Interview on March 3, 2021, with Tomas and Tanja who entered the Church in 2011 at ages 29 and 28.
What is your faith background?
Tomas: We were both raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church. We went to Lutheran schools from preschool to high school.
What first attracted you to Catholicism?
Tomas: We were always taught to be wary about Catholicism. We had soundbites that we were taught each year about what was wrong with Catholicism. Church history was presented to us in the Lutheran church as something like: “the events in the New Testament happened and that was really great, and then Jesus left and then not much happened until Martin Luther came around. Or rather, a lot of stuff happened, but we regret it except maybe for Augustine. He was okay sometimes.” We didn’t really learn much about the intervening period, but we were told that there was a whole lot of error and abuses and the church needed reform. So here comes the hero, Martin Luther.
I was in graduate school for philosophy and a lot of Catholics get into philosophy. It was the University of Texas at Austin, not a Catholic program by any means, but there were some really intelligent Catholics my own age.
We started talking about our religious beliefs and then I laid out all the stock objections I had been given in my Lutheran education system. I was really disturbed to see how easily they refuted all of these objections and how quickly I realized, “I don’t really know what I’m talking about.” That’s when I started investigating things and trying to figure out what was wrong with the Catholic Church, because I was having these friendly discussions/debates.
One point of agreement that Lutherans have with Catholics is that the burden of proof is on the Lutherans. I think that even Martin Luther would have conceded that Lutherans are the ones calling for reform and so they better have good reasons. Especially if they’re going to persist to the point of schism, it’s incumbent upon them to prove that the Catholic Church is in grave theological error. I think Lutherans all kind of accept that and think that they can shoulder this burden and prove that Catholics are in grave theological error. So I set about trying to figure out what the grave theological error really was. And then it turned out I couldn’t find anything. And in fact it looked like the Catholics were right and the Lutherans were wrong.
Tanja: I didn’t investigate it at all the same way. At first I wasn’t really open to any of it because being Lutheran was part of who I was and there didn’t seem to be any good reason to change that: we all love Jesus, so what’s the problem? I was wondering why Tomas was even asking these questions and why he was trying to rock the boat when we have such a perfect union of two Lutherans who come from strong Lutheran families.
I came around over time because they were good questions and Tomas would gently show me how the Lutherans didn’t have good answers. But going from being a Lutheran to a Catholic seemed like a giant leap. I wasn’t ready to do that.
There very clearly came a point where I wasn’t Catholic, but I also knew I was no longer Lutheran. I still had some of these negative thoughts about Catholicism, these things that we had been fed at Lutheran schools, that Catholics worship statues, and Catholics pray only to Mary, and believe in works righteousness. They still seemed to me to be evident in some of the practices I saw in Catholics, even if it’s not what the Church taught or endorsed. We even thought for a brief time that we might join the Anglican church and that felt like a compromise.
One of Tomas’ professors was converting from being a Missouri Synod Lutheran to a devout Roman Catholic. We couldn’t really believe that, but it was exactly what we were doing, just maybe a year behind him.
Tomas: This was Rob Koons at the University of Texas. He wrote a long essay, which is now a short book called A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism. He’s really intelligent and he did a ton of research and those arguments won me over.
Tanja: I knew Rob and respected him. In the end, it was a leap of faith and a trust in my husband that he was doing what he thought was best for us. He would never take this lightly. He knew that this was going to be difficult for us and for our family at large. I actually cried on the day we converted and it was not happy tears. It was very difficult. I still had a lot of doubts, but I was trusting that this was the right thing to do. For me, coming to be truly Catholic and feel at home in the Catholic Church and love the Church and all its teachings has taken about ten years.
I was hopeful that everything would fall right into place and it would just work out and I would have this warm, fuzzy feeling and we would be welcomed into the Church and it would just move very smoothly and my parents and Tomas’ parents would just have to get over it, but that’s not at all what happened.
We had our daughter and she was baptized in the Lutheran church just before we converted. It was still kind of one foot in each camp in the beginning largely due to our families, but it has come to feel more like our faith over time. I wish I would have known when we converted initially that it’s not gonna happen overnight and you’re really an alien for a while and that’s normal. I think Catholics could do a better job of welcoming converts and helping them.
Did you, Tomas, share any of Tanja’s doubts when you entered the Church?
Tomas: I was a hundred percent confident. I didn’t really have any doubts.
