Henry Adams and Catholic Conversion

“What the Church thought or thinks is its own affair,” wrote Henry Adams, “and what it chooses to call orthodox is orthodox.”  Adams (1838-1918) was the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, and he was one of many people who have been fascinated by Catholic culture but have not been inclined to convert to Catholicism.  His shrugging recognition of the Church’s right to decide what is orthodox occurs in Chapter 15 of his quirky and eloquent book, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904).

Adams delighted in paradox, and he would have appreciated this situation, a Protestant from an old New England family acknowledging the Church’s task of defining orthodoxy, while countless Catholics act like Protestants, choosing for themselves what is right teaching.  Since the days of Martin Luther, it has been a Protestant hallmark that each believer can become an authority on Scriptural theology, hence the proliferation of Protestant denominations.  Individual Christians studying biblical religion is admirable, but as with any intricate subject, theology requires expert guidance.

Doctrine has developed over two millennia, yet Christian theology asks basic questions:  What is this thing?  What is its purpose?  Asking the wrong questions can waste time and lead to wrong answers.  Church history records the results of a lot of wrong answers, as well as the effects of the seemingly fewer right ones.

Adams could be content to let the Church think her own thoughts, but Catholics engage in family arguments about the Church’s thinking.  The 1960s provide an amusing example.  In 1961, liberal Catholics scolded conservatives at National Review for objecting to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Mater et Magistra; in 1968, the tables turned as liberals objected to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae vitae.

In his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (2010), Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Church is not here to place burdens on the shoulders of mankind, and she does not offer some sort of moral system.”  He added, “The really crucial thing is that the Church offers Him.”  It is puzzling that journalists did not find that statement more startling than his comments earlier in the book about condoms.

For many people, the Catholic Church is all about rules, regulations, and burdens, and those people wonder what any church is for if not offering a moral system.  When they are told “The Church proposes, not imposes,” they think of all the paperwork they had to fill out and meetings they had to sit through for a wedding or a baptism, they think of Holy Days of Obligation (emphasis on the obligation), and they scratch their heads, guessing that the Church must have a different dictionary when it comes words like “propose” and “impose.”

The Catholic Church offers Him, Christ, to everyone, but not everyone is willing to embrace the whole complicated formality of the Church, from hierarchy to canon law to liturgy, and abide by all the answers the Church has come up with to so many of life’s questions.  For them, it all seems unnecessary, appearing to be Pharisaical tedium standing between them and Christ.  If someone is not open to accepting the Church’s procedures and teachings, one is free to find somewhere else to pray, and it would seem that for some people, it is indeed too high a price to pay for receiving the Eucharist.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the universality of the Catholic Church is that it is for everyone.  Although anyone is welcome to attend Mass, not everyone is welcome to receive Communion.  That fact might seem unfair, but it is the same as being welcome in someone’s house, provided one is respectful and polite and follows the rules of the house.  Not everyone welcomed into the house is thereby a member of the family, and at some point in the evening, the guests have to leave.

Meanwhile, the Church is realistic enough to recognize that not all options are open, not all potentials can be fulfilled.  Thus the Church sees that one of the worst lies peddled to recent generations is that we can be and do whatever we want, and therefore everyone else must approve.  Truth then becomes a matter of personal taste, and right and wrong become determined by the calendar.  From such arbitrariness emerges the absurdity of the dogmatic assertion that there are no absolutes.  The Catholic Church disagrees, insisting that there are fixed points of morality and reality, so that, for example, a man who is short, stocky, and bald, cannot “self-identify” as tall, blond, and chiseled.

Back to Henry Adams, short and balding lover of medieval cathedrals and reader of Catholic poetry and theology.  Adams meditated long on the intriguing fact that some of the Church’s greatest intellects have also been among her greatest mystics.  “Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas of Aquino,” Adams mused, “were both artists, . . . and one need not decide which was greater; but between them is a region of pure emotion, . . . which is more interesting than either.”  That emotional region between Bernard and Aquinas was the realm of poetic insight and mystical intuition.

“The true saint is a profound sceptic,” Adams concluded, “a total disbeliever in human reason, . . . Bernard was a total disbeliever in Scholasticism; so was Voltaire.”  Although Bernard would have been appalled by proximity even in print with Voltaire, he would have agreed that the gift of faith helps to reveal where human reason has its limits.  Bernard’s many writings are not unreasonable, but their one theme derives from his monastic vow of conversatio morum, openness to the grace for an ongoing conversion of one’s life.

Being Catholic is not a birthright, an automatic and inalienable title because one’s roots go back to a country that used to have a Catholic monarch.  Being Catholic is about becoming Catholic.  It is an individual’s daily response to Christ’s call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Him, and following Him involves adhering to, if not always understanding, His Body, the Church.  A relationship contingent upon one party fully understanding the other will not get very far.  What matters is turning around, converting, and going back to the Father.  The Prodigal Son realized that he had to come home only after he had admitted to himself that the life he had chosen to live was wrong.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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