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USU prof's spiritual journey from Mormon scholar to Catholic convert

Published April 23, 2012 6:59 pm

USU professor finally answers the call, "You should be a Catholic."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Richard Sherlock is sitting in a majestic Roman cathedral and suddenly senses the Holy Spirit in a profoundly powerful way.

It is a feeling, he reports, yet more than a feeling. An illumination. A hint of truth.

This isn't the first time the lifelong Mormon intellectual feels God tugging him toward Catholicism, and it won't be the last. But it is there, in the moment. Real. Palpable.

The Utah State University philosophy professor, who had tussled with life's big questions since he was a college student, feels he is coming home to a place he should have been all along.

Two years later, during a 2012 Easter vigil, Sherlock is baptized into the faith with three other adults and four teens at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Parish outside Logan.

It marks the culmination of a spiritual search that has taken the 65-year-old through the study of moral theology and the early church fathers, through marriage and loss, debates and interfaith dialogues, from Utah to Boston to New York and back again.

He is exultant. Overcome by emotion. Surrounded by teary-eyed loved ones and, he believes, touched by God.

"It was," Sherlock says, pausing for a word big enough, "glorious."

His childhood in the heart of Mormonism might not have predicted this trajectory, but it did launch him in that direction.

A strong correlation • Though his family lived in Bountiful, young Richard did not have a typical LDS upbringing. His mother was not a regular at Mormon services and his father wasn't a member until later in life. They sent their offspring to church, where the children were immersed in LDS principles and practices, but the theology didn't go deep.

"There was not much religion in my home," Sherlock recalls. "I mostly went to church as a teen to play sports."

He did not serve a two-year mission for the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, instead focusing all his energies on school. Still, questions of faith engaged him. After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Utah in 1970, Sherlock headed to Harvard Divinity School to study moral theology and ethics.

His first roommate, Michael Hollerich, was a Catholic who studied the early Christian fathers and later taught at the University of Notre Dame.

Sherlock was drawn all along to Catholic teachings on social issues. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he also opposed abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on "Procreative Rights and the Sterilization of the Retarded."

It was at Harvard that Sherlock first confronted the veracity of LDS views about the so-called "Great Apostasy."

Mormons teach that the pure gospel was lost to the world after the New Testament apostles and disciples died. Christ's truth languished during centuries of Catholic conferences, synods, creeds and decrees and needed to be "restored" by LDS founder Joseph Smith.

"I soon realized," Sherlock says, "the story I grew up with was intellectually unsustainable."

He does not believe God withdrew from the emerging Christian church or that the church fathers abandoned Jesus' teachings. They used reason, which he sees as "God's greatest gift to humans," to "explore, develop and make reasonable sense of biblical convictions."

"If you believe in the apostasy, you have to believe it was wrong to do what they did," he says. "Without the Catholic Church, we wouldn't have the Bible or great thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas."

Sherlock then turned his attention to questions about God, human nature and evil. He would later teach at New York's Fordham University, a Jesuit school, and eventually return to Utah to teach at USU.

All the while, he remained a Mormon, even marrying in an LDS temple in 1973, rearing his two children in the Beehive State's predominant faith and regularly joining academic discussions of Mormonism with fellow scholars and thinkers.

Thus, Sherlock's professional and private lives seemed to collide at many points.

At Harvard, he was deeply moved by an Easter Vigil service he attended with his roommate and other Catholic students, recalls his friend Hollerich. "He came out of the church and couldn't stop talking about how much the whole service had impressed him. That was probably the first inkling I had that he might actually find a home someday as a Catholic."

Years later, Hollerich said to Sherlock point-blank: "Richard, from the way you talk and think, you should be a Catholic."

A mighty change • It took decades, but eventually Sherlock realized the impossibility of remaining a Latter-day Saint.

Where LDS leaders warn against the dangers of intellectualism, he embraces an essential partnership between reason and faith. Where Mormon doctrine envisions a physical God, a father figure who doesn't overrule human choices and drew on existing material to create the world, he worships an infinite and mighty God, "who is perfectly wise, good and powerful; who knows the end from the beginning and who created the whole universe out of his bounteous goodness and love."

Anything less, Sherlock writes in his conversion story posted at whyimcatholic.com, "cannot be our anchor in the midst of grave tragedy or horrendous evils. Christians cannot accept anything less."

The weight of all this dissonance began collapsing on him in summer 2010.

Sherlock drew on mystical whisperings — like the one he felt that day in Rome — as well as conversations with longtime friends and took steps to formalize his connection with Catholicism. Even Sherlock's brother, now a Jewish rabbi, thought the move long overdue.

Sherlock wishes he had listened to those voices long ago. Psalm 95 says, "Today, if only you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."

That's what Sherlock believes he did ­— too many times.

"I turned away from the right thing to do," he says. "I turned away from the truth. It's nobody's fault but mine."

A new life • In 2010, Sherlock began the three-step, nearly two-year process of becoming Catholic.

It started with a year as a "catechumen," in which candidates attend weekly sessions of study, prayer and scripture reading to deepen their Catholic understanding and relationship to God. That was followed by a period of "purification and enlightenment," more intense prayer and soul-searching during the six weeks of Lent. Then came baptism.

A white-robed Sherlock walked to the parish font, where he answered three questions about his belief in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and then was immersed in the water with each answer.

"Richard was a good example of the process," says Margaret Stepan, who co-directs the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. "He knew plenty of Catholic doctrine when he came to our door, but he had to learn how to have a relationship with God through Jesus and how that works out in your life."

Louise Johnson, a longtime family friend in Logan who also returned to the Catholic Church after years as a Mormon, has witnessed the changes in Sherlock.

"Philosophers dig, dig, dig for clarity and truth and now Richard's been set free from a cap on questions … [to pursue] a truth that transcends our best inquiries," Johnson says. "What I see is a sense a joy in him that is wonderful."

Hollerich speculates that the tipping point for Sherlock may have been the 2008 death of his wife, Peggy.

"He was very devoted to her and missed her keenly after she was gone," the Catholic scholar writes in an email. "Given Mormon views on marriage, I wonder whether conversion was something he could seriously have entertained while she was alive. Her death, hard to take though it was — I know that because he said so on more than one occasion — may have set him free to make some other choices about his path in life."

Sherlock, though, trusts that his late wife would have approved of his move. She did, in fact, leave him an unexpected gift.

As a child, she had lived in Paris for two years with her diplomat-uncle, who took her with him for an audience with Pope Pius XII. The pontiff gave the young Mormon girl a rosary he had blessed. She treasured it.

Now, Sherlock uses it to recite the rosary every night.

The devoted husband — and new Catholic convert — believes his wife is smiling.

pstack@sltrib.com

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