“And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” – John 14:3-4
“Why don’t committed Christians like Billy Graham or James Dobson come home to the Catholic Church?”
I can’t tell you how many times over the past twenty years I’ve heard questions like this. Or consider this one: “My brother knows all about the Catholic Faith — he’s a Protestant theologian and has nothing but good things to say about the Church — but he doesn’t seem the least bit interested in converting.”
As a result of our twenty years of helping non-Catholic Christians at least consider the beauty and truth of the Catholic Church, we’ve come up with a list of “Barriers to Conversion.” We don’t claim this list to be all-inclusive or definitive; rather, it simply summarizes the responses we’ve heard from people on the journey. The items are not necessarily in the order of importance, but I do believe that the first five rank at the top:
- The Mystery of God’s Grace
- Bad Catholics
- Attachment to a Tradition
- Attachment to a Person
- Attachment to Self
- Can’t Forgive Others
- Can’t Forgive Self
- Just Can’t!
- Just Won’t!!!
Now, each of these items deserves explanation, but I suspect that as you consider each item, you may see how they apply to the resistance of friends or family to the Church. Of course, none of us knows what any other person is really thinking, so we certainly can’t judge — and it may be, in the end, that the primary reason whether anyone converts depends on the mystery of God’s will and timing. Billy Graham and James Dobson, as well as Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and governor Mike Huckabee, may be precisely where God wants them to serve. This doesn’t mean we quit sharing with them the truth and beauty of the Church; rather, we at least begin by celebrating with them their faith and surrender to Jesus Christ.
Recently, two experiences brought home to me what I consider the two primary “Barriers to Conversion” (not itemized in the list), and this, I believe, reiterates the significance of our mission. My family and I were driving home from the local County fair (which, frankly, is hardly a semblance of what county fairs used to be!), and the radio was on. First, I heard a non-Catholic Christian radio commentator addressing the rise of radical Islam and the increasing rejection of Christianity in our culture, particularly with the removal of Bibles from hotels, spurred on by radical atheist groups. Everything he was saying was spot on, but his generic use of the word “church” reminded me of what I consider the primary reason so few well-informed non-Catholic Christians come home: because they don’t believe in the necessity of any church, let alone the Catholic Church, for salvation. Following the lead of Martin Luther and John Calvin, they believe salvation is only a matter of an individual’s faith in Jesus, and that the “church” is the invisible multitude of sincere believers, known only to God. Whether a person belongs to a church let alone any specific church is immaterial to salvation.
This is what I believed from my childhood Lutheran upbringing through my seminary training and on into my Presbyterian pastoral years — and this is why hearing 1 Timothy 3:14-15 began my “journey home.” Saint Paul said that the “church of the living God” is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth.” I had always presumed that the Bible was this “pillar and bulwark.” This verse didn’t make me Catholic; but it shocked me, because it had never crossed my mind that any church was necessary to know truth, let alone as a means of salvation.
Driving along home from the fair, I switched the channel, and heard governor Mike Huckabee waxing eloquently in praise of the Vatican’s call for active military efforts to stop radical Islam. As you may not know, governor Huckabee was an ordained Southern Baptist minister before he set this aside to enter into politics. He remains an outspoken Evangelical, but also a politician, so it’s hard to discern from his words his actual feelings about the Pope and the Vatican. But it reminded me that another primary barrier to conversion, maybe the biggest, is not just ignorance of the mandate concerning membership in the Church, but the deep underlying suspicion that the Catholic Church and Catholics are not truly Christians. In our apologetic defense of the Church, we can point out all the flaws of sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, etc., and clarify all the actual teachings and historical foundations of Catholicism, and augment this with heart-warming conversion stories, but if our separated brethren still question in their hearts whether modern Catholics are truly Christians, they will rarely sense the mandate to consider converting.
As the result of the twenty years of our work, I have come to believe that addressing these two primary barriers sets the tone and trajectory of our future work together, and maybe the uniqueness of our mission: What can we do, through our media, studio productions, publications, and website, to help our separated brothers and sisters come to know that we Catholics are truly Christians? How can we fill in the gaps of their ignorance, correct the misunderstandings of their prejudice, explain the failures of “bad Catholics” (like moi), so they can see that we, too, believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ? In many ways, it seems this is precisely what our present Holy Father is doing: he’s not downplaying or negating any of the essentials of our faith, but rather focusing on that most important truth which we share with our baptized brethren: that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ, His Son and our Lord. If we can help some to hear this, then maybe through our love, the Holy Spirit can help them hear the necessity of the Church our Lord established in His hand-chosen apostles, centered around the leadership of Peter. For those who come to desire to explore more about becoming Catholic, especially non-Catholic clergy whose conversions can mean severe disruption in their families, marriages, and vocations, we are here to help them discern what God is now calling them to do.
I would also suggest that our work will continue to help convert Catholics, because the New Evangelization will never start until Catholics-in-the-pews on Sunday morning fully realize that everything essential in our Catholic Faith is built upon faith in Jesus Christ and His intention to form a Church. It is our concerted hope that our resources will help Catholics re-discover their faith in Christ and why they need to remain active members of the Church, equipping them to be authentic evangelizers. As our Lord told His apostles, He has gone to prepare a place — a home — for us, and coming home means at the core helping people reach their eternal home through the fullness of faith in Jesus Christ, non-Catholics as well as Catholics, clergy as well as laity.