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Romeward Bound: Evaluating Why Protestants Convert to Catholicism

David Hagopian

Ex-Protestants offer numerous reasons for their shift to Rome, but the arguments are far from cogent.

The Wizard of Oz has fascinated adults and children alike for many years. You know the story well: a farm girl from Kansas finds herself in the middle of an unwelcomed adventure in an attempt to find the fanciful wizard, who, she hopes, will help her return home. After many trials and tribulations, she, along with her newfound friends, ultimately arrives at the Emerald City only to discover, much to her chagrin, that the "wizard" was really no wizard at all. He wasn't much of anything. In modern parlance, he was a wimp.

Believe it or not, many-a-Protestant claims to have experienced a disenchantment similar to that of Dorothy. And like the disenchanted Dorothy who just wanted to go home, so too these disenchanted Protestants want to go home. The home these Protestants long for, however, is not the home they left behind. These Protestants are Romeward bound.

True, the number of Protestant converts to Catholicism is less than the other way around.[1] And there are less actual converts to Rome today than during previous points in the history of Catholicism. Nevertheless, there is something unique about this modern conversion phenomenon, since "the kind of converts appears to be quite different, with fewer obligatory conversions for such reasons as marriage. A significant number of Protestant evangelicals...are among those moving to Rome...."[2]

That's right. Many evangelical Protestants are converting to "Roman obedience."[3] Or, in the words of one such convert, they are "getting churched" or "poping."[4 ] Jocularity aside, it is important for Protestants to come to grips with the reasons why these Neocatholics[5] have set their compasses toward Rome, because only then will Protestants be able to see some of the shortcomings of their espoused faith. Only then will they be able to meet the needs of those who are "taking the plunge."[6]

So why have Neocatholics chosen to plunge into Catholicism? For many reasons. This study culls such reasons from numerous twentieth-century Neocatholic conversion accounts as featured in a variety of sources. To be sure, each account reflects the nuances and idiosyncrasies of its author. Nonetheless, the accounts often ripple together, creating points of similarity along the way. What are these points of similarity? Why Rome, you ask? Allow Neocatholics to explain for themselves the reasons why they have found their home in Rome.[7]

The `Rock' and Roll of Tradition

Above all else, Neocatholics embrace the Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and contend that this Tradition sets the Catholic Faith apart from its Protestant counterpart. Catholicism is far "richer" than anything Protestantism can offer -- so the story goes -- since only Rome can lay claim to apostolic succession and living Tradition as an infallible guide to interpreting Holy Writ.

If at First You Do Not Succeed: The `Rock' of Tradition

Neocatholics time and again state that only Rome is the true church, since only Rome can lay claim to apostolic succession dating back to Peter -- the rock -- per the sixteenth chapter of Matthew ("...you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My church...").[8] Convinced that only the Roman Catholic Church is rooted and grounded in this ancient apostolic tradition, Neocatholics claim that "there is no fully Christian church but the one that was there from the beginning...."[9] By cutting itself off from this unbroken chain of succession dating back to Peter, Protestantism was adrift from the beginning. And given the maturity of the "Mother Church," the Protestant Reformation was really "nothing more than a kind of teen-age rebellion...."[10]

While Neocatholics rightly call the bluff of the zany ways some Protestants have interpreted Matthew 16 through the years, and the a-historical, if not un-historical, faith of other Protestants, the Neocatholic appeal to apostolic succession and antiquity is unconvincing, to say the least. From an exegetical perspective, such Neocatholics beg as many questions as do their less astute Protestant counterparts.

Even supposing our Lord referred to Peter as the "rock" upon which the church would be built, Neocatholics simply assume that Christ thereby gave Peter papal authority, as opposed say, to representative authority as one of many apostles who together formed the foundation of the early church (Eph. 2:20), Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. Neocatholics also assume that this passage grants a right of succession from Peter onward. Until and unless Neocatholics can prove that Christ, in Matthew 16, specifically granted Peter papal authority and that Christ thereby intended to establish an unbroken chain of apostolic succession from Peter onward (both of which are read into the text), they have not met the exegetical burden that is incumbent upon them.

Neocatholics also err when they proffer that Rome has carved out a unique position in the history of the church. Is Rome really the church, par excellence, dating back to "antiquity"? Despite Neocatholic protestations to the contrary (yes, Neocatholics do "protest" too![11] ), ironically the Catholic view of church history is the view that is truncated since, along with dispensationalism, Catholicism simply assumes that the church sprang up in the first century A.D.[12] A truly Reformed view of church history, though, marks the beginning point of the church far before that first Easter morn. On a truly covenantal view of church history, the church -- the covenant people of God -- did not rush on the scene in the first century A.D. Thus, if Neocatholics really want to appeal to antiquity to justify their faith, then they should be Reformed Protestants. But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of weak Protestant minds, right?

Like a Horse and Carriage: The Role of Tradition

Neocatholics not only appeal to apostolic succession and to the antiquity of the Roman Catholic Church; they also claim that Scripture was never intended to be the believer's sole guide for all of faith and practice, for all that he believes and does. Just as love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so we are told that Scripture and Tradition belong together as well.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Some Neocatholics, for example, claim that Christ left a church, not a book,[13] and that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is illogical because the formation of the canon (i.e. what we recognize as Scripture) was itself a monumental act of the church.[14] Thus, we are told that an infallible Bible requires and presupposes an infallible church.[15]

This argument, though, fails to differentiate between recognition of the divine imprint which already existed in Holy Writ and creation of Holy Writ. The church didn't create Scripture; it simply recognized the divine imprint and authority Scripture already possessed because it was and is the very Word of God.

