If you read the conservative Catholic magazines and Web sites as much as I do you get the impression that the number of Protestant converts to Catholicism is growing rapidly these days. One such publication listed the short story of four recent "political" converts. The first, Newt Gingrich, I commented about on this site just a few weeks ago. Another I have also mentioned before, Tony Blair. Blair was received into the Catholic Church in a private ceremony in December 2007. Then there is Kansas Senator (R.) Sam Brownback, who was raised a Methodist. Brownback later joined a non-denominational church. In a 2006 interview in The Washington Post he said: "Joining the Catholic Church was joining the early church. This is the mother church. This is the church out of which orthodoxy and Protestantism came." My purpose here is not to challenge Senator Brownback's statement but it is patently debatable. Try convincing any Orthodox Christian, or Protestant-convert to Orthodoxy, that Roman Catholicism came out of orthodoxy and you will find out. Perhaps, in fairness, he really meant "orthodoxy" as a theological term (thus small "o") but still the statement is a vintage Catholic boilerplate apologetic that misses something vital to seeing our unity in Christ above all our differences.

Another prominent convert is the Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. But Jindal is a convert from Hinduism. He started studying Christianity in high school after the death of his grandfather. His earliest religious influence came from his Indian-born parents. He was baptized and confirmed a Catholic while a college student at Brown University.

A number of popular books which tell the stories of such conversions have been published in the last decade. I rather think the number of such stories is growing. I also rather think that conservative Catholics tell these stories in order to strengthen their own church and to emphasize distinctive Catholic doctrinal teaching. This has been done since the sixteenth century if one is aware of the writing on both sides. I do not begrudge them this story-telling method one iota. I am always happy for anyone who follows the Lord's grace and direction in their own lives. In this country we should be especially grateful that such is both not only possible but we are free to do it without personal attack on our freedom.

But I also think the number of converts from Protestantism to Catholicism is not nearly as large as these Catholics think. I wonder what the numbers were in past ages? There have always been prominent converts. Having read Catholic books like these modern ones, from earlier eras, I assure you there have always been conversions to Rome from Protestantism since the sixteenth century division of the Western Church. The truth is there have also been a significant number of conversions away from Rome as well, including some priests. In fact, the numbers I have seen, in the whole course of my sixty years of life, suggest that more Catholics go to Protestant churches than vice versa.

The truth of the matter is I do not keep count. I am completely persuaded that this type of apologetics is more about "proving" who is right with their convert stories than about seeking first the kingdom of God. I mean no offense to my scores of Catholic readers, or to my Protestant readers who feel the necessity to get as many Catholics out of their church as possible, but I have no interest in getting a person out of one orthodox church into another church. And I just happen to know many priests and theologians in the Catholic Church who agree with me. But then these are not the writers of these popular stories or the teachers you see on EWTN.

Pope-benedict-xvi-2 Look, if you really believe the pope is the Christ-appointed shepherd on earth for the whole church then believe it. But your trying to convince me to convert will not make any difference in my salvation or my mission. Vatican II, and the various ecumenical dialogs since, has taken the majority of Catholic leaders beyond this kind of apologetics with fellow non-Catholic Christians.

I share the belief of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI that we need to re-evangelize secular Western nations. I also share their belief that ecumenism is an important development for the whole church. I also share their belief that the real work of the church is in advancing the kingdom of God. I am sure I will offend someone but why not drop the continual stories of converts from other churches to Rome and major more on stories like that of Bobby Jindal, who entered the church from a non-Christian background. This is a real cause for all Christians to celebrate together.

