HARD TIME, HARD QUESTIONS
Rick Culp and Tom Meagher
"Every cloud has a silver lining." Yeah, right. I sure wasn't that optimistic when I was sentenced to prison for six-and-a-half to 15 years in 1992. It's kind of hard to find anything positive about a situation that finds you sitting in a county jail waiting for a transfer to the state prison. In May of 1992 that's what I was facing.
Growing up religious was not the central point of my life. From seven to 15 I attended a Wesleyan church. Then I fell away from going to church until I was in my late twenties. I joined the Church of God Prophecy and started taking theology courses from a Protestant theology school. I volunteered to head up the youth program at this church and a year later joined an independent Baptist church, serving as the youth pastor.
As my studies continued I sought the church that best met my needs, and I joined the Church of God, which was Pentecostal. My responsibilities were increased and included serving as the associate pastor, making pastoral visitations to those in need, working with the outreach and youth programs, and preaching at services when my pastor or other nearby pastors were not available. Looking back on those days, I find it ironic that much of my preaching included praising and glorifying God while mocking Catholicism.
When I got to prison I was relieved to find that regular religious services were held, even though they were not Pentecostal in style. I began attending services with my "Christian" brothersCatholic services were held another day. We had two services a week, one on Wednesday evening and the other on Sunday morning. In addition I always had a couple of Bible studies each week.
It was during the Bible studies that I was really able to vent my hatred of the Catholic Church. As we discussed verses in the Bible, I believed it was my duty to inform and warn others about the paganistic beliefs of Catholics. I often interjected how Catholics interpreted the same verses we were studying, and then I'd go off bashing any number of Catholic practices, as I understood them. My Christian brothers and I would laugh at how Catholics prayed to the Virgin Mary and how they worshiped this virgin goddess. I accused Catholics of worshiping their statues just as the Baal worshipers did in the Old Testament. I honestly believed that by having Christ on the cross and in the Eucharist that Catholics were not giving Christ the proper recognition that was due his Resurrection. Christ on the cross upset me so much that I took every crucifix I could get my hands on and placed them face down on a sidewalk and scraped Christ off the cross. Catholics were hung up on their rituals and paganistic hocus-pocus, and I felt a need to expose every one of them, hoping to show Catholics the errors of their ways.
Whenever I saw a Catholic witnessing to another inmate (which wasn't very often), I pointed out how wrong he was. I was not always tactful when I did this. One day I walked by a guy I didn't know was Catholic and heard him talking about Mary. Tom had been locked up for almost 17 years, and he always seemed like a good guy, even though I had never seen him at Christian services. As I walked up to the table where he was sitting, I asked, "Are you a Catholic?" He said, "Yes." I responded, "Oh, so you worship those pagan idols, including Mary!" I instantly knew I had overstepped some imaginary line. Tom made a fist (he is tall and weighs 220 pounds), looked away, gritted his teeth, and calmly told me I'd better leave while I had the chance. In prison a guy with even only a few months under his belt knows to give a guy who has been locked up for 17 years his space. I left.
Not surprisingly Tom and I didn't speak for the next few months. We had never been too friendly before, but later on, when I found out Tom knew I was a Catholic basher, I decided to approach him again. I used a different tactic. I told him I had some questions about Catholicism that I wanted to ask him about, including our differences in the make-up of the Bible. My real motivation for talking with him was to get first-hand information that I could use to bash the Church with at my Bible studies or when I testified at one of our services.
I wasn't ready for Tom's response. He told me he would be happy to answer any question I had, but he had some ground rules he wanted to establish. He would explain the differences in the number of books in the Bible, but after that he wanted to discuss the foundation of the Catholic Church and why Catholics believe it is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ. Tom said all other topics would be off limits until he fully explained this. I could ask questions or interject objections as we talked, but I couldn't question something until he introduced it and explained the specifics. I later found out this was an effective way to keep me focused on the establishment of the Church and not allow me to jump from one controversial topic to another.
Tom also asked me if I agreed that the Bible was the inspired Word of God, that it was completely true and contained no errors or contradictions. Of course I agreed. Then he made a challenge. If I could disprove by using the Bible just one thing the Catholic Church taught, he would renounce his Catholic faith. This was greatI was going to bring a new Christian brother to our weekly services! But there was a kicker. If I couldn't disprove anything, and if Tom could show an inconsistency with my beliefs by using the Bible, I would have to consider converting to Catholicism.
I had to think about this for a minute, but I agreed to go ahead. After all, Tom didn't make me promise that I would convert, only that I would consider it. What did I have to lose? I could skate rings around this guy when it came to quoting chapter and verse, and my beliefs were totally Bible-based. Besides, Catholics were basically biblical idiots. I told my Christian brothers about how I was going to crush Tom's world; the excitement became infectious.
