A River Runs to It: A New Exodus of Protestants Streams to Rome

Patricia Ireland’s recent reception into the Catholic Church is but one sign that the era of McGreeley-inspired dissent and desertion is winding to a close. Although Ireland (who bears no relation to the president of the National Organization of Women) was raised Catholic, she fell under the spell of Mary Daly and Richard McBrien at Boston College in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Prompted by what she now says were “wrongly perceived justice issues,” namely feminism and liberation theology, she left Catholicism for the Lutheran church, where she eventually became a pastor of a thriving church in southern New Jersey.

As a Protestant pastor, however, she gradually became more orthodox: “I found that people wanted to hear more than ‘I’m okay, you’re okay”‘ says Ireland. “People really wanted to hear about sin and forgiveness. They were longing for the message that only the Church can give.” Her new-found orthodoxy left her increasingly disturbed with the moral state of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which—among other things—covers abor¬tion as a health benefit for its clergy. Her dissatisfaction with her mainline church’s capitulation, along with Pope John Paul II’s pro-life witness, prompted her to revisit the Church of her childhood. A careful study of the Church Fathers convinced her that it was time to come back to Catholicism. “I wanted to be a part of the apostolic Church again,” Ireland says.

Best and Brightest

The post-Vatican II exodus of American Catholics to Protestantism—prompted in part by a decline in orthodox preaching and catechesis—is well known. Social surveys suggest that the Catholic Church has lost several million members to Protestantism, especially evangelical Protestantism, in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, the dynamic between Catholicism and Protestantism is shifting—as Ireland’s experience suggests.

“While a lot of people leave the Church, they tend not to be good Catholics,” says Curtis Martin, president of Catholics United for the Faith, who himself returned to the Church after spending five years as an evangelical Protestant. “The Protestants [now] coming into the Church are the most devoted Protestants, people deeply committed to Scripture and prayer. We’re losing the numbers game but we are winning the quality game in spades.”

He adds, “We’re seeing the first signs of an avalanche of conversions and reconversion.” Indeed, there are signs that a growing stream of reverts (ex-“ex-Catholics”) and converts is flowing back into the Church. In 1998, more than 88,000 Protestants were received into the Catholic Church (and more than 73,000 adults were baptized, many of them from Protestant backgrounds). While the vast majority of these converts came into the Church to join a spouse, the ranks of “devoted” converts coming into the Church for religious reasons is growing.

One indication that the Church is gaining deeply committed Protestants is that hundreds of Protestant clergy have recently sacrificed their careers to join the Church. Since 1993, 300 Protestant clergy have contacted the Coming Home Network, a lay ministry dedicated to providing spiritual, moral, and financial support to Protestant clergy and laity interested in becoming Catholic. Of this group, which is made up of Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist clergy, two-thirds have already been received into the Church. Another indication of the growth in conversions is the blossoming conversion/apologetics genre in Catholic publishing. Ignatius Press has sold more than 100,000 copies of Rome Sweet Home, Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s account of their move from conservative Presbyterianism to the Church, and 55,000 copies of other titles chronicling conversions from fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Anglicanism. Basilica and Queenship presses have sold more than 190,000 books from this genre. Finally, even evangelical leaders have voiced concern about this movement. “I have been concerned about the growing exodus from evangelicalism of some of its brightest and best, for, variously, Canterbury Rome, or Mt. Athos,” said Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, according to a 1995 article in re:generation quarterly.

Protestant Exodus

What accounts for this Protestant exodus at the twilight of the 20th century? The collapse of Protestant morality in American culture, the centrifugal drift of evangelical Protestantism, and the socioeconomic mobility of evangelical Protestants have all played key roles.

Mainline Protestantism has given tacit, and sometimes explicit, approval to the poisonous fruits of the 1960s— from free love to feminism. Although this accommodation strategy devastated the theological and moral integrity of the mainline, it has, at least in one respect, served clearly providential purposes. For men and women like Ireland, the moral and theological confusion they have found in the mainline is usually the reason they start thinking about heading to Rome.

Take Thomas Levergood, who had considered a vocation to the Episcopal priesthood. “There are so many compromises with our culture, compromises that violate the fullness of truth, especially on moral issues, in the Episcopal Church,” says Levergood, who is pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. “Being around half-truths and lies awakens in you a hunger for the genuine truth.”