I can understand, quite frankly, why a person like Senator Brownback left the church he was a member of to become a Catholic. But I am not nearly as sure that some Catholics can equally understand why I remain a minister in the Reformed Church in America in good faith and conscience. The whole church will be in a better state when we all can better understand why people make a choice and then encourage them in their walk with Christ without any gloating over our being "the true church." Even if Rome were the true (only) church we "separated brothers and sisters" will still be here tomorrow and most of us will still be following Christ. Pope Benedict himself, in his first published book in 1961, made it clear that we were brothers. He even went so far as to say our respective congregations are in a relationship as "sisters." If more Catholics adopted this attitude it would go a long way toward the kind of unity that would help the mission of Christ advance in the modern world.

And just in case you are new to this blog site let me assure you
I do not care for evangelic
al gloating about Catholics who leave their church either. I hate it when someone says, "I was a Roman Catholic until I became a real Christian!" This could be true but it is not the best way to say it if you love your brothers and sisters. I urge that very special (Christ-centered loving) care be taken to actually honor the ecumenical gains we have made since 1960. We have a long way to go but some conservatives, on both sides of this 500 year-old debate, could stand a much bigger dose of humility.

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  1. Bryan Cross May 9, 2009 at 7:14 am

    I completely agree with you that the numbers of those leaving or those entering, do not determine the truth or falsity of the respective claims of Catholics and Protestants. But, when you say:
    [BOQ]but I have no interest in getting a person out of one orthodox church into another church[EOQ]
    that makes it seem either that there are multiple, contradictory orthodoxies, or that orthodoxy is some arbitrary least-common-denominator that you yourself determine. And many other Christians (including many Protestants as well as the Catholic Church) deny both of those disjuncts.
    There is another way to perceive Brownback’s statement. What he said does not imply that there is not any common ground between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. But it does get to a fundamental difference between Catholics and Protestants regarding the visibility of the Church as a Body, that according to the Catholic Church Christ founded an actual institution with a perpetual hierarchical government. Catholics are not “gloating” when we say that we are “the true Church that Christ founded”. We are saying what the Catholic Church has always believed to be true, and still believes to be true. Yes, we believe that Protestants are our brothers, but there is an important word you left out: separated. For Catholics, Protestants are separated brothers. Protestants and Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist together, so although we have a great deal of common ground, clearly we are not yet truly united. The nearly 500 year-old schism remains.
    [BOQ]I also share their belief that the real work of the church is in advancing the kingdom of God.[EOQ]
    The Catholic Church believes and teaches the she *is* the Kingdom of God. So the Catholic understanding of “advancing the kingdom of God” is to bring people into the Catholic Church. I fully agree that it is helpful and vital to recognize what we have in common. But, at the same time, it is also important not to sweep our differences under the rug, as though they are unimportant or non-existent.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. John H. Armstrong May 9, 2009 at 7:28 am

    The point you make Bryan is, of course, valid. But Vatican II, and Catholic theologians since, have openly affirmed that the church is NOT the kingdom of God. Even Cardinal Ratzinger made this very point, as my post notes clearly. Rome changes, not as some think, but the change is real. I believe this is a good change that alters the ecumenical dialog when we no longer speak of the Roman Church as THE kingdom of God!

  3. Dan Jones May 9, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
    Blessings, Dr. A. Thank you again for your clear writing on challenging issues. I don’t comment much anymore, but you know me well enough not to have two cents to contribute on this one.
    My protestant & reformed brothers remind me often how there are so many nominal Catholics (or “believers” who don’t have a complete understanding or relationship with Jesus). Naturally, I likewise remind them the same is very true for their own traditions. Club membership means nothing to Jesus and the Cost of Discipleship has nothing included in it related to faith affiliation.
    That being said, I do believe there is a type of Christian (nominal?) that believes certain doctrinal issues, may or may not be “saved,” but clearly has a deficient relationship with Jesus.
    I believe that it is through Christ centered relationships, holy community, and perhaps some scholarship that these people choose to “convert.” I think conversion in this sense is misunderstood to believe the transfer of fidelity from one faith affiliation to another. In fact, I believe what happens is more akin to developing actual fidelity for the first time. Fidelity first to Jesus, then to the new affiliation.
    I do know that some conversions happen from one expression of true devotion to another. Brownback is certainly one. Scott Hahn, the Roman Catholic apologist would be another, as would Orthodox convert Mathews-Green, but I think most conversions are like the ones I first described.
    I could be wrong about this, but it would make sense about why so many make a big deal about these conversions – converts aren’t just finding a new faith family, they are finding Jesus.

