Africa, June 2019, Vol. 84 No. 5

From My Bookshelf: Frank Conlisk reviews

Mind, Heart & Soul - Intellectuals and the Path to Rome

by R.J. Snell & Robert P. George

This month, I’m taking a look at a book that was published in the US in 2018 called Mind, Heart and Soul, Intellectuals and the Path to Rome by RJ Snell and Robert P George. Be encouraged. You do not need a PhD in theology to read and understand this publication…although a stiff whiskey may help you through some of the sentiments expressed therein. 


In 16 chapters, George (a cradle Catholic) and Snell (an adult convert) offer the stories of sixteen adult converts to Catholicism, “each a public intellectual or leading voice in their respective fields.” The interviews are conducted by leading scholars many of whom are themselves converts.  


Included are interviews with a former Lutheran minister, journalists, historians, a religious sister and a bishop, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge professors, a former megachurch pastor, a Swedish astronomer and others. Each has “crossed the Tiber” having been raised in one or other of a wide range of Evangelical, Anglican, Anglo-Catholic or Jewish traditions. A few have had little if any childhood religious belief or practice. 


For some, the path to Rome was by way of reading, reason and the intellect. For others, it was more experiential. For one, Chad C. Pecknold, professor of history and theology at the Catholic University of America, it was by vision and direct call. “The room was illuminated”, he reports “and the face of Christ came to me and said, ‘give me your life’. (p215)


Certainly it is fascinating to read what motivated and inspired these accomplished women and men to search so diligently – sometimes for years – for meaning in their lives and why Catholicism finally became their spiritual home. How their former religious traditions and they themselves viewed Catholicism before their conversion is also of interest – and not always flattering. Sister Prudence Allen RSM, who was raised in a fundamentalist Protestant Utopian community in New York, recalls her first contact with Catholics at a Benedictine Abbey in the Mojave Desert. “I had never met such intelligent men with faith and this awakened my curiosity about how they could be both intelligent and Catholic.” (p31) 


While a very wide range of views are represented, the overarching tone of this book is conservative. For many, the perceived relativism of their former religious traditions – their “shifting sands” in terms of beliefs and morals – led them to seek stability, tradition, authority and certainty in Catholicism. 


And so it comes as no surprise that for the majority of those interviewed, a certain discontent with the current leadership of the Church simmers beneath the surface – and at times, bubbles to the top. Bishop James D. Conley, Bishop of Lincoln Diocese, Nebraska, who states that “…outside of which [the Church] there is no salvation” (p13) references John Henry Newman. “Newman had a very healthy respect, obedience, and admiration for the papacy, but at the same time he knew that not every utterance that came out of the pope’s mouth is necessarily authentic Christian doctrine…he [Newman] can teach us something about how we should understand the office of Peter, especially in the present pontificate.” (p27)


While a certain zealousness for their newfound faith is to be expected, the honesty, openness and vulnerability of some of the contributors is moving. Erika Bachiochi, a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School, speaks candidly about her troubled early life – abandoned, in effect, by her parents with nothing to hold onto except an angry, radical feminism and a Twelve Steps group. After a great deal of searching she now believes that “through the Catholic Church… God…unites himself with us to strengthen us for life’s journey.” (p209)  


In a time of scepticism, it can take a great deal of determination and sheer guts to declare yourself to be a person of faith of any sort. To choose to convert to Catholicism, in the hostile environments in which many of these contributors move, is especially admirable. I leave the final words to Joshua Charles, historian and writer who, in 2018, was the most recent of the group to take the path to Rome. Before his conversion he posted on social media: “…what I have realized is what I have been, namely a deeply prejudiced man when it comes to the Catholic Church…to paraphrase Mark Twain, so much I knew that just wasn’t so…if the process of shedding my prejudice leads me to Rome, so be it.” Later he concluded: “By the time I was done shedding, I realized I was a Catholic.”

Published by TAN Books (November 2018) 

PO Box 410487, Charlotte, NC 28241, USA. 


Hardback $27.95, Kindle $10.09

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