Jeffrey Finch’s crisis of mainline faith came from interacting with his colleagues: Methodist ministers in southern New Jersey. “I remember sitting at annual conference meetings and listening to dilettantes blather on about revisiting doctrinal issues that had been settled centuries ago by ecumenical councils,” he recalls. “They were just making it [the Faith] up as they went along. Whatever its historic origins, Methodism had become a do-it-yourself religion.”

For evangelicals who end up becoming Catholic, two factors encourage them to reconsider their commitment to the evangelical Protestant faith. First, many evangelicals become dissatisfied with the doctrinal and ecclesiastical division that is endemic to Protestantism. Kristin Franklin went to Guatemala in 1992 as a Protestant missionary intent on “[rescuing] Catholics from the darkness of their religion’s superstition and man-made traditions,” as she wrote in a recent conversion piece for Envoy magazine. But she left the mission field a few years later after becoming disillusioned with divisions she saw among the “Bible-believing” Protestant churches she encountered in Central America. On issues from infant baptism to charismatic gifts, she found almost as many opinions as there were churches. She remembers thinking: “The truth doesn’t look like that.”

There is also a powerful sociological factor at work. Evangelicals have experienced dramatic upward mobility over the past 20 years. This mobility—and the educational and cultural opportunities it affords—leaves many evangelicals with the sense that there is more to the Christian faith than the daily quiet times, weekly Bible studies, and Sunday hymn-sermon-hymn worship that they grew up with. Evangelicals seeking a deeper spiritual life, a more transcendent experience of worship, or a richer intellectual tradition begin to look around.

Twitch upon the Thread

The movement of Protestants into the Catholic Church is not simply a reaction to Protestant failings; in fact, a good number of ex-Protestants reluctantly leave seemingly “alive” Protestant churches for apparently “dead” Catholic parishes. This is also a movement of Protestant pilgrims who are attracted, often in spite of themselves, to the Roman Catholic Church.

One reason Protestants are now able to see the Church as attractive is that Catholic apologetic media and tactics have changed in ways that make it easier for Protestants to encounter and identify with Catholic teaching. “The reason that the movement is happening today is the ready availability of good information [about the Church]—on the radio, television, Internet, magazines, and books,” says Marcus Grodi, executive director of the Coming Home Network. Grodi adds that recent apologetic works have been better about approaching Protestants on their own terms (e.g., through biblically rooted defenses of Catholic doctrine) rather than from a perspective that assumes some familiarity with Catholic doctrine and culture.

But in the final analysis, the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church where the fullness of the faith resides—extravagant as this claim may seem to many Protestant believers—exerts a kind of intellectual, spiritual, and moral gravity on the lives of many Protestants who are seeking the Church. Thomas Howard, an evangelical who took the Canterbury trail before ending up in the Catholic Church, conveys some sense of this gravity in Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament:

The question, What is the Church? becomes, finally, intractable; and one finds oneself unable to offer any very telling reasons why the phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” which we all say in the [Nicene] Creed, is to be understood in any way other than the way in which it was understood for 1500 years.

Indeed, the Nicene definition of the Church—”one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”—captures the character of the attraction that Holy Mother Church holds over Protestants seeking the church with the fullness of the faith.

The Church is One. The Nicene Fathers saw the unity of the Church sought by our Lord (John 17:21) as a oneness in faith and worship that was guaranteed by the authority of her bishops. For Protestants like Franklin, who are dissatisfied with the doctrinal and ecclesiastical divisions that separate the Body of Christ, it is precisely this unity that draws them into the Catholic Church.

Mark Brumley, a former evangelical who lives in California, ended up in the Catholic Church after seeking out the church that was “closest to the New Testament model.” His reading of the Bible led him to conclude that the early Church was one in faith, one in its understanding of the sacraments, and one in its Church government. “The immense disunity within evangelicalism told me it was not following the New Testament pattern,” he recalls.

He considered Eastern Orthodoxy but concluded that Orthodoxy lacked unity in its governance. “There was no way of corralling the patriarchs since each patriarch was on an equal footing,” says Brumley. “That didn’t seem in keeping with the New Testament pattern, where Peter exercised a certain preeminence.” Having concluded that Petrine authority serves as a guarantor of unity, Brumley made plans to enter the Church.