In prison religion becomes competitive. There is a tremendous need to be right about everything, and I guess it was the lack of hearing Catholics voice their religious convictions openly that made be think they might not be sure about everything. While I looked forward to the upcoming confrontation, I didn't consider that I might have underestimated the enemyand that is what I actually thought of Tom as, the enemy.
Our initial conversation dealt with the Bible and the differences in the number of books. I didn't question anything Tom told me, but I listened closely. He explained that the Old Testament used by the Catholic Church today is the same one used by our Lord Jesus Christ when he was on this earth. Of course it was originally written mainly in Hebrew and was translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint) after the dispersion of the Jews.
As for the New Testament, Tom said it was at the Council of Carthage, meeting in A.D. 397 and aided by the influence of Augustine, that the canon was agreed upon. Something he told me really made an impact, even though I didn't let on at the time. He noted that the Catholic Church, through its council of Carthage, had canonized the New Testament and that we, as Protestants, accept it as ours today, so why do Protestants object so vehemently to what the Catholic Church affirms to be the Old Testament? I wondered about that.
He told me about Martin Luther and how he corrupted the Bible, removing books and changing words. Tom provided quotations from Luther's writings and from other Protestant theologians, including several from the sixteenth century, that showed the instability, hatred, and vindictiveness of Luther. I was most impressed that Tom always gave me the name of the author, the book, and page number so I could verify his citings. Protestants often quote "a former Catholic priest" or "a former Catholic," and there is no way to substantiate anything. I knew about those games because I had used those tricks. Taking what Tom said, I dipped into my library of Protestant books to check what he had told me. I used my Hebrew and Greek concordance as well as a lexicon and a popular commentary. I dug out my textbooks from the seminary and weighed the facts in each book. Still, I was sure the apocryphal books had been added to the Old Testament in 1546 at the Council of Trent, as I had been taught. To my surprise I found that a great historian of the New Testament, whose work is studied by Protestants, had put them into his translation of the Bible. His name was Eusebius Hieronymus. Upon further study I found that Eusebius was Jerome. From 384 to the sixteenth century the Bible was translated into other languages, but I found that no books were removed until Martin Luther came onto the scene. So much for disproving the origin of the Catholic Bible! The Bible had remained unchanged for 1,100 years, and it became clear to me that God must have intended it to be that way. After this original discussion. which was non-confrontational on my part, Tom got to the foundation of the Catholic Church, and he tricked me in the first five minutes. He asked me to define a "Christian." I told him a Christian was one who believed in and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. He didn't seem satisfied with that, so he asked if we could agree that a Christian was one who, in addition to my definition, accepted all the teachings of Jesus Christ. That seemed reasonable to me, so I agreed.
Then he said, using the definition that I agreed to, that we could dismiss any church as being the Church that Christ founded if that church taught even one doctrine that contradicted what Christ taught 2,000 years ago. I said okay.
He asked if my church allowed a person to get remarried after divorce. I said yes. Together we opened the Bible to Mark 10: 12 and Luke 16:18. These verses leave no doubt that marriage following divorce violates what Christ taught. Tom looked at me and said, "We now know you won't be going back to the same church you came from when you get out of prison because you now know it can't be the church Christ founded." He wasn't smug or arrogant about it; he was merely sincere. My first response was to accuse Catholics of playing loosely with this interpretation because of their unfounded practice of annulments. But Tom hadn't introduced that subject yet, so by the rules I couldn't bring it up. In five minutes my head was whirling. Not only had my own church been included in this example, but most churches I knew about. Heck, my pastor had been divorced and remarried!
Confessing sins to a priest was next. I knew I had a winner here. After all, the Bible tells us time and again that only God can forgive sins, not any manand especially not a priest. But Tom turned the tables on me. We looked at John 20:22-23 and read this command of Christ to his Apostles: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain they are retained." Tom asked me to explain this in view of the fact that I disagreed that one needs to confess sins to a priest. I was trapped. I had read this passage many times, but it had never dawned on me that if I didn't agree that sins had to be confessed to a man, then there was a serious contradiction within the Bible. Tom further emphasized his point by asking how would the apostles know which sins to forgive or which sins to retain unless someone confessed them in the first place? I began to panic, and Tom saw my confusion. My confidence had been shaken.
The Eucharist was next. After looking at the sixth chapter of John I didn't really have a big problem with accepting Communion as the body and blood of Christ. But Tom took this opportunity to take another jab at my beliefs. Here I was, a member of the Church of God, and I accepted that Communion was the body and blood of Christ because of the emphatic wording that Christ used, and yet my church neither taught nor accepted such an interpretation. Jesus had founded one Church (Matt. 16:18), and he spoke of and demanded unity (John 10:16, Eph. 4:4-6, John 17:21), yet there wasn't even unity of belief within my own church.
