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Joining the Unsaved, Part 3

By Carl E. Olson
Going to the source: the Cathechism and Church teaching become the focus of Olson’s study

This Rock -

Carl Olson finds “it is time to let the Church speak for itself,” in his ongoing investigation of the Catholic faith. He begins in a logical place: the Catechism of the Catholic Church. From there, he investigates the teachings of the early Church Fathers, the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and numerous Catholic theologians. All of these impress Olson with the consistency of Catholic teaching and practice through the centuries, including during the “early Church,” which his fundamentalist background had taught him was so different from the Catholic Church today.

Heather and I were married in June of 1994.  We had been helping lead a small singles Bible study in the church we attended.  Through a series of unfortunate events we found ourselves outsiders in a matter of church politics.  While we had been studying the Bible directly, it was decided that a new leader was needed who would bring more “zeal” to the group, as well as increase the amount of activities and socializing.  It was a fortuitous event, for although I struggled with bitterness, I also felt freed to study Catholicism more carefully.  In addition to reading more Chesterton, I had stumbled upon the writings of Walker Percy, an acerbic and brilliant Catholic author.  In his collection of essays,  SignPosts in a Strange Land, he explains that he became Catholic because there are three things that the mind and a materialistic philosophy cannot account for: the existence of self, the survival of the Jews, and the uniqueness of the Catholic Church.  This remark paralleled Chesterton, who wrote about the "deaths" of the Church and her continual "resurrection," coming back stronger than ever, contrary to all human logic.

I decided it was time to let the Catholic Church speak for itself.  What did the Catholic Church actually claim and teach and adhere to?  I went to my favorite bookstore and started going through the religious section.  While looking at a copy of The Catechism, another book caught my eye: Catholicism and Fundamentalism.  I picked it up and read the back, but wasn’t sure if I should buy it.  A young man who was standing next to me turned and saw me sticking it back on the shelf.

“I would really recommend that book” he said.

“Which side of this do you fall on?” I asked, referring to the title.

“I used to be a Fundamentalist anti-Catholic,” he replied, “but I became a Catholic, partially due to that book.”

“Really?” My curiosity was heightened.

“Yes, in fact I’m here looking for information on the Trappists.  I’m thinking of becoming a monk.”  We talked for a while longer, and I took his advice and bought the book.

I finished reading Catholicism and Fundamentalism the next evening.  At times it was like reading about my childhood and the beliefs I had been taught, especially regarding false ideas about the Catholic Church.  But I was most impressed with how well the author, Karl Keating, understood and accurately presented Fundamentalist teachings and showed the inherent flaws of the assumptions behind them.  It was as if several years of stored-up questions, implications, inferences, and frustrations were flushed out into the open, asking to be fully dealt with and solved.

I also read sections of The Catechism of the Catholic Church on salvation, the sacraments, and the place of Mary.  I was both surprised and frightened to see how biblical, Christocentric, and Trinitarian the teachings were.  A part of me wanted to reject the possibility that the Catholic Church was the true Church, while another part dared myself to continue on in my search for the truth.  I still had many questions, especially about salvation and Mary, but I knew I was beginning to find answers.  Although Heather was uncertain about this direction, she patiently endured my deepening interest in Catholicism and began to read some of the same books as I was.  Nearly every evening we would talk about how what we were reading compared with what we had been taught while growing up and attending Bible college.

When a subject interests me, I rarely go halfway in trying to understand or master it.  In the months that followed, I began an erratic, but fruitful, journey of study and consideration of the Catholic Church.  I read Catholic, Protestant, and secular histories of the early Church, and the Reformation. At BBC the only thing I ever heard about Christianity prior to the 20th century was Luther’s heroic freeing of Christianity from Rome.   This was simplistic at best and  false at worst.  I found a couple volumes of the early Church fathers and read those.  When I read Ignatius, writing only 80 years after Christ’s death about the reality of Eucharist being Christ’s flesh and blood, it was a knife in my heart.  Instead of finding an early Church that was Protestant, I was discovering a Church that believed in the Real Presence, baptismal regeneration, liturgical worship, and apostolic succession.  I read conversion stories by those entering the Church, as well as the testimonies of anti-Catholics who had left the Church.  I bought a copy of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and also read some writings of John Paul II.  Then I immersed myself in the works of theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Karl Adams, Henri de Lubac, Hans urs von Balthasar, Deitrich von Hildebrand, Ronald Knox, and Fulton Sheen.  While I had once thought I “knew” Christianity, I was being repeatedly blown out of the water by these amazing authors and their penetrating insights into Scripture, human nature, and history.  Like so many other people who have examined Catholicism, I read John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine and had his famous words burned into my mind: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

As I studied Scripture in new light, I started seeing verses I didn’t even know existed, and I was discovering, through Catholic doctrine, a richness and profundity in the whole of Scripture that had never been there for me before.  My education in “covenant” was coming in good stead, for the Catholic Church had an appreciation of covenant that permeated every element of the Catholic faith.  This was especially true in a matter of great importance to me: the Eucharist.  The relationship between the Eucharist as the New Covenant and the Catholic Church as a universal family became much clearer through study and the additional help of Dr. Scott Hahn’s various tape series.  The seed that had been planted years before was sending out roots into the soil. Soon I would be breaking above the surface and letting my friends and family know about everything I had been studying.

Copyright © 2000 Carl E. Olson.

Carl welcomes your comments. Email him at

Originally published in the June 1998 issue of This Rock, a publication of Catholic Answers. Visit their Web site at

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