A Letter to My (Formerly) Fellow Protestants,
This is something I am doing in service to the Truth. This is not something I would do to rebel, to make anyone angry, to incite controversy or for for any other stupid reason. (In fact, that was part of the reason I didn't convert two years ago, was to avoid doing so for stupid reasons.) I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is closer to God in that it is closer to Truth. I do not mean to say that I think Catholics are automatically closer to God on a personal level than Protestants; in fact I know many whose relationship with God, and virtue, hardly measure up to the median of the Protestants I have known. It is true that not all of my reasons for joining are purely logical. The chief reason that isn't purely reasoned, is that I feel more secure in the work of Christian evidences within a Catholic framework, than within a Protestant framework. And also, the first reason given here is perhaps mostly personal, but I believe it to be theological at least in part. The rest are mostly theological in nature, though of course like any theologian I have my own personal biases and preferences. This is summary, not argument.
1. Invisible unity in the church isn't enough for me anymore. The Catholic Church is the only church that's got the capability to take in and put in proper proportion the concerns and biases of all the others. As one example, it teaches both predestination and free-will, without falling into the traps of Calvinism or Pelagianism. There is room for pretty much every type of Christian in this Tradition, except for the Christians who want to be able to do as they please (and interpret Scripture as they please) regardless of what those in authority say. And even those Christians appear to be generally tolerated, so long as they're not really loud about how much they are defying authority. Mystical unity isn't enough for me anymore; I need more visible unity. And the more I see what happens when Protestants rejoin the Catholic Church, the more I believe that this is the way things will get better, and the world will see us Christians as unified in spirit and in truth.
A side-note here. One may ask the question whether the Catholic Church's visible unity means anything with the amount of heretics it does tolerate (which is quite a few, at least quite a few of the quieter ones.) This is an excellent question, and I can answer in the affirmative: It does matter. It might not look any more unified than Protestant Churches, but quite frankly it does have one thing they do not in its togetherness. In the umbrella of Protestantism there is, as in Catholicism, nothing to prevent a single church from calling itself Christian even if it preaches doctrine which is continually opposed to Scripture and to historical Christianity. But in Catholicism there is a single authority that can actually say that that church is wrong. You might be thinking that Protestantism has, or at least specific Protestant churches have, a similar authority. I do not share your belief; sola scriptura de-centralizes doctrine and the search for Truth on many matters.
2. Protestant approaches to the Scriptures strike me as untenable. The approaches to Scripture which can be classified as sola scriptura all leave one question scorching my tongue: What passages of Scripture tell us what books are to be included in the Scriptures? You might think that this is a small problem, but history suggests it is everything but. The Protestants, the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox all hold different canons, and each of these camps in turn holds more books to be revealed Scripture than the one before it. The Canon itself as Catholics consider it was a couple hundred years in its most major developments, and a hundred or so more for the more minor adjustments. And several Christians throughout history have tossed out various books, or wanted to (most famously, Martin Luther wanting to exclude James and Revelation from the canon.)
It is, to my mind, not solid reasoning to simply assume we've got the right canon. In its weakest (and to my mind most solid) form, sola scriptura says that we must be able to find things in the Scriptures if they are to be called necessary for salvation. But what can be found in the Scriptures certainly depends on what books are included in the Scriptures, and so what's necessary for salvation winds up being dependent, ultimately, on a table of contents that is found nowhere in the actual sacred texts of the Christian tradition. Even if we could agree on the Canon, we could look around and find Christian churches in decent levels of disagreement about what was necessary for salvation. I don't know about you, but if I don't even know with some certainty what I have to be able to do to be able to consider myself saved, I'm in an interesting place. We might solve this problem by saying Jesus is the only essential, but I am skeptical of that very statement myself, at least in the way I have come to define the “essentials,” not to mention the fact that it immediately raises the question of what we mean by saying “Jesus.”
This is why I don't really think that we've got a systematic authority that allows us to say that, say, the Modalist Church down the road is actually in the wrong, no matter how much we'd like them to affirm that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually three distinct-but-not-separate persons: The Scriptures are wonderful. I love the Scriptures; with a little help, in fact, I can still recite the entire first chapter of James, and I've been studying them more seriously than ever before. But sola scriptura does not provide a solid centralizing authority for the Church.
