Imagine that: an endnote. Yep, that's how it started. Back in the fall semester of 1987 when I was teaching a course in the history and philosophy of law at Lenoir-Rhyne University and using as a the main text Harold Berman's Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) [now online, amazingly, as a PDF file]. One of my earliest philosophy professors, H. E. Runner at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, had mentioned the book to me in conversation when I was in grad school at Duquesne University. He said that a former student of his, John Witte, Jr., who served as an assistant to Berman at Harvard Law School and subsequently went with him to Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, had a substantial hand in writing the Introduction to Berman's volume. I reviewed the book for the Duquesne Law Review in the Fall issue of 1985, comparing it in importance to William Blakstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1766). It is an amazingly insightful and illuminating book.
How could an endnote in a book lead me to convert to the Catholic Faith? Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that; but that's how it began. The endnote was the catalyst, let us say. I had long been exposed to Catholic ideas. In third grade, when my Protestant missionary parents brought us back from Japan to Indiana on a one-year furlough, there was a neighbor boy who was Catholic. He taught me that one shouldn't say "I love" this or that, but use "I love" only for God. A small thing, but an example that made me think. In Japan I knew kids who attended Catholic schools like St. Mary's in Tokyo. Unlike many Protestants, my parents, to their credit, never made any sort of issue of people being Catholic or of Catholicism as such; whereas I knew many Evangelical and Fundamentalist mission groups that had all sorts of anti-Catholic literature.
In high school we had a wonderful, C. S. Lewis-like literature teacher, Mr. Howard Blair, who taught us Dante's Divine Comedy along with other classics from western history. He was always a supremely wise, patient, gentle, and liberal-minded man in the best sense of that term, and to this day I still visit him when I'm in Philadelphia and he stops to visit me for several days when he drives to Detroit every summer. I think it was he who also inspired my first reading of St. Augustine's Confessions, though I can't say how much of it I really absorbed in those high school years.
In college, I read more Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas at Calvin College; and then, for my last two years, I attended the Jesuit institution, Sophia University in Tokyo, where I not only read more Catholic classics, but had some very good Jesuit professors (there were still some in those days, you know, as there are still if you look hard enough)!
All of this was superlatively interesting academically, but it never even occurred to me to think about becoming a Catholic. Why? Because it wasn't what William James would have called a "living" or "forced" option. It wasn't a "living" option because it was "avoidable" and didn't even present itself as an "option" in any conscious way. The reason probably had something to do with my Protestant nominalist view of the Church at the time. The "Church" didn't refer to any definite historical organization, but rather to a somewhat nebulous reality associated with the spiritual Body of Christ, which embraced authentic "believers" from various "denominations." The particular place you attended "services" on Sundays wasn't all that important, as long as your "relationship with Jesus" was on track. That was the general Protestant attitude.
So what was it about this endnote that set the ball rolling? What was it that aroused my curiosity and got me enquiring into the roots of the Christian Faith? Some of the background conditions that helped set the stage very likely had something to do with a feeling of displacement. Here I was, an "American" of Swiss Anabaptist ancestry born in China, raised in Japan, educated in Pennsylvania after a year in Switzerland, teaching near the Baptist buckle of the Bible Belt at a Lutheran institution in the tobacco-chewing yahoo American South, wondering how to "do church" as a family. We tried different places, but I always felt like an outsider, haunted by that sense of homelessness that Heidegger calls Heimatlosigkeit.
I was too deeply read in the Reformed tradition to ever feel much at home among the Baptists or Methodists, as much as I appreciated their irrepressible friendliness. As much as I loved the philosophically-rich Dutch Reformed tradition (Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven), there were no such circles where we lived, and there was such doctrinaire hair-splitting factionalism among the four-walls-and-a-sermon Presbyterians that my father-in-law called them the "split P's" and "frozen chosen." The Lutherans had good music and Psalmnody, but I could never buy into the Lutheran Law-Gospel dualism, "two kingdom" theory, or the simul iustus et peccator theology of paradox. The Anglicans or Episcopalians had great liturgy but didn't give a rip what you blieved as long as you could "get mystical." All of which had me wondering more and more what the common denominator of American "denominational" Christianity was.
So what sparked my enquiry into the Catholic Faith was this endnote? Yep, a note referenced in chapter five of Berman's book -- a chapter entitled "Canon Law: The First Modern Western Legal System." In the endnote itself, which begins on page 604, the author refers to two works by Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350 (Leiden, 1972), and The Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, 1955), and says that, according to Tierney, when the theory of papal infallibility emerged at the end of the thirteenth century, "it was advanced as a limitation on papal authority: it meant that the infallible utterances of prior popes could not be reformed by the pope in power at any given moment."
That was it. It wasn't so much anything about Tierney's theory itself, but the mere fact that this description of papal infallibility turned everything I had thought I knew about papal infallibility totally upside down. I thought that papal infallibility was advanced as a positive power by which the pope could posit new doctrines with the authority of God behind him. Instead it was here claimed that it was a negative power, restraining the pope by binding him to an infallible, irreformable tradition.
Why did any of this matter? Because it made me doubt the reliability of the textus receptus with which I had been working -- the secular and largely Protestant "textbook tradition" on the meaning of the such things as the "Reformation," "Church history," along with the Crusades and Inquisition that I assumed were reliable "pegs" in my historical template. In any case, it started me reading. In fact, the trickle of books I started reading broke like a damn, and I soon found myself getting up an hour early each morning at 5:00 AM just to devote to my enquiry into Church history and the claims of the Catholic Church. It was a deeply upsetting and uprooting journey, if also ultimately a gratifying one.
As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, a man who wishes to remain a sound atheist (or, we could add, an undisturbed Protestant) cannot be too careful of his reading. Again, G. K. Chesterton somewhere refers to the three stages of conversion as patronizing, discovering, and running from the Church in terror. I must confess that the terror was real. I made sure to cover my bases and spent probably more time than I needed re-reading the Protestant Reformers, like Calvin's Institutes and Debate with Jacopo Sadoleto, Luther's Commentary on Romans, Bondage of the Will, Pagan Servitude of the Church, Chemnitz's Examination of the Council of Trent, etc. (and even Loraine Boettner's muck-raking Roman Catholicism!), before coming back to those who led me into the Church, converts like Louis Bouyer, Ronald Knox, Cardinal Newman, etc. (not to mention contemporary contacts like Jimmy Akin, Scott Hahn, and Karl Keating), and then delving more deeply into established Catholic writers themselves, such as Karl Adams, Josef Pieper, Ludwig Ott, Garrigou-Lagrange, St. Francis de Sales, St. Louis de Montfort, St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, St. John of the Cross, etc.
That, at any rate, is how the long story of my otherwise not particularly original journey into the Catholic Church began, with that endnote in that book on law that can now be found online here (PDF). Caveat emptor! You can never be too careful of your reading!