A Catholic critic -- on the right

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas returned home to Roman Catholicism two years ago and, more recently, a few high-profile conservatives have converted -- ranging from Norma "Jane Roe" McCorvey to Florida Wasp Jeb Bush.

While the Evangelical Right gets the most ink, it isn't hard to figure out what's happening, said Joseph D'Agostino of Human Events, a conservative weekly based in Washington, D.C.

"It's a reaction to an incredible decline in Western and American culture. The very concept of truth has, today, come under attack. We've come that far. Meanwhile, the Catholic church is still viewed as being a defender of truth, reason and traditional values," he said. "So, despite the best efforts of the church hierarchy ... some conservatives are converting."

D'Agostino understands because he, too, feels the pull of centuries of tradition and faith. But in a recent article in a traditionalist magazine, The Latin Mass, he described why he hasn't joined the procession. While most criticism of Roman Catholicism comes from the left, his confession -- "Why I'm Almost a Catholic" -- offers a rare unbeliever's view from the right.

When Catholic leaders prepare to face skeptics, they don't prep to handle the theological questions of someone who was raised as a Reform Jew, majored in Latin and classics in college, and then found his niche in political journalism.

The bottom line is that D'Agostino is a free agent. He has looked at other options, such as Orthodox Judaism. He bluntly said he considers Protestantism "a joke." He believes that the Protestant right offers "faith without intellect," while the left offers "intellect without faith." Needless to say, this viewpoint isn't very popular among Southern Baptists, traditional Lutherans, doctrinaire Calvinists and legions of other religious conservatives.

D'Agostino said he has always felt drawn to Catholicism's emphasis on reason, order, structure, beauty and "simply goodness." As a conservative, he also believes that Rome has all the right enemies.

"The resentment men, including most Catholics, hold against the Church intrigues me. ... I believe this, and the Church's willingness to take a stand in a society of moral cowards, drew me toward the Church before all else," he wrote. "When I look at the Church's enemies present and past the Church comes out looking very good. I suspect that men resent her because, consciously or not, they fear that her demanding doctrines might be true."

Quite frankly, D'Agostino puts himself in this latter category. While not an atheist, he describes himself as an "Aristotelian Deist" who accepts some role for God in governing the universe and he believes reason can lead to moral laws, as well. But D'Agostino just can't make the leap to Christian faith. He has been left with big questions, such as: Why is the world so messed up? Why am I so messed up? What happens after death?

"At some point, you either go with Aristotle or you go with Jesus and that's that," he said. "Reason can only take you so far. ... My problem is that I just don't have faith. In the end, I have not accepted, by faith, that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior."

But there is another hurdle that stands between him and conversion. Most of the Catholic clergy that he has met seem to lack confidence that they have solid answers for tough questions, said D'Agostino. They seem more comfortable working with converts who will quickly accept some, but not all, Catholic teachings, than they are wrestling with someone who hungers for the faith of the ages -- all of it.

As a skeptic, D'Agostino said he is convinced Catholicism cannot afford to make peace with its critics.

"Most Catholicism today seems so soft. It doesn't openly compromise with the world, but it doesn't really attack modernity," he said. "You see, I don't think it's the church's job to hold polite dialogues with the world. The church's job is to give people the answers that Christians have lived and died to defend through the ages. If I'm going to convert, that's what will convert me -- the real thing."