The alternate possibility of prima scriptura (scripture as the 'check' for all doctrines) certainly appeals to me, some, but when we consider that prima scriptura can only screen out doctrines that actually run contrary to the Scriptures as being wrong, with the rest being (still) potentially essential, we wind up with a whole laundry list of things that, as historic Christians, we seem pretty much bound to believe, and yet most people who would get technical enough to even talk about the possibility of holding prima scriptura would deny them. On a practical level, whenever I start thinking along prima scriptura lines, I immediately start thinking about the early church, which immediately starts me down the road to Rome again. Which brings me to my next two points, both pretty well-related to historical doctrine:
3. The Roman Catholic Church affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This might seem like a strange thing to be attracted to. And to be honest, it makes me queasy. It makes me uncomfortable. But if we study the bread of life discourse in John chapter 6, or the discourse on the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11, they raise questions. Why, for instance, does Jesus switch to even stronger language about people eating his flesh, when people express discomfort with the idea, if it's purely symbolic to begin with? This certainly doesn't prove that it is literal, but it certainly raises the question. And why does the penalty for taking Communion unworthily—at least as seen by Paul—seem to be so severe, if it is merely a symbolic gesture? That the Early Church seems to have believed in a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is further solidified for me by St. Ignatius, who in the very early second century A.D. preached among other things that denial of the real presence was something done by Donatists, and couched his impending martyrdom in gory Eucharistic imagery. Is the doctrine of real presence gross? Absolutely disgusting. Quite uncomfortable. Is it the truth? It would seem so.
4. The Roman Catholic Church affirms the historically and council-vindicated titles/roles of the Virgin Mary. I'm going to confess here that no, I'm not totally clear on exactly what vindicates the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. But Theotokos and Perpetual Virginity have been around for, well, awhile. Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) has been around since the Nestorian controversy, in which the Council of Ephesus made it a title of Mary as a matter of correct Christological thought. That's not Catholic bias, either; that's history, and a history that took place before the major council of Chalcedon, which clarified some Christological points and in at least one of its statements reaffirmed the phrasing of Theotokos. Perpetual virginity has apparently been around for quite a while. At least since the fifth century with some consensus, but even before. Tertullian opposed it, for what it's worth, but the bulk of historical Christianity seems to affirm it, over and against what strikes as the 'plain' interpretation of Jesus's brothers. So even though I'm not totally 100% feeling forced to believe the other Marian Dogmas right away, I'm willing to accept them on the basis that I'm already trusting of the others, and trust that reasoning will probably fall into place later.
5. Prayer to/through saints and to/through Mary is affirmed by the RCC. This might seem like a negative mark. What about 'one mediator between God and man'? But it is still pretty clear that the mediatorship of Christ is of a special and unique kind in Catholic theology; if it be the case that the RCC considers the Saints or Mary to be mediators, it considers them to be mediators not of the same level, if even of the same type at all. There is a general belief (repudiated nowhere that I know of in the Scriptures) that the dead in heaven can hear us, even in many Protestant circles. It certainly does have some basis in Scripture, most notably in Revelation where incense symbolizes the prayers of the saints. Asking them to pray for us (in my mind) doesn't really boil down to anything different from asking an especially holy person here on earth to pray for us. If we have the chance, why not? The reason I say to/through is because it is only proper to say we pray “to” saints in the sense of “I pray you, pray for me”: otherwise it might be best for clarity if we said we pray to God and through the saints.
And yes, it is true that veneration and devotion to both Mary and Saints can get out of hand. Yes, it can. So can veneration (though not so-called) of Rick Warren, N.T. Wright, Joel Osteen and numerous other figures still alive in today's Christian world. (I should not hesitate here to mention C.S. Lewis, Calvin and Luther, but they didn't fit the pattern of being still alive.) The point being, it might be more obvious but that doesn't really make it any more wrong, or any less avoidable. One of the big things about the RCC and ethics, is lots of things are about proportion. Veneration and honor is given to Mary and the Saints, but more honor must be given to God. Ultimately the Saints and the Blessed Virgin all point back to God. Praying 'to' saints is really just praying through them. We may say we pray 'to' them only if we mean we are actually asking them to pray for us; they are not to be treated as having any special ability in and of themselves, but only what they have by the grace of God. Prayer and devotion to saints seems a fairly worthy enterprise, and the semi-dogmatic opposition of at least certain Protestant groups to the practice appears largely unfounded in the Scriptures.