The Church is Holy. The Church communicates the grace of God to His people, furnishing them with everything they need to grow in holiness and come to the fullness of eternal life with Him. The Church does this in large part through her sacramental life, especially through the Eucharist, and through her moral teaching—both of which have proved to be powerful points of attraction for Protestants.

The Real Presence exerts a particularly powerful hold on potential evangelical converts. Some are attracted to the Eucharist after coming to the realization that there is more to worship than listening to a sermon and singing a few hymns. Others discover the Eucharist through a close reading of the Bible and Church history. Kenneth Howell, who was a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, followed the latter route. After teaching a biblical interpretation class that focused on the Eucharist’s meaning in the Bible, Howell reached a surprising conclusion: “I came to realize that most Protestant conceptions of the Eucharist are deficient.”

This prompted him to turn to the writings of the early Church Fathers and revisit the biblical evidence regarding the Eucharist. “I found the doctrine of the real presence in the most unexpected places,” Howell says. “For instance, when Paul says that we become one body because we partake of the one loaf (1 Cor 10:17), he teaches that the Church is in fact the body of Christ because the Church receives the real body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16).” Howell eventually concluded that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as sacrament, sacrifice, and communion was “founded on solid biblical evidence.” This conclusion set him on the road to Rome.

For mainline Protestants dissatisfied with the cultural drift of their churches, the constancy of the Church’s moral teachings on sexual morality and human life makes them sit up and take notice of her theological claims. Jennifer Ferrara, who was an ELCA minister in Pennsylvania, recalls being distressed that “the ELCA and most of mainline Protestantism [had] fallen captive to the culture of death.” She was impressed by the moral leadership of Pope John Paul II on life issues and began to explore the Church’s claim to possess the fullness of the Christian faith. Although she respected John Paul II, she initially had trouble believing that the Pope was the infallible guide of the Magisterium (the Church’s teaching office).

“It was a leap to believe in the Magisterium,” she says. But the fact that the Church was “the only institution left that was resisting the trends of our culture spoke as evidence that it [the Magisterium] was indeed what the Church says it is.” After making her way through a pile of books—including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Louis Boyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism—she decided that it was time to become a Roman Catholic.

The Church is Catholic. The Nicene Fathers understood the Church as “Catholic” in the sense that she possessed the whole truth about the Christian faith. In other words, their understanding of the Church’s catholicity was doctrinal rather than geographic. The Church continues to teach that the fullness of Christian truth can be found in her magisterial teaching, a claim that exercises the imagination of Protestants in search of a church that speaks comprehensively and credibly on a range of theological matters.

This claim is particularly compelling for Protestant pastors and professors who have come to entertain doubts about the metaphysical and hermeneutical foundations of the Protestant faith they preach and teach to others. Grodi was once such a pastor. “Every Sunday I would stand in my pulpit and interpret Scripture for my flock, knowing that within a 15-mile radius there were dozens of other Protestant pastors all of whom believed that the Bible alone is the sole authority for doctrine and practice—but each was teaching something different from what I was teaching,” wrote Grodi in Surprised by Truth.

This observation undercut his faith in the classical Protestant understanding of biblical authority. “I came to the conclusion that sola scriptura could not hold the weight of authority that is necessary to maintain Christian truth,” says Grodi, who used to be a Presbyterian pastor. Not knowing where to turn to determine who or what had the authority to decide Christian truth, Grodi resigned his pastorate. But after attending a Scott Hahn lecture, Grodi began to wonder if the Catholic Church might have the authoritative teaching and tools that the Christian faith required. After exploring a range of works, culminating with John Henry Newman’s “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Grodi became convinced that the Catholic Church had the fullness of the Christian truth and—just as important—a teaching office that was prepared to authoritatively address theological and moral questions: namely, the papacy.

