D. watched a video of a priest chanting a Bible verse, and then he emailed a member of a religious order who later chanted the same thing. But to quote Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction: “You’re judging this shit the wrong way. I mean, it could be that God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke to Pepsi, He found my f—g car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was an ‘according to Hoyle’ miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God.”
So yes, during little moments over the last few years, I’ve felt the touch of God. As much as it would make for a better story, I cannot say that any of these things made me stand up and say, “It’s time to convert.” The move was more incremental. I became convinced that Mamaw would accept Catholic theology even if its cultural trappings made her feel uneasy. There were the words of Saint Augustine and Girard and the example of my Uncle Dan, who married into our family but demonstrated Christian virtue more thoroughly than any person I’d met. There were good friends who made me see that I didn’t need to abandon my reason before I approached the altar. I came eventually to believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church were true, but it happened slowly and unevenly.
There were things that made it harder, even after I’d made up my mind. The sexual abuse crisis made me wonder whether joining the Church meant subjecting my child to an institution that cared more for its own reputation than the protection of its members. Working through these feelings delayed my conversion for at least a few months. There was a concern that it would be unfair to my wife: she hadn’t married a Catholic, and I felt like I was throwing her into it. But from the beginning, she supported my decision, so I can’t blame the delay on her.
I was received into the Catholic Church on a beautiful day in mid-August, in a private ceremony not far from my house. I woke up on the day of my reception a little apprehensive, worried that I was making a big mistake. For all of my doubts about how Mamaw might have reacted, it was one of her favorite phrases that I heard, in her voice, ringing in my ears that morning: “Time to shit or get off the pot.”
I was baptized, and I received my first Communion. I found it all very beautiful, though I should admit that I still felt uneasy about something so far removed from my youthful churchgoing experiences. Much of my family came to support me. My two-year-old son—one of my favorite parts about the Church is that it encourages parents to bring their kids—chomped on a lot of Goldfish crackers. At the end of it, the Dominican friars who welcomed me hosted my friends and family for coffee and doughnuts.
I try to keep a little humility about how little I know, and how inadequate a Christian I really am. I am most comfortable engaging with people around ideas. If you can’t read something and debate it, I’ve always been a little less interested. But the Church isn’t just about ideas and Saint Augustine, whom I chose as my patron. It’s about the heart, as well, and the community of believers. It’s about going to Mass and receiving the Sacraments, even when it’s difficult or awkward to do so. It’s about so many things that I’m ignorant of, and the process of becoming less ignorant over time.
My wife has said that the business of converting to Catholicism—studying and thinking about it—was “good for you.” And I came, eventually, to see that she was right, at least in some cosmic sense. I realized that there was a part of me—the best part—that took its cues from Catholicism. It was the part of me that demanded that I treat my son with patience, and made me feel terrible when I failed. That demanded that I moderate my temper with everyone, but especially my family. That demanded that I care more about how I rated as a husband and father than as an income earner. That demanded that I sacrifice professional prestige for the interests of family. That demanded that I let go of grudges, and forgive even those who wronged me. As Saint Paul says in his Epistle to the Phillipians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” It was the Catholic part of my heart and mind that demanded that I think on the things that actually mattered. And if I wanted that part of me to be nurtured and to grow, I needed to do more than read the occasional book of theology or reflect on my own shortcomings. I needed to pray more, to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, to confess and to repent publicly, no matter how awkward that might be. And I needed grace. I needed, in other words, to become Catholic, not merely to think about it.
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