Courting Disaster
At this point, Neocatholics reason that the church is a necessary guide to the meaning of Scripture. To prove this claim, at least one fairly prominent Neocatholic -- Sheldon Vanauken -- argues that if the Constitution, as a relatively simple human text, needs the Supreme Court as its interpretive guide, then all the more does Scripture need the Catholic Church as its interpretive guide.[16]

The less-than-perfect Supreme Court, though, has often arrogated to itself powers nowhere to be found in the text of the Constitution. When, in fact, the Court has ignored the limits the Constitution has placed upon it, the Court has ended up adding to the text rather than interpreting what the text actually says -- all, mind you, in the name of "interpretation." In law, we call this phenomenon judicial tyranny. What shall we call it in theology?[17]

Let's Be Objective about This
Still other Neocatholics such as William Reichert argue that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads necessarily to an "incipient subjectivism"[18] since without Tradition, each man becomes his own authority and interpreter of Scripture. According to this view, the history of Protestantism is the outworking of this incipient subjectivism.[19]

This argument, though, is riddled with error (objectively speaking, of course!). For starters, it is based on the fallacious assumption that a plurality of interpretations necessarily entails subjectivism, what we shall refer to as the pluralism-is-subjectivism fallacy. Just because there are many interpretations competing in the Protestant marketplace of ideas does not mean that every one of those interpretations is false (or, conversely, that none of those interpretations is true).[20] Much the same can be said, for example, about political pluralism in America today vis-a-vis Christianity. Just because we allow propagandists of all sizes, shapes, and colors the opportunity to offer their wares in the marketplace of ideas, does not mean that they are all false. They can't all be false, since we know that Christianity is true. As Scripture itself declares, "let God be found true, though every man be found a liar" (Rom. 3:4 -- There I go again with that annoying Protestant habit of appealing to Scripture!).

Not only does this argument assume that a plurality of interpretations necessarily leads to an incipient subjectivism, it also assumes that this so-called subjectivism proves the objectivity of Tradition. Even assuming for argument's sake that Protestantism leads to subjectivism, however, Reichert's argument does not prove the objectivity of Tradition. At best, this argument leads to the conclusion that Protestantism involves the subjectivity of the many whereas Catholicism involves the subjectivity of the one (the Pope speaking ex cathedra) or the few (the Magisterium). Thus, this argument begs the crucial question at issue: that Rome is the one and only objective guide to the meaning of Holy Writ.

The upshot of all this is that Reichert erroneously assumes that a plurality of interpretations necessarily entails subjectivism and that such subjectivism proves the objectivity of Tradition.

Authority and Authoritativeness
Even as Reichert attempts to refute the doctrine of Sola Scriptura by arguing that it leads to an incipient subjectivism, so he also argues that Protestants deceive themselves by believing that Scripture is their ultimate authority.[21] According to Reichert:
Authority, in all of our daily experiences, means a person or institution empowered to enforce a rule. Sola scriptura is in a sense a philosophical sleight of hand. A book by its nature can only be authoritative, not an authority.
To prove this distinction, Reichert continues:
Ironically, it was the first pope -- the apostle Peter -- who pointed out the rather obvious fact that Scripture is not necessarily self-explanatory; it can be twisted by the unscrupulous to support any theological position (2 Peter 3:16).[22]
Talk about sleight of hand! This view, like the others we have examined so far, falls by the vast wayside of Neocatholic gibberish. Reichert generates this distinction by attacking a straw man: no right-thinking Protestant believes that the Bible, in a vacuum, is the believer's authority. What Protestants really believe -- unlike the straw man Reichert has attacked -- is that Scripture possesses authority precisely because it is God's Word; that is, only because God Himself vests it with His authority. Thus, the ultimately personal and triune God, who can swear by no one higher than Himself (Heb. 6:3), vouchsafes for the authority of His Word.

Not only does Reichert attack a straw man, he also unabashedly leaps to a conclusion based upon a hasty generalization and anecdotal "evidence." Is it really true that "in all of our daily experiences" the word "authority" means only a person or an institution empowered to enforce a rule? Reichert should know better. As an attorney, his own daily experience betrays his bold rhetoric. Attorneys, for example, quite frequently refer to case law in a given jurisdiction as "binding authority" or to case law from another jurisdiction as "persuasive authority." [23] But attorneys aren't the only ones who speak this way. Philosophers frequently use the word "authority" in a technical way to refer to the ultimate standard of knowledge in a particular worldview, what is known as an epistemological or epistemic authority. Thus, Protestants who speak of Scripture as an authority speak quite accurately since, Scripture, as God's Word, is their epistemological authority -- their standard for all of faith and practice.

Aside from erecting a straw man, and reasoning hastily from anecdotal evidence, Reichert also fatally misunderstands the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. Enter 2 Peter 3:16, where Peter writes that some of the things in the Pauline epistles are not easy to understand. Contrary to Reichert's skewed assumption, the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture doesn't hold that Scripture is always easy to understand. What it does teach is that since God chose to reveal Himself by means of propositional revelation, He has given His people the means of understanding that revelation such that the true believer has no need of anyone else -- let alone a Magisterium or Pope on high -- to teach him. After all, Peter could not speak of Scripture-twisting without first presupposing that there is a correct way to go about interpreting Scripture. And what is the correct way to do so? To take what the alleged first Pope taught on its face? Or to subject even what he taught to the supreme standard of Scripture as did the noble Bereans (Acts 17:11)? Much to Reichert's chagrin, then, this passage nowhere even remotely suggests that Tradition is a necessary or legitimate authority co-equal with Scripture.

While Reichert appeals to irony in an attempt to chide Protestants, he is the one who ironically ends up engaging in sleight of hand. If Roman Tradition is co-equal with Scripture pursuant to Rome's view of twin authorities, then there is no need to appeal to Scripture ostensibly to prove the authority of Tradition. Yet, Neocatholics constantly do so. And that's the real problem: the extent to which anything is put on par with Scripture -- be it human reason, the Book of Mormon, charismatic revelations, or Tradition -- is the extent to which that "other" authority ends up displacing Scripture. And to the extent that Scripture is not self-sufficient and all-sufficient is the extent to which it is rendered futile and unnecessary. It is also the extent to which Scripture disappears. Just say the magic words: "Abracadabra and Ex cathedra!"

From Relishing the Mustard Seed to Seeing Double
Any time you adopt a "Scripture and..." theory, you must also conjure up a companion theory to explain all of those apparent discrepancies between what Scripture says and what your other (read: ultimate) authority says. The same is true with Catholicism no less than with the Mormon faith. Of course, even if Neocatholics realize that many Catholic doctrines cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, mum is the word. Well not exactly mum. How about a mustard seed?