Robin Maas was attracted to the Church for her philosophical catholicity. Maas, a former Methodist seminary professor, recalls that the “issue of truth” was not taken seriously at the Methodist seminary at which she taught. She saw this as indicative of a larger Protestant abdication of philosophical issues. “The question, ‘What is truth?’ the metaphysical question of reality, was pretty much ignored,” says Maas. By contrast, Maas recalls that her encounter with Catholic theology provided the “piece that was missing” in her faith. “Catholic theology takes account of metaphysics, issues of truth, in ways that Protestantism doesn’t.” says Maas.

The Church is Apostolic. The Catholic Church is apostolic in two senses. First, the apostolic authority conferred on the original apostles by our Lord has been passed from bishop to bishop through the two millennia of the Church’s history. Thus, there is an unbroken line of apostolic authority—guaranteed by the laying on of hands, that is, consecration—stretching from Pentecost to the present day. Second, the Church has remained faithful to the deposit of faith left her by the first apostles.

The Church’s faithful stewardship of that deposit over her long and sometimes checkered past is particularly appealing for historically inclined Protestants. This is what happened to Jeffrey Finch, who was studying patristic history under Thomas Oden at Drew University. Reading Richard John Neuhaus’s The Catholic Moment, Finch was struck by quotations in the book from Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and the Second Vatican Council. “It had never occurred to me that the faith of the Fathers was still being taught, lived, and prayed in contemporary expression,” recalls Finch. “But there it was.”

This discovery gave him hope because he had lost faith in the possibility of a Protestant orthodoxy “It was studying the faith of the early Church that convinced me that the Reformation had not been a ressourcement at all,” says Finch. “Rather, I saw that it [the Reformation] had introduced two cancerous doctrines [sola fide and sola scriptura] which eventually metastasized and destroyed the very foundation of the faith as a whole, especially in its accession to private judgment over the teaching authority of the Church.”

Before becoming Catholic, Finch gave serious consideration to Eastern Orthodoxy, but he had concerns about the antiquarian cast of the Orthodox faith. By contrast, his reading of Christian history suggested that the Catholic Church had been able to maintain fidelity to the apostolic deposit even while speaking to her historical moment.

“Only the Catholic faith has demonstrated itself to be living, dynamic, and capable of authentic development without falling victim to novel, extraneous accretions from purely human tradition,” he says. Finch decided to accept that “living, dynamic” faith in 1995.

Transforming from Without

Former Protestants, aided by the Holy Spirit, are key instruments of authentic Catholic renewal as they penetrate the ranks of media, education, and clergy. Robin Maas is the new dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC. Mark Brumley is the managing editor of Catholic Dossier and The Catholic Faith. Kenneth Howell is the John Henry Newman Scholar-in-Residence of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Thomas Levergood recently co-founded the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, which is dedicated to fostering Catholic intellectual and spiritual life among academics faithful to the magisterium.

Their conversions, along with the conversions of countless others—from Fr. Neuhaus at First Things to Robert Wilken, the renowned University of Virginia church historian—send a powerful signal to the world that orthodox Catholicism is attractive and compelling to some of the Protestant world’s best and brightest. This is a signal that necessarily undercuts the efforts of dissenters. These converts also lend their considerable intellectual and institutional powers to the cause of orthodox renewal in the Church, thereby pushing the voices of dissent to the margins of power in the Church in America.

Converts also bring an evangelical zeal into the Church, helping many cradle Catholics and non-Catholics to (re)discover the saving message of Jesus Christ. Curtis Martin has just started a new ministry, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCU.S.), designed to bring an evangelical Catholic presence to college and university campuses around the country. Others—from Scott Hahn to Jeff Cavins, host of EWTN’s Life on the Rock—can be found evangelizing Catholic and non-Catholic alike through television shows, tape ministries, and print media. They are helping to spearhead what John Paul II has called the “re-evangelization of the West.”

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been buffeted and battered by the gale force winds of modernity. But the gates of Hell have not prevailed. The growing exodus of Protestantism’s best and brightest is but one indication that the bark of Peter is gaining momentum as she approaches the new millennium. Let us hope that this movement of the Spirit is but the first sign that the third millennium will indeed be the millennium of unity, for which the Holy Father has so devoutly prayed.

  • Brad Wilcox

    At the time this article was published, Brad Wilcox had been editor-in-chief of regeneration quarterly, from which this article is adapted. He attended an evangelical Episcopalian church in Northern Virginia before being received into the Catholic Church in 1995.

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