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Why do evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism?
There have been very many evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism in the last few years. Their stories and conversion testimonies are collected in volumes like Marcus Grodi’s Journeys Home (2012), Douglas Beaumont’s Evangelical Exodus (2016), Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua’s Faith and Reason (2019), and Fuqua and Daniel Strudwick’s By Strange Ways (2022). I myself flirted with Roman Catholicism and attended RCIA classes during the first year of my doctoral studies in 2017. I eventually decided against it. A major part of my theological research and writing since then has consisted in trying to understand the consequences for Christian faith if one seriously does reject the Roman Catholic system of thought.
Why do I speak of the “consequences for Christian faith if one seriously does reject the Roman Catholic system of thought”? The truth is that Roman Catholicism is not simply a matter of one or two incidental doctrines. It is not a couple of hypotheses or theories that one can accept or reject without much trouble. It is rather a very intricately connected system of doctrines that all fit together tightly and are mutually supportive of one another. This system developed over time in a relatively coherent way as catholic Christianity met with changing historical and social forces in the West. To give up on one part of the system is to introduce problems into the whole that call for a solution. This solution may be either conservative (i.e., retaining the idea previously given up) or else radical (i.e., giving up on the whole). In my own case, the solution has involved taking the radical approach. But many evangelicals who convert to Roman Catholicism are really engaged in taking the conservative approach.
What do I mean by this? As follows. Evangelical Christianity can be seen as a kind of broken Roman Catholicism. This makes sense, since evangelicalism and other forms of Protestantism arose historically out of the Reformation.*
* Of course, most Protestants do not see themselves this way. Historically they certainly did not. They rather thought that they are returning to a pre-Roman Catholic form of catholicism that is better grounded in scripture and in early church history. For my own part, I am not sure that this is even possible. There are reasons why catholicism became Roman Catholicism. The evolution of ideas is motivated by causes. Catholicism became more adaptive precisely by becoming Roman Catholicism. This catholic self-conception of Protestants gives me the impression of rewinding a video tape in the hope of seeing a different ending. The fact that many Protestants do eventually give up on this project and eventually become Roman Catholic supports my point.
I say, then, that Evangelicals and Protestants more generally are really broken or defective Roman Catholics. They share Roman Catholicism as a kind of common inheritance that they wrestle with in their various ways. Evangelicalism has preserved some things from this Roman Catholic inheritance but not others. For example, they keep the notion of authoritative, inerrant, and divinely inspired scriptures, but they give up on the idea of an authoritative magisterial body that can determine how these scriptures should be understood within the community. The problem with this, as I said just earlier, is that Roman Catholicism is an intricately connected system of ideas. You cannot easily take some of the ideas and do away with the others. This fact creates problems and tensions in the evangelical system itself. Such problems include accounting for the origins of the canon, justifying the necessity of believing certain doctrines, effectively maintaining the unity of faith despite the interpretability of the scriptures, preserving a plausible sense of God’s ongoing interaction with and guidance of the church in history, and so on. Evangelicals who convert to Roman Catholicism come to appreciate that Roman Catholicism provides very easy, intuitive, and natural answers to these questions—the answers that would have been given to them prior to the breaking apart of the Roman Catholic system to various degrees in the time of the Reformation.
Roman Catholicism is like a puzzle of 500 pieces. It is not possible to take puzzle pieces from a different box and integrate them into the Roman Catholic picture. They don’t fit. The puzzle itself demands the use of its own pieces. It may certainly be that one not like the image that one sees being formed. That is what happened during the Reformation. The Reformers did not like the turn that the development of Roman Catholicism took in history and sought to repair the image. But in many ways this involves taking foreign pieces and trying to integrate them into the picture. It can’t be done. If one doesn’t like the image that is becoming clearer and clearer as time goes on, one has to find a different puzzle. This is the “radical” approach to dealing with Roman Catholicism that I mentioned earlier. But many people are not able to do this. They are still stuck in essentially Roman Catholic ways of thinking—to be sure, ways of thinking that are shared by the catholic tradition of theology as a whole and are not limited to Roman Catholicism per se. As Francis Beckwith writes:
I actually don’t think I had a Protestant mind, but I thought I did. What I had was a confused Catholic mind that would not rest until it found its way home.
— Francis Beckwith, “Introduction,” p. 8, in Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, eds., Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), pp. 7–14.
And what else is such a person to do except “return home”?
I think this is why evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism. They are themselves something like broken or defective Roman Catholics who are seeking wholeness. Roman Catholicism offers them this. And they have a “genetic” predisposition to accept the Roman Catholic proposal to their problems because they are really Roman Catholics on the inside.
For my part, I do not accept the Roman Catholic proposal. I think there are essentially two problems with Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, its essential doctrines about God, revelation, Trinity, Incarnation, magisterium, tradition, and Eucharist are false. On the other hand, the method that it uses to come up with the answers to theological problems and questions is bad. One does not actually find the truth that way. So I give up on the whole system. I take the “radical” approach. That means that I naturally have disagreements with evangelicals and Protestants, too, at least on those points where they are in agreement with Roman Catholic premises. But I will have to write more about this another time.