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One of America’s most respected Evangelical thinkers retraces the road that brought him into the Catholic Church

One of America’s most respected Evangelical thinkers retraces the road that brought him into the Catholic Church.
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During the 1990s, J. Budziszewski rose to prominence as one of the leading intellectual lights among Evangelical Christians in America. A political theorist with a special interest in the natural-law tradition, he was highly sought as a speaker at conferences organized by groups such as the InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. A principal theme of his many talks to American campus groups is captured in the title of his 1999 book, How to Stay Christian in College.

For some Evangelical Protestants, then, it came as a jolt when, on Easter Sunday 2004, Budziszewski was received into the Catholic Church. After maintaining a public silence about his conversion for several months, Budziszewski agreed to tell the story to CWR.

J. Budziszewski teaches in the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recently books are What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2004) and The Revenge of Conscience(Spence, 2004).
Q: Could you tell us something about your background–your education, particularly?

J. Budziszewski:
I was born in Milwaukee, where I lived until age 13. My adolescence was spent on the east coast of central Florida, near the Space Center. In 1970 I began studies at the University of Chicago, choosing it partly because of its biopsychology program (which in fact I never entered) and partly because of its reputation as a hive of left-wing activity. Intellectually I was obsessed with mind-body problems; politically I was far to the left. After one year of college I married my high school sweetheart; after another year we moved back to Florida. In those days I viewed places like the University of Chicago as aquaria for the children of privilege. It seemed to me that a good socialist should get out of there, learn a trade, and join the proletariat, so I learned welding. I worked a variety of jobs as a welder, ending up at the Tampa shipyards.

What I discovered during that period was that I belonged in college after all. Needless to say, there was no such thing as a "proletarian" university, but I thought I could stomach a public university, so I earned my BA at the University of South Florida, there in Tampa. After that I obtained an MA at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Somewhere along the line I must have lost my prejudice against aquaria for the children of privilege, because I did my doctoral work at Yale University. Since finishing my PhD in 1981, I’ve been teaching at the University of Texas.

Q: So when you were at the University of Chicago, you were not studying in your current field of political theory?

No, not then. My radicalism drew me into a political science major, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as "political theory;" that discovery didn’t come until much later. It seemed to my young self that revolutionaries need to know about a lot of different things–political science, sociology, economics–and the political science major was more generous about such electives than those other majors were.

Q: And what about your religious background?

My birth family was Baptist; in fact my maternal grandfather was one of the first Polish Baptist ministers in the United States. He pastored a Polish-speaking congregation.

I was a convinced Protestant. At the age of 10, I "walked the aisle," presented myself for Baptism, and vowed to follow Christ. Probably the best description of my spiritual condition during adolescence is "pious, but not holy."

In college, I abandoned my faith utterly: first faith in Christ, then belief in God, then belief in a real right and wrong. It wasn’t until after I had finished my education and had been teaching for a year or two that God drew me back to my abandoned Christian faith.

When I came back, though, I came back not as a Baptist but as an Anglican. I still wanted one foot in the Reformation, but I wanted another foot in Catholic tradition.

Q: Was your interest in the Catholic tradition part of the process that led you back to Christianity? Or, if we could put it another way, was your return to your Christian roots part of the overall journey that eventually led you to the Catholic Church?

Although the seeds took another 20 years to sprout, Catholic friends and thinkers had influenced me even during my wilderness years of atheism.

I ought to explain that during those wilderness years, I was a practical atheist. I was never a theoretical atheist; I wasn’t quite fool enough to think that I could prove that there isn’t a God. What I thought was that there wasn’t any God who could make a difference.

Similarly, I was a practical nihilist. I wasn’t quite fool enough to think that I could prove that there isn’t a real difference between good and evil. What I thought was that the difference couldn’t make a difference. You see, I denied free will. I reasoned that if the mind is enchained, then we can’t have any confidence that any of our reasoning about good and evil has validity. For practical purposes, they would have to be viewed as human constructs.

Of course, the hole in that line of thought is large enough to drive a truck through. If I couldn’t have any confidence in my reasoning about good and evil, why should I have any confidence in my reasoning about having no basis for confidence? Why should nihilism make any more sense than morality? I papered that problem over with clever talk about taking an ironic view of reality.

But I was going to tell you the Catholic influences that worked on me during my wilderness years. I read St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Dante Alighieri. When I read Dante’s imaginative description of the center of Hell–the Lake of Cocytus, where the damned are imprisoned in ice, unable to move a muscle to the right or to the left–I thought that he was describing me. I couldn’t move either. I’d thrown out all possible motives for movement.

Naturally I taught my students Thomas Aquinas, but I found it difficult to do so. The problem was that his arguments presented such a strong appearance of truth. For the very beauty of this appearance, I had to exercise strong discipline not to weep. One of my students in those days asked permission to put a personal question. "I’ve been listening carefully," he said, "and I figure that you’re either an atheist or a Roman Catholic. Which one is it?"

You can see why, when I finally returned to Christian faith, I wanted that one foot in Catholic tradition.

Yet return also meant recovery of lost elements of Protestant belief, and I couldn’t see my way to Catholicism proper.

I had the common Protestant idea that Catholicism teaches "works-righteousness"–that we earn our way into heaven, apart from the merits of Christ–that if we just earn enough "virtue points," we’re in. It took a long time to get over such misunderstandings.

