Giving Your Testimony is what Protestants Do (even when they become Roman Catholic)

Last month we (some of us) read about Elizabeth Bruenig’s conversion from Protestantism to Rome. For her Roman Catholicism represented a place within which to resist the modern world:

As a Protestant, I had learned that commentaries on Scripture were just that: the ephemeral striving of mere mortals, bereft of meaning in their own right, useful only insofar as they happened to be correct according to one’s own judgment. But more and more I was convinced I could not carry out a Christian life by myself. I did not want to read and draw my own conclusions; I wanted guidance, clarity, authority. God had not seen it fit to leave Adam alone in Eden, nearer to God than we are now. He needed help, and God gave it to him.

I began to see God had already done the same for me. I just had to accept it.

Plenty of converts to Catholicism prize the church’s prudence when it comes to evaluating modern conditions. Because the church is a pre-modern institution, it does not take for granted many of the givens of modernity: that personal freedom ought to be endlessly maximized, for instance; that the most important goal in life is finding oneself; that politics and religion are two sharply and rightly separate spheres. . . .

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Does Ms. Bruenig pay any attention to the questions that surround the way the church manages personal property through the Institute for the Works of Religion (also known as Vatican Bank), the scandals that have surrounded that institution, or the challenges that Pope Francis, the alleged vicar of Christ himself, has had in implementing reforms of said bank? She does not.

But she offers a very personal account of her turn to Rome, one that captures well her own experience, which is actually the way that Protestant testimonies usually go. Instead of emphasizing the corporate understanding of faith — Rome as an institution — Protestants (born-again ones) stress the conversion experience.

As does Ms. Bruenig.

Then today we read of Matthew Schmitz’s experience in moving from Protestantism to Rome:

When I entered the Church, I felt that I was receiving an inheritance that had been unjustly denied me. It was as if I had entered an ancestral house so grand that possession of it could never be complete. There would always be more closed-off corridors, hidden gardens, and forgotten chambers where things dear to my forebears gathered dust. Though I might visit these rooms and even restore them, I would only ever live in the new wing prepared for me.

Looking back now, I am surprised that I felt this way. Protestant worshippers at churches with names like Faith Community, Westerly Road, and Capitol Hill Baptist had always been welcoming to me. Catholics are comparatively guarded—almost possessive—about their faith, and they have never embraced me so fully. Even their churches are less cozy. Despite fifty years of Catholic effort, it is still the Protestants who know how to give worship a domestic warmth and simplicity.

Yet Catholicism gave me a home that Protestantism could not. Though I knew well as a Protestant that my inheritance was in Christ, it was only in Catholicism that I found my native land. Unlike low-church Protestants, Catholics are fool enough to think that their visible church corresponds to the invisible one. They suppose that they can bring Christ into this world directly through the Mass and indirectly through pilgrimage and shrine, fast and feast. Catholics cannot help but make this world reflect, however dimly, our heavenly home.

Since the experience of so many converts to Rome is so different, readers may conclude that the home Schmitz found was one of his own personal making.

But I wonder if he is really “fool enough” to think that a church with all the history and baggage that comes with it corresponds so closely to the invisible church. Bank scandals, whiskey priests, Crusades? Invisible church is not what immediately comes to mind.

Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly, for that matter, on bringing “Christ into the world directly.” Granted, Protestants talk a lot more modestly about it and acknowledge their reliance on the word of God read and preached and the work of the Holy Spirit. Still, most Protestants think they have Jesus in their heart while many Roman Catholics believe in appearances of Mary and her ongoing work. If only Roman Catholics would limit themselves to Christ’s presence.

I wonder too about Schmitz’s claim that Roman Catholics cannot help “but make this world reflect, however dimly, our heavenly home.” Frankly, Protestants were the far greater offenders in trying to immanentize the eschaton. From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” (actually Jesus, but let’s not get picky) to the Eighteenth Amendment, Protestants have tried way too often to “improve” this world on the basis of fairly flimsy ideas about what heaven will look like. Protestants should have taken some cues from American Roman Catholics who simply went about their business for much of their history (until they hit the suburbs in the 1950s) and lived modestly, not attempting to be busy bodies even while running all sorts of urban political machines. Even worse, if the institutional church has so much trouble looking like the Christian’s heavenly home, why would you even think about changing the secular world?

All of which leads me to think that leaving Protestantism is a lot harder than converts to Rome think.

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