Displaying more exegetical ingenuity than even some Protestant televangelists, Reichert has the answer: the parable of the mustard seed. According to Reichert, the parable of the mustard seed explains why the Catholic church of today doesn't look like the early New Testament church. "The fact that the seed became a tree," reflects Reichert, "does not prove its development was illegitimate."[24] He continues by noting that the

teachings of the Catholic Church could be shown to have developed, slowly but distinctly, from roots going back to apostolic times, and the earliest picture of Church doctrine...did indeed look like a small Catholic tree! (It certainly does not resemble a Protestant seed.) [25]
In other words, everything the Catholic Church teaches today was taught in germinal form in the apostolic era. [26]

Another Neocatholic, Dale Vree, also advances the doctrinal development argument. To raise the ante just a bit, however, Vree doesn't waste his time with mustard seeds. Vree concentrates on what he sees as a global doctrinal development in Scripture: that is, since the Bible itself contains doctrinal development over time, then we should not be surprised to find such development in the Roman Catholic Church.[27] To that end, Vree touts that the God of the Old Testament is a "tribal, vengeful, forbidding, and warlike God while the God of the New Testament is universal, forgiving, loving, and peace loving."[28] And Vree's doublevision-bordering-on-polytheism is supposed to convince us that the trappings of Marian theology, icons, indulgences, purgatory, priestly celibacy, and the rest are justifiable? Is this theology or comedy?

Split Ends

Sometimes Neocatholics argue against Sola Scriptura by appealing to the jumble of Protestant denominations and sects. Sometimes, though, they appeal to Protestant sectarianism as independent proof of the alleged inadequacy of Protestant theology as a whole. Believe it or not, one Neocatholic actually had time to count all of the Protestant denominations and sects, claiming that the grand total is over 25,000![29]

This Neocatholic argument suffers from almost as many flaws as the total number of sects Protestantism has allegedly spawned. For the sake of brevity, we will concern ourselves with only a few of these flaws. Even interpreting this argument in its most charitable light by granting its premise (that there are a huge number of Protestant denominations), the conclusion does not ineluctably follow on the basis of the premise (i.e. that Protestantism is false and Catholicism is true). This argument is a textbook example of a non-sequitur.

But the premise can't get off scot-free either. This entire argument is based on the hidden assumption that because X precedes Y that X was the cause of Y. Just because Protestantism (and Sola Scriptura) preceded rampant sectarianism doesn't prove that the former caused the latter, especially since many of the "Protestant" sects don't adhere to Sola Scriptura in the first place. In fact, many of them have an authority structure more similar to Catholicism ("Scripture and...") than to Protestantism (Sola Scriptura), albeit with a different "pope" and "magisterium."

And just when Neocatholics thought it was safe to bash Protestantism again, they get pulled under the water by the jaws of their own rhetoric. Rearing its ugly head one more time is the pluralism-is-subjectivism fallacy. Just because there are many Protestant denominations and sects does not prove that all of those denominations and sects are false. Nor does it necessarily prove that Rome is true. Thus, while plurality is not necessarily an indicator of falsity, uniformity is not necessarily an indicator of truth.

Perhaps most fallaciously, though, this argument assumes that institutional unity is a virtue in and of itself. But there is another Biblical dynamic Neocatholics should consider: truth (or doctrinal purity). The simple fact of the matter is that truth sometimes divides. And that division is not necessarily to be eschewed. After all, didn't the real Head of the church once say that He came not to bring peace but a sword? Truth, you see, is not to be sacrificed on the altar of misguided ecumenicism.

Liturgical Longings

While high church liturgy, is a common feature of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, as well as most Anglican and Lutheran churches, it also separates Roman Catholics & Co. from most of their Reformed and Evangelical Protestant counterparts. In Evangelical Is Not Enough, Howard claims that evangelicalism has terribly missed out on something special by rejecting liturgy.[30] Neocatholics pick up this ball and run with it, contending that Protestantism has missed out on the fullness and richness of high church liturgy, and in particular, the glory of the Mass and the Eucharist.

Mass Hysteria

By extolling the splendor of Roman Catholic liturgy, Howard isn't referring to ceremonial dazzle. Rather, he refers to the "vision" of the Roman Catholic Church. Describing this vision, Howard writes:
It is immense. It is full of glory. It is unsupportedly bright. But not only this: it is present in the Mass. ... But it is only in the liturgy...that the whole drama is unfurled and the scrim of temporality is pierced, and we begin to see both the abyss and the Sapphire Throne. It is very hard to keep this vision alive in nonliturgical worship.[31]
According to Howard, there is an ineffable sublimity and a sheer plenitude which animates the Mass.[32]

Why are Neocatholics like Howard drawn to appreciate liturgy? For some, it is the kind of worship with which they have grown up. Reichert, for example, explains that when he became an evangelical, he was surprised by "the lack of anything [he] recognized as liturgy" [33] from his childhood. He actually became home-sick for liturgical worship. Of course, it almost goes without saying that just because we are accustomed to something, just because we have a fondness for something, or just because we may long for the good ol' days, doesn't mean that what we are accustomed to, fond of, or long for is necessarily right.

Still another reason why Neocatholics are drawn to liturgy is that the liturgy, for the most part, is the same no matter which Catholic church a parishioner attends. The Catholic can worship at most any Catholic Church and discover there basically the same order of worship, the same symbolism, and the same ritual. Crudely analogous is the joy and delight weary road travelers experience when they spot the golden arches, since they know that the Big Macs will always taste the same! Sameness, however, is no guarantor of propriety. After all, something can be the same and yet be erroneous, in which case it would simply be the same old error uniformly committed.

