Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bad Ways to Become Catholic

A couple of events over this past semester triggered reflection on whether I’ve done a “good job” becoming Catholic. One was the talk on Biblicism that I blogged about earlier. Both Christian Smith (an evangelical who became Catholic) and Mark Noll (an evangelical who remains evangelical) encouraged evangelicals who become Catholic to think critically about how they can leave behind any bad elements of evangelicalism and retain the good ones as they make their transition.

A second was the off-hand comment from one of my professors that it was “stupid” to move from one denomination to another since they all have problems. (He didn’t know I and others in the room had already done so) I think for a couple seconds I felt understandably threatened by that comment, but then when we left class just a couple minutes later I kept reflecting on what I think he was trying to get at.

I also read some more of a biography on John Henry Newman (my patron saint). He forms such a good example of a Protestant turned Catholic who worked hard to avoid the many potential pitfalls of any “convert”, some of which I’ll attempt to describe below.

So here’s my attempt at articulating some of the potential pitfalls in moving from being evangelical to being an evangelical Catholic:

1) Assuming that everything associated with Catholicism is good.

This is a natural temptation, and I think it has been for me as well. For sure, I’ve been majorly helped out by the fact that the imperfections of individual Catholics in particular, have been well known to me since I was young. Still, it’s surprisingly tempting to downplay the marginal commitment of many Catholics, as well as very real problems like those stemming from cases of sexual abuse within the Church. People who fully enter the Church later in life sometimes appreciate it more than those born into it, and I don’t think this in and of itself is bad, but loving can and does also mean critiquing and acknowledging problems rather than ignoring or denying them. This may be harder for me since I’ve spent more time than the average Catholic dealing with false accusations against Catholicism (both in my head and from others), but it should still be done.

2) Assuming that everything evangelical or Protestant is bad or wrong.

I think overall I’ve tried very hard to continually affirm the good in evangelicalism. Still, I find it tempting to be more critical than I was before becoming Catholic, now that its less my place to do so. It’s good for me to remind myself that the Holy Spirit blows where the Spirit wills, so that God may and does have lessons for Protestants to teach Catholics.

3) Thinking that the fact that I became Catholic means I’m smarter than everyone who remains evangelical or Protestant.

Little explanation needed. I feel really strongly about some basic truth claims, and book knowledge and logic played a role in my journey towards those truths, but I know I didn’t read near everything or think about everything, and I know many evangelicals who are much smarter than me remain evangelical. I also find it laughable to attribute my conversion to any moral superiority.

4) Thinking that I understand all aspects of what it means to be evangelical or to be Catholic.

5) Thinking that the story of my spiritual life ends with my entry into the Catholic Church.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I feel more than anything that my entry into the Church marks a new beginning far more than an ending. Having made some basic commitments, I feel continually reminded that I have the meat of the Christian life ahead of me.  

6) Equating the Catholic Church with a denomination or sub-culture.

There are many different ways of doing this. One is to think I have to become more Italian, Polish, or Mexican now that I’m Catholic.

Another is to conflate my experience of Catholicism with Catholicism in general. The Catholic Church takes seriously the idea that the Church is more than an idea; it’s a family, with all of the visible connections, rights, and responsibilities that entails, but it’s also extremely big and diverse. It could be easy to think that one expression of Catholic spirituality is somehow the only one. Converts are probably particularly susceptible to this temptation.

7) Continually looking for “true Catholics” even within the Catholic Church.

Orthodoxy is an odd thing, because although it should be the most unifying of forces, its often associated with endless bickering and splintering. I think that a tendency to disproportionately acclaim certain peripheral aspects of Catholicism as central to the faith (#6) while simultaneously rejecting too much of the good in various forms of Protestantism (#2) can lead to a negative “witch-hunt” for heretics. This can mean that we bunker down with a small group of like-minded people while remaining critical of the vast majority of other Catholics. (sound familiar? cross reference my opening comments on leaving the bad parts of evangelicalism behind us). Orthodoxy is still beautiful, though, and I think there are ways for those in my position to share and grow our passion for seeking the truth without sacrificing our attempts to live the truth out in love.

At any time period, there will be heresies alive in the Church. I’m not saying that’s not a big deal. I’m not sure how to say what I’m trying to say.

Perhaps it’s that our love for orthodoxy should be larger than our fear of heresy, and that we should therefore presume the best in others, that we should passionately seek truth but with humility, with fear and trembling.

In evangelicalism I learned to form my opinions about (and sometimes perhaps judge? the fault—the sin in this is entirely my own) other Christians by the institutions they belonged to or the books they read. As I began to realize that many people in my sub-culture believed irreconcilably different things, I wanted to be able to understand where they all stood and assess their orthodoxy relative to my own. This is exactly what should not be done—both in evangelicalism and in Catholicism.


In reference to my original reflections, I think there’s definitely room for me to be more self-conscious about the potential temptations present when shifting one’s religious views. There’s also room for me to begin to repent and change in response to mistakes I’ve already made.

That said, there are also some reasons why I think it is not “stupid” to change “denominations”. While denominations and Churches all have problems, they also all have doctrines. Some claim to not deal with “doctrine” but doctrine comes from the Latin doctrina, which means teaching. Every church, denomination, small group, or podcast teaches something, and I think it matters what they teach. I think truth matters. I don’t think doctrine is a hobby for Christians. I think the Church stands or falls on its truth claims.

I also think the Catholic Church claims to be something that none of the Protestant denominations (at least the ones that I had contact with) claim. It’s a legitimate critique to say that people shouldn’t switch churches just because the grass seems somewhat greener on the other side. I think I’ve held this conviction for a while.  Before, I was far more afraid of becoming a perpetual church shopper than of ending up in a local church with a couple doctrinal flaws.

But the Catholic Church claims to be something different, it isn’t just a greener yard, it claims to be a house and a home. If I created my own articulation of doctrine, and moved from church to church just based on my preferences and because some agreed more with me, I do think there would be something wrong with that. In becoming Catholic, I hope I was stating that I choose to receive the teaching of the Catholic Church, not that the teaching of the Catholic Church happens to agree with me. In large part, I would say that it’s a difference of kind rather than degree.

In short:

Lord, have mercy. I know I’ve sinned and I ask the Blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.