You could break all the rules and have the same experience Dr. Noll has had or you could break the rules to your own peril and could begin to view the Christian faith, your life, time, space, and the whole physical world in a new, but oddly familiar light. Perhaps I can steer you around all this.
For Catholics, let me strongly encourage you to break all the rules early and often. After all, why should the “converts” have all the fun? Rule #1: Assume that all Catholics are idiots.
When I say assume all Catholics are idiots, I mean you need to assume all Catholics are idiots. You can’t begin making exceptions because that’s where the trouble starts. It’s a slippery slope from “All Catholics except John Paul II and Benedict XVI are idiots,” to “All Catholics except JP2, B16, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Cardinal George, and G.K. Chesterton are idiots,” to “There are many Catholics who are not idiots,” to “The majority of Catholics, who, I must admit, are not idiots,” to “Bless me, Father for I have sinned.” Nip this slippery slope in the bud. All means all.
All has to include all clergy, theologians, and intellectuals. In Blessed John Henry Newman’s mid-nineteenth century novel about conversion, Loss and Gain, the main character, Charles Reding, receives a final warning from Carlton, a friend at Oxford University, before he takes the plunge across the Tiber. About Roman Catholics, Carlton cautions, “You will find them under-educated men, I suspect.” When Charles presses his friend as to how he knows this, Carlton replies, “I suspect it. …I judge from their letters and speeches which one reads in the papers,” that is, in the English, Protestant, and, at the time, thoroughly anti-Catholic papers.
Carlton, a theology scholar, had managed to avoid all contact with actual Roman Catholic theologians and thinkers thereby providing himself with the safety of claiming that all Catholics are under-educated and not worth his attention except perhaps for ridicule.
Today that’s what the New York Times seems to think Catholics are prejudiced, “under-educated” (at least), cultural troglodytes and that should be good enough for you. (Actually the Times believes what most liberal elites believe, that, as Richard John Neuhaus put it, “The only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.” They heartily approve of Catholics who reject Church teachings particularly teachings to do with sexuality.)
Anyway, more than a century and a half after Newman wrote, Fr. James Schall, Professor of Government at Georgetown University noted at the website, The Catholic Thing:
Few want to know what truth is found in Catholicism. The main reason Catholicism is hated in the modern world, and it is hated, is the suspicion that Catholicism might well be true. To mock or misrepresent Catholicism seems permissible if, as it is supposed, it is composed of dunderheads who cannot argue coherently about anything, not even what they believe and the grounds for it.
On a popular and practical level, this can be done by simply repeating the words, “How could anyone believe that?” with a pained facial expression whenever confronted with Purgatory, indulgences, the Immaculate Conception, papal authority, transubstantiation, or any number of other Catholic distinctives.
Wondering even for a moment how bright, well-educated, and theologically astute people defend these doctrines will only lead you to investigate. And investigation would put you in dialogue with Catholic thinkers in person or through their writings. And dialogue if it is honest carries with it an openness to change. And an openness to change is the very thing you don’t want.
Better simply to assume we are all misguided dolts who desperately need either the New York Times or some Ryrie Study Bibles to set us straight.
Rule #2: Get all information on the Catholic faith second hand.
How the conversation got started is a mystery, but the topic was death and something I said caused my companion, an elderly gentleman, to remark, “Of course I’m Catholic and the Catholic Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”