Tanja: Because he converted in his head and I converted in my heart and that took a long time. He had all the good reasons and that’s all he needed, but I was very attached to my faith and my upbringing and there was nothing wrong with it in my mind. It was sort of a cultural faith, too. My family is from Germany and they’re all Lutherans and it was synonymous with being German. I felt like I was ostracizing myself from my family and it didn’t make sense to me because we all love Jesus, why is this so important? Let’s try and stick together. I’ve come to see that it’s really the Lutherans who continue to protest and not come back. We felt that it was our job, even just the two of us, to do our little tiny part to heal the schism.
Were there any doctrines that were particularly hard to accept?
Tomas: If you read the early documents of the Lutheran reformers, you’ll see they had a lot of complaints and allegations against the Church, but most of them have already been answered. One of their concerns was that people were being forced into religious orders and being forced to take religious vows. The Lutherans complained about that and they complained about some abuses of indulgences, which don’t happen anymore, that point was taken. But the main pillar of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification, and there Lutherans still contend that the Catholics are in grave theological error. That was really Luther’s main complaint and Lutherans after him continue to have this complaint. And that’s what I thought was going to be the grave theological error of the Catholics.
But as I looked into it, it wasn’t so cut and dried. It’s an extremely subtle theological point that they’re disagreeing on. And there’s a lot of merely verbal disputes going on between the Lutherans and Catholics; they’re using the word justification in different ways. Once you isolate what the actual disagreement is, it seems to me that the best you could say for Lutheranism was their view is compatible with scripture, but scripture doesn’t entail their view. It started looking more like actually scripture teaches the Catholic view and the Lutheran view is an innovation. As soon as I came to believe that, it was pretty clear that I needed to convert.
I was a very devout Lutheran and I was very concerned with believing the right doctrines and not making any theological errors. Something I noticed about the pattern of heresies was that heretics often try to reduce the Canon of scripture. They’ll eliminate some books that they think are sort of awkward for them for what they’re teaching. The more I read about Luther’s view of the book of James and how Luther wanted to get rid of it from the Canon, that raised red flags for me. I started thinking, “Oh no, that’s something that heretics do.” The last piece of the puzzle that fell into place was that I started seeing the Exodus story as like an Old Testament foreshadowing of the plan of salvation that was fulfilled in the New Testament.
You get salvation from bondage to the Egyptians through the death of the firstborn, and then you get a sanctification period in the wilderness and not everybody makes it, and then you get a glorification stage in the promised land. Once I saw those three stages, I started thinking, “Oh, that’s exactly how the Catholics view salvation.” If you ask a Catholic, “How are we saved?” I think the right answer is, “You need to be more specific. Saved from what? How are we saved from our sin debt? That was through the death of Jesus. How are we saved from our inward turnedness and concupiscence and proclivity to sin? That’s through the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit through the process we call sanctification. How are we saved from this fallen earth? That’ll be in the last stage when God remakes it and then we get to enjoy His presence and the new earth.”
That helped me clarify the merely verbal disputes that Lutherans and Catholics were having and it seemed like the Catholic view of salvation mapped on really nicely with that Exodus story. Those were the three main reasons that I decided to change.
Tanja: All the Marian doctrines. That was really hard and that’s something that we had been taught to be very wary of. “Mary is not important. She was just randomly chosen, good for her. She definitely had more children. She definitely sinned.” The Catholics Marian doctrines were just very foreign ideas and I had to just agree to believe them, even though I didn’t feel like they were right, in order to convert. That was part of why I was crying on my conversion.
Tomas: Two things convinced me of the Marian doctrines. One was I started becoming very impressed with what the Catholic church was teaching in the core areas about what’s essential for salvation and so on. Once I started thinking, “Oh, they got that right,” I started giving their testimony in other areas more weight. But then also I was really surprised when I started reading the early church fathers, which is not something that we’d been encouraged to do. I was surprised to see how very Catholic they were and how ancient these teachings about Mary are and about the supremacy of the Pope and so on.
Tanja: You have to do some digging and some reading on your own to get that, though, because I remember having talks with Catholics who seemed very intelligent and they kept saying things like “it’s fitting,” For an outsider, for a Lutheran, that just is not going to do it. I’ve always been taught if the Bible doesn’t say it, there’s no reason to believe it. Had we had a really great priest or a spiritual director, we would have gotten those answers from someone, but we didn’t, we had to read it. We had to find the doctrines and find the writings and read it ourselves. That took some work. Had Tomas not been prone to doing that already, we might’ve not ever found it.
Tomas: Just for the record, I’m okay with “it’s fitting” arguments. I think that’s an appeal to theoretical virtues. Like, if you accept this whole theory, there’s a high degree of coherence and mutual support among the doctrines. I think that’s what people mean when they say, “it’s fitting.” But, coming from a Lutheran background, we were like, “Ima need to see that in the Bible.” It appeals to theoretical virtues and we were like, “What are you even talking about?”