  4. Bryan Cross May 9, 2009 at 10:06 am

    To know what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church actually teaches, we can’t go by what Catholic theologians teach, since not all of them are orthodox. We have to go by what the Magisterium teaches. Vatican II never “affirmed that the Church is not the kingdom of God”. Lumen Gentium specifically affirms that the Church is the kingdom: “The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world.” (LG, 3) The Church Militant is the Kingdom of Heaven in its beginning or seminal stage, i.e. the stage prior to the return of Christ. Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “I give you the keys of the Church, but I retain the keys of the Kingdom.” No, Jesus gave to Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, meaning the apostolic authority over the Church. That’s why the Catechism says, “The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom. Her keys are entrusted to Peter.” (CCC 567) And again, “To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.” (CCC 763) And lastly, “The Church is ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity, because it is in her that the Kingdom of heaven, the Reign of God, already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time.” (CCC 865)
    The Church has always believed and taught that she is the Kingdom of heaven on earth. Vatican II did not change that, indeed could not change that. Christ does not have two Brides: His Church and His Kingdom. He has one Bride, which is Church and His Kingdom.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  5. Scott Harmon May 9, 2009 at 11:32 am

    If we all focused on the Word of God and Christ, the debate would end. Let’s get rid of labels, denominations, man-made doctrines and creeds and stick to the Holy Scriptures. God warned us against division, yet man insists on doing the opposite. Very sad, and to make matters worse this division is a valid argument for non-believers to stay away.
    Your Brother In Christ,

  6. Dozie May 9, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    On May 6 you wrote, with respect to the Catholic Church, what I thought was your best article on this board. Only three days later you come up with a rather “liberal” reading of Vatican II and a misunderstanding of the Church’s view on ecumenism. You have heard it before, but it is worth repeating: the goal of ecumenism is to bring John H. Armstrong and all who are separated from the Church into the one and same fold.
    It would make no sense, if not criminal, for the Church to require Catholics to observe certain precepts which she teaches as necessary for salvation and to say to Protestants, it does not matter what you believe so long as you are confident of your salvation in Christ, you are assured of salvation. I suggest you try reading or watching Pope Benedict’s sermon this past Sunday (Good Shepherd Sunday); you would quickly realize that ecumenism does not mean the same thing as it does to you.

  7. Chris Criminger May 9, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Hi John,
    I’ll just stick to your wise ending about humility. It seems that more ecumenical minded Christians say and do many things differently in more modest and humble ways while those who promote distinctives and separateness do so often in more non-humble ways.
    But I see some beautiful promise in some parts of protestantism and Catholicism where Catholics are becoming more Evangelical and Protestants are becoming more Catholic. So there will always be “crossing-overs” from both sides of the track. Now if only those like-minded Catholic-evangelicals and Evangelical catholics became partakers in holy communion. What picture and message would that send to a divided world?
    John Paul the II and Henri Nouwen lived out this trinitarian communion in their own ways but what would happen if change and reform actually happened at a more coprotate and ecclesial level? A reformation of visible unity where separated brothers and sisters don’t just talk the talk but actually embrace each other in holy communion together. Now that truly might more represent an incarnational missional church.

  8. Jack Isaacson May 10, 2009 at 4:38 am

    John you wrote, “I believe this is a good change that alters the ecumenical dialog when we no longer speak of the Roman Church as THE kingdom of God!
    Bryan responded,”The Church has always believed and taught that she is the Kingdom of heaven on earth. Vatican II did not change that, indeed could not change that. Christ does not have two Brides: His Church and His Kingdom. He has one Bride, which is Church and His Kingdom.”
    Where do I go to obtain information to validate whom is correct because I don’t believe you both can be ?

