Thursday, February 22, 2018





 


Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too).  By Brandon Vogt, Ave Maria Press, 2017.



Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter With God.  By Fr. Donald Haggerty, Ignatius Press, 2017.

 


Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too) and Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter With God are two different approaches to the same questions. What does it mean to be Catholic, what happens when one becomes Catholic, and what does it take to stay Catholic? Both are written to appeal to the reader’s intellect and soul although anecdotes, arguments, and in Vogt’s case, humor.


 

Brandon Vogt opens his book on Catholicism and conversion with the following autobiographical musings.


 

“Anything but Catholic.


Spirituality, great.  Religion, fine.  Attending church, maybe.


But why in the world would anyone become Catholic today?  Isn't Catholicism a backward, intolerant, bigoted religion?  Isn't it run by pedophile priests and full of scandals?  Doesn't it degrade women and LGBT people and obsess about sex?  Isn't it plagued by pointless rules that stifle real faith?


I was not raised Catholic.  Some of my friends must have been Catholic growing up, but I never knew it.  I grew up in a Presbyterian church, which provided a warm community and great formation.  Yet like many young people, the life of faith never took root in me.  This was almost certainly my fault, not the church's.


As a teenager, I probably would have identified as "spiritual but not religious."  But then in college at Florida State, while studying mechanical engineering, I fell in with a Methodist group on campus, which dramatically affected my faith.  I found a deep, vibrant community that welcomed me in.  They weren't afraid of hard questions, and they exposed me to the fascinating world of the Bible.  I started praying on my own and began devouring books about God and faith and philosophy.


But then, as a twenty-year-old senior with a budding faith, and on the cusp of graduating, getting married, and starting a new engineering job, I did something few people could fathom, something that didn't fit with all those other sensible decisions: I became Catholic.


To say friends and family were surprised would be a vast understatement.  Most were profoundly confused, and remain so.  Though I've discussed it often, trying to explain what led me into the Church, it's still hard for people to understand how a young man with an apparently well-functioning brain would not only look favorably on an institution such as the Catholic Church but also actually choose to join it.”


Vogt’s book is deeply personal. It touches upon themes of family, logic, courage, and going against the flow. It’s a consistently upbeat book– there is no browbeating or anger in the prose, just warmth, happiness, and encouragement. Vogt comes across as a man whose life has been deeply enriched by his faith, and that he now seeks to spread his happiness and purpose by sharing the sources of that jot with as many other people as he can find.


Throughout the book, Vogt stresses that being a faithful Catholic generally means distancing oneself from the popular and prevalent trends of the time.  I should mention that Vogt’s description of the hostility towards Catholicism (and the respect for other religions one might consider embracing) in the introduction is far from universal. It’s certainly common enough, but it’s also just one experience.


 

In his introduction, Vogt writes:


 

“Choosing to be Catholic is provocative.  It's countercultural.  It's literally the opposite direction our culture is going.  The Pew Research Center completed a massive, national religious study, surveying more than thirty thousand Americans, which found that exactly half (50 percent) of millennials who were raised Catholic no longer call themselves Catholic today.  That's massive attrition.  Half of young Catholics have already left the Church (with more likely following in the future).  That explains why "former Catholic" continues to be one of America's largest religious groups.


The study also found that roughly 80 percent of people who left the Catholic Church have left before age twenty-three.  These aren't lifelong Catholics who stay on the fence for decades before drifting away.  They're young people, people in high school or college, or young adults — people the same age I was when I chose to become Catholic.”


Often, Vogt draws upon the intellectual influences that shaped his spiritual journey.  The works of G.K. Chesterton are chief among them.



“It's easy to swim downstream, to accept the status quo.  What's hard is to be a rebel, to look with fresh eyes on something most people reject and say, "What if they're mistaken?  What if 'anything but Catholic' should perhaps be 'what else but Catholic'?"


These same questions struck G. K. Chesterton.  He was one of the most popular and prolific English journalists of the early twentieth century, writing more than a hundred books and more than five thousand essays, and lecturing all over the globe.  But in 1922, he stunned the world by announcing his conversion to the Catholic Church.  Friends and family were just as confused as mine were almost a century later.  They thought this normally straight mind had gone horribly off the rails, asking him accusingly, "Why would you become Catholic?"


Chesterton replied, as was his wont, with an essay.  He titled it, plainly, "Why I Am a Catholic," and he began it by saying, "The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true."


In contrast to Vogt’s ebullient work, Fr. Haggerty’s book Conversion is less colloquial, but full of comparably strong insights into the nature of conversion and maintaining one’s faith. There are many references to the fact that one’s faith must not be allowed to become complacent or repetitive. At one point, Fr. Haggerty mentions Pope John Paul II’s dictum that priest must strive not to fall into the trap of treating their duties like those of being an office clerk. Otherwise, the prayers and duties of the vocation become mere tedium, missing the power that comes from the zeal of a burning faith. It’s not exactly clear what a better comparison would be, perhaps a soldier in a never-ending battle would be a more ideal standard, or perhaps a relief worker or medic in a disaster area.

 


Fr. Haggerty writes:


 

“The aftermath of a conversion is as significant as the conversion itself.  The soul’s response to grace in this period after a conversion has a crucial impact on later life.  It is one thing to be a prodigal son who returns to his father after coming to his senses and repenting.  It is another thing to open one’s eyes fully to the new life that beckons in the glowing sunrise of a recent conversion.  The recovery of grace is always only a first step toward a discovery of immense possibilities in a life with God.”


 

Both of these books do an excellent job of encouraging their readers to find a lasting faith in the Catholic Church.  Neither writer ignores a very potent truth: faith can be vital, but it’s rarely easy.


 

(More information about Why I Am Catholic and supplementary resources can be found at https://whycatholicbook.com/get-book.)


 

–Chris Chan