Interview on August 26, 2021 with James, who entered the Church in April 2021 at age 24.
What was your faith background?
James: I grew up in an Anglican family, but really it was more Anglican in name than anything else. By the time I was about 13 or 14, I would probably describe myself as atheist and didn’t believe in God. I went to church occasionally because my school attended services three times a year and I sang in choir, so I’d occasionally sing in churches, but besides that, I generally would have said I didn’t believe in God and I didn’t attend church.
My conversion started when I went off to university at 18 and I had a lot of spare time. I only had about 10, 11 hours of class a week. I enjoyed exploring politics and that extended to politics and philosophy. And as I explored philosophy, I became interested in the idea of subjective versus objective morality. At the time I would have said, because I was atheist, that morality was subjective, but from exploring history and seeing that there’s clearly a pattern, that there is one set of moral rules or moral guidelines that are better than others, and there must be a reason why they’re better, that pushed me to thinking, “Is morality in fact objective?” That was the first time I started to consider religion again.
The issue of subjective versus objective morality was key in my conversion. The other one was scientism. About three years ago I became aware of the term “scientism” and the idea that science is being excessively used to explain phenomena that can’t be explained using a scientific method. And once I was introduced to the term and what it meant, I became increasingly aware of how common it is.
I read C.S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man and that really resonated with me because that was how I felt through state schools in the UK, that we were being taught all of these things, but we weren’t given any kind of foundation to why those things were true and it meant that everything we were taught was so weakened, easily criticized, and ignored. What I became aware of is that as an atheist, I too easily dismissed a lot of things with a pseudo-scientific explanation for them, ignored that there was actually something deeper going on, and only considered the material when things are actually much more complicated than that. That was a real shift in my thinking from being entirely materialistic to realizing that there is much more to us as humans than that and to all the world around us than that. I effectively had to reconsider my entire way of thinking about the world.
The decision to convert to Catholicism was much later. Going from the idea that morality was objective, I realized that the set of moral foundations that seemed to me to be the best were the ones that held up Western civilization, those being Judeo-Christian morals, values, and guidelines. Looking at empires like the Roman empire and Byzantine empire, I saw that the downfall of those empires seemed to come when they turned away from those moral foundations and tried to create rules for themselves. That’s when I realized that actually there was something significant in Christianity itself and therefore in the Bible that I’d clearly missed or been perhaps too young to understand at the time when I had initially described myself as atheist.
So at that point I was interested more in the teachings of Christianity, but my conversion to Catholicism would have been much later. There’s still kind of a divide between Protestantism and Catholicism in the UK and so whilst I was still in the UK, I wasn’t sure how my family would feel about me converting to Catholicism. But what attracted me to the hierarchy of Catholicism I think is really important. The idea that any institution and, in particular, that the Church could exist without a solid hierarchy just seemed strange to me.
The Anglican churches are synod-based sort of denominations and when it came to issues of morality, it shouldn’t be something that’s voted on. It’s something that is true or isn’t. It’s not something that you can have a synod and vote on it. It should be a hierarchy with one authority leading the Church and that very much attracted me to the Catholic Church and, on top of that, the tradition of the Catholic Church. Growing up, the church we attended would have been described as a high Anglican church. It kept some of the traditions of Catholicism, but, looking back now, it was kind of an imitation of Catholicism. So you have the Eucharist, but you don’t believe in the real presence and you don’t really have apostolic succession because of the Protestant Reformation. All of those things are lost. Those important traditions of the Catholic Church are imitated in Anglicanism, but missing.
So my thinking was, “Why would I choose Anglicanism because I liked the traditions when those traditions were simply an imitation of everything the Catholic Church does?” When I came out to Santa Barbara I knew that I wanted to start attending church again. I hadn’t been attending Mass or anything in the UK, because I didn’t know how my family would react and I was still torn whether I would go to an Anglican church or a Catholic church when I came out here. But I eventually came to the realization that the Catholic Church was the right decision and I could resolve any issues with my family as it went on. They would be fine with whatever decision I made and in the end that’s worked out. During my last year at university, in the UK, I on a number of occasions considered attending the Catholic church there. One thing that held me back was that I didn’t know how British Catholics would react to a Protestant convert given there’s this still somewhat existing conflict between the two in the UK.
Was there anything in particular that pushed you over the edge to deciding that Catholicism was the way to go?
James: Part of it was the Catholic Church’s strength on key moral issues. Abortion is a big one because the Anglican church is still so weak on the issue of abortion. Their official teaching is that they’re opposed to it but no one in the Anglican church is willing to stand up for those views. Similarly with marriage, where there’s a potential issue with the synod system that there are large factions within the Anglican church who would be prepared to recognize gay marriage within the Anglican church. On a lot of key moral issues, the Anglican church is becoming weaker and weaker and I think that’s a product of the democratic system that it’s built around. I saw the stability of the strict hierarchy of the Catholic Church and I thought that was just much better.
Were there any hurdles that held you back from the Catholic Church?
James: So it was just always that doubt as to whether I was making the right decision, but when I got here, attending the first Mass at St. Mark’s that Sunday was an incredible experience. It was the first time I’d been to a Catholic Mass. It was obviously beautiful. I knew at that point that I was absolutely making the right decision and from that point on, I don’t think I had any doubts that joining the Catholic Church was the right decision. Coming from being an atheist, I still had some sort of doubts, but that quickly went away.
Given your trust in the hierarchy, have any of Pope Francis’ actions or Catholics’ reactions to them given you pause?
James: I’ve had some difficulties with some of the things that have been said because over the last six months or so, I started attending Latin Masses. It wasn’t very often because they’re not very nearby, but I could really appreciate the reverence and beauty of Latin Masses and so I found the whole discussion around restrictions on the Latin Mass really difficult. But I think the realization I came to is that, as the pope, Pope Francis is acting in what he understands to be the best interests of the Church. Whatever happens, the Catholic Church will remain because it is eternal. For some Catholics it could be really difficult to lose the form of the liturgy that they love. But I think whatever Pope Francis is doing, he is doing in the best interests of the church. He is the pope.