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ADDENDUM: Why I Left Protestantism for Catholicism

Jeffrey A. Tucker

I am no fan of "conversion" essays, which are sometimes pompous and self-serving. My purpose is to achieve a greater spirit of mutual respect. How rare are Protestant conversions to Catholicism? More rare than reverse, but I know enough cases, including my own, to make the subject worth exploring.

J.I. Packer recently wrote in Christianity Today (May 1989) that the contrast between the "zany wildness" of Protestantism and the "at-homeness" of Catholicism alone is sufficient to explain conversions to Catholicism. It is the only Church that can, and does, claim institutional continuity from the time of Christ to the present. He contrasts the "at home" motive with a more genuine longing for the truth.

But the Road to Rome is a long one, and, I submit, the choice between instability and continuity, sectarianism and universality, is not a sufficient reason for conversion. The Christian ought to be willing to be a minority of one if the truth is at stake.

It is precisely the conviction of truth that led to my conversion to Catholicism. I wrote Rev. Packer that "My conversion to Catholicism was motivated by more than a feeling of 'at-homeness.' God makes us feel at home when we have a sincere conviction of truth. There is no dichotomy between the two, as you suggested. Truth is what I sought when God led me to Rome....My plea is for you to take my conversion, and others like mine, seriously."


Catholic and Reformed theological discussion has matured since the Reformation, when neither side was immune from using smear tactics to score debating points. Today the inflammatory rhetoric is largely gone, yet fundamental misunderstandings persist. My own anti-Catholicism was partly a product of ethnic prejudice, growing up, as I did, as a Southern Baptist in a largely Hispanic town in West Texas. It took years before I could look at Catholicism as more than a hypocritical, anti-scriptural, even anti-Christian cult.

The Baptist culture of my childhood treated Christianity as a wholly individualized phenomenon. No man was to exercise authority over any other, in the affairs of the church, or, more importantly, in the understanding of doctrine. There was no discussion of history, councils, creeds, saints, martyrs, or controversies. I don't think my experience was far from typical. Even in the "good-old days" when every family attended Wednesday night prayer meeting such instruction was absent. The Bible -- one's subjective interpretations of it -- was all that was necessary for individualized Christianity.

My high-school conversion to Presbyterian Church moderated my anti-Catholicism. I began to understand, for the first time, the significance of the creeds, of Church government, of liturgy (however loosely defined). But the most important thing being a Presbyterian did for me was to alert me to the meaning of Christian history. It was the overwhelming weight of 2000 years of history that finally convinced me of the truth of Catholicism.

The Devil Theory of History

Presbyterians do not want to tear themselves away from church history, but rather want to be part of God's eternal covenant with His people, from its inception to eternity. At my Orthodox Presbyterian Church, we read the words of the great Reformers with respect and even veneration. We discussed their theological views. We tried to imitate their liturgical styles. All of this is important; it helps in the maturation process. Even though Presbyterians endorse the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura (formed in opposition to Rome), they recognize that the Church has a teaching role and that pious individuals in Church history have a level of understanding that supersedes most of our own. Individual faith and conscience are the final guides, of course, but our primary earthly allegiance must be to the teaching authority of the Church.

But there was still something missing from Presbyterianism for me. It seemed to concentrate too heavily on post-Reformation Church history, and the first 1500 years of Christianity received scant attention. Do these years offer us anything that will enhance our understanding of Christianity? One easy way to answer this question is to adopt the Devil Theory of History, which says the history of the Church is the story of corruption. The way to sound doctrine is to adopt the views of the Persecuted simply because they stand against Rome. The result of this view is intolerable: heresy becomes orthodoxy and anybody who shouts "to hell with the Pope" gets a hearing.

The Devil Theory collapses on the most superficial analysis. Christians justifiably take pride in their heritage, yet the Catholic Church was the only Christian Church for at least 1500 years (leaving aside the 11th century Orthodox break). Why would Christ have allowed his Church to wallow in the mire of falsehood and heresy for so long? What kind of witness would that have provided to the world? If Christ did indeed establish a Church, wouldn't He have providentially protected her from significant error?

Partial Corruption?

An alternative view is to see the Church as only partially corrupt. As I understand it, this is the Presbyterian position (the new one; not the traditional). But given the Church's own historical claims of authenticity, authority, and infallibility, this view is difficult to sustain. One cannot have it both ways: the Church was either in Christ's hands (as she claimed) or she was the anti-Christ by virtue of making such claims.

One can selectively draw from pre-Reformation doctrine and expunge from it its pro-Papacy statements. For example, Reformed thinkers are famous for quoting St. Augustine in support of predestination and election. But rarely quoted is St. Augustine's view of the Church, which anticipates ultramontanism (an extreme position on papal authority).

Yet the partial corruption thesis collapses from internal contradictions. Christendom's greatest thinkers and the most pious saints were also devoted to the Church as a divinely protected institution: its catholicity, apostilicity, infallibility, and sacraments. It is anomalous to claim the authority of a saint like Augustine without mentioning his views on the Church. It's like discussing the development of a child without mentioning the mother's role in nurturing, sustaining, and reinforcing the maturation process.

Presbyterians must decide if they were ever part of the universal Church of Catholicism. Did they ever endorse the papacy as a legitimate institution reflecting Christ's will? Was it corrupt from the beginning or just become so in the 16th century? Under what conditions would Presbyterians have been willing to be in communion with Rome? Ideally, should the papacy have been wiped out? It seems to me the correct path is to regard the Catholic church as Christ's church and to regard her claims as true.

