Interview on March 9, 2021 with Joshua, who entered the Church in 2012 at age 25.
What is your faith background?
Joshua: My parents immigrated from South Korea, so we went to a Korean Presbyterian church, but in college I started going to a Baptist church. Towards the end of college, I went to a Reformed church. I went to seminary after college, which was in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition.
I had a very religious upbringing. I was really involved with the Baptist Church in college, as well as the Presbyterian church in high school. In seminary, however, I had a crisis of faith. That was immediately prior to me becoming Catholic.
What caused the crisis?
Joshua: Partly due to my cultural upbringing, which was Korean American, there was a strong sense of docility towards your elders and towards authority in general, so I always trusted the people who taught me a great deal. When I was in high school, I would take everything that my pastor said as truth and I would try to confirm it with scripture, even if the passages in scripture didn’t make sense to me. I nevertheless assumed that it made sense for them and that I would eventually come to see the truth if I studied the Bible long enough.
As I got into seminary and we learned the biblical languages, I was either on or entering into the same intellectual level with a lot of the people that I considered authorities. I began to see that the arguments they gave didn’t really hold up. Prior to that, I always thought, “Okay, there’s someone else who knows the answer, even if it doesn’t make sense to me,” but when I got to seminary I could investigate the truth itself and I was finding that wanting as well. That led me to begin to think that all of it was a lie.
It occurred to me that it was only accidental that I was part of this tradition and not another tradition. Had I been born a Methodist or a Lutheran or an Anglican, I probably would have had the same convictions about those different particular views. It seemed that I was just religious because I was born into this tradition and there was no intellectual grounding for it. All the arguments seemed to justify positions that we already held, rather than come to those positions as conclusions to actual arguments.
At what point did you encounter or become attracted to Catholicism?
Joshua: Throughout my upbringing, I always regarded the Catholic Church as a false church. We called ourselves Christians and then there were Catholics, the idea of being that Catholics are not Christians. Especially when it came to annunciating what the gospel was, the way we understood it in seminary and throughout all the traditions that I was a part of was always in contrast to the so-called Catholic doctrine of salvation: we’re saved by faith, but the Catholics believe that we’re saved by our own works. So to be a Christian, to believe the gospel, was completely antithetical to being Catholic.
I didn’t know very many Catholics who could actually explain the Catholic faith. So if I accused them of worshiping Mary, they wouldn’t really know what to say.
When I was in elementary school, I was in Boy Scouts. We were driving to a camping site and my friend’s dad was Catholic and he was talking about the Immaculate Conception. I remember asking him why it was that if Mary had to be immaculately conceived, because of Jesus, why wasn’t it necessary also for Anna to be immaculately conceived. It seemed like you just had to keep going, and he had no answers for that. Based on those sorts of experiences, I assumed that Catholics didn’t really know anything about the Bible or about theology.
Then I had a loss of faith in seminary where I basically couldn’t bring myself to pray because I felt like I was just talking to myself and it felt silly. I wanted to pray, but there was really no intellectual reason for me to think that there was a God who would listen to my prayers and it just seemed foolish and it seemed like wish fulfillment. So I stopped praying and, having been raised in such a religious context, it was really difficult for me to try to come to grips with the fact that everything that I had thought about God and about religion and about Christianity was wrong.
When I was in seminary, I went to a conference at Princeton University called Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, an Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue. There were a bunch of Dominicans there from the Eastern Province, Fr. Thomas Joseph White in particular, who were the first Catholic theologians that I met in person and got to talk to at length. That was when I realized that there was probably more to the Catholic tradition than I had thought. And disposing me more towards this over time leading up to this conference, I started reading Catholic modern theology on my own. I was seeing even there that there was a lot more than just the typical caricature of Catholics that I had in my head.
So I was searching for answers, but increasingly despairing of the possibility of finding one. When I ran into these Catholic theologians, it was sort of a glimpse of hope. At these conferences, at night, they usually have a lot of alcohol and discussion. I happened to stumble upon one of these discussions and as the two Dominican theologians were cleaning up, I asked one of them, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, if I could ask him a few questions. It was kind of an experiment. I didn’t feel particularly invested in Protestantism anymore because I thought it was all a sham, but I still didn’t trust Catholics because I thought that they belonged to the church of the anti-Christ.
I thought it would be interesting to see what an actual Catholic theologian would say to the sorts of arguments that I had learned in seminary as being knock-down drag-out arguments against Catholics. Besides listening to their talks at the conference and finding them to be extremely intelligible and coherent, when I spoke with Fr. Thomas Joseph White I was able to see things from a Catholic perspective and not think about Catholicism as a Protestant, but actually see, “Oh, this is how Catholics think of their own faith.” And it all made a lot of sense from a Catholic perspective. On top of that, the philosophical tradition that is in the Catholic tradition provides this intellectual ground for belief in God’s existence, which I don’t think is intrinsic to Protestantism.
There were certain things, the Marian teachings of the Church, Church teachings about contraception, and things like that, that I didn’t fully understand. All the stuff about indulgences I had qualms about, but not significant enough for me to not investigate further. And I think as I started to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and then started to read a bunch of more traditional Catholic theology, St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, I started to see that a lot of my perceptions of the Catholic Church were basically wrong. It wasn’t too long after that that I decided that if I wanted to stay a Christian, I had to become Catholic.
