Ed Stetzer on Why Some Evangelicals Convert to Catholicism and How We Should Respond

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

On Sunday, September 13, a man named Mark was confirmed as a Catholic. Why is this significant?

Mark Galli, who will be confirmed under the name of St. Francis, is a former Presbyterian pastor and editor-in-chief for Christianity Today. Additionally, as RNS noted, for a few days last December, he was perhaps the best-known evangelical in the nation calling for the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump from the presidency.

Galli, however, says the timing of his conversion to Catholicism two months before the next election is for personal reasons. After 20 years in the Anglican Church, he believes moving to Catholicism is not a rejection of evangelicalism but instead taking his existing “Anglicanism deeper and thicker.”

His faith journey has taken him from Presbyterianism to becoming an Episcopalian, then Anglican, with a brief interlude of attending the Orthodox Church. This runs counter to trends in the U.S.; Currently for every one convert to Catholicism, six leave the tradition. But notable Protestants, from Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Henry Newman, to G.K. Chesterton, Francis Beckwith, and Tony Blair. The RNS article observed:

Some converts are drawn to the beauty of Catholic ritual. Others to the church’s rich intellectual tradition or the centrality of the Eucharist, the bread and wine used for Communion, which Catholics believe becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

That was part of the reason for Galli, but his fatigue with evangelicalism contributed as well. “I want to submit myself to something bigger than myself,” He said, a dding:

One thing I like about both Orthodoxy and Catholicism is that you have to do these things, whether you like it or not, whether you’re in the mood or not, sometimes whether you believe or not. You just have to plow ahead. I want that.

Why do Evangelicals Become Catholics?

A Catholic Perspective

Beauty: In the National Catholic Register, an article on the book Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Pathsto Rome noted beauty as one reason. No less than ten Southern Evangelical Seminary students contributed to this book, as did Francis Beckwith of Baylor.

Editor (and convert) Douglas Beaumont observed:

​In Protestantism, there’s a tendency to dismiss any reason other ​​than the intellectual. But as human beings, we’re both physical and spiritual ​creatures. In the Catholic Church, he found, intellect and reason are respected; ​but the Catholic Church is also more beautiful and more historical. There is an ​attractive package which draws the spirit, combining art and music and beauty, a ​long history, and tradition, with solid intellectual arguments.

Spirituality: Scott Hahn, another former evangelical now Catholic, in his chapter “Come to the Father: The Fact at the Foundation of Catholic Spirituality,” in Four Views on Christian Spirituality, notes the great diversity of expressions of spirituality from the

. . . silence of the Trappists and the Pentecostal praise of the Charismatic Renewal; the rarified intellectual life of the Dominicans and the profound feeling of the Franciscans; the wealth of the knights of Malta and the elected poverty of the Missionaries of Charity; the strict enclosure of the Carthusians and the world-loving secularity of the Opus Dei; the bright colors of Central American devotional art and the austere blocks of the German cathedrals; the warrior spirit of the Templars and the serene pax of the Benedictines; Ignatian detachment and Marian warmth.

He argues this shows the richness of Catholic spirituality which “presents a forest indiscernible because of the variety and number— and even the age— of its trees.”

From First Things​

First Things is a publication that often offers an intellectually respectable, nonpartisan examination of religious and other matters. In an article entitled “Why Do Evangelicals Convert to Catholicism?” Adam Omelianchuk offers reasons evangelicals convert to Catholicism:

Authenticity and beauty in worship. Though many Catholics left for more vibrant evangelical services, many miss the sense of awe and reverence seen in the liturgy of the church, as it “represented something sacred and beautiful.”

Intellectualism. “Catholicism has a rich intellectual pedigree that remains competitive in today’s marketplace of ideas that evangelicals hardly match. Catholics have traditionally been leaders in such high professions like law, medicine, and education, and Catholic universities often compete with and far surpass those funded by the secular public. For a Christian intellectual, Catholicism can be an antidote to evangelicalism’s rampant anti-intellectualism.”

Church Polity. The various approaches of elder-led vs. elder-ruled, the role of women, and other areas of dispute among evangelicals makes the hierarchical approach of Catholicism appealing for some when compared to “competing with one another by the means of building a ministry around a cult of personality, which so often drives evangelical ecclesiology.”

An Evangelical Assessment: Scot McKnight

McKnight examined this issue in an article for JETS (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) entitled (ironically, for this moment), “From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.”

McKnight quotes Chesterton, who says he took the path of Rome “to get rid of my sins.” McKnight argues that Scott Hahn, mentioned above, and musician (from the Jesus People Movement days) John Michael Talbot––who moved from a Pentecostal-Fundamentalist faith to becoming a Franciscan––offered two notable examples to understand the transition.

McKnight offered four specific areas to help understand the move to Catholicism.

  1. These transitions are institutional in nature. It is not a conversion to Christ but a perceived conversion to the fullness of the Christian faith.
  2. The context of the converts. McKnight notes how difficult it is to convert from evangelicalism to Catholicism and that it is not done lightly or without opposition from family and friends.
  3. A “crisis” through various factors. An example is the desire for transcendence, manifested in four key areas: certainty, history, unity, and authority. There is a weighty continuity in the history of Rome with the early Fathers, the Medieval theologians, and more. The splintering of evangelicalism causes some to admire both the centralized authority and the confession of the church as “one” in Catholicism.
  4. Quest, encounter, and commitment. “The quest of an ERC [Evangelical to Roman Catholic) moves most often along the path of encountering transcendence, though intellectual satisfaction is the primary feature of that quest.”

McKnight concludes with two contrasting points. First, there will continue to be evangelicals converting to Catholicism “until the evangelical churches can get a firmer grip on authority, unity, history, liturgy, and a reasonable form of certainty on interpretation.”

Second, “until the Roman Catholic Church learns to focus on gospel preaching of personal salvation, on the importance of personal piety for all Christians—and abandons its historical two-level ethic—and personal study, and on the Bible itself, there will be many who will leave Catholicism to join in the ranks of evangelicalism.”

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Source: Christianity Today