Comment

How one professor overcame profound suffering to embrace the Catholic faith

Candace Vogler's story is both heart-wrenching and powerful

Ignatius Press has produced an excellent book aimed at those thoughtful atheists or agnostics who think that one has to choose between faith and reason and that it is not possible to hold both in a dynamic if mysterious equilibrium. Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism, edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua is a collection of ten essays by academics from American universities, often coming from Protestant denominations, explaining their intellectual journey and how they overcame their ‘reasonable’ obstacles to faith.

The last chapter, by Candace Vogler, Professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago , entitled “A Spiritual Autobiography”, is more detailed and personal than the others, less about books and ideas (though she does include them) than about how she overcame extreme suffering in childhood and youth to know both that God is love and that the Church safeguards revelation.

I single out her chapter because it is the one that, unsurprisingly, has affected me most deeply. Born to two parents who were both completely unfit to raise children, she was sexually abused by her father from infancy onwards. He also taught his clever, bookish daughter to read and write, paint and draw so that Vogler had a “complicated relationship with a primary caretaker [her mother was severely depressed] who had a serious moral and spiritual struggle at the center of his life.”

Despite, as she relates, often being “too ill or injured to attend school”, Vogler hung on to Jesus: “He loved me. He loved my father. He loved my increasingly distracted and chaotic mother…He loved my sisters and brother, whose care fell to me much of the time.” No-one in authority questioned her frequent absences from school. The appalling abuse continued, although “my father did not want me to get pregnant, and so altered his conduct towards me when pregnancy became possible. I think I had some sort of breakdown around that time.”

Later in life, when she herself married, she writes that “The two of us began discovering the physical wreckage left behind by my history of abuse during my first nonviable pregnancy – there were three nonviable pregnancies eventually.” Finally, after her father began stalking and attacking other people’s children, the law caught up with him; he was committed to the psychiatric ward of the state penitentiary and later died in prison.

Vogler once asked her mother about her early childhood experiences with her father. Her mother responded, “I knew what he was doing to you, and it would have killed me, but you were such a strange, silent, staring child that I didn’t think it was affecting you the way it would affect a little girl.” Struggling to understand her mother’s unhappy life and marriage and their dire consequences for her children, the author reflects: “Jesus loves her enough to have died for her.”

On entering the Church, Vogler writes of this “extraordinary blessing”, adding simply “I have come here from hard places. I am not clear of the difficulties and may never be.” She concludes her testament, “I enjoy a kind of peace now that I could not have imagined before. I am the luckiest person I know.”

It seems redundant to make further commentary on this heart-wrenching story (I write as a mother). Because of her stark yet unsensational revelation of her ruined childhood, it makes Vogler’s appreciation of the love, forgiveness and healing power of Christ much deeper than most people could possibly comprehend. The rest is silence.