While some Neocatholics weaned themselves away from liturgy during their evangelical years, only to discover how much they really missed it, and others are attracted to the sameness of the Mass, still others are drawn to the Mass because they have developed a cultured appreciation for the symbolism and beauty of liturgical worship. It would be mistaken, however, to think that aesthetic appreciation is the only reason why liturgy appeals to some Neocatholics. Not all Catholic liturgy resembles Easter morning Mass at St. Peter's basilica. One Neocatholic humorously made this point by claiming that those who think all Masses imbue an equal sense of aesthetic satisfaction obviously haven't been to the local Catholic church![34] A point well-taken. But whether the Mass resembles Easter morn at St. Peter's basilica or not, the real question is whether the Mass accords with what God has commanded His people in Scripture regarding how they are to approach Him in worship. Besides, as we have already noted, liturgy is not unique to Rome.

Some Neocatholics also see in the Mass the opportunity to worship God emotionally as well as intellectually. After describing how he was immeasurably influenced by C.S. Lewis' "rational approach" to Christianity, where faith and reason are not antithetical to one another, Floyd Newman has written that the Mass provided an opportunity to blend heart and mind. He continues by noting:

When I applied this reasoning [Lewis' notion that faith and reason are not antithetical] to Catholicism, I began to see the appropriateness of liturgical worship with its ceremony and ritual. The Catholic Church became more attractive.[35]
But does Newman's conclusion follow from his premise? Even granting the premise that faith and reason, on Lewis' view, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, this reasoning does not uniquely favor Roman Catholic liturgy. To be sure, Newman doesn't base his conversion entirely upon his attraction to the Mass. But this argument, even if it is only one arrow in Newman's quiver, is still unsound.

Saved by the Bell

The Mass and the Eucharist really can't be separated since the latter is the central act -- the climax -- of the former. Scott Hahn links the Mass to the Eucharist by telling how he attended a noontime Mass and saw the religious devotion of rank-and-file workers, with their heads bowed and their hearts stirring.[36] After regularly attending Mass, he recalls that the Eucharist became the all-controlling, essential pursuit of his life.[37]

As with the attraction to the Mass in general, so there are many reasons why Neocatholics are drawn to the Eucharist in particular -- why they embrace transubstantiation and believe that at the sound of the bell, the substance of bread and wine turn into the physical body and blood of our Lord.

One Neocatholic, for example, claims that it was impossible for him to get along without the Eucharist since he would get homesick apart from it.[38] Hahn claims that he was attracted to the regularity of the Eucharist as over and against most Protestant churches which, on the whole, have communion only a few times each year. Not every Protestant church, though, partakes quite so infrequently. There are, in fact, Protestant churches which partake of the Lord's supper weekly. So what's the real reason why Neocatholics are drawn to Catholicism through the Eucharist?

Many Neocatholics claim that Scripture itself teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John.[39] Protestants are literalists elsewhere, Neocatholics clamor, except when it comes to interpreting Christ's words about being the bread of life, about eating His flesh and drinking his blood.

As with other Neocatholic arguments we have examined so far, this one, even if true, does not prove that Roman Catholicism, as a whole, is true. A part is no substitute for the whole. This literalist argument also equivocates between the belief that Scripture is literally true and the literal interpretation of Scripture. While Protestants believe that Scripture is literally true, they quite correctly disavow the notion that Scripture is always to be interpreted literally. Right-thinking Protestants, unlike the straw men Neocatholics prop up, believe that Scripture, like any work of literature, must be interpreted in light of its local context (including its literary, historical, grammatical, and logical contexts), as well as in light of the broader context of Scripture as a whole (i.e. what parallel passages teach). The sixth chapter of John is no exception.

All That Glimmers

Love at First Sight

High steeples. Glorious columns. Stained glass windows. No doubt these are beautiful things to behold. Not surprising, then, many Neocatholics describe how they were drawn to the richness of Catholic symbolism expressed in the architectural beauty of Catholic churches. Howard, for example, describes how, when only a sniveling twelve year old boy, he stumbled into a dark building lit only by a "religious light" streaming through the stained glass windows.[40] It wasn't until later in life, that Howard realized the full impact of this childhood event.

But Howard is not the only Neocatholic who was awestruck by the beauty and symbolism of Roman Catholic churches. Vree, while in high school, also "wandered into Catholic churches a couple of times" and learned the following lesson:

We Protestants correctly talked about our church building as `God's house,' but our church interiors resembled auditoriums, whereas I was immediately struck by a different ambience inside Catholic churches: there was a permeating `divine presence' (even when no worship was in progress).[41]
Vree then exclaims that the candlelight, kneeling saints, statues, and wonderful altar colors excited his primitive sense of worship.[42]

Whereas Howard was a young boy and Vree was an adolescent when they each stumbled into a Roman Catholic church, yet other Neocatholics such as Dan O'Neill and Reichert fell in love with the beauty of Roman Catholic churches as full-fledged adults.[43] Reichert, for example, recalls sitting in a Catholic chapel in Europe where he became entranced by Gregorian chants and thought that he must have been "listening to angelic conversation."[44]

A Slightly Different Twist

While the melody is the basically the same, some Neocatholic accounts vary the chorus just a bit.
Away in the Manger
Glenwood Davis, Jr., relates how he derived a sense of religious inspiration from the nativity scene his father set up each year during the Christmas season.[45] Ever the inquisitive youth, Davis noticed that passersby gazed intently -- almost worshipfully -- at this nativity scene, leading him to conclude retrospectively that he could "sense something other-worldly" in this nativity scene. What made it all come together for Davis? Let him explain:
I happened to walk into the local Catholic church, and although I didn't understand everything I saw and heard, the blessedness I sensed at my father's nativity scene seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the building.[46]
The Twilight Zone
At least two other Neocatholics inform us how they literally became enlightened while visiting a local Catholic church. Jim Forest, for instance, relays the following account:
One afternoon when I was praying in the chapel, I felt as if I were in a river of light. Opening my eyes, I found that indeed I was. Light of a deep golden color was pouring through the lancet of the window over the Mary altar on the right side of the church, and I was in the center of its narrow path. I closed my eyes and enjoyed being bathed in light.[47]
Forest recounts that when he searched for a rational explanation, he could find none (since it was overcast), thus leading to the implied conclusion that this was a miracle verifying the truth of Catholicism.

