Peter has spoken through Leo: why I became a Catholic

Peter has spoken through Leo: why I became a Catholic

Michael Daniel

This March marked an important anniversary in my life. Half a lifetime ago, on 25 March 1989, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

As a fifteen-year-old Anglican I was about as far away as anyone could be from the Catholic Church: I identified strongly with the evangelical movement in Anglicanism, accepting many of its myths and prejudices about Catholics, even wondering whether most Catholics were actually Christians and had even been 'saved'.

However, I eventually met someone whose very extreme prejudices about Catholics I thought were unrealistic and being brought up in an environment that encouraged me to be open-minded and consider ideas on their merits, I decided to practise this approach.

Intellectual argument

So before slinging off at Catholics again, I actually read some Catholic literature to find out what arguments they had for their beliefs.

Assuming such material would lack intellectual substance, I snuck into the porch of St Francis' Church, Melbourne, grabbed a few pamphlets and ran, hoping nobody would notice me.

What a shock I was in for.

Having decided to suspend my prejudices for half an hour, I realised that the first pamphlet I read not only presented an intelligent argument, but one that made more sense than the Protestant position on the topic.

I was further intrigued by the fact that the first pamphlet I chose to read was written by one Fr Peter Elliott, himself a convert from Anglicanism.

What in the world would make anyone take such a drastic step?

At around the same time, I was introduced to Anglo-Catholic liturgy by a school friend. What struck me through this experience was the mystical transcendent dimension of worship that I had never encountered.

So I came to identify myself as an Anglo-Catholic, particularly as I could not fully accept all the claims of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile my devotional practices also became more Catholic.

Nevertheless, my unease with Anglican claims grew - although I still accepted the 'branch theory', that is, that the Anglican Church is the English branch of the Catholic Church, which is also comprised of Churches such as the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

During the course of my final year at an Anglican boys' school we studied the English Reformation, listening to, of all things, tapes on the subject by Fr Peter Elliott.

Henry VIII's break with Rome for essentially selfish reasons rather than to reform the Church hit me like a ton of bricks.

Furthermore, the changes in doctrine implemented during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I were at variance with what the Church in England had always believed.

The ordination of women to the diaconate at the time also undermined the Anglican Church's claims to catholicity. If the Anglican Church were a branch of the Catholic Church, would it really go it alone on an important matter such as ordination, without the consent of the other branches?

Furthermore, women's ordination created division in the Church to the extent that one diocese could have women priests but the neighbouring diocese or province would not even recognise their orders! Was this the unity Christ prayed for?

While I intellectually accepted most of the Catholic Church's claims by the time I commenced university, during the next two years I gradually came to accept them on a spiritual level.

The more I read, the more I realised that Catholic beliefs reflected what the early Church taught and believed rather than Protestant teachings.

The pieces of the Catholic 'jigsaw' gradually fell into place. For example, St Ignatius of Antioch, writing early in the second century, stated that heretics called Docetists refused to receive Communion because they denied the Eucharist was the body of Christ due to their disbelief in the Incarnation.

Who was more likely to be correct about the Real Presence: Ignatius, or some reformer writing 1,500 years after Christ?

I gradually had to be honest with myself and admit that the doctrinal statements as contained in The Book of Common Prayer, and particularly in The Thirty-Nine Articles, could not be interpreted in a Catholic sense, but reflected Protestant beliefs.

The papacy

Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks was the papacy, particularly the concept of papal infallibility.

In addition to the historical and Scriptural evidence, which were becoming, in my mind, more convincing, was the notion that the papacy possessed an executive power to define a matter of faith and morals that could be used to avert a crisis of instability or dissension within the Church.

None of the other churches possessed such a structure with the inevitable result of unending division.

There were therefore two options: either the papacy was instituted by Christ for this very reason; or humans themselves had developed a highly effective institution to address the problem. The historical evidence pointed clearly to the former.

The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place in January 1989 while I was reading an historical account of the Fourth General Council of the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451), a council which the Anglican Church regards as binding.

That council's fathers accepted the doctrinal definition of the hypostatic union with the acclamation, 'Peter has spoken through Leo.' The question then entered my mind: How could the definition of the council be accepted without the recognition of papal authority that the council fathers themselves accepted?

At that moment it was as if, to use a Scriptural metaphor, the veil of the temple was torn in two and I realised at long last that the claims of the Catholic Church had to be valid: Chalcedon could not be accepted unless one accepted the papacy - and I had always accepted Chalcedon. Within a week I commenced instruction with a priest.

Michael Daniel is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne and has been a regular contributor to 'AD2000' over the years. Part two of his conversion story will appear in the May edition.

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