  9. Anthony May 10, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I find Jaroslav Pelikan’s idea that the Reformation was a “tragic necessity” illuminating. The continuing problem being that many Protestants fail to see the tragedy and many Catholics fail to see necessity. To this, I would add that many Christian fail to see the provisional nature of our existence in this age between the ages. No matter how hard we try our efforts to establish any kind of ideal can only at best point beyond themselves to that which is genuine, and at worse they become sources of pride and division.
    The more I study Church history the more sharply ambivalent I feel about Roman Catholicism, which is to say the more I see elements I am attracted to as well as elements I am repulsed by. Of course, this can be said about any of our traditions or denominations.

  10. Chris Criminger May 10, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Dear Jack,
    I have not looked into the particulars on this one but I will say there are many contrasts and even two different minds between conservatives and more moderate Catholics all within the same document of Vatican II.
    So my best educated quess is even though you are typically right that both can not be true, this may be one of those rare exceptions (even if they stand in contradiction to each other).

  11. Ed Holm May 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I am very much of a mind like Anthony in which I find myself terribly drawn and repulsed by both Catholic and Protestant persuasions. The Grace in all of this is that somehow, in my spirit, I think it is important, not so much to resolve the contradiction as it is to live within it.

  12. Nick Morgan May 11, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Excellent post John, with good discussions following as well. I guess if this was an easy division to solve we wouldn’t be here 500+ years later still talking about it. You know my story, so all I can add to the discussion is my own observation: that I believe God has called you to a special work here through ACT 3. So may God bless you and keep up the good work my brother!