Tom bombarded me with one thing after another. He asked me what Christ was referring to when he said "listen to the Church." This was not an idle request because Christ further said to treat the man that refuses to hear the Church "as a heathen" (Matt. 18:17). Each point was valid and difficult to rebut, and things didn't get any easier. Tom pounded on the fact that Christ established "a teaching Church." Christ told the apostles to go forth and "teach all nations" (Matt. 28:18-20), and Paul described the Church as "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
As days passed and questions were asked and answered, I couldn't deny that I may have been wrong for all these years. But there was still one big obstacle, Mary. Yet I found I was a little less hostile toward the subject. Since Christ had promised infallibility for his Church, and since I had not been able to find any dents in the armor of the Catholic Church, if Mary were deemed to be all that Catholics claimed, I had better learn why. Was Mary always and forever a virgin? What about all the "brothers" of Christ mentioned in the Bible?
When I looked up the meaning of the words "brothers" and "brethren," there was little doubt Catholics could have it right. After all, < sure wasn't guaranteed infallibility by Christ. And how about the Assumption? I found out I didn't even know what the Assumption meant. To "ascend" into heaven, as Christ did, means to do so under one's own power. To be "assumed" into heaven means that God reaches down and takes one up. That happened to Enoch and Elijah, so was it so hard to believe that it could not be done for the Mother of God? After all, we are told in the Bible that Mary would be called "blessed" by all generations. Ironically, once I decided to convert, Tom was the one who was reluctant. I'll let him tell you about that.
Rick makes this whole experience sound simple. Believe me, it wasn't. His theological background provided him with a solid knowledge of the Bible, if not always the right interpretation and understanding. On more than one occasion Rick forced me to open <Radio Replies> or many of the other apologetic books that I have. He was always serious about finding the truthat least I believed that until just now, when I read his story and learned that he was just hoping to get ammunition to use against Catholics.
His biblical studies were an asset in helping him to see where he could have been interpreting things improperly. When discussing the sacrament of penance and the words "whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them," Rick turned to me and said, "I'll bet I have read that verse a hundred times, but I never saw it in that light before." He knew God was the only one who could forgive sins, not any man, so he had skimmed over this verse. To Rick's credit, once he realized that Catholics believed only God could forgive sins, he knew he had to reconcile this verse with other verses he quoted.
This learning process was not one way. I learned something from Rick that has helped me with others. He explained to me that for a Protestant the highest form of praise is prayer. For Catholics that is not the case. Our highest form of praise is the Mass, the representing of Jesus Christ to his Father, just the same as on Calvary. When Protestants hear that Catholics pray to Mary or the saints, their first reaction is one of blasphemy, because prayer is their highest form of worship. I'll never forget this distinction.
Because of the shortage of priests we are not lucky enough to have a Mass every week in prison; in fact we only have Mass once a month. Each week we have a Communion service led by a wonderfully dedicated layman from the local parish. I remember something Rick said after attending his first Communion service. He told me he felt the presence of Jesus in a way that he never felt his presence at any other service he had attended. It was at that moment he asked the Holy Spirit to guide him in making the right decision concerning his spiritual journey.
When Rick told me he wanted to convert, I was a little nervous. He describes me as being reluctant, but I was nervous. We had spent about four or five months in instruction, but I couldn't help remembering 1 Cor. 11:27, "Whosoever shall eat this bread and drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord." I recalled how much Rick despised the Catholic religion, and I felt that if he didn't completely understand all the Church's teachings, I would somehow be responsible. Rick found this most appealing. In Evangelical Protestantism you try to run up your "score" in convertmaking by getting people to recite the "sinner's prayer," and then you congratulate the individual for having had his soul saved. Rick was amused that here was a Catholic trying to slow down a guy who wanted to convert.
In his story Rick didn't mention what happened to him since his conversion. Several "Christian" brothers branded him a traitor. One guy accused him of converting to Catholicism so he could get out of his regular work assignment once a week. (Our Communion service is held on Thursday afternoons.) Not once did Rick respond in anger. Those who were sitting on the sidelines cheering him on when we first started discussing Catholicism now snicker at him. Unlike in the "free world," there are no secrets in prison. Rick was constantly under his Christian brothers' microscope. As we walked in the yard guys would stop and allow us to pass so they could hear what we were saying, The atmosphere was not conducive to confidentiality or comfort. Peer pressure can be intimidating, but Rick always knew he wanted one thingthe truth.
Rick Culp and Tom Meagher are incarcerated in the state prison at Ionia, Michigan.
This article is reprinted from the January 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine. Catholic Answers, Inc.