In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.
I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.
I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.
With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:
The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:
Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)
For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.
Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.
The problem here is two-fold:
First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.
Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!
My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic church, not brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.
Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.
Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.
Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:
The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)
Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.