On a somewhat less miraculous note, another Neocatholic recalls that when he was in a Catholic church one day, his

attention became fixed on a very simple statue of the Virgin on the left side of the church. I enjoyed watching the candlelight flit across her wooden surface.... I was captivated by the whole scene -- bright green vestments, stone altar, priestly apparatus, of chalice, paten, and sacramentary, the bread, the wine.[48]
While we may want to share the tingles of Neocatholics who relay their love at first sight, away in a manger, and twilight zone accounts, we should step back for a moment and reflect further upon them. It is true that Protestants need to learn that worshipping God is something which involves their entire being. And Protestants also need to learn that symbolism is, in a sense, inescapable. But such love at first sight, away in the manger, and twilight zone accounts do not prove that Catholicism is true. Nor do they prove that Protestantism is false. After all, the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on beauty or symbolism. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican and Episcopalian churches, and the Lutheran Church, just to name a few, are also saturated with much of the same kind of beauty and symbolism. Even Reichert himself tells of how he had a twilight zone experience while visiting a Lutheran church where light entered through a stained glass window and shimmered on the communion wine, conveying something almost mystical.[49] Hence, beauty and symbolism (not to mention light pouring through stained glass windows) are not unique to Rome.

Moreover, for every Neocatholic who tingles when he walked into a Catholic cathedral, church, or chapel, there is a Reformed Protestant who rejoices in the regulative principle of worship and the symbolism of true worship by relying upon the graces God has provided in His Word and in the sacraments of baptism and communion. Even one Neocatholic, who expected to see a miniature St. Patrick's Cathedral, was impressed when, still a Protestant, he found a Roman Catholic Church of "shocking simplicity" with "none of the creepy-mysterious atmosphere that had both repelled and allured me on previous excursions into Catholic churches." [50]

In passing we must also note that lavish churches, while architecturally and aesthetically pleasing to some, come with a hefty price tag. True enough, Protestants who live in glass houses -- like Rev. Schuller in his Crystal Cathedral -- shouldn't throw stones. But advancing the kingdom of God and meeting the needs of others often compete for the same limited resources. Ironically, it is some of the more socially liberal Neocatholics -- like Vree -- who seem most enthralled with such lavishness as long as it's inside a Roman Catholic Church!

Lean to the Left

Whatever else can be said of Neocatholics, one Neocatholic himself has written that "[o]n the whole they seem to be socially liberal, yet theologically conservative in outlook...."[51] Another Neocatholic dresses the same point in slightly different garb by distinguishing between evangelicals who have spirituality without social concern and theological liberals who have social concern without spirituality. Only the Catholic Church, we are told, has both.[52] Still other Neocatholics speak of the need for "Christian social action",[53] tout the "social conscience" of the Catholic Church,[54] or advocate "proletarian consciousness".[55] Neocatholics who lean to the left thus see in Rome the opportunity to be switch hitters, the opportunity to be "socially Left, theological[ly] Right."[56]

To be sure, many evangelicals bat from the right side of the plate: they are theologically and politically conservative. In fact, they often arrive at their conservative political conclusions by adopting patently non-Christian premises. And worse yet, since ideas have consequences, many evangelicals have failed to exercise Christian charity and compassion in addressing various social ills such as poverty and homelessness. But that is a far cry from swallowing leftist utopianism whole hog.

Many Neocatholics, though, are still gulping. But while they rightly fault their evangelical counterparts for buying into the non-Christian aspects of their political conservatism, Neocatholics themselves often buy into the non-Christian aspects of political leftism. Their leftism, to be quite blunt, is often born of an unparalleled theological naivete. Vree, for example, contrasts what he sees as the social implications of Calvinism (which, according to Vree, focuses on individual pursuit of prosperity) with Catholic "proletarian consciousness" (which focuses on struggling together for a better world).[57]

While Calvinism sanctions private property and godly stewardship, the Calvinist view of industriousness (i.e. an aspect of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers,[58] sometimes known as the Protestant work ethic) is no more responsible for the abuses of capitalism than is the Calvinist view of Christian liberty responsible for alcoholism. The one simply does not entail the other. To boot, Vree also bespeaks a profound ignorance of the covenantal -- community -- nature of true Calvinist theology which eschews the radical individualism he attempts to eviscerate. Thus, Calvinism is not inherently individualistic, let alone individualistic in its pursuit of prosperity.

Far worse than attributing the abuses of capitalism to Calvinist theology, Vree's leftism is ultimately based on a mistaken theological premise: that God has a "preferential love for the poor." [59] Scripture, however, informs us that God is no respecter of persons. As such, true Christianity refuses to romanticize either wealth or poverty (Prov. 30:8-9). A consistently Christian worldview should agree with political conservatism and liberalism only to the extent that such political views are Christian. And this spins us around, just one more time, to the intractable question of authority.

The English Channel

While political leanings heavily influenced some Neocatholics to jump ship, cultural connections have caused them to swim across the channel -- what Vanauken refers to as the English channel.[60] Emphasizing the cultural influence of Anglicanism, Cardinal John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century Anglican convert to Catholicism, once astutely observed that Anglicanism is neither "a system of religion nor a body of truth but a feeling, a tradition, its roots intertwined with associations of national history and of family life."[61] "You do not learn it," he continued, "you grow into it; you do not forget it, you grow out of it."[62]

One convert to Catholicism from the ranks of the Eastern Orthodox clergy, continues much in the same vein by noting that Anglicanism is "a kind of national spirit....Its state connection molded Anglicanism into a national religion intended to encompass every Englishman's private search for God."[63]

To understand why some Anglicans seem more disposed to Rome as opposed to Wittenberg or Geneva, it is important to note that while the Anglican Church was at one time heavily influenced by Lutheran and Calvinistic thought (and in some cases still is), the Oxford Movement of the early nineteenth century, led by Newman, revived the Anglican Church's Catholic heritage in many instances. Those who longed for this Catholic heritage, quite naturally, either already viewed or came to view the split with Rome not as a boast but as a tragedy. For them, the Anglican church was the via media, the half-way house, between the Catholic heritage they longed for and the English culture they lived and breathed.

