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Friday, March 1, 2024

Why Protestants Convert to Catholicism

Why Protestants Convert to Catholicism

March 1, 2024 by

Some Protestants have been converting to Catholicism.  (Similarly, some Catholics have been converting to Protestantism, but that’s another topic.)  Why is that?

The Reformed scholar Brad Littlejohn (whom I know) and the Reformed pastor Chris Castaldo take up that question in their book Why Do Protestants Convert?  Basically, they argue that a major factor is the failures of contemporary Protestantism, the sense that the Roman Catholic Church has something that today’s evangelical congregations lack.

Nathanael Blake interacts with their book in The Federalist.  Here is how he summarizes the issues:

The basic problem is, as Carl Trueman observed in a brief forward, that “the idiom of the rock concert with added TED talk is scarcely adequate to convey the holiness of God, the beauty of worship and the seriousness of the Christian faith.” Generations of evangelical leaders have embraced the idea that casual, entertaining, “seeker-sensitive” church services are the key to a growing congregation. Some succeed, but they leave a lot behind in the attempt. This is why it often seems that nearly every intellectually or aesthetically sensitive American evangelical will at some point feel the allure of Catholicism — the road to Rome often begins with a sense that one’s Protestant church is missing something important, if not several things.

Blake quotes from the book and summarizes its arguments:

Catholicism offers paternal authority “in an age that has all but blacklisted the very word” and that “precious few of our Protestant churches give their worshippers a sense of being in the presence of the holy.”
Instead, evangelicals in particular are encouraged to “waltz casually” before God “with gym shorts and a latte.” It is no wonder that some are “captivated” when they witness the Catholic Mass, along with the rest of the aesthetic heritage of the Church of Rome — even when wealthy evangelical congregations build large churches, they look like convention centers, not cathedrals.
Catholicism also offers an intellectual and cultural tradition that is appealing to many Protestants, especially those whose churches seem anti-intellectual and sold out to contemporary pop culture.
Theologically, Catholicism offers certainty and historical continuity, in contrast to the plethora of Protestant theologies, some of which were recent innovations, depending on the minister.  And this is what most struck me, Lutheran that I am:

Evangelical converts also appreciate Catholicism’s sacramental focus. For example, the Catholic reverence for the Eucharist is a stark contrast to an evangelical culture in which communion, for example, is just a symbol that is poorly explained, infrequently administered, and irreverently received.

The book is addressed not so much to Protestants contemplating swimming the Tiber but to Protestant pastors and church leaders, exhorting them to address these issues.  It claims that Protestantism has the resources to address these perceived weaknesses that drive some evangelicals to Rome.

Protestant worship can be beautiful, reverent, liturgical, and sacramental. Protestant preaching and teaching can be authoritative, intellectually formidable, and historically informed. . . .

As Littlejohn and Castaldo bluntly put it, evangelical churches need to follow the Reformers’ example in trying to carefully balance “Word and Sacraments in worship, bringing together mind and heart, soul and body, individual and community” rather than focusing on the “right balance of Coffee Hour and Praise Band Hour.”

“Word and Sacraments”!  That’s music to a Lutheran’s ears.

“The Reformed heritage can meet the needs that lead many to look toward Rome.”  Maybe it can.  But the Lutheran heritage already does! 

Let me add a few points. . .

(1) A common line of thought cited by Protestants who’ve gone over to Rome–or to Eastern Orthodoxy–is this:  The church selected the books that make up the Bible.  Therefore, the church is prior to the Bible.  So the authority of the church is more foundational than the authority of the Bible.

But this is a confusion of what the Word of God is.  The Bible is the Word of God written.  But the Word of God was active before the books of the Bible were written and collected.  God created the universe by His Word.  Christ is the Word–the very expression of the mind of God–made flesh.  The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word whenever the good news of Christ is proclaimed.

As an apologist of the Reformation put it, how would a first century convert to Christianity even know about Christ unless he heard someone’s words explaining who He is and what He has done?  Those words that conveyed the Gospel were words uttered by a human being, but they were also the Word of  God.  Thus, the Word gave birth to the church.  As such, it is prior to the church and authoritative over it.

(2) There are tendencies in contemporary Protestantism that are indeed more consistent with Catholicism than classical Protestantism.  Evangelicals today are often enthralled by the idea of a megachurch, thinking that big numbers are a sign of “living Christianity” and God’s favor.  Some of them may dislike the trappings of megachurches, as has been said, but they like the idea of being part of a church body with 1.378 billion members worldwide.  That’s not just a megachurch, it’s a gigachurch.

Also, many Protestants today have left behind justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ in favor of some version of salvation by works, manifested in moralism, perfectionism, and doing things for the Lord.  That fits better in a Roman Catholic framework.

(3)  Many Protestants who have read writers like G. K Chesterton and Thomas Aquinas are captivated by the the Church of Rome are described in books.  They do indeed, as has been said, crave authority, unity, certainty, unchanging truth, the beautiful mysteries of the mass, and so on.

And yet, once they convert to Catholicism, that classic Catholicism is hard to find in contemporary America.  The vernacular mass is often a more structured version of the contemporary Christian worship they were trying to escape.  The classic Latin Mass can sometimes still be found and will be crowded with Catholic converts.  But now the Pope has all but outlawed the Latin Mass!  Those who loved the idea of a living authority that keeps the church on the right track now must contend with a liberal Pope!  Not to mention feminist nuns, Marxist priests, pro-abortion Catholic politicians, and unbelieving laypeople (nearly half of whom reject the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament, thinking like Zwinglian Protestants that it is only symbolic.)

To be sure, not all converts experience this letdown–some find an orthodox Catholic congregation–but many do.  And the divisions in the church make it a challenge, to the point of forcing them to behave like Protestants again by church-shopping and questioning the church hierarchy.

In conclusion, those who are pulled in the direction of sacraments, the liturgy, historical Christianity, and a rich theological tradition, would do well to check out confessional Lutheranism!

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