Q: Thus far we’ve been talking about the intellectual origins of your return to the faith….

When you speak of "intellectual origins," you’d better put scare quotes around the phrase. For several years after returning to the faith, it disturbed me that I wasn’t able to give a coherent intellectual account of why I had done so. That came much later.

What actually led me back was a growing intuition that my condition was objectively evil. I didn’t believe in objective evil, so that seemed to make no sense. But the intuition became so strong that I could no longer ignore it. It wasn’t a "feeling." I was forced to regard it as a perception of truth.

At this point I suppose intellect does come in, because I was familiar with Augustine’s argument about evil. Evil is deficiency in good; there is no such thing as an evil "substance," an evil-in-itself. So if my condition really was evil, there had to be some good of which my condition was the ruination. And if there really were both good and evil, then I had been so wrong, for so long, so profoundly, that it seemed that almost anything might be true–even the faith that I had abandoned.

So I began studying all those Christian things I had forgotten. There was no distinct moment in time at which I could have said, "I believe, but a moment ago I didn’t." One day, though, I realized that without having noticed it, I had been believing for some time.

But if the Christian revelation about Jesus Christ is true, then it makes no sense to do anything else except to follow him. So we took up the life of faith again, both of us. My wife never had lost her faith as totally as I had; you might say that her faith had gone into remission. She had compartmentalized Christian belief, allowing her life to be guided by other beliefs that were incompatible with it. But although her path back to faith was somewhat different from mine, she too was ready to return.

Q: And upon your return you were an Anglican; what prompted you to move on from that point?

The first push was the discovery that Anglicanism was dying and all but dead. When my wife and I resumed Christian worship, we assumed that the reason the congregation recited the Nicene Creed together was that they all believed it. After years of self-imposed exile, this was indescribably wonderful. The "cloud of witnesses" of which St. Paul speaks was almost palpable; we felt that you could reach out and touch those millions of Christians from bygone generations.

Then came the day when the college chaplain, who happened to be giving the homily that day, announced to the congregation that he "was no longer able" to believe in the Resurrection. I wanted to ask, "What happened to your vows?" and "How dare you continue to call yourself a priest?" But I merely asked, "I see you every week, reciting the Nicene Creed like the rest of us. If you don’t believe it, how can you?"

He responded, "I do it as an act of solidarity with the community." In other words, it meant nothing at all. I came to realize that this was true for a great many Episcopal priests. The principle of doctrinal education in our parish was "anything goes"–that is, anything but historic Christian doctrine. If you stood up for Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition you would quickly find yourself on the outs.

The question we faced was whether it would be more pleasing to God to get out of the Episcopal communion altogether, or stay behind as a "faithful remnant."

Q: Was that the point of your departure from Anglicanism, then?

No, not yet. Instead we transferred our membership to another Episcopal parish where it seemed that historic Christian doctrine was still taught. We remained in that parish for years, and still bear a deep love for the people we knew there.

But the ongoing collapse of the Episcopal enterprise forced us to ask deeper questions about the nature of the Church. Our ecclesiology was very nearly Catholic, long before we actually joined the Catholic Church. This fact made our picture of ourselves as part of a "faithful remnant" inside the Anglican communion harder and harder to believe in. After all, if what the Catholic Church teaches about her nature and authority is true, then how can you justify not becoming part of her?

Although we continued to disagree with a number of Catholic dogmas, we suffered a growing suspicion that where we disagreed, it was we who were wrong, not the Church.

Not all converts come into the fold in the same way. For some people on the way into the Catholic Church, the ecclesiastical objection is the last one to be overcome. First they become convinced about doctrine A, doctrine B, and doctrine C, and then at last they becoming convinced that the Church has authority to teach about these matters. For me it was the other way around. First I became convinced that the Church has authority to teach. That didn’t mean that my various difficulties about doctrine A, doctrine B, and doctrine C disappeared, but it converted my "objections" into "obstacles."

After several years of wrestling, becoming convinced on one point after another, I finally found myself able to say with respect to the remaining issues, "I am ready to obey." That turned out to be crucial. As Augustine said, we believe in order to know. There are some things you have to understand before you can accept them–but there are others you have to accept before you can understand them.

Q: How long did that whole process take?

Much too long. About eight years, ending in 2003. We made God wait.

The last three of those years were really difficult. My wife and I had not yet reached that point of obedience. We were still in "faithful remnant" mode. In a sort of a compromise–which, in retrospect, seems rather unsatisfactory–we decided that if the Episcopal church ever came to incorporate the prevalent abominations into its canons, that would be our signal to get out.

The signal we were waiting for came unmistakably during the summer of 2003. It was bad enough that the Episcopal general convention ordained as bishop a man who had abandoned his wife and children in order to live in sin with another man. That might have been viewed as an aberration. Much worse was the fact that the general convention authorized drawing up rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. That converted the aberration into a rule.

But the signal turned out to have been unnecessary, because we had already crossed our Rubicon. That summer, we visited an Episcopal church in another town. No sooner had we entered than we encountered a "tract table" offering visitors free pro-abortion bumper stickers bearing the Episcopal shield.

That was the last straw. We knew that we could never consider ourselves members of the Episcopal Church again.

Read Part Two of "Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance" here.…

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