Given Anglicanism's cultural milieu and its theological heritage, it both surprising and unsurprising, that many Anglicans, including Anglophiles like Howard and Vanauken, have found their way across the English channel. While Anglican churches sympathetic with Rome offered a distinctively British worship, they nonetheless served as a primer on many Catholic distinctives. But true Brits who find themselves attracted to the distinctively British character of Anglican music, prose, liturgy, architecture and hymnody are not the only ones who have swum across the English channel. Much the same can be said of non-Brits as well, many of whom were members of Episcopalian churches in America. To use a slightly different metaphor, Anglicanism, in a very real way, has served as training wheels helping to stabilize quite a few Neocatholics on their road to Rome. Cultural influence aside, what really caused both true-Brit and non-Brit Neocatholics to turn to Rome, though, was their antipathy for Anglicanism's "different theology," that is, the "neo-modernist" tendency in Anglican theology which forsook the Book of Common Prayer, defended the ordination of women, and approved divorce, abortion, and homosex (including the ordination of those who commit homosex). Rather appropriately, Vanauken observes that he did not leave the Anglican Church; the Anglican church left him.[64]

We heartily applaud those who parted ways with the neo-modernist "different theology" of Anglicanism. But as with so many of the Neocatholic arguments we have already seen, this argument does not tip the scale in the direction of Rome.


Aside from the many reasons evaluated above, Neocatholics offer a hodge-podge of other reasons for converting to Rome.

Getting Poped

While Vanauken jocularly refers to the Protestant-to-Catholic conversion process as getting "poped,"[65] many such converts, including Vanauken, express the deepest admiration for the current pontiff, Pope John Paul II, claiming that he is one of the reasons why many Neocatholics have converted to Rome. In a private letter to a Protestant-about-to-be-Catholic, Vanauken pontificates (a little papal humor never hurt anybody) that "since John Paul II mounted the chair of Peter, the tide is setting strongly toward Rome. I hear of conversions on every hand."[66]

Beating the papal drum further, Vanauken has elsewhere written that "[t]he joyful radiance of John Paul II's appearance among us [gave] this sheep [Vanauken] intimations, however faint, of what the second coming might be like."[67] Not able to contain himself, Vanauken calls the current pope the "white knight of Christianity", and argues that his election actually proves the Holy Spirit's continued guidance of the Roman Catholic Church.[68]

Vanauken does not stand alone in claiming that Pope John Paul II is one of the main reasons why many Neocatholics have converted. Elena Vree has written that

[t]he event that brought me to the realization that I should become a Roman Catholic was the election of the current pope....If the Holy Spirit could move the College of Cardinals to elect this man to the papacy, then the Holy Spirit, through the Pope, could energize me and stir me from my complacency and move me into action. This is the man who symbolizes the persecuted Church.[69]
After thus extolling the current Pope, Elena Vree writes that when John Paul II allowed Anglo-Catholic, Episcopalian, and Eastern Orthodox priests who were already married to become Roman Catholic priests, she had no reason to wait to become a Roman Catholic.[70]

Appeal to the Masses

Vanauken not only appeals to the one (the Pope), he also appeals to the many -- the masses -- by claiming that Catholics outnumber Protestants by at least two to one.[71] More generically, former Christian rock star-turned-Franciscan monk, John Michael Talbot, claims that there "is no larger unified group of professing Christians on the face of the earth" than Catholics.[72] While arguments appealing to the masses are quite frequent in Neocatholic literature, such arguments just don't add up.

At absolute best, appealing to the masses is an argumentum ad populum -- appealing to the people to determine the truth. Such appeals are dangerous if for no other reason than that public opinion polls are no indicator of truth. Before you jump aboard the Neocatholic bandwagon, consider the form of this argument which basically holds that if more people believe X as opposed to Y, then X must be true and Y must be false. On that reasoning, Christianity would be false since approximately two-thirds of the world's population is non-Christian!

Beyond embarrassing themselves with such elementary blunders, Neocatholics who appeal to the masses also assume that they are comparing apples with apples when they are really comparing apples with oranges. Were they to read the small print in the almanac charts they banter about so freely, they would see that the number of Roman Catholics worldwide includes infants whereas the number of Protestants generally includes only "adult" members.[73] The point in dispute is not whether children should be counted as part of God's family. The point is that you can't make a meaningful statistical comparison between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches, since the Roman Catholic Church includes under its umbrella many who have no affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church today, whereas the Protestant church figures generally account only for those who have such present affiliations!

A Miraculous Thing Happened to Me

When we examined the love at first sight and twilight zone accounts above, we saw that a few Neocatholics claimed to have experienced miraculous or near-miraculous appearances of light, either pouring through stained glass windows or beaming on statues of Mary. [74] Stranger things have happened. One Neocatholic, for instance, claims that God personally confirmed the truth of Catholicism to him and communicated to him the role he was to play in the Roman Catholic Church.[75] My personal favorite, though, was the cameo appearance of Joan of Arc who appeared to one Protestant-about-to-be-Catholic in a dream and exclaimed "I never expected you to be here [Rome]."[76]

Wake up! For every Catholic that claims to have been bathed in light, experienced divine extra-biblical revelation, or dreamed a little dream of Rome, there are hundreds if not thousands of Pentecostal or Charismatic Protestants who would claim to have had even more dramatic experiences. Both Protestants and Catholics who appeal to the ethereal realm need to realize that "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 1:14), as evidenced from the fact that even pagan animistic cults claim guidance from similar "revelations." We need to build our houses on a firmer foundation, which, of course, means that the Catholic and the Protestant, once again, must decide what serves as the ultimate foundation of their respective faith-systems. In other words, they must answer the intractable question of authority.

Name Dropping

Howard has written that if he said "no" to Rome, he would have to reckon with the likes of "Augustine and Bede and Gregory and Aquinas and Erasmus and Thomas More and Ignatius and Bellarmine and Bossuet and Suarez and Newman and Chesterton and Knox for starters...." [77] Then he quickly adds that doing so would make him nervous.[78] While many of these names head the list, still other Neocatholics appeal to other influential Catholic scholars or authors such as Day, Derrick, Greene, Howard, Jurgin, Keating, Kreeft, Merton, Sheed, Shrack, Waughn, and others.

