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Do Protestants Become Catholics for Love?

After being reconciled to the Catholic Church eight years ago I would occasionally be asked, "What's her name?" This question was meant, I suppose, to indicate that one couldn't become Catholic because one believed Catholic claims, but only as a means to get a girl. I usually answered, "Mary."

Steve Schlissel, a former pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination of my youth, and now pastor of of an "independent" Calvinist ministry in Brooklyn, NY, posed the question in my title in an article a couple years ago. Last year, Dave Armstrong put it on his blog and responded to it, and I found the piece this morning.

I met Schlissel several times when I lived in New York and baby-sat the children of some of his parishioners (the kids' mother was daughter of North Dakota writer Larry Woiwode, incidentally). I went to church with them one Sunday for the sake of curiosity and nostalgia for good congregational singing. Schlissel is a Jewish convert to Calvinism and makes Judaism something of his schtick (I don't mean this pejoratively). He also has the old-fashioned Calvinist dislike of Catholicism and made several old-fashioned slurs during his sermon--something to the effect that Catholic sacramental theology is "magic." I sent him a note after the service reminding him that he should at least be fair if he's going to criticize Catholics and that calling sacraments "magic" really wasn't going to cut it. I told him something of my journey to Catholic faith in the letter and encouraged him to charity. He never responded at all, though when I saw him a few months later, he looked at me with an odd smile and tended to avoid talking to me.

In any case, Schlissel seems to have encountered more Protestant converts to Catholicism since the phenomenon is the subject of this essay.

Titled "Got Love," Schlissel proposes that the reason many young people convert to Catholicism is not because of doctrinal considerations but because they are simply sick of the fighting and lack of love of Protestants, particularly Presbyterians. (Presbyterians are often known as the "split-P's" in many Protestant circles.) Schlissel adds the somewhat unrelated claim that when many young Presbyterians "study" (notice the scare quotes) patristic sources they are only given "pro-Romish" (notice the old-fashioned anti-Catholic terminology) ways of reading them. Schlissel concludes that Rome will make many gains over the next decade.

About the third point, I agree. Rome is and will make many gains--as it has for the last fifteen years adding between 150 and 200 thousand adult converts a year in America.

About the second point, Schlissel seems to think that there is a Protestant way to read the Fathers. I'm not sure how since the Fathers don't look anything like Protestants. B.B. Warfield, the famous 19th century Presbyterian said the Protestant Reformation was the triumph of Augustine's soteriology over his ecclesiology, admitting that the Reformation was in many ways about sundering in two one of the Fathers. That one can so easily separate Augustine's ecclesiology from his soteriology is to miss how interwoven they were (as well as with Augustine's mariology) in Augustine's own thought. It would be more appropriate to have said "parts of Augustine's soteriology".

About the first point, that Protestant conversions are due to an impatience with a lack of love on the parts of Protestants, there might be some truth. There was for me. But Schlissel should look a little more carefully at his own arguments. If Protestants become Catholics "for love," isn't this simply the fulfillment of Jesus' own words in John's Gospel and (and the Johannine epistles)? Isn't this supernatural love, especially in face of the fact that Catholics don't always like other Catholics (on the contrary, our fights are even more at fever-pitch sometimes), really a sign of the fact that we dwell at the heart of the Church? I think one could make this argument quite easily.

It is also the case that the angry fragmentation of Protestants prods the questions of: What is the Church? How is it governed? How do we know what are the proper theological boundaries for Christians, given the Bible's tendency to speak in a multitude of voices? And all the other questions that follow.

I find myself hard-pressed to think of a single well-informed Catholic who has become a Protestant in the last twenty years. Certainly on the level of pastors and theologians, the tide is quite the reverse. One can name a host who've become Catholic, but there aren't really any examples of the reverse (except those, like Matthew Fox, whom Protestants really wouldn't want to claim). It's Protestant converts who've done the hard theological thinking. Most ex-Catholics were poorly, if at all, catechized, and often have very strange notions of what Catholics teach.

But Schlissel is right in the end. Our Protestant families and friends did their jobs right. They introduced us to a Love whose reality we found in the Catholic Church, Love's Bride and Body.

Comments (3)

Jason A.:

With all of your interesting encounters with various folks, reading your stuff is like reading one of George Rutler's "Cloud of Witnesses" columns in Crisis Magazine. What great fun.

I came from a "mixed" religious background and spent my early years fairly confused trying to straddle the divide. As a young man, I leaned heavily toward the Protestant side because their chaplains in the Navy seemed to take an interest in us young men from mixed families (I now understand how little resources they had and small were their numbers)--we didn't seem to be the bother that the Catholic priests seemed to deem us.

However, after theological training and pastoral work, the Love issues became a very big issue. At one point, it seemed as if God was saying, "Do you love me?" And, I was confused (again)--Of course, look at all the work I'm doing for your Church. It was Mary who helped me understand what that question meant. Do you love what God has created and not what you think you generate through your own work. Then, I realised that I did love the Church in her completeness and that included what came after Augustine. It was love of Mary, the Church and myself as I called to be--wholly in love with God and all that He has created--holy.

Rick, your story is a telling one. Most Catholics who become Protestants are like you were--people who were "witnessed to" and shown love by very good Protestant Christians. I like the Marian angle in your story. Hans Urs von Balthasar always said that the Marian element--the element of faithful openness to God--is more central even than the Petrine--namely the institutional and authoritative part of the Church. Of course the two can't be divided, but I suggest that those of us who responded to the "Church of Mary," so visible in Evangelical Christianity, respond when we see how the "Church of Peter" enables faithful love to grow and take shape and become even more visible.

Jason, I thank you for your compliment. Fr. Rutler's style and person are inimitable. To have any comparison with him is a great honor.

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