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It Just Makes Sense (Even as a Protestant)

It Just Makes sense (Even as a Protestant)

My family and I are approaching the five-year mark in the Catholic Church. While my wife may describe her experience differently, I am quite certain that the honeymoon is over. 

My personality didn’t change at the Easter Vigil 2011, nor did my character radically improve. This is solid evidence that purgatory is real, because there’s a clear difference between saintly and saved.

Not that I needed any help believing in purgatory; I had long ago accepted it as a Protestant. I just didn’t call it purgatory, because it sounded bad. People who don’t know much about purgatory associate it with hell, not heaven. Plus, anything ending with those last five letters isn’t going to be an easy sell…conservatory, suppository, obligatory—they all sound bad. But needing purification after death—that has always made sense to me. It’s logical. Too bad people think the gift of purgatory is a punitive thing, though.

Four years in, I now know what “Catholic guilt” means. But I’m convinced my familiarity with the confessional is partly because we converted from Calvinism to Catholicism, and didn’t quite drop the Calvinism thing completely. My wife and I remain convinced of total depravity, not theologically, just on a gut level. You should feel sorry for us Calvinist-turned-Catholics. 

Catholics with our background don’t need convincing that we’re supposed to go to confession. It just feels appropriate.

You know the good, relieved, clean feeling that comes after confession? I like that. When I first converted, the feeling lasted a few days. Post-honeymoon, it lasts for an hour or two. Pretty soon I’ll probably just exit the confessional and get back in line.

No worries, though. The long confessional lines at my parish means there’s plenty of time to accrue more to confess by the time I get back to the confessional. A friend accused me recently of simony—you know, the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges—because I said I’d pay to jump the lengthy confession lines. I’ve even come up with a formula of comparing how bad I’ve been to whether I can stand the line length. I probably should confess that, too.

Enough about confession. Another compelling aspect of being Catholic is the communion of saints. The border between heaven and earth seems thinner than it did before, back when death was a more decidedly one-way ticket and conversation. This, too, I was convinced of before becoming Catholic. As Calvinists, we too recited the creeds, for which I’m grateful. But I remember dutifully dismissing the Catholic-sounding aspects of the Apostle’s Creed, including the “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy (small-c) catholic church,” and then we’d say “the communion of saints.” I was convinced this phrase just described the small-c catholic church…comma…which is the communion of saints.

In hindsight my mental gymnastics were almost laughable. But even before we joined the Church, I knew I was wrong and that the communion of saints is not just an adjective for the Church.

The communion of saints also means that the hereafter is closer, too. Not because I’m getting older, but because the dead aren’t as far away as I thought. We pray for them; they pray for us.

I remember the first time a Catholic friend told me—years after my dad had died, but long before we converted—that she would pray for him. I looked at her funny and asked, “Why?” She explained that sanctification can occur even after death. “Huh,” I probably said.

That also seemed logical long before I became Catholic. In fact, this is a perfectly rational practice of Catholics—that of not making premature claims about who is in heaven. I always thought evangelical deathbed conversion stories were a bit optimistic about the deceased’s readiness to be in the presence of a holy God. Fortunately, at least one Protestant gets it–C.S. Lewis explains purgatory beautifully The Great Divorce.

I’ve grown more comfortable with acknowledging the grace of God and entrusting my loved ones to it. But it would wrong to declare my dad is in heaven this very moment, because I don’t know. I can’t empirically confirm it.

My Protestant mother asked a few years ago, “So, you think your dad’s not in heaven?” Talk about an awkward conversation. I responded truthfully, “Mom, relax. If he isn’t yet, he’s still in good hands.”

Another truth that resonated with my prior to conversion is the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. In 2006, I was writing my first book on the relationship lives of religious teenagers. To position the topic, I wanted to include sections on what different religious traditions had to say about sex and relationships. I could write the evangelical one in my sleep and it would be about a paragraph long, because Protestantism doesn’t say a whole lot except “Wait till you’re married. Then…do whatever.” But without crystal clarity from the Bible, the back-and-forth arguments about what God’s laws are about sex and marriage is characteristic of a tradition that lacks authority.

I wrote a Mormon friend for with the LDS section. Then I came to the Catholic section.

“Catholics…OK…they’re the ones against birth control. I should try to figure out what’s up with that.” Pope John Paul II had recently passed away, and in a providential move I had picked up George Weigel’s tome Witness to Hope, about John Paul’s early life and papacy. I looked up “sex” in the index. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the first time I had looked up that term in the index of a book, but that’s a different story.)

Turned out there was no entry for sex, but plenty about “sexuality.” Weigel’s short summary of John Paul’s “theology of the body” mesmerized, stunned, and embarrassed me.

