Why Are Evangelicals Converting to Roman Catholicism?

On weekends I occasionally channel surf and end up on EWTN, a network devoted to promoting Roman Catholicism. One show that often catches my attention is The Journey Home. Hosted by former Presbyterian pastor turned Catholic, Marcus Grodi, this program features the testimonies of people, mostly Evangelicals, who have converted to Catholicism.

My curiosity was stimulated even further when I received the September 2002 edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In it was an insightful article by Scot McKnight called, "From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic." This article was the result of McKnight's research in which he surveyed the accounts of thirty Evangelicals who had converted to Roman Catholicism (McKnight calls these converts ERC's--Evangelicals who converted to Roman Catholicism).

McKnight's purpose is mostly that of observation, not critique. Thus, he is not evaluating the validity of the ERC conversions. Instead, he is pointing out trends and patterns among those who have converted from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. His findings, though, are interesting. In addition to recommending McKnight's article, which treats this subject in more depth, I'd like to summarize McKnight's findings, while offering a few insights of my own.

McKnight points out that the typical ERC goes through an "institutional transition" or a "switching of denominations." ERC's usually do not view themselves as converting to faith in Christ when they become Catholic; rather, they see themselves as transitioning to the fullness of the Christian faith. According to McKnight, "In nearly every case, the convert believes that he or she has 'come home' or 'entered the fullness of the faith' or has experienced conversion to the 'truth of the Catholic faith.'" This was true for the ERC David Currie who declared, "I see my decision [to convert to RC] as a natural outgrowth of my Evangelical commitment."

In addition, ERC's are often led to Catholicism because of certain "crises." These crises may include mystical experiences, the need for healing, family tragedy, or dissatisfaction with life. The most common crisis for ERC's, however, is what McKnight calls "a desire for transcendence."

This desire for transcendence usually takes four forms:

(1) a desire for certainty; (2) a desire for history; (3) a desire for unity; and (4) a desire for authority.

(1) Certainty

First, the desire for certainty and a full knowledge of truth spurs many ERC's to reject what they consider to be the "doctrinal mayhem" and "choose-your-own-church syndrome" of Protestantism. ERC's often have a desire for certain knowledge, something they believe is possible within Catholicism but not within Protestantism.

For example, on The Journey Home program, former Episcopalian, David Mills, told of an encounter he had with eleven evangelical scholars concerning the issue of marriage and divorce. According to Mills, these eleven evangelical scholars came up with nine different views on this important topic. Mills contrasted this uncertainty of the evangelical scholars with the alleged certainty that can be found within Roman Catholicism. For Mills and ERC's, when Rome speaks on an issue, that's it. There is absolute certainty.

(2) History

Second, McKnight observes that ERC's often feel a "historical disenfranchisement" with Protestantism. They have a desire to be connected to the entire history of the Christian church and not just the period since the Reformation. In addition, ERC's often see the early church Fathers as "the aristocrats of the Church, the elite thinkers, and the inner circle who knew best." This desire to be connected with church history leads many ERC's to Rome.

(3) Unity

Third, ERC's emphasize unity and are disturbed by the divisions and countless denominations within Protestantism. McKnight quotes Peter Cram who describes Protestantism as "one long, continuous line of protesters protesting against their fellow protesters, generating thousands of denominations, para-churches, and 'free churches,' which are simply one-church denominations." ERC's try to transcend this disunity by seeking refuge in the perceived unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

(4) Authority

Fourth, McKnight points out that many ERC's reject the "interpretive diversity" found within Protestantism, opting for the authority of the Catholic Church. Instead of trying to sort through the numerous interpretations of Protestant pastors and theologians, ERC's believe they have found their authority in the Catholic Church's Magisterium. For them, as McKnight puts it, "The [doctrinal] issues are now settled: the Church can tell us what to believe. And it does so infallibly."

Becoming Catholic

According to McKnight, the road from 'Wheaton to Rome' is usually "long" and "tortuous." It often involves painful separations in relationships and "massive shifts in theology." He also notes that most ERC's end up in Catholicism as a result of "massive amounts of reading and research." Reading pro-Catholic books and coming under the guidance of influential Catholic leaders or mentors are also important factors in the conversion of many ERC's.

Upon conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, ERC's often assume the rhetoric of the Church. This takes two directions: (1) they positively argue for Catholic doctrines such as papal infallibility, the Eucharist, and Marian dogmas; and (2) they negatively denounce evangelical Protestantism.

In conclusion, this article has been mostly observational, thus a full discussion and evaluation of the issues raised here are topics for another article. Yet, those who are Evangelicals must take the issues raised by ERC conversions seriously. The topics of certainty, history, unity, and authority are causing some from the evangelical camp to convert to Roman Catholicism. As such, these are issues that Evangelicals must address.


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