A little over a year before writing this my status changed. Having been a Presbyterian minister for over twenty years, I became a Catholic layman. How that happened is a long story.
In a nutshell, though, reading a Catholic author here, meeting with a priest or two there, befriending groups of faithful Catholics, and attending lectures, meetings, and (occasionally) Mass all added up. At the same time, my questions about the viability of Protestantism in a post-modern environment became more pointed and my answers more frightening. The Protestant mainline, oldline, sideline is in theological, moral, and cultural freefall as it approaches becoming little more than a sideshow. And the evangelicals, I believe, are not all that far behind.
This, of course, didn’t occur to me overnight. My journey to the Catholic Church happened over the course of about twelve years — eight asking increasingly uncomfortable questions and four praying very hard and asking more uncomfortable questions.
Again, it’s a long story. On the other hand, how to keep the same thing from happening to you is a shorter story.
After all, for Protestants — and for ministers in particular — becoming a Catholic is a hassle. A now-Catholic friend told me that his evangelical missionary in-laws would have been happier had he and his wife become hyper-liberal Episcopalians than faithful, orthodox Catholics. Friends with worried faces either ask difficult questions or — even worse — ask and say nothing at all.
Had I left my Presbyterian denomination to join the Free Will Baptists or a dispensational Bible church or to an Anglo-Catholic parish (smells and bells, but not Roman smells and bells), things would have been simple. There would have been a sentence or two in the Presbytery minutes to the effect that I had “peaceably withdrawn” to thus and such church because my theological convictions were no longer in keeping with the Westminster Confession.
No one, however, is permitted to peaceably withdraw to the Catholic Church. Old anti-Catholic habits die hard, and so rigmarole, kerfuffle, and consternation were the order of the day. On the other hand, I guess I did demote the denomination from “church” to “ecclesial community,” the ministers from “fathers and brothers” to “separated brethren,” and Protestantism in general from “many expressions of the Body of Christ” to “a bunch of sects in imperfect communion with the Body of Christ.”
Once all was said and done though, my friends are still my friends, something for which I am genuinely and profoundly grateful.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Catholic Church is all it’s cracked up to be in those Scott Hahn books, Opus Dei discussion groups, and descriptions by friends who converted before I did. It is, as I told my wife one day, “the real deal,” and I am amazed at God’s kindness to me that I get to be a Catholic.
On the other hand, if you’re a Protestant and especially if you’re a Protestant minister listing Romeward, there are rules you can follow that may help keep you from following in my soggy footsteps across the Tiber.
Let me make clear that they’re not hard and fast rules. Breaking them all with impunity will not guarantee a switch to Rome. I know many people such as the Protestant half of Evangelicals and Catholics Together who know more about the Church than I do and yet are firmly rooted in the faith of the Reformation.
After studying enough Catholicism to coauthor the book Is the Reformation Over?, historian Mark Noll in a recent issue of First Things calls himself “someone whose respect for Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades.” Fair enough.
You could break all the rules and have the same experience Dr. Noll has had or you could break the rules to your own peril and could begin to view the Christian faith, your life, time, space, and the whole physical world in a new, but oddly familiar light. Perhaps I can steer you around all this.
For Catholics, let me strongly encourage you to break all the rules early and often. After all, why should the “converts” have all the fun?
Rule #1: Assume that all Catholics are idiots.
When I say assume all Catholics are idiots, I mean you need to assume all Catholics are idiots. You can’t begin making exceptions, because that’s where the trouble starts. It’s a slippery slope from “All Catholics except John Paul II and Benedict XVI are idiots,” to “All Catholics except JP2, B16, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Cardinal George, and G.K. Chesterton are idiots,” to “There are many Catholics who are not idiots,” to “The majority of Catholics, who, I must admit, are not idiots,” to “Bless me, Father for I have sinned.” Nip this slippery slope in the bud. All means all.
All has to include all clergy, theologians, and intellectuals. In Blessed John Henry Newman’s mid-nineteenth century novel about conversion, Loss and Gain, the main character, Charles Reding, receives a final warning from Carlton, a friend at Oxford University, before he takes the plunge across the Tiber. About Roman Catholics, Carlton cautions, “You will find them under-educated men, I suspect.” When Charles presses his friend as to how he knows this, Carlton replies, “I suspect it. …I judge from their letters and speeches which one reads in the papers,” that is, in the English, Protestant, and, at the time, thoroughly anti-Catholic papers.
Carlton, a theology scholar, had managed to avoid all contact with actual Roman Catholic theologians and thinkers thereby providing himself with the safety of claiming that all Catholics are under-educated and not worth his attention except perhaps for ridicule.
Today that’s what the New York Times seems to think Catholics are prejudiced, “under-educated” (at least), cultural troglodytes and that should be good enough for you. (Actually the Times believes what most liberal elites believe, that, as Richard John Neuhaus put it, “The only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.” They heartily approve of Catholics who reject Church teachings particularly teachings to do with sexuality.)
Anyway, more than a century and a half after Newman wrote, Fr. James Schall, Professor of Government at Georgetown University noted at the website, The Catholic Thing:
Few want to know what truth is found in Catholicism. The main reason Catholicism is hated in the modern world, and it is hated, is the suspicion that Catholicism might well be true. To mock or misrepresent Catholicism seems permissible if, as it is supposed, it is composed of dunderheads who cannot argue coherently about anything, not even what they believe and the grounds for it.