The Role of Tradition

Protestants look skeptically on the Catholic view that Christian tradition has doctrinal authority stemming from Christ and the apostles. Yet tradition (the teaching authority of Christ and His apostles) is essential to full Christian understanding for several reasons. First, not everything concerning Christ's work is found in Scripture (Jn. 21:25) and some Christian teaching is handed down by word of mouth (II Tim. 2:2). The Bible instructs us to "stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle" (II Thess. 2:15). Second, the early Church did not have a Bible in the sense that we do today; yet their faith was fully protected and sustained through tradition. The Bible itself is a product of the 4th century Church. Third, no single individual can fully derive the meaning of scripture by himself; it takes tradition to set up the proper framework for understanding and for asking the right questions. Say the Bible was given to a fully competent scholar and he was asked to write a creed based upon it. Even if he had ten years to do so, who doubts that he would not get it quite right? Christ never intended him to. The Church was established to articulate and defend Christian doctrine (Mt. 16:18-19).

As a Presbyterian, I rejected the subjectivist position of Biblical understanding, and I wanted to embrace Church history. Then I had to decide which parts of the tradition to embrace and which parts to reject. It seemed to me that the doctrine of the Reformers was too much in flux to provide a sufficient grounding in the Faith. And that approach freezes Christianity in time. The Reformers had valuable things to say; but I thought their words and liturgical practices should be weighed against the whole of Christian tradition. I settled on this: I reject the part of tradition that is contradicted by the Bible. And that is the rule the Catholic Church herself has accepted.

The consistent Christian finds that the Church is the anchor of his faith. The fair-minded historian finds that the Catholic Church is the anchor of history. In both cases, I came believe, Providence is at the helm.

My Conversion Process

There were many steps in my conversion, but the most important one was the initial one: investigating what the Church has to offer. My experience accords with G.K. Chesterton's: "This process, which may be called discovering the Catholic Church, is perhaps the most pleasant and straightforward part of the business; easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life. It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable."

There were a host of Catholic terms and objects that have meaning with Catholicism with which I was completely unfamiliar: offices, the magisterium, mortal and venial sins, confession, penance, rosary beads, the saints and martyrs, and even, yes, Marian theology. Suddenly, I found that most of the anti-Catholic ideas that I held were canards with no basis in fact (e.g., that Catholics worship Mary and statues, that they don't believe the Bible inerrant, that they cannot pray directly to God). Even the dreaded doctrine of the infallibility sounded more reasonable considering its limits: the Pope must speak ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter) and he must do so in communion with the Bishops.

This discovery process led me to the proverbial slippery slope of Romanism. As Chesterton describes it: "It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair."

Finally, I cannot discuss my conversion without mentioning the Eucharist, the source and sacrament of Catholic spirituality. Here lies a central difference between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths as versus Protestantism. The vast majority of Christians believe what scripture says about the Eucharist: the bread and wine is fully transformed into the body and the blood -- the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Real Presence is indeed a divine mystery (as is much else about our Faith). I was amazed to discover that both Luther and Calvin, in different degrees, taught the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The Memorialist view--that the Eucharist is all bread and that communion is really without divine significance, done merely "in memory" of Christ--that is, the common teaching of evangelicals, wasn't believed or taught by the Reformers. I rejected the Memorialist view, but could see no reason not to go all the way to a pure Catholic position.

From Geneva to Rome

It was in my search for a "pure" Presbyterianism that I found Catholicism. I became tired of "protesting"; I wanted a real and positive Christianity. I didn't want a liturgy and theology defined in opposition to something else; I wanted the Christian liturgy and theology that the Church throughout the ages defined and practiced. Moreover, I did not want these things because they were part of the past; I wanted them because they will be part of the future.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, among the most famous of converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, makes the point in Apologia Pro Vita Sua that the best and most orthodox elements of evangelical, Reformed, and Anglican Christian doctrine find their fullest expression and glory within Catholicism. The bread in the Lord's supper becomes the mystery of the Real Presence; collective confession becomes private, specific, and efficacious; the claim of Church authority becomes the hard-core position of infallibility; Scripture becomes the infallible story of the covenant of God, both in content and canon; mere perseverance becomes a well-defined penance; martyrs and saints, whose lives are to be admired and emulated, become advocates on your behalf; the pastor becomes priest; the worship service becomes the Mass, with liturgy based on Scripture and imbued with holiness; the Christian "quiet time" becomes the requirement of a regular and disciplined prayer life, with litanies, memorization, and hours of intense contemplation on the Triune God.

Yet at the base, there is one reason why I converted to Catholicism. It is summarized by the line from the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church."

It's no wonder that Catholics have been so hysterically hated and persecuted throughout history. The Church's claim to be a fortress of truth, fully expressing the whole of Christian doctrine, makes it the single biggest threat to the forces of modernism and atheism. If a person hates God, why bother attacking Lutherans, Methodists, or the Reformed movement when he can attack Catholicism?

I am not hostile to Protestantism in general, and certainly not to Presbyterianism, to which I owe a great debt. I came to believe that Christ's Church subsists in Catholicism, which is why it has been so successful in defending orthodoxy and in standing against the tides of Christian sectarianism and atheistic modernism. Catholicism offers orthodoxy, universality, and stability.

Conversion was not an easy decision; the agonizing process lasted nearly three years. My final step was taken out of a conviction of truth, and it was a step I shall never regret.

Conversion reading material: Vatican II; The Catholic Catechism by John A. Hardon, S.J; anything by G.K Chesterton, but especially Orthodoxy and The Catholic Church and Conversion; Apologia Pro Vita Sua by J.H. Cardinal Newman, Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating (Ignatius Press, 1988); and Evangelical is Not Enough by Thomas Howard (Ignatius Press, 1989).

Jeffrey Tucker is a regular contributor to Crisis, a review of conservative Catholic thought. He is a Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Managing Editor of The Free Market.

7-18-96 tew
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