Within a day or two, I’d declared to my wife that the Catholic Church was probably right about sexuality and that Protestants—ourselves included—were out to lunch. She probably responded with something like, “OK, Mark, that’s nice.” To which I probably responded, “Yeah, but it’s too bad they’re so into Mary and saints and stuff, because boy they are really thinking clearly on sexuality. I’ll give them that.”

I had long thought the Catholics were right on the indissolubility of marriage. Deeann and I were always pretty firm on that. We agreed in 1993 to throw away the nuclear option, and not to speak of it, not to use it as a threat. But as Presbyterians we were in modest company on the matter, watching congregations bless marriages, then honor divorces, then bless subsequent remarriages.

But what I didn’t know at that time was that sexuality, marriage, family—all of it was of one seamless weave. I came to see that evangelicals weren’t talking much about some other things, either—things like dignity, nature, solidarity, and the common good—because there were few-to- no verses in the Bible about them. And I started wondering what else the Catholics might be right about. But these things take time—years—to percolate in the head and heart.

As I discovered, the Church is not just theologically astute on matters of sexuality and marriage. They’re also right. As in, one can see it in the data. Empirically, I mean.

Humanae Vitae was published 47 years ago. Coming on the heels of the Second Vatican Council, I think we tend to underestimate the pressures on the former Cardinal Montini to cave to the remarkable scientific discovery in 1960 of an effective way to control fertility. The Church, after all, isn’t an enemy of science.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that the encyclical’s claims registered in my brain and work. That’s when I first read Nobel laureate George Akerlof’s 1996 argument that the uptake of the Pill led, ironically, to a massive increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing. He wrote that paper with his wife, now our Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. It made sense to me, so profoundly connected was the increase in Pill use and explosion in premarital sex.

And Paul VI prophesied the consequences. He didn’t concern himself simply with whether the Pill was an abortifacient, like so many evangelicals do. He saw what it would do to couples, to fledgling relationships, to persons, and to communities. It would change how they think about each other, themselves, the meaning of sex, and the good of children. It would alter the social reproduction of entire communities.

Akerlof and Yellen, unfortunately, concluded their landmark study with advice suggesting that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” having deduced that it was not only pointless to resist a contraceptive mentality, it would be the wrong thing to do. Instead, let’s push for contraception.

Nearly 20 years later, it’s a stretch to claim the relational world is better, more loving, and more moral than it was before the Pill. Don’t you think?

This article was an excerpt from a talk Mark gave in September 2015 at the Fullness of Truth conference in San Antonio.

It Just Makes Sense (Even as a Protestant)Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, a research associate of the university’s Population Research Center, and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His areas of research are sexual behavior and family formation. He’s the author of two books (2007 and 2011) on the sexual behavior of teenagers and young adults. 

His new research on the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships was published in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research, and is available here. It’s understandably drawn a great deal of scrutiny, and so he wrote a follow-up response to critics and made the data publicly available to other scholars. A dialogue about the study’s findings appeared in Slate and is available here. Mark has also written several short essays about data collection on same-sex parenting, polling about same-sex marriage, new evidence from Canada, and thoughtful assertions about how same-sex marriage may shape the wider mating market.

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Being Formed


Being formed–it shapes us into who we become. God shapes us, and it is our choice though to cooperate with His will, being obedient, for our Lord is the potter; we are the clay:

“…there was something wrong with the pot. So the potter used that clay to make another pot. With his hands he shaped the pot the way he wanted it to be… from the Lord …you know that I can do the same thing with you. You are like the clay in the potter’s hands, and I am the potter.” Jeremiah 18: 4-6

This is what I have learned over the years, to be obedient and seek the Lord’s Will. Being a team, a team who discusses decisions to be made and making them as one. The families we were raised in, the experiences we have lived, the jobs we have taken, our friends, among many others factors, have formed us. But, we are not meant to do this alone. God provides, he offers assistance in a “helpmate”.

Mark and I met when we were 18. We both had come from similar families ~ a Christian home, parents still married, and were encouraged to achieve in what we chose do. And each of us had one sibling. We were blessed to be born into calm, stable homes. We were just two teens starting at a Christian college in suburban Chicago. The world was our place to explore now.

