Evangelicals converting to Catholicism has become something of a trend. Many conservative episcopalians caught between a rock and a hard place have opted for a return to Rome. And there are some big names in evangelical theology who have gone over, including the (until just recently) President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Scot MacKnight has just written a piece in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) trying to figure out why the Roman road has grown more and more popular these days.
The Pontificator has written a series of posts on “Bad Reasons Not To Convert To Catholicism”. (The assumption is that you want to convert, but you have wrongheaded protestant baggage holding you back.) But of course that there are bad reasons-not-to-convert does not imply there are no good reasons-not-to-convert. However I am not going to be offering good reasons not to convert to Roman Catholicism: first, because I’m not positive there are any, though I have my suspicions; second, because I am not in the business of trying to dissuade people of their religious commitments for the sake of winning an argument on the internet. What I am going to do is to critique one very bad reason for turning Roman Catholic which is often used as a sort of bludgeon by triumphal converts against their former protestant co-religionists.
Here is a quote from someone I will not name, discussing the ‘greater joy’ he found upon his conversion to Roman Catholicism:
“Why this greater joy? Because I do not have to be the judge in judgment of the Catholic Church, of the Scriptures, or even of myself. It’s not my job. Millions of people over a period of two thousand years have reflected on our holy faith, and struggled with it, some cases even given up their life for it. Shall I improve on their combined insight, as it is shared with us through the Magisterium? Shall I pit my few decades against millions and millon [sic] of man years? No!”
I have nothing against conversion to Roman Catholicism, and nothing against people being happy about a renewal of their spiritual life that attends upon conversion. But the implication of this quote is that the protestant is a theological solipsist who has arrogated to himself a right to judgment he cannot possibly use well.
I won’t debate whether this is an accurate representation of Protestant theology. (It isn’t, but I’ll leave that to my theologian friends to demonstrate.) At any rate historical ignorance is not an essential part of protestantism, but it certainly is true that Protestantism emphasizes the importance of individual judgment and individual faith and so on.
Which brings me to the problem with the quote above. In making his statement, the author absolves himself of all responsibility and judgment. I don’t have to think anymore about what is true, good and so forth, the Magisterium will tell me. It is hard work to be thoughtful and responsible and to learn judgment. But everything fine is difficult. Thoughtfulness, responsibility and judgment are virtues the cultivation of which the church ought to be in the business of teaching. Indeed these virtues are not lacking from the more mature, reflective expressions of Roman Catholicism I’ve encountered in my life either.
Protestant or Roman Catholic, there is something basically deficient in a person who just goes along with whatever is said at church on the basis of blind authority. Being Roman Catholic does not obviate the necessity of using one’s own judgment just because the Magisterium isn’t always there beside you to tell you what you ought to do in daily life.
And converting to Roman Catholicism doesn’t solve your worry about individualism because it is still you, the individual, who converts. By your act of conversion you make your own private judgment upon the entire 500 year tradition of protestantism. And we have a couple of smart people over in our camp too. So it simply ridiculous to say that you want to be Roman Catholic so you don’t have to act as a judge over history . . . you are always already judging history.
None of this says that one cannot have an appreciation for the past. Just as I have avoided implying that Roman Catholicism as such requires the denial of responsibility, so too should any Roman Catholics avoid implying that Protestantism as such requires the denial of history. To be a Christian well requires both, not a decision between them.