Many of my friends are drawn to the Catholic Church. This may seem strange to many as the Catholic church presently seems to be perpetually rocked and beaten by church scandal worldwide. Many of my friends and former students converting were raised evangelical low-church protestant, some converted to become evangelical at some point. This phenomenon of evangelicals converting to Catholicism is not unusual, and has been written about. One good thinker who has written on it is Scot McKnight, who in 2002 published an article in the Evangelical Theological Journal about it entitled “From Wheaton to Rome”. (Wheaton College is a prominent evangelical college in the chicago suburbs, and this is a reference to the many Wheaton students who convert from evangelical low-church to anglican, and then in many cases on to Catholic)
Michael Vlach, in a nice summary article on why evangelicals become Catholic summarizes McNight well. (see the link to his and mcknights articles at the end) McKnight says there is one of four reasons which are usually behind an evangelical’s conversion to Catholicism. Here I simply am quoting in its entireity about 9 paragraphs of Vlach summarizing McKnight:
First, the desire for certainty and a full knowledge of truth spurs many ERC’s (Evangelicals who convert to Roman Catholic) to reject what they consider to be the “doctrinal mayhem” and “choose-your-own-church syndrome” of Protestantism. ERC’s often have a desire for certain knowledge, something they believe is possible within Catholicism but not within Protestantism.
For example, on The Journey Home program, former Episcopalian, David Mills, told of an encounter he had with eleven evangelical scholars concerning the issue of marriage and divorce. According to Mills, these eleven evangelical scholars came up with nine different views on this important topic. Mills contrasted this uncertainty of the evangelical scholars with the alleged certainty that can be found within Roman Catholicism. For Mills and ERC’s, when Rome speaks on an issue, that’s it. There is absolute certainty.
Second, McKnight observes that ERC’s often feel a “historical disenfranchisement” with Protestantism. They have a desire to be connected to the entire history of the Christian church and not just the period since the Reformation. In addition, ERC’s often see the early church Fathers as “the aristocrats of the Church, the elite thinkers, and the inner circle who knew best.” This desire to be connected with church history leads many ERC’s to Rome.
Third, ERC’s emphasize unity and are disturbed by the divisions and countless denominations within Protestantism. McKnight quotes Peter Cram who describes Protestantism as “one long, continuous line of protesters protesting against their fellow protesters, generating thousands of denominations, para-churches, and ‘free churches,’ which are simply one-church denominations.” ERC’s try to transcend this disunity by seeking refuge in the perceived unity of the Roman Catholic Church.
Fourth, McKnight points out that many ERC’s reject the “interpretive diversity” found within Protestantism, opting for the authority of the Catholic Church. Instead of trying to sort through the numerous interpretations of Protestant pastors and theologians, ERC’s believe they have found their authority in the Catholic Church’s Magisterium. For them, as McKnight puts it, “The [doctrinal] issues are now settled: the Church can tell us what to believe. And it does so infallibly.”
According to McKnight, the road from ‘Wheaton to Rome’ is usually “long” and “tortuous.” It often involves painful separations in relationships and “massive shifts in theology.” He also notes that most ERC’s end up in Catholicism as a result of “massive amounts of reading and research.” Reading pro-Catholic books and coming under the guidance of influential Catholic leaders or mentors are also important factors in the conversion of many ERC’s.
Upon conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, ERC’s often assume the rhetoric of the Church. This takes two directions: (1) they positively argue for Catholic doctrines such as papal infallibility, the Eucharist, and Marian dogmas; and (2) they negatively denounce evangelical Protestantism.
In conclusion, this article has been mostly observational, thus a full discussion and evaluation of the issues raised here are topics for another article. Yet, those who are Evangelicals must take the issues raised by ERC conversions seriously. The topics of certainty, history, unity, and authority are causing some from the evangelical camp to convert to Roman Catholicism. As such, these are issues that Evangelicals must address.”
(all the italicized was quoted directly from Vlach)
An interesting evangelical-turned-Catholic example is that of Tom Howard, whose book “Evangelical is Not Enough” explains why he went from evangelical to Catholic: http://books.google.com/books?id=ELECURWBxRMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=tom+howard+wheaton&source=bl&ots=1CMKY12UTf&sig=lSL2CQVGB0Ce6RUOaJSzPX51kPs&hl=en&ei=vGxrTK3eAoH58Aati5XAAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false
Howard explains that when he went into a Catholic church as a child, he could see the meaning of all the symbols of the Catholic church. In other words, he had been given the Christian background to rightly understand and see the material expression of spiritual truths and his own Christian spirituality in and through the Catholic church and its practices. Howard came to find the lack of meaningful symbolism in his own evangelical church to be a result of an unnecessary reaction against all things spiritually symbolic– a result of the protestant reformation against what was then seen to be the excesses of the high-church (Catholic) establishment. In speaking of his own evangelical church upbringing, he says, “My own church encouraged a nonsymbolistic line of thought. We distrusted the symbolism of colors and shapes and gestures, at least when they were applied to worship, since this seemed to bring things very near to idolatry. We invoked the commandment forbidding graven images.” (p23 of “Evangelical is not Enough”) Ultimately, Howard sees the evangelical pietism he grew up with to be obsessed with an anti-physicalism which denies the bodily, and focuses only on the spritual. The problem with this, as I understand Howard, is that it tends to lead us to live lives which do not unite our physicalness in the world with our spirituality. In some sense, our physical activities and doings in the world are seen by definition to be non-spiritual, and that keeps us from living a fully integrated spiritual life, or, to put it another way, this leads us to not allow full sanctification of our lives in all aspects of our living in the world as physical beings.