The only problem with the name dropping argument is that it cuts both ways. Protestants, in fact, can "see" the Neocatholic ante and "raise it". Just consider those who brilliantly carried the Protestant torch such as Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Goodwin, Owen, Perkins, Sibbes, Ames, Chemnitz, Dabney, Thornwell, Spurgeon, the Hodges, Warfield, Young, Wilson, Machen, Murray, Berkhof, and Van Til.

But do names really matter? What really matters is whether the message these theological greats heralded is true. And that spins us right around -- again -- to answering the intractable question of authority. You see, Neocatholics have to name drop because name dropping is built into their ultimate authority (Tradition). When all of their rhetorical dust settles to the ground, however, the only true authority left standing is God speaking to His people through His veritable Word.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Sadly, some distorted versions of Protestantism soured many Neocatholics, particularly when it comes to the ever-infamous list of Fundamentalist taboos. One Neocatholic, for example, came to abhor the notion of "a deity who hated movies, cards, and dancing, a cruel being who held out the offer of heaven much like a carrot on a stick for a stubborn mule."[79] Quite correctly, Neocatholics criticize Fundamentalist legalism for failing to recognize the goodness of God's creation and the liberty that is ours in Christ.[80]

The problem with appealing to the distortions of Fundamentalist taboos is that such an appeal doesn't prove Protestantism, as a whole, to be defunct. Nor does it prove Catholicism to be true. In other words, you don't need to become a Catholic to overcome Fundamentalist legalism. Reformed Protestants have been perhaps the greatest champions of Christian liberty, teaching that Christians are free to enjoy all things that God doesn't forbid in Scripture (i.e. as long as they do so within the limits that God has prescribed in Scripture). This goes for drinking and dancing as well as music and movies and a host of other activities. So this is actually an area where Reformed Protestants and Catholics agree, albeit formally.


One reason, but certainly by no means the primary reason, many Neocatholics turn to Rome is the at-homeness they feel with Catholicism. For them, Rome is their final resting place, a place where they claim to have achieved a sense of cognitive rest. Longing to come home to this place of cognitive rest, one leading Neocatholic reminisces about a moment of deep personal crisis when he wanted to become a Catholic, despite the fact that he had previously decided to wait for several more months before converting.[81] During this time of deep soul-searching, he felt a divine nudge, an internal sense of God saying "What do you want?" to which he answered, "That's easy, I want to get home...."[82] And getting home to the alleged truth of Catholicism is, in a sense, what Neocatholicism is all about: not only getting home, but attempting to help other Protestants do the same.

In this article, we have had an opportunity to travel alongside a handful of Protestants who claim to have found their home in Rome, to see exactly why they have gone home to Rome. Summing up why he was Romeward bound, one Neocatholic simply exclaims that he fell in love with everything Rome had to offer:

When asked what attracted me to Catholicism, I cannot say, for it wasn't something it was everything. The art, the architecture, its antiquity, the beauty of the liturgy...the social conscience of the Church, its prophetic role in our modern world, the lives of the saints, the mystery, the presence of Christ, the sheer universality -- I was falling in love -- and perfect love casts out all fear, if not all apprehension.[83]
Falling in love with everything Rome has to offer is ultimately why Neocatholics have found their home in Rome. Perhaps after travelling part of the way down the yellow brick road of Neocatholic rhetoric, we are now in a better position to "give an answer" -- in an introductory way, to be sure -- to those who are considering making their home in Rome and even to those who are already there. After all, even Dorothy, with the blink of an eye, realized that her adventure in the land of Oz was only a dream.


[1] O'Neill, Dan, editor, "Introduction," The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), p. xi.

[2] Ibid., p. xii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vanauken, Sheldon, "The English Channel: Between

Canterbury and Rome," Ibid., p. 138.

[5] I take "Neocatholics" to be those, like Neoconservatives, who have abandoned their previous heritage.

[6] O'Neill, New Catholics, p. xii; Vitz, Paul C., "A Christian Odyssey," Spiritual Journeys Toward the Fullness of Faith, (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1988), p. 390.

[7] The reasons evaluated in this article are not organized in any particular order (e.g. ascending or descending frequency). Also while this study addresses one reason at a time, some reasons seem to dovetail into still other reasons, creating almost a seamless web of sorts in defense of Rome. For the sake of analytical clarity, though, this study separates such reasons and analyzes each in turn.

[8] See, for example, Reichert, Charles, "I Will Be Where Peter Is," This Rock, January 1990, pp. 12-13.

[9] Case, Thomas W., "The Real Thing," New Catholics, p. 121.

[10] Ibid.

[11] While Neocatholics contend that they became tired of protesting as protestants, this contention is flawed in that it incorrectly and uncharitably assumes that Protestantism was and is exclusively concerned with negatively protesting against Roman abuses and falsities instead of positively promoting unadulterated truth. This contention also collapses under its own weight since many Neocatholics are just as anti-Protestant as they accuse Protestants of being anti-Catholic. Even one Neocatholic apportions some of the blame on his fellow Catholics by noting: "I was dismayed with Catholic attitudes toward non-Catholics just as much as I had been put off by anti-Catholicism among Protestants" -- Forest, Jim, "Coming to Know the Mercy of God," New Catholics, p. 26.

[12] In at least this one respect, Catholicism is one step ahead of dispensationalism, since at least Catholicism doesn't adhere to what I refer to as the "grammar" theory of church history -- that the church age is merely a parenthesis in history. Is it any wonder why Catholics find so much editorial fodder in such strained versions of Protestantism?

[13] Talbot, New Catholics, pp. 84-85; Vree, Dale, "A Less Traveled Road to Rome," Ibid., p. 54.

[14] Matatics, Gerry, "A Conversion Story," (audio cassette), (West Covina: Saint Joseph Communications, Inc., 1990).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Vanauken, New Catholics, p. 128; and "Encounter with Light," Spiritual Journeys, p. 360.

