The much-publicized “reversion” of former Christianity Today editor Mark Galli (he’d been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as a child) quite naturally leads thoughtful sons and daughters of the Reformation to evaluate the biblical and theological support beams of their faith. After all, if someone who’d ascended to the summit of an evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham finally decided the Protestant faith is somehow lacking, then what makes us think we stand on solid theological ground?
As Carl Trueman has put it, “[We] need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.”
In what follows, then, we’ll consider three concerns that often instigate movement toward or away from the Roman Catholic Church, reasons that seem to be part of Galli’s journey: disenchantment, the quest for clarity, and a desire for church unity. My recent Davenant series with Brad Littlejohn, “Conversionitis: Why Protestants Convert,” provides a fuller treatment of these topics.
A Religion News Service (RNS) article on Galli’s “journey” quoted him as expressing dissatisfaction with his own prayers while serving as a Presbyterian pastor—before discovering the Book of Common Prayer. “I was tired of the trite phrases I used all the time,” he said. “The Book of Common Prayer had these magnificent prayers of praise and confession and thanksgiving, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to say!’’’
Such dissatisfaction is common. We live in a world of technological contrivance, which increasingly buffers us from the genuinely human. The superficial confines of our aggregated newsfeeds and therapeutic spirituality effectively cocoon us in a world of our own making, a world that reduces Christian faith to a commodity that’s marketed and then consumed.
Add to this the eagerness of many Protestant churches to make God “seeker-friendly,” and we are left with congregations of people wondering what exactly it was they were seeking—nothing, it seems, that they couldn’t have found in an inspiring Ted Talk or pop concert. As such souls crave divine encounter that rises above the mundane, materialistic, and digitally depleting mode of secular life, they are instead treated to light shows, projectors, and interactive “tweet-the-pastor” sermons.
Souls crave divine encounter that rises above the mundane, materialistic, and digitally depleting mode of secular life.
Those who convert often come from this disenchanted group. Hungry for a grandeur and authority from above, they wander into a Catholic Mass and hear for the first time the singing of a Sanctus, observe the reverential breaking of the bread, and are struck by the humility of bowing in the presence of God. It’s the via pulchritudinis about which Bishop Robert Barron often speaks—the “way of beauty”—found in the consecrated host, cathedrals, holy water, incense, candles, and various sacramentals that bespeak the mysterious presence of Christ.
The hunger for the beauty of Christian ritual is nothing new. Just read the conversion stories of Newman, Muggeridge, and Merton. The issue was of no little importance in the 16th-century Reformation. Amid the breathtaking chapels, paintings, and frescoes of the period, the Reformers contended for something deeper. Brad Littlejohn puts his finger on it:
Again, it was the contention of the Reformers that the beauty of holiness in which Rome gloried even then was but a painted façade, a simulacrum of the real thing. Rather than revealing the supernatural in the natural, the extraordinary in the ordinary, their transubstantiation could only replace bread and wine with heavenly substances. Rather than granting the faithful believer access into the Holy of Holies to feast before the Lord, they left him to gawk from the outer courts while the priestly class interceded on his behalf and brought some morsels of grace out to sustain him on his weary pilgrimage. Rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of God’s presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, they encouraged him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.
Rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of God’s presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, Roman Catholicism encourages him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.
There is valuable insight here. As Grant Macaskill stresses in his book Living in Union with Christ, Christians are not individuals trying to apprehend God—though it may feel that way in our secular routines. We have, rather, become the very sacred spaces in whom God now dwells on account of Christ’s finished work. From within, the Spirit redeems every dimension of our being. In addition to our rationality, God takes captive our kardia and splagchna (inner parts) from which holy affections arise (Col. 3:12; Philem. 1:7).
Such a full and robust redemption enlivens us to worship through our vocation, music, poetry, confession, preaching, sacraments, and prayers—forms that constitute the rich birthright of our “catholic” Christian heritage. It’s an inheritance we dare not allow to be sold for a lentil stew of fog machines, hypnotic choruses, and biblically feeble sermons.
2. Quest for Clarity
Many can relate to the experience of sitting in a Bible study in which everyone has an opinion, and we return home feeling as if there’s nothing clear and objective to hang our hats on. Galli confesses he experienced “a certain weariness with the constant theological polemics and splinters in the evangelical world.” He is quoted as saying, “I want to submit myself to something bigger than myself.”