Howard knows Christians can worship in storefront churches with no symbols and still encounter Christ– he has no issue with that. His point though is that a Christianity like what he grew up with in his evangelical church as a child left him devoid of a real healthy way to integrate his life with his spirituality, and he sees the Christianity of his adopted Catholic faith to be able to help him connect his life as a physical being with his Christian spirituality.
I think this is a point evangelicals must deal with. As evangelicals we often see the symbolism and ritual of Catholicism or Anglicanism or any high church as devoid of meaning, empty, rote, and mindless. Of course there have been cases or even tendencies at times for people to lose track of the meanings of their religious practices, and to do them without thinking about why they do them– but protestants do this too– sometimes even with their prayers, devotions, church-going, etc. To say that all symbolic ritual in the Catholic church is rote and thoughtless ritualism is as uncharitable as someone saying that evangelicalism is legalistic unthoughtful literalism which practices bibliolatry with no concern for making a concrete difference in this world.
Evangelical churches do have a tradition of engaging and changing the world. Their work to fight slavery and fight for womens rights and civil rights are legendary. Their work to fight for the unborn child and other justice-causes has been powerful. Yet today evangelicals are more likely to be categorized as part of the ‘religious right’ (which is strangely lumped in with Glen Beckism) in their opposition to immigrants, their opposition to welfare, and their unwillingness to charitably listen to viewpoints other than their own. That is not an entirely fair characterization of we evangelicals, but it has caused many young evangelicals to not be willing to speak of ‘we’ evangelicals, but to more and more think of evangelicals as ‘other’. In other words, more and more young evangelicals feel somewhat disenfranchised and disconnected from the churches of their parents because they simultaneously are coming to feel that their church lacks a historical grounding, a mature understanding of the power and meaning of historical symbols and practices of the church, an over-focus on ‘getting all the details straight’ in ones theology without trying to understand other points of view, a tendency to use scripture in a haphazard manner without paying enough attention to context or background, and a general lack of concern for doing things to transform culture and society for the sake of Christ. They feel like any concerns raised about the environment or the earth for the sake of Christ are dismissed with a slash-and-burn-theology which expects that “it will all be burned up anyway, so why waste our time ‘worshipping’ the earth?”
This is the situation of many young evangelicals who feel homeless. And when one feels homeless, and sees a lot of satisfying answers in a longstanding tradition of the Catholic Church, it may seem easier to charitably interpret some doctrines which were at one point real sticking points– papal authority, immaculate conception of Mary, Mary as Queen of heaven, an apparent lack of focus on the personal work of the spirit as evangelicals are familiar with, priest scandals,or previous egregious acts of the Church in other eras, etc.
No one can know for sure what God has in store, and to predict is presumptuous, but I do not see a road ‘home to rome’ in my own future. I don’t see myself ever becoming Catholic. But I do see myself adopting certain practices and lifestyles from the historical tradition of the church (many of which are misunderstood or not practiced by a lot of Catholics themselves). I find liturgy meaningful and refreshing, I appreciate the book of hours (full of prayers and responsive readings for devotions), I appreciate the teachings of some Catholic thinkers, and I like the integration of the physical practices into spirituality (I’ve become a fan of fasting, and contemplation, and observing lent). But all this to my mind doesn’t make me more Catholic, it just makes me more aware of the historical practices of the church. Many Catholics learn a lot from Chuck Swindol, focus on the family, and like Billy Graham. They often enjoy participating in Intervarsity Christian fellowship, and they like evangelical worship songs sometimes. They are often challenged by the enthusiasm they see among evangelicals who really seem to ‘know Jesus’. In these ways they draw on evangelicalism. I am finding that this can go both ways, and I can draw fr0m aspects of Catholic practice or thought, as well as other high church forms, which make my walk with Christ and my life for Christ more meaningful, powerful, and rooted. In this sense I thank God for the Catholic church.
It is a difficult era for evangelicalism as it asks questions of itself and as young evangelicals try to figure out how to maintain a vibrant faith. I sympathize with my former-evangelical friends who are now Catholic, although I will not follow them. I pray that God will continue to direct them towards Himself, and continue to give us who stay low church evangelicals wisdom and insight to know how to better bring about the kingdom of God in this world– in word and deed.
McKnight’s four ‘reasons’ why evangelicals become Catholic are very important for us to reflect on: Certainty, history, unity and authority. They present to us a challenge to have a more thoughtful view of our own history, a tendency to take unity seriously, an explanation of where the authority of our own beliefs comes from, and a reason for our certainty. Hiding our head in the sand is no answer, but it also doesn’t require that we leap into the open arms of Rome as a solution to these questions, although I definitely love and respect my friends who feel convicted to go in that direction. These are difficult questions for most of us to answer, but good challenges as we go deeper into a more thoughtful and meaningful Christian commitment.
May God have mercy on us all.
PS: I don’t mention this enough in the posts, but anyone is welcome to come join us for our service on Tuesdays at 7 at our place (3126 Chicago), which is about 50 minutes of study of the Bible together, then doing liturgy together, then getting prayer requests. The guys and women split up after just to talk, and people have accountability partners for the week. The guys also are doing prayer breakfast on Saturday mornings, and the women are reading through a book together on discipline. Finally, we are just about to start up a new book for the fall in our book study group, so let us know if you are interested.
Bibliography: Scot McKnight: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_200209/ai_n9129514/
Michael Vlach: http://www.theologicalstudies.org/page/page/1572353.htm