  13. Ed Holm May 11, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Amen! Nick

  14. Joseph Heschmeyer May 13, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I was referred to your website by someone who was favorably disposed to your irenic tone towards us Catholics. I’ve not been disappointed. I love that you singled Mary Ann Glendon out as a profile in courage. She is indeed, on abortion today as on civil rights yesterday.
    A lot of what you’re saying here is correct. Winning a Protestant convert to Catholicism shouldn’t be about tribalism or gloating (even to oneself). It certainly can be: I’ve undoubtedly been guilty of indulging this before.
    You’re right about the numbers, too. The Catholic Church is losing members much faster than she’s gaining them (Something like 10% of America is ex-Catholic). Usually people leave the Church at a young age: it smells like authority and rules, and the promise of a “simpler faith” is particularly appealing to the young. Plus, we’re doing an awful job (in some places in the US) of teaching the next generation Catholicism. I say this as a young person myself (I’m 24 now) who has seen some of the best and the worst.
    Finally, you’re right that the constant in-fighting amongst Christians is abhorrent, and repels would-be converts. Christ prayed “that they [we] may all be one” in John 17:21, and in v. 23 explains why: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
    Vatican II took the bold step of embracing what we have in common, and as Catholics, we believe that the Holy Spirit was at work there. But as the poster above me (Bryan) mentioned, V. II doesn’t deny that there remain very serious differences.
    Here, I draw different conclusions than you. Those leaving the Catholic Church often have a poor understanding of Her teachings to begin with. As Bp. Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”
    Conversion (and reversion) stories are an edifying way of showing Catholics why it is that so many of our co-religionists are becoming Evangelical, and why so many are coming back. I just finished Francis Beckwith’s “Return to Rome,” about his resignation as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, and it’s been great for me as a Catholic. I learned more about what my own faith teaches about justification and why (his 6th and 7th chapters are all about it with lots of information from the early Church Fathers, although the book isn’t primarily an apologetic work by any means).
    It also contained some much needed criticisms for us Catholics. Too often, we have the urge to do what you’re suggesting here: to simply become one of the denominations, to become something like relativistic about it: the “competing orthodoxies” view. That would be suicide for the faith. If Catholicism is just one option, why choose it over an easier option? It’s like asking pro-lifers to posit their view as one of a multitude of possible choices. When we do that, we’re declaring defeat.
    Protestant Christians are both Protestant and Christian. We may change our emphasis on which part we focus upon, but it’s not a change in the Church’s belief. The Catholic Church has always held Herself out as the Kingdom of God which Christ established on Earth. Pope Benedict is no exception – he mentions this (more or less) in his work as a private theologian in “Jesus of Nazareth.” The Biblical support, like Matthew 13:24-25, suggests that the Kingdom of God on Earth is a visible society containing both saved (wheat) and unsaved (weeds) members. Matthew 16:17-19 has Him giving the keys to that Kingdom to St. Peter. We view that as Jesus creating a perpetual earthly head for the earthly Kingdom. He seems to claim a comparable power for Himself in the Heavenly Kingdom (Revelation 3:7, and perhaps Rev. 1:18, though it’s less clear). So the Church isn’t making this up out of whole cloth, either. It’s the crux of our identity, independent of Protestants. We would focus on being the One True Church even if the only non-Catholics to convert were the Jindals of the world instead of the Brownbacks.
    Finally, about whether or not we should convert non-Catholic Christians. It’s a valid question, and Beckwith raises some points in Return to Rome which are worth considering. He described a job interview at Baylor where he was asked about his views on a certain issue, and then the second question was, “so do you believe that everyone who thinks otherwise is wrong?” And that second question is where we always get antsy, particularly in this day and age of palatable relative “truths” being juxtaposed against rigid fanaticism. None of us want to make ourselves look closed- or narrow-minded.
    If I were answering the question, I would delineate between matters of personal taste, factual errors, and moral errors. Certain elements (liturgical ones) are shaped in no small part by personal taste. Individuals should agree to disagree. It’s like arguing over which favourite color is better. Other elements are factual errors, but insignificant. One side is right, one side is wrong, but the correct answer doesn’t impact the way we live, worship, or conceptualize God, so it hardly matters. The final group, though, is where I see the issue of the Church. We believe that Christ worked through us to create the “complete unity to let the world know” by creating One True Church with visible leadership on Earth.
    We think that Christ instructs us to act in a certain way, and that the Church is inescapably tied to Christ Himself. The early Church clearly thought this – they called themselves “the Way” (Acts 9:2), a divine title (John 14:6), Paul describes the Church as the Body and the Bride of Christ: of one flesh with Him through the Eucharist. And Jesus seems to think this way of the Church as inseparable from Himself as well. In Acts 9, He asks Paul why do you persecute “Me,” rather than “my followers,” and of course, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Matthew 25:40).
    We don’t emphasize this because we want to denigrate the legitimate faith that the vast majority of Protestants have. Rather, drawing on that love for Christ, we try (or perhaps should be trying) to make a good-faith effort to steer it in a different direction on this issue, because we think it’s what Christ wants, and what’s ultimately the only way to bring about the sort of unity which is pleasing to God.
    All of that said, I think this blog post (and the blog, generally) is an important piece in that dialogue.
    Yours in Christ,

  15. Chris Criminger May 13, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Joe, John and all,
    I have always sensed a strong tendency as a Protestant that even through good dialogues, Jesus parable of the prodigal son hits home still in so much of our places of agreement and disagreement.
    Protestants often are like the prodical son and looking more like the world all the time. When the talk to their older brother (either Catholics or Eastern Orthodox) often its with a kind of similar disdain and pride that they have stayed home while the other brother left home.
    The real punch of the story is both brothers in a way are far from the Father’s heart. As Henri Nouwen (a wonderful ecumenical catholic who even shared the eucharist with protestants), the person we should be like is the loving father in the story. Love covers a multitude of sins (past or present).

  16. Nick Morgan May 15, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Very interesting insight into the discussion. God bless brother!

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