Ten years in, do the Catholic devotions to Mary make sense?
Tomas: My attitude at first was “Well, the rosary’s optional, so I think I’ll just opt out of that and all those Marian doctrines. My level of belief is over 50%, but not a strong believer in these things.” So I bracketed them off and said, “I’ll take all those core parts of Catholicism that I really like.” But, thanks to the efforts of Tanja to assimilate us into the Church, because, as she said, we felt like immigrants speaking a new language. We didn’t really understand all the rituals and feast days and things.
Tanja: We don’t talk about saints or have anything to do with saints in the Lutheran church. It came a little bit out of fear too, because I was like, “Are we worshiping saints? What are we doing with them exactly? And how are they helping us and why are we paying attention to dead people?” It was a process over time.
Our daughter will be the first cradle Catholic in our families in our whole family history and I really wanted her to be very Catholic. I never wanted her to feel like an outsider or an immigrant. The more I learned for her sake, the more I came to love these stories and the saints and what they teach us. And now she has favorite saints and she has a special devotion to Our lady of Guadalupe. That was sort of a turning point for us in how we love and appreciate Mary.
You were seeking the truth and you found it in the Church – do you have any ideas for how we can attract those of no faith at all to the Catholic Church?
Tomas: I remember an article by Dallas Willard in the journal Philosophia Christi, and he gave a sort of argument for God’s existence and he said, “This isn’t supposed to convince you that Christianity is true, it’s just supposed to convince you that the universe is ontologically haunted.” So for a die-hard atheist or naturalist, if you can just convince them that something Supernatural is real, then I think there’s only going to be a few live options for them when they look around and say, “Oh, well, what is the nature of this Supernatural reality.” Then comes the task of comparing the great world religions, but I think that Catholicism has a leg up in that department.
I encounter a lot of atheists and non-believers among my philosophy colleagues at other institutions, though, and before you could make progress with any kind of argument that God exists, they need to develop a kind of appetite for truth. Unfortunately, it seems like a large part of what we’re calling education these days is just teaching students what views are acceptable, or appropriate to say, or sort of kind – that’s the charitable way to put it. We’re teaching them how to be what we consider kind. Very rarely do we stop and ask, “Well, what’s actually true here and why is it true?” And so I think a problem that a lot of students have these days is not just that they haven’t seen good reasons for the Christian faith and Catholicism in particular, it’s that they haven’t even learned what good reasons are and how to evaluate reasons or how to care about reasons. Mostly they evaluate views based on how kind or accommodating or non-judgmental the views are. But rarely do they ask, “Is it true?” I don’t know what the solution to that problem is except to present the questions to them and ask them, “Is it really true? And how do you know?” And then I think the human mind is so set up that hopefully they’ll realize, “It actually would be good to have reasons for my beliefs.” And then it’s up to Christians in general and Catholics in particular to swoop in with some apologetics and present the reasons for the hope that we have.
Have you had bad experiences with the Church?
Tanja: When my daughter was going to classes for her First Communion at our parish here, I sat in on the classes with her and we made it through two classes before I pulled her out. It was a teenager teaching the classes and she was supposed to just read from the book that she was given – and she didn’t, or she was allowed to also improvise a little. Throughout the classes she would write on the board and not only were there just plain spelling mistakes written on the board, but one of the little kids in the class asked her why we baptized babies and she said that we baptize babies because they inherit the sins of their parents and so we need to quickly baptize them to wash away their parents’ sins that came with them through the birth canal. Perhaps she was trying to refer to Original Sin but it certainly was not true and was not clear to these children why we baptize at all and especially infants. So we pulled our daughter out of that class and found another class farther away that was taught by a priest who we knew and respected. Even though I had to drive nearly an hour to get there it was worth it because I knew she was getting the right answers and she was being taught directly from the Catechism.
That frustrated me because we had worked so hard to find the truth and we ourselves knew the doctrine better than these people teaching Catechism classes to these children.
Tomas: We started RCIA in Austin, Texas at our local parish and determined quickly that we couldn’t stay there and so we had to go to the cathedral in Austin, which was really great. I think we went to two RCIA meetings at the local parish and I realized, this is not happening.
Tanja: Yeah, even we could tell. I remember he called it a sewing circle. You sit around and talk about your feelings and there was zero teaching going on. We left but a lot of the people were staying and what kind of converts are we making then?