It was a colorful four years of dating, occasional surprises when Mark decorated my dorm room with hearts and random bouquets of flowers, dates to downtown musicals, along with a few breaks from each other. A month after graduation we married. Of course we thought we knew a lot, thinking we were “ready” and formed to marry, but there was far more shaping to be done, formation of the “helpmate” in each of us. A great adventure had begun, with many highs and plenty of lows. Did we fully understand what a “helpmate” meant, this new role of being a spouse to the other? There was a lot to learn, learning what it meant to be one, no longer two. Our decisions needed to be one, being a team. We did not know then the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but it so beautifully states:

“Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” CCC 1605

Over the next 10 years we experienced those peaks and valleys. We moved to North Carolina for Mark to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for graduate school. Then we became parents to two beautiful children, lost both of our fathers, and moved to Michigan and then Texas. These two teens had now become adults who by selection and choice had to be “one” to survive. We had each other, we knew that. As we like to say, the key to the “back door”, divorce, was thrown out when we married and we would find a way to make it work. We were working on it, our clay pot was being formed, shaped.

Mark’s research started off in the study of religion and the affects on society. A trip to Malawi, Africa for research gave birth to new interests in international research for Mark. He discovered he could actually do it and enjoyed seeing other societies on the other side of the world. More opportunities came later–Israel, Mexico, France. After experiencing three miscarriages, we then had our third child, what a joy. The two were one, trying to navigate, helping one another through the highs and lows.

There was an unsettledness though in our faith life. We had been attending a Presbyterian Church (USA) since we arrived in Texas. We grew frustrated and attended a Southern Baptist megachurch for a year. But, our hearts were still restless ~  “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” St. Augustine. With two upcoming teens in our home, we saw the need to seek a true church home. Together we discerned to look at the Catholic Church and enrolled in an RCIA class. In April of 2011, we joined the Catholic Church, where we have found the fullness of Truth and the source of strength for days ahead. We were starting to understand who our Lord is, what our role as a married couple was, and how we were one and one another’s helpmate.

Mark, the non-professor, who cleans the dishes from dinner most every night, gets the children ready for bed, cleans out the cat box, reads the Little House series to our youngest, navigates amazing ventures for our family, takes care of both his mom and his mother-in-law with love, works with fervor, and has a servant heart, was about to be persecuted. The helpmate of mine was about to be attacked.

Mark had conducted a study that surveyed over 15,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 39. I vividly remember him sitting at our kitchen bar, while I was making dinner, and he told me how stunned he was at the findings in the study after doing initial data analysis. There was no massaging of the data–it was there–adult kids whose parents had had same-sex relationships were more apt to struggle. So, he wrote “The” article and the summer of 2012 arrived and started a litany of persecution, nothing what we expected. What I will say is that Mark was, still is, so inspiring to me in that he did not lash back, even when it was very warranted. He was always professional, spoke the truth, stood behind his data, research, analysis, and writing. When you’re telling the truth, why would one waiver? My role seemed unclear, but what became clear was that God called me to be the prayer warrior, on my knees for him and the whirlwind of challenges it brought. God protected us, but there are scars and still wounds, but we know God is the potter, and we trust His shaping of Mark, and me, is with His intent and purpose.

Our Hope is in the Lord, who made Heaven and earth! As Isaiah so beautifully reminds us, He leads:

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”  Isaiah 30:19-21

Over the past four years, adversity has been ever present, but there is a peace that passes all understanding. With the joy of watching the production of Humanum, showing the beauty of marriage and family and the start of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, there is hope. The clay pot is being shaped by our Lord into what He wants it to be. Mark has been cooperative, obedient, and of course still learning. He is still teaching at the University of Texas, he recently finished a book, has maintained old friendships and made some new, we are still married, seeking to be one~a team, our children are growing and learning, we have learned that  “It is not good that the man should be alone” but that we are to be each others helpmate through all seasons of life “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” Not only does Mark study and write about marriage and family, but lives this marriage vow with me, his “helpmate”, who is given by God in the sacrament of marriage.

Deeann & Mark

Deeann is wife to Mark and mom to three amazing kids. Her love for her family is immediately known by anyone who knows her and she spends considerable time praying for her husband’s work and her children’s endeavors, all while exuding a cheerfulness about her that is so infectious that you will want to know her better and learn how she does it all. I am so blessed to call her my friend. ~ Martina

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The Economics of Sex

Friends of Catholic Sistas over at the Austin Institute have come up with something quite provocative – a series of “research animates” entitled The Economics of Sex that looks into the differences between men and women in the dating market and how each navigates it differently from a research standpoint. Pulled from their website, The Austin Institute is a team of scholars dedicated to social science research of the family, marriage, and contemporary relationships. This project is brought to the public through an infographic and a video that looks into the connection between data and everyday life. The video is ten minutes long and hits on quite a bit of information. While its focus is not intended to be a comprehensive look at the topic, the Institute does offer a resource guide for those who wish to learn more. With more videos on the horizon, it’s fair to say that this intro video will be expanded on in the near future. I invite you to bookmark, share on Facebook, tweet, or pin this new series to friends and family. Economics of Sex