6. I am consistently wowed by the consistency of their ethic of life, sexuality and justice. This doesn't mean I'm always comfortable with it. Am I comfortable with the idea of (if I marry) abandoning artificial birth control? No. Do I think I really have a total handle on the difference between artificial birth control and the natural methods championed by the Church? No. Do I have an immediate and biblical justification for going beyond the direct text of the Scriptures, and asking “why” God may have permitted or forbidden certain things? No. I do believe there is definite historical vindication of the Catholic ethic of life, in that until very recently, most Churches stood together on the issue of birth control. I do believe that it speaks to something (more than many Protestants would like) that most of the early Church seems to have been pretty down on birth control, not as much as it was on abortion, but still. It seems to be more in continuity with the historical church, and (again) it does not contradict the Scriptures that I can see.
If you are currently wondering where the Song of Solomon has gone, rest assured, it's still there. And as soon as you find the famous proof-text for non-procreative sex contained therein, I'll happily take a look at it, but I'm willing to bet you won't. Even if you could find such a passage, it would prove the Catholic ethic wrong on proper sexual relations the exact same way that the passage in the Torah commanding a 'curse' (really a conditional abortion) on an unfaithful woman proves the Catholic (and conservative Protestant) ethic wrong on abortion. And by that, I mean not at all. Now I've found Catholic sexual ethics to be personally very helpful for ordering myself and seeking virtue in my definitively doomed attempt to offer myself as a living sacrifice and be transformed by the renewing of my mind. And I find it very professionally consistent. But it doesn't stop there. One section of the Catholic ethic quickly leads to another; sexual ethics tie with life ethics, which tie in turn with social justice ethics. Even if it were to eventually turn out to be a failure (I am confident it will not), the Catholic ethic, in its various statements, restatements, formulations and reformulations, is the best effort I have ever seen at truly achieving the ethical unity epitomized for believers in James 1:27, saying that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
7. The primacy of Peter and Rome hasn't been rock-solid established for me (heh), but it's been established beyond most reasonable doubt. It's pretty clear by the marks of both staunch Catholic and conservative Protestant scholars that Peter was given some kind of primacy by Jesus. Additionally, the primacy of Rome was held by at least a few early Fathers, and the later Council of Chalcedon seems to imply it by making Constantinople second to Rome. Also, Rome had implicit veto power over at least one of the canons ratified in Africa near the turn of the fourth century to the fifth. Apostolic succession has been in development for awhile, but it seems a fairly solid doctrine. Not rock-solid yet, to me, but definitely there in essence if not totally obvious in presence.
8. I am pretty much sold as a matter of historical accuracy that the Canon of Scripture ratified by the early Church's African synods was the same canon that the RCC uses today. This includes the books Protestants would call “Apocryphal,” like Tobit and the Wisdom of Solomon. If you study the synods concerned, it seems that they did indeed ratify this Canon. It's commonly argued that it wasn't a dogmatic thing for Catholics until Trent in 15XX. However, this is as far as I know the earliest declaration by a synod, and it was replicated shortly after by another. Given this Canon, and even a prima scriptura standpoint, many objections previously held to Catholic doctrine (in particular, purgatory) begin to fall away. As a matter of intellectual honesty, does it bother me that this particular Canon wasn't ratified in the East as well as in Africa? Yes, a little bit. But that concern certainly doesn't push me back into Protestantism—the Canon which Eastern Orthodoxy eventually settled on has two or three more books than that of the RCC, in addition to those books that Protestants call Apocryphal.
9. God, in Catholic experience, is merciful, but also severe. Chesterton once said: “Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe--that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature.” Chesterton was speaking, if I recall correctly, of a 'hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner' mentality, but his phrasing of merciful but severe, which in my mind is similar to being merciful yet perfectly just (even if the justice sometimes seems lenient, or the mercy seems harsh), seems a good marker on God as God is celebrated in Christianity. What I'm getting at mainly is (here I run the risk of getting into historical evidences) that the historical evidences I've seen put forth from the Catholic tradition seem to better embrace God as God of both the old, and new, testaments. I do not claim that it is a different God who works in the non-Catholic traditions, but there is something about the miracles that occur in Catholic contexts that points back to a Biblical unity. But the strange concoction called Catholicism also seems to contain the notion, somewhere in all of its Traditions and laws, that God is merciful and also severe. When was the last time you went to a Protestant church which, as a matter of weekly ritual, expected of its members a true confession of sinner-hood?