Was there anything in particular that pushed you over the edge?
Joshua: What pushed me over the edge with Protestantism was precisely the relationship between faith and reason. At the Presbyterian seminary, we were taught that faith and reason are not at odds with one another. But intrinsically within Protestantism, faith and reason are at odds with one another, because the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the doctrine of justification by faith alone require one to give up the possibility that one can come to a true knowledge of God apart from faith. So essentially our knowledge of the most fundamental reality, which is God, can only come through scripture and cannot come through our investigation of the world around us.
I think if I talked to my Presbyterian and Reformed friends, they would disagree about this, but I came to a point where I felt keenly that there was something deeply antithetical to reason underlying Protestantism. And that was what pushed me out of Protestantism into agnosticism where we can deny that we can know anything about God or to even know if God exists.
What pushed me into Catholicism was a view that, while we can’t know the mysteries of the faith through reason, we can nevertheless know through human reason certain aspects of the truth of the faith, namely the existence of God and his attributes and things about human virtue.
That was what caused me to see that if there was to be any coherent, theological project, it had to be on the ground that Catholic theology and the Catholic tradition set up: in seeing faith and reason as not opposed to one another, but faith building upon and elevating reason. What we know by nature or what we know through natural reason is not at odds with, or is not necessarily condemned by, what we received through grace and what we received through supernatural revelation, but perfects it. St. Thomas says that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects and elevates it. And that was the key thing that caused me to become Catholic.
Do you have advice for how Catholics can better evangelize?
Joshua: In discussions with my Protestant friends, I think a lot of it has to do with the moral teachings of the Church, which is funny because that tends to be what turns a lot of people away from Catholicism. But there’s something about the Catholic teaching about virtue and about supernatural happiness being the perfection and elevation of natural happiness that affirms human nature not simply in an abstract sense, but it affirms all the concrete things that we experience of desiring the good and wanting to be happy and being aware to some degree that we can’t find happiness in things like wealth or health. For people who are searching for truth, those sorts of teachings, which are not purely Catholic, they’re in Aristotle, but there’s something about the Catholic tradition that has maintained these teachings and perfected them that provides something that people are desperately in search of, and that is not really being offered anywhere.
All the hard stuff is connected to very, very human things. Like penance, even going to confession, it’s not because God wants us to do things, He just has this arbitrary checklist, but it’s actually because of our constitution as human beings, we need those things. As a Protestant, I never went to confession because God already forgave all my sins through faith. And that was psychologically really difficult for me because every time I sinned, I had to tell myself, “Oh, well, it’s already forgiven.”
It would’ve been nice for someone else, namely a priest, to tell me, in the person of Christ, that my sins were forgiven, but that was not allowed. I think it does come down to Catholics should at the very least know why they believe the basic stuff.
Were there any other important steps in your conversion?
Joshua: One of the things that Fr. Thomas Joseph White told me when I talked to him at that conference, and this was just our first conversation – I think he recognized that I was going through a certain crisis – but he told me that I should pray the rosary. I knew of the rosary, I didn’t know how to pray it, I didn’t even know what that meant. But he told me to do that and I decided to try it. And I did it wrong. I just went home and just kept saying the Hail Mary over and over again. But that really stuck out to me and I think that helped me a lot. Talking with him since then, he’s a good friend now, I think he recommends people to pray the rosary, even if they’re not Catholic. At an earlier stage of my life, I would’ve been scandalized, but I think the rosary is a powerful thing.
There was another thing, which kind of contradicts what I was saying earlier, but when I first started going to Mass, before I was Catholic, I went to a parish near my house. I won’t say the name of it, but the music was awful. And as a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant, we’re very strict about not having instruments except maybe the organ. There was a full praise band, but it wasn’t as good as some of these really good Protestant bands. But there were a lot of old Vietnamese ladies at the church. The Reformed tradition is known for being very, very intellectual. Like all Calvinists, they think that they’re predestined and everyone else is going to hell, but it’s very intellectual and we tended to look down upon nonintellectual Christians as not good Christians.
I think what in a weird way drew me to the Catholic faith was that there were these old Vietnamese ladies who probably didn’t speak that much English and didn’t understand a lot of the words that were spoken and yet they were there at daily Mass and they were extremely devout. And what it reminded me of was in the Gospels, the sort of people that went to Jesus when He was healing or when He was feeding the 5,000 and teaching, it struck me that it was probably people like this who were there. And I, as a Reformed Protestant who thought that I was so smart and smarter than everyone else, I would have been one of the Pharisees, who thought I was better than these other people, but it was these people that Christ came to save.
So when I was received into the Church and would go to Mass there, even though I didn’t like a lot of aspects of the liturgy in terms of the music and things like that, I did feel like I was finally a part of the flock and not an outsider or bystander who is critically looking down on everyone else.
California Catholic Daily writer Mary Rose is interviewing young Catholic converts as part of our Inquiring Minds series. If you are a young convert to the Catholic Church and would like to share your story, please contact us.