On a popular and practical level, this can be done by simply repeating the words, “How could anyone believe that?” with a pained facial expression whenever confronted with Purgatory, indulgences, the Immaculate Conception, papal authority, transubstantiation, or any number of other Catholic distinctives.
Wondering even for a moment how bright, well-educated, and theologically astute people defend these doctrines will only lead you to investigate. And investigation would put you in dialogue with Catholic thinkers in person or through their writings. And dialogue if it is honest carries with it an openness to change. And an openness to change is the very thing you don’t want.
Better simply to assume we are all misguided dolts who desperately need either the New York Times or some Ryrie Study Bibles to set us straight.
Rule #2: Get all information on the Catholic Faith second hand.
How the conversation got started is a mystery, but the topic was death and something I said caused my companion, an elderly gentleman, to remark, “Of course I’m Catholic and the Catholic Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”
“Actually,” I responded helpfully, “the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that.”
“Oh, yes it does,” he insisted. “The Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”
“No, really,” I replied, “Trust me on this. I know that the Church doesn’t teach that when you die you become an angel.”
“Look,” he said become mildly annoyed at the uninformed Protestant minister at his side, “I’ve been a Catholic all my life and I know the Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”
Soooo… how ’bout them Red Sox?
Bugs Bunny cartoons and New Yorker cartoons teach that when you die you become an angel. Country songwriter Hoyt Axton teaches that you need to be good lest, when you die, you become an angel with, “a rusty old halo, skinny white cloud, second-hand wings full of patches.” And the 1967 movie “Casino Royal” with Peter Sellers and David Niven teaches that when you die you become an angel — unless you’re very, very bad.
But no matter how long you’ve been a Catholic, the Catholic Church has not, does not, and never will teach that when you die you become an angel.
I often wonder what other exotic doctrines were growing in this gentleman’s garden of misinformation. But I’m certain that finding someone like him is an ideal way of exploring the Catholic Church — or something vaguely like the Catholic Church—in complete safety. Since poorly catechized Catholics are a dime a dozen, you won’t have far to look. Some are still in the Church, some are as far from the Church as they can get, and some are next to you in the pew, having found in evangelicalism what they don’t realize has been in Catholicism since the beginning.
If you have a choice, go with the now-evangelical, ex-Catholic, particularly the variety who will tell you, “I used to be a Catholic, but now I’m a Christian.” Their misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine will probably be mixed with a severe distaste and the desire to prove the Church wrong and their current theological ideas correct.
Odd as it may seem, another good source for second-hand misinformation is older priests. Pick one who still appears to have hung on to his hippy tendencies and who you estimate went to seminary in the 1970s. If you prefer, you can substitute habit-free nuns of the same vintage. That’s the era Catholic scholar George Weigel refers to as the “post-Vatican II silly season.” Priests and nuns who imbibed the silly sauce never quite recovered.
Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam will feel very comfortable making light of the Church’s authority to define any doctrine whatsoever. They happily disagree with many, that is, assuming they remember the correct doctrine at all. If you’re a conservative evangelical, these two will be your worst nightmare holding, as they do, to all the trendy ideas that liberal Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists love beginning with sexual “freedom” and do-it-yourself dogma.
When choosing a priest or nun, be careful not to get involved with a young “John Paul II” priest or a young nun in full habit. Too many of them are scary smart, extremely well educated, meticulously orthodox, and better preachers than you’ve heard in years. They’ll cause you trouble, so stick with Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam. Their ideas are outdated, their ilk is literally dying out, but they’re safe.
As Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam will tell you, you’ll also want to avoid the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Commissioned by Pope John Paul II and written under the watchful eye of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI), the Catechism is the first-hand primary source of information on what Catholics believe. Avoid it.
First of all, it’s very long, detailed, and replete with Bible references and quotations from the Church Fathers (see Rule #3). Second, if evangelicals Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom in their book Is the Reformation Over are correct, you will find yourself agreeing with at least two-thirds right off the bat. Then whatever you don’t agree with, you will find yourself understanding and pondering. “Hmm,” you’ll say to yourself, “Perhaps I should study and think a bit more about the place of the Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation.” And what will come of that?
As Noll and Nystrom write:
Evangelicals or confessional Protestants who pick up the Catechism will find themselves in for a treat. Sentences, paragraphs, whole pages sound as if they could come from evangelical pulpits, including passages on topics such as the nature of Scripture or the meaning of grace and faith. These readers will also notice the depth of scholarship, worn quite lightly, with hundreds of references to Scripture but also citations from early theologians…. Readers familiar with standard statements of faith from the Reformation era… will quickly notice a different tone in this Catholic writing. While covering much of the same territory…, the Catholic Catechism is much more comprehensive. Moreover, it looks beyond the statement of doctrine to the care of souls. The Catholic Catechism is strikingly pastoral in tone. It is in part a book of worship—focusing again and again on the majesty of God, inviting readers to reflect on God’s character, to respond to his love, to live as he commands, and to devote themselves to his service. …Readers… may come to the Catechism looking for information. Finding information, they may also find themselves (as we did) stopping to pray. (page 116) Far better and safer to get your information second-hand.