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.
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 evangelical 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.