Why Do People Become Catholic?

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R.R. Reno, Editor of FIRST THINGS, recently wrote an insightful article on reasons why people are drawn to the Catholic Church. I always enjoy reading Reno, particularly his cultural analysis. And since this subject is in my bailiwick, I read his observations with great interest. Here is how Reno introduces his post:

My Protestant friends sometimes accuse First Things of encouraging Catholic triumphalism. We’re not entirely innocent. How can we avoid an atmosphere of triumphalism, given the profound influence Catholicism exercises over so many who are associated with the magazine, beginning with our founding editor and including our current one, yours truly? We love the Catholic Church, and one invariably wishes to champion that which one loves. And so, in that spirit—and with the urgent reminder that there’s no reason Protestants don’t share in these reasons in their own ways— I’ll recount John’s summation [of reasons why people become Catholic], adding my own observations.

Reno is right. Protestant readers will resonate with his observations. Furthermore, as a former Catholic, I find these ideas residing in memories from my upbringing at Good Shepherd Church, memories that feed my appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition (it is probably Msgr. Tom Spadaro, my childhood priest, who deserves credit for this).

In addition to viewing Reno’s list from the vantage point of my Catholic boyhood, it is also interesting to reflect on it through the lens of evangelical Protestant theology. In other words, how do the noble features of Catholic Christianity, eight of which Reno elucidates, find expression in a Protestant context? Here is how I see it.

  1. Visibility: By this Reno is describing the tangible organization of the Catholic Church. He writes, “Even the bulky, sometimes exasperating institutional bureaucracy of the Catholic has a reassuring solidity.” On this point, most evangelicals are likely to see it differently. Sure, the tangible manifestation of virtue must be visible. “Institutional bureaucracy”—well, that is a different matter. Instead of a Vatican City, evangelicals wish to celebrate the biblical vision of Abraham who was commended for “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).
  2. Universality: Reno reminds us, “The Church is universal, spanning the entire globe. Or more simply: Catholicism is catholic. This breadth makes the gospel more credible.” Surely, he is right. The fact that followers of Christ are drawn from every tribe, tongue, and nation deepens the explanatory force of Christian witness. Most striking about this witness are shared religious affections among men and women who come from radically diverse cultures. Indeed, more than common clerical attire or liturgy, it is a mutual commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, expressed through evangelical priorities, that is arguably the most compelling feature of the church’s universality.
  3. Endurance: Yes. Catholics and Protestants stand together in this legacy. While numerous movements have sought to end Christianity, whether the French Revolution or militant Islam, it is because Christ builds his Church that it will certainly endure. Tertullian’s statement remains true today as ever: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
  4. Authority: Here again, Reno has a valuable point, one that evangelicals must heed: “In our age of exalted individualism and false views of freedom, the Church’s authority is often seen as a liability.” Confronted with this problem, we ought to repent of our anthropocentrism and recognize that God speaks through his Church, as his Church is faithful to his word. Reno concludes with John Henry Newman’s statement concerning the healing nature of ecclesial authority. This is helpful, although I’d like to balance this exhortation with Newman’s statement in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts… I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
  5. Beauty: If Reno’s critique of the banalities of contemporary aesthetics applies to the Catholic Church, how much more does it apply to evangelical Protestantism? In his words, “The Church’s beauty has its own power as well. Her musical, artistic, or literary legacy caresses us with the truth of God in Christ. Catholicism’s neglect of those legacies in favor of an easy, banal contemporary aesthetic is one of the great evangelical failures of recent decades.” Reno’s words speak for themselves. He who has an ear let him hear.
  6. Hierarchy: This is a point at which evangelical traditions will differ. For example, at a recent meeting of The Gospel Coalition, I poked my head into a gathering of Anglicans to eavesdrop. In listening to them discuss challenges and opportunities in mobilizing the church for gospel witness, I was struck by the way their discussion accounted for the particulars of church structure. Despite these differences, though, it was essentially the same conversation that I would have with our pastoral staff (at our non-hierarchical church). I suspect, however, that Anglicans and Baptists alike would stop short of the direction to which Reno goes when he concludes, “This hierarchy encourages a spiritual elevation, an ascent of the soul to God in prayer.”
  7. Saints: Evangelicals have a different understanding from Catholic sainthood, but we certainly agree on the value of looking to godly men and women to find instruction and inspiration. I think, for example, of John Piper’s tradition of presenting a spiritual biography during his annual pastor’s conference. I think we would all agree that this is a wonderful practice that should be promoted. Because every man or woman whose identity is established in the risen Christ is a “saint” (Eph 1:15, 3:18, 4:12; Col 1:26), we embrace our mentors as gifts from God who illustrate how we are to walk worthy of our calling.
  8. Moral witness: There is something interesting about this Catholic claim on which I’ve never written because it’s a touchy subject, but I’ll speak to it here. I am routinely asked this question by evangelical Protestants, “If Catholicism has such a robust moral theology, why is it that many of the Catholics I know seem to have such low moral standards?” The examples that typically follow usually have to do with speech (vulgarity, slander), a lack of modesty, copious amounts of cigarette and alcohol consumption, liberal social and political positions, and a disregard for the Catholic Church’s teaching on particular moral issues (protecting the unborn and sexual ethics). You can imagine why I have never spoken to this before! There are of course multitudes of Catholics who are great examples of holiness. And there are a lot of Protestants who might be classified as dirt bags. I am not seeking to make a case against the morality of Catholics, and I will gladly let you to decide whether the above generalization has any validity. To the extent that it does, however, there would seem to be a disparity between the theory of Catholic moral doctrine and its praxis. What can be done about it? Let us look to Christ, the Savior who calls us to follow him by faith, and realize a deeper measure of his beauty and holiness.

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