Sometimes when I’ve had a long day at school I stop by a bookstore just because being around so many books energizes me. Mondays are actually my busiest day of the week this semester and I was up late studying for a Greek quiz, so today qualified as a bookstore stop day.
One book that caught my eye was a book actually co-written by evangelical Notre Dame professor Mark Noll. I became a fan of Mark Noll several years ago after seeing him give a talk in Boston and consistently recommended his book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” after I’d read it (all of it!). As you might have guessed from my bookstore perusing habits, my eyes are a fair bit bigger than my stomach (brain?) when it comes to reading books. I’ve read the first chapter of so many books and finished so few of them that I sometimes feel embarrassed by it.
That all goes to say that I read one small section of this particular book, “Is the Reformation Over” and now have a whole series of reflections on it. I knew about the book and actually had it on that vast mile long “books to read” list I keep somewhere in my crowded head.
The section I read was (understandably) on evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism over the years. Thoughts:
The Mark Noll Factor
Here’s one internal conversation I went through. I admire Mark Noll and many other prominent and not at all prominent evangelicals who I’ve known over the years. I haven’t heard all their arguments for why they’re not Catholic. Shouldn’t it then be possible that there’s some missing key, argument, or insight that would pull me back as I prepare to fling myself into Catholicism?
This thought came up, and the interesting thing is not my (the other me’s) response, but the fact that I don’t feel upset or threatened by questions like that. Believe it or not, I feel Catholic, and I feel comfortable feeling Catholic. There was most definitely a point where my mind had crossed over to Catholicism, but the introduction into my head of some new anti-Catholic argument would then emotionally upset me because I felt like I had to look at everything all over again. That hasn’t happened for quite some time now. My mind continues to think, but my heart feels oriented and in place in a way that it didn’t for some time. It was a scary thing making this transition. At some point, it felt like when I’m switching gears on my bike and it feels like I’ve gone out of one gear but not quite made it into the next. I just had to pray and keep on pedaling, and to my great relief, the new gear has caught.
I’ve thought a lot about the relation between my mind and heart over the last two years. At first, I thought that it was really intellectual questions that forced me to examine Catholic Christianity. In hindsight, my faith was always lying there as the foundation to those questions. My mind or intellect was never something external to my faith and who I am.
So I feel ok knowing there are intelligent evangelicals out there who have actually thought about whether they should become Catholic or not and decided against it. Not that they’re exactly analogous, but I knew before that many intelligent atheists, agnostics, etc. had considered Christianity and decided against it.
What They Left Behind
In this book that I read in the bookstore without purchasing ($25!! Who has that kind of money?), Noll went over some of the most prominent evangelical to Catholic conversions of the past couple decades, stories that I was all familiar with, and tried to present an overview of things they claim they appreciated in their new communion and missed in their old congregations. (In part he relied on this excellent study by an evangelical on why evangelicals become Catholic)
And that made me think, what exactly, if anything, am I leaving? Thank God that this isn’t the 16th or 17th century so the social consequences are not quite as extreme as they once were. Most of the examples Noll listed included things like fellowship with an enthusiastic and Bible literate community and enthusiastic hymn singing. I can definitely see what they mean. I know I’m blessed here at Notre Dame to be surrounded by many practicing and even enthusiastic Catholics as well as an astounding number of mass options. That may not always be the case.
Those things may be missed at times, but I would dare to argue that they’re never fully left behind. At Sunday Vespers (evening prayer) the other day we sung an American spiritual as our opening song, and at a short concert given afterwards, the selections included classic Catholic texts like a Marian prayer and excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions as well as the Protestant written classic Amazing Grace.
As an evangelical I would sometimes wince a bit at some theologically questionable song lyrics, sermon points, or book excerpts. Even as I received teaching, I was supposed to be critically thinking about whether it lined up with what I knew of Scripture or not. Now, I think not all that much changes. I hope to maintain contact with evangelical culture and to embrace the good in it, knowing that there are many evangelicals who have much to teach me. As always, I will have to discern how new teaching fits in with what I know of God and God’s revelation. I now choose to always think with the mind of the Church. And I couldn’t be happier to do so, because the mind of the Church is the mind of Christ. I can turn not just to my neighbor in the pew, but to 2000 years of family members to ask, “wait, is that true—is that what we believe?”
Some people think the word “convert” shouldn’t even be applied to people like me. After all, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus for quite some time. Coming into the Catholic Church hardly constitutes a complete reversal of my life. The Church recognizes this, though. This last Sunday we went through a rite called the “Call to Continuing Conversion”. The bishop came and said some prayers for those of us planning on entering into full communion with the Church in just a couple weeks. And I like that. We’re all called to continuing conversion, and for me, I’ve discerned that entering into full communion with the Catholic Church is a necessary part of that.
As a final note, I hope that my evangelical friends and family will hold me accountable in living out my Catholic faith to the best of my ability in the years to come. It’s quite possible for people who make inter-ecclesial conversions to become bitter. I don’t want to be, and I don’t intend to be. I don’t want to become blind to the many good things I’ve experienced as an evangelical. Neither do I want to feel sorry for myself for any hardship I’ve endured by moving well past my cultural comfort zone in order to become Catholic. Even if it turns out that being Catholic is really hard, I want to count it all as joy. I would gladly lay down much more if I heard Christ calling me to do so.
So those are some sober thoughts. At this point this decision feels natural and right. When I think of not following through, the idea seems odd and disjointed. It’s a big decision, though. One I should and have and continue to think about seriously. It has implications for the rest of my life—implications I can’t possibly know analyze and assess no matter how hard I try. I can’t help but think of the marriage metaphor again. I hope that, if I ever do get married, I feel as sure in my heart of my commitment then as I do right now.
PS: I hope to actually go to a lecture by Mark Noll on Evangelicals and Catholics tomorrow evening. I just jotted down these thoughts so they didn't get away, but I may or may not have some thoughts to add later.