I was recently reading Jamie Smith’s review of Francis Beckwith’s book Return to Rome along with Beckwith’s response, and I was reminded of a post I wrote at the time of Beckwith’s departure from the ETS. Since FIRST THINGS is a place where evangelicals and Catholics can come together in conversation, I am going to repost my own thoughts on why swimming the Tiber can be attractive… at least to me anyway.
With the resignation of ETS president Francis Beckwith, because of his ensuing conversion to Catholicism, evangelicals are emblazoned with reactions ranging from mere condolence to outright rage. Yet for all the blog bluster and open letters there is little reflection as to why someone would give up the “Reformation truths” and “come home” to Rome. My own reaction has been one of curiosity, and the speculations that follow are those that try to satisfy the question “Why do evangelicals convert to Catholicism?”
If you are an “evangelical” you probably are not sure how to define that word without referring to belief in the inspiration of scripture, a personal encounter with Christ, and the belief that an inner change resulting from his death and resurrection has occurred and is occurring in your life on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this muddled definition does nothing to distinguish one from “being a good Catholic” as any Catholic worth his or her salt would readily attest to the same. This lack of formal theological identity is perhaps the most influential reason why evangelicals find themselves attracted to the Roman Catholic Church.
If you are an “evangelical” you probably have met many a brother and sister who have left Catholicism in the name of a more vibrant and personal relationship with Christ over against the stale function of religious ritualism. Yet there are many of these Catholic converts who miss the traditionalism and ritual as it represented something sacred and beautiful. With the evangelical tendency to reduce worship to entertainment services in gymnasiums interlaced with the prattle of announcements and irreverent humor, all the while leaving the Eucharist to be practiced once or twice a month and baptisms performed in swimming pools, the forms of Catholic worship can make a strong call back to the fold in terms of their standards and substance. Evangelicals disillusioned with the current state of worship can be very attracted to something with such a rich tradition that has survived for centuries.
If you are an evangelical you probably have had a heated argument or two with a Catholic family member or friend who feels the need to defend the Church from your Protestant beliefs. Some of the more zealously Reformed even go so far to call the Pope the antichrist (see the Westminster Confession) and Catholic adherents “papists!” Yet evangelicals have a love-hate relationship with Catholics as they politically support the five Supreme Court Justices that are deemed conservative, two of which that have been appointed by the evangelical flavored George W. Bush. This is because Catholicism has a rich intellectual pedigree that remains competitive in today’s marketplace of ideas that evangelicals hardly match. Catholics have traditionally been leaders in such high professions like law, medicine, and education, and Catholic universities often compete with and far surpass those funded by the secular public. For a Christian intellectual, Catholicism can be an antidote to evangelicalism’s rampant anti-intellectualism.
If you are an evangelical you probably have had a run in with the ongoing problem of church polity, or how the church is governed. Debates swirl within evangelical churches over whether the congregation has the final say in matters, what the role of elders are, should there be a senior pastor, and where women fit into the mix. The uniformity and hierarchy of the Catholic magistrate can be seen as a definitive answer to those who are simply seeking clarity and resolution to those delicate issues. Moreover, the magistrate’s teachings are mandated to each parish giving them the sense of serving the on the same team, not competing with one another by the means of building a ministry around a cult of personality, which so often drives evangelical ecclesiology.
In spite of all these, however, I remain an evangelical. The theological issues of Scriptural authority and the nature of justification are too divisive to gloss over. Also, the idea of transubstantiation has never made sense to me nor the Immaculate Conception and the high view of Mother Mary. Still, I have a growing respect for Catholicism that is found in its rich missionary history, its unparalleled intellectual tradition, and strong cultural convictions. Not only that, some of the best “devotional” writers are Catholic (Merton, Nouwen) as well some philosophers (Augustine, Aquinas).
Francis Beckwith is in good company, though I wish he remained rooted in the tradition of Protestantism.
For more on why evangelicals go Catholic see Scot McKnight’s intelligent article.