[17] Vanauken's analogy is flawed in other respects as well perhaps the most significant of which is the fact that the analogy begs the crucial question in dispute: that Tradition is a necessary and legitimate authority co-equal with Scripture.

[18] Reichert, "Where Peter Is." p. 8.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Nor does this Neocatholic argument prove the Roman view to be true.

[21] Reichert, "Where Peter Is," p. 9 (where Reichert refers to Sola Scriptura as a deceptive banner and accuses the Reformers of "sleight of hand").

[22] Ibid.

[23] Of course, to salvage this now-defunct argument, Reichert may contend that attorneys use the word "authority" elliptically, but to admit such is to disprove his universal generalization.

[24] Reichert, "Where Peter Is," pp. 11-12.

[25] Ibid, p. 12.

[26] Matatics, "Conversion Story."

[27] Vree, New Catholics, p. 55.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Vree, Ibid., pp. 56, 59. For other Neocatholics who attempt to refute Protestantism based on the number of Protestant sects, see also Talbot, Vanauken, and Reichert, Ibid., pp. 9, 82, 128, 131.

[30] Howard, Thomas, Evangelical Is Not Enough, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990).

[31] Howard, New Catholics, pp. 96-97.

[32] Ibid., p. 97.

[33] Reichert, "Where Peter Is," p. 7.

[34] Hudson, Deal, "Baptist Preacher Becomes Catholic," (audio cassette) (West Covina: St. Joseph Communications, Inc., n.d.).

[35] Newman, Floyd I. Jr., "The Search for a Shepherd (Jeremiah 23:4)," New Catholics, p. 146.

[36] Hahn, Scott, "Protestant Minister Becomes Catholic," (audio cassette) (West Covina: Saint Joseph Communications, Inc., n.d.). Even granting Hahn a modicum of literary license, how could he really tell whether or not their hearts were stirring?

[37] Ibid.

[38] Forest, New Catholics p. 22.

[39] O'Neill, Ibid., p. 179; Hahn, "Protestant Minister"; Matatics "Conversion Story."

[40] Howard, Evangelical, p. 22.

[41] Vree, New Catholics, p. 50.

[42] Ibid.

[43] O'Neill, Ibid., p. 178; and Reichert, "Where Peter Is," pp. 6-7. Both Vree and Reichert refer to "falling in love."

[44] Reichert, Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[45] Davis, Glenwood, "Leaving the Fundamentalist Wilderness," This Rock, May 1990, p. 14.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Forest, Jim, "Coming to Know the Mercy of God," New Catholics, p. 22.

[48] Weiskel, Peter K., "Drawn to the Sacramental Mysteries," Ibid., p. 73.

[49] Reichert, "Where Peter Is," p. 7.

[50] Thompson, James J. Jr, "A Wink of Heaven," New Catholics, p. 48.

[51] O'Neill, "Introduction," Ibid., p. xi.

[52] Weiskel, Peter, K., "Drawn to the Sacramental Mysteries," Ibid., p. 74.

[53] Talbot, John Michael, "On Becoming a Radical for Christ," Ibid., p. 87.

[54] O'Neill, Dan, "The Pearl of Great Price: My Search for the Church," Ibid., p. 178.

[55] Vree, Dale, "A Less Traveled Road to Rome," Ibid., pp. 50

[56] Ibid., p. 60

[57] Ibid., p. 51.

[58] See, Hagopian, David, "Trading Places: The Priesthood of All Believers," Antithesis, May/June, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 40-41.

[59] Vree, New Catholics, p. 51.

[60] Vanauken, Ibid., pp. 122-143.

[61] Newman, John Henry, quoted in Vanauken, Ibid., p. 135.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Parker, James, "A Married Catholic Priest?" Ibid., p. 170.

[64] Vanauken, Ibid., p. 127.

[65] Vanauken, Ibid., p. 138.

[66] Vanauken, quoted in F. Newman, Ibid., p. 151.

[67] Vanauken, Ibid., p. 128.

[68] Ibid. For a similar argument, see Hitchcock, Helen Hull, "With God's Help," Spiritual Journeys, p. 149.

[69] Vree, Elena M. "Home at Last," New Catholics, p. 69.

[70] Ibid. See also Parker, James, "A Married Catholic Priest?" Ibid., pp. 169-172 (Eastern Orthodox convert to Rome); and Rubin, Jeffrey, "Crooked Lines," Spiritual Journeys, p. 329 (Jewish convert to Rome).

[71] Vanauken, New Catholics, p. 123: "What of the mere existence of the Catholic--the Universal--Church, twice as large as the splinters of Protestantism put together?"

[72] Talbot, Ibid., p. 86.

[73] Hoffman, Mark, editor, The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1990 ed. (New York: Pharos Books, Scripps Howard Co., 1989), p. 610. The small prints goes as follows: "Comparisons of membership statistics from group to group are not necessarily meaningful. Membership definitions vary -- e.g. Roman Catholics count members from infancy, but some Protestant groups count only adult members, usually 13 years or older; some groups compile data carefully, but others estimate; not all groups report annually."

[74] Howard, Evangelical, pp. 21-22; Forest, New Catholics, p. 22; Weiskel, Ibid., p. 73; Reichert, "Where Peter Is," p. 7.

[75] Talbot, New Catholics, p. 85.

[76] Case, "The Real Thing," Ibid., p. 121. For additional accounts of dreams and/or visions, see Livingston, Judith Bane, "The Wonderful Ways of the Lord," Spiritual Journeys, pp. 218-219, 226; Vitz, Evelyn Birge, "My Path to Rome,"Ibid., p. 373; and Vitz, Paul C., Ibid., pp. 391-92.

[77] Howard, New Catholics, p. 94.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Davis, "Fundamentalist Wilderness," p. 16.

[80] Freeman, Spiritual Journeys, pp. 90-91; Hudson, "Baptist Preacher."

[81] Hahn, "Protestant Minister."

[82] Ibid.

[83] O'Neill, New Catholics, p. 178.

David Hagopian, B.A., J.D., is an attorney with a leading Los Angeles-based law firm and a senior editor of Antithesis.
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