It is true that some of us need much more mercy than severity, and others much more severity than mercy (I often suspect I am of the second type), but Christian mercy must not be mere mercy, and Christian severity must not be mere severity.
10. Emotionalism and "reason"-ism are given proportional bounds. You are free to be emotional about faith so long as you do not pretend that emotion in devotion or worship, or "being drunk with the Spirit," is something absolutely necessary for saving faith. You are likewise free to be more "head-issue" centered about your faith so long as you do not pretend that emotion has no place in the life of a believer. Everyone is encouraged to cultivate devotional and rational aspects of their faith; nobody is permitted to ignore the validity of either approach as a primary means of experiencing the Divine. What is required is to seek God.
I have given my reasoning here. You are of course free to agree or disagree. I am attempting to be honest about what I know, and what I don't. There's a lot I still don't know, this is true. I'm still not sure where exactly Purgatory comes from, for instance. But what I've learned takes me away from where I started (the Free Methodist tradition, to which I am in great spiritual debt), and leaves me wandering. Eventually I come to the gates of the Roman Catholic Church, a humongous building the defies me to enter. I can almost hear the Crucifix mocking me, perhaps it is really the darker forces approximate to me, when I attend Masses: “Why don't you just leave? You've been thinking about this forever, and you're still just, here, standing in the gate-way, afraid to enter.” And the only answer I can really give, when I think about my desire for Truth, and the alternatives for finding it (putting it on shaky foundations, or just giving up the search entirely), is “Lord, to where else shall I go?”
And I assure you before God that I am not lying when I say this: My first allegiance is to my Lord Jesus, not just my Lord, but your Lord as well—Our Lord, if you will. This is an allegiance that I have discovered—painfully, in wrestling with it, at times even in trying to break it—an allegiance I am not free to disobey, a loyalty that I must respect. Free will notwithstanding, it is almost as if I no longer have a choice in the matter. My second allegiance is to Our Lord's Pilgrim Church on Earth. This does not mean that the work that has been done in me in Protestant contexts was bad—but it means I have come to believe that this work will be brought to a fuller completeness in the context of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, this Church makes a claim to be the One True Church, but it does not declare that persons outside of it are untrue Christians. And I do not find myself compelled to no longer consider you Christians. Far from it! I will continue to pray for you and ask you to pray for me. I will continue to consider your counsel on spiritual matters. I will continue to hold massive respect for the Protestant subculture, especially those few and far between good Christian rock bands. I will continue to hold massive respect for Protestant theologians who serve the Lord well, which are a good deal greater in number than some staunch Catholics will want to admit. I will continue to love and obey my parents (and elders) in the Lord, and to be ever grateful for their raising me in the Lord. I will continue to be grateful to all of my family members who have faithfully done the same. I will continue to have massive respect for the Protestant pastors I have had in my life (shout-outs to Gene G., Joe W., Scott P., Mark M., Dave W., Matt P!) and my Protestant brethren who I know from New Vision Fellowship and other places, especially Chris C., the Palmers (and Shawn's awesome wife Alicia), Brent and Pam J., Billy A., Travis E., the Stevens family, Andy B., Colin C. and Chris B., Eben A., Dr. Will Deming, and Austin S. I will continue to read Protestant authors of all kinds, and seek the Truth wherever in their writings it be found—at the time of this writing, I'm still in the midst of C.S. Lewis's lovely The Four Loves. I will continue to read the Scriptures just as I used to (or, alternatively, will continue to fail at reading them just as I used to.) A part of my heart and mind will always feel and think distinctly Protestant about things even once I've 'crossed the Tiber,' as some call it, but this only strengthens point number one. I will continue to consider you brothers and sisters in Christ, whether you be my blood-relatives, or not. I will definitely be able to worship with you. On occasion I will even be able to come to Church with you. If you're further curious about why I've made this choice, you may feel free to ask further. This is the Truth I have found. And if you want to, I would be happy to discuss it with you.
In Faith, Love and Christ,
Dan “D.Lo” Lower