Over the centuries, Roman Catholics have described this phenomenon as “biblicism.” In his sermon “Unreal Words” (1840), John Henry Newman conveyed his frustration with the ever-growing number of Protestant interpretations: “Let us avoid talking, of whatever kind, whether mere empty talking, or censorious talking, or idle profession, or descanting upon gospel doctrines, or the affectation of philosophy, or the pretense of eloquence.” Over against such “private interpretation,” Newman was drawn to a thick magisterial authority that promised doctrinal and ethical certainty.
Confronted by such interpretive ambiguity and rancor, converts look to Rome to resolve the struggle, one that some believe is an outworking of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the doctrine of sola scriptura. For example, Peter Kreeft writes, “Protestantism shows a massive and natural slide toward modernism and liberalism and relativism and historicism concerning scripture.” Against this slide, Kreeft presents the Roman Catholic magisterium as the bulwark never failing, “the rock of Peter that stands up against the floods of history.” Again, “That rock does not exist outside of Rome. It is the only dike against the ocean of relativism that never springs leaks. Never has, never will.”
But Kreeft’s account is too neat. A friend who had borrowed my copy of Kreeft’s book scribbled in the margins: “Pope Francis?” A bit cheeky, but it makes the point. If there’s one thing the pontificate of Francis has demonstrated, it’s the non-perspicuous nature of the Roman Catholic magisterium. As Onsi Kamel explains in his recent First Things article, “Catholicism Made Me Protestant,” the infighting among traditionalist, conservative, and liberal Catholics highlights the sizable dent in Rome’s claim to speak with the living voice of divine authority. Complete interpretive certainty cannot be realized in the sola magisterium position of Rome any more than in one’s private interpretation.
Complete interpretive certainty cannot be realized in the sola magisterium position of Rome any more than in one’s private interpretation.
Until Christ returns, we will continue to see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). In the meantime, thankfully, we have the illuminating grace of the Spirit, who imparts divine faith, hope, and love.
3. Church Unity
Galli’s concern about ecclesial division, according to the RNS article, “left him exhausted.” He found attractive the Roman church’s claim to be the one true church. “True unity requires not just a mental and emotional assent,” he said, “but actually an agreement to live under a structure, an ethos, a way of doing things together.” This reason, it seems to me, is a factor in virtually every conversion to Rome.
Division has been a grievous—and at times embarrassing—dimension of our Protestant heritage, a failure we must recognize and own. Sure, we understand the theological reasons why Luther recoiled from Zwingli at Marburg when Luther asserted, “Your spirit and our spirit cannot go together. Indeed, it is quite obvious that we do not have the same spirit.” But it’s still troubling. And it should be, for the Bible has more than a little to say about preserving Christian unity (Ps. 133; John 17:20–21; Rom. 15:5–6; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; Eph. 4:1–3).
According to Rome, one’s experience of church unity is upheld by priests who serve as spiritual mediators and bishops who represent the apostles. In this vision, ordained clergy don’t simply minister in the name of Christ; they operate in offices imbued with his sacred authority, a continuation of his incarnate presence. The infallibility of this church is understood to be upheld by Christ governing through Peter and the other apostles who are present in their successors, the pope and the college of bishops. The boundaries of Christ’s church are therefore identified in some sense with those of the Roman Catholic Church.
When the Reformers split from or were excommunicated by Rome, they rejected this Roman structure. Instead, they emphasized the church’s identity and calling as a communion of saints, the congregation of the faithful who receive God’s redemptive word, variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, and life.
Concerning the relationship of divine authority to this identity, Michael Horton helpfully reminds us, “The church is always on the receiving end in its relationship to Christ; it is never the redeemer, but always the redeemed; never the head, but always the body.” The coherence of this church may appear deficient to those who compare it with the institutional organs and offices of Rome. But true unity is diverse men and women who define themselves by the gospel, an adherence shared by Christian traditions from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
The Reformation has more than enough historical and theological underpinnings to keep us upright and walking confidently with our Savior.
While Mark Galli’s familiar reasons for swimming the Tiber—softening his choice by claiming to be an “evangelical Catholic”—continue to have a certain force among some wavering Protestants, they don’t need to carry the day. Whether the issue is disenchantment with today’s church scene, the quest for theological clarity, or the desire for ecclesial unity, the biblical faith championed and rediscovered during the Reformation has more than enough historical and theological underpinning to keep us upright and walking confidently with our Savior.