Over the last 50 years many notable evangelical thinkers have converted to the Roman Catholic Church (or to some independent Catholic church of which there are many; here I’m concerned mainly with those who have converted to the RC Church). Think of Tom Howard, evangelical professor at Wheaton (and I think Gordon), who converted to RCC and wrote a book about his conversion called Evangelical Is Not Enough (1988). Think of Peter Kreeft and, most recently, my own colleague Francis Beckwith. But there are many more than never get noticed.
Last evening I attended the first session of a conference on Catholic-Evangelical dialogue. I renewed acquaintance with a former colleague (from the university where I used to teach) who has converted from being Baptist to RCC. (He now teaches at a Catholic university.)
Over the years I’ve had several students convert to RCC. I wouldn’t call it an avalanche yet. But it is a noticeable movement–very bright, studious, even scholarly evangelicals turning to the RCC and often attempting to maintain their evangelical identities.
I’ve participated in many Protestant-Catholic dialogues over the years. (Often the word used for “Protestant” in these events is “Evangelical”–a historical term for Protestant and especially Lutheran. It may or may not mean evangelical as in our postfundamentalist evangelical movement.) I attended and participated in ecumenical dialogues between Catholic and Protestant students and faculty at the University of Munich when I studied there in the early 1980s. I attended and participated in dialogues between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox in Minnesota (hosted by Carl Braaten’s and Robert Jenson’s Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology).
Somehow I was not informed of the Catholic-Evangelical dialogue taking place at my current university even though I teach theology in it’s seminary. The event is being hosted by the Honors College. I happened to learn about it from a poster in Starbuck’s!
So the dialogue event/conference is called the Wilkins Lecture (at least this year; there is hope to make it into an annual event). The premier speaker was renowned pastristics and Reformation scholar Robert Wilkins who has taught theology at Notre Dame and the University of Virginia and has authored several scholarly books on theology. He is a convert to RCC from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The lecture was about Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 5:5 and whether “God’s love” there means God’s love for us or our love for God. Augustine argued, and Trent agreed, that it is our love for God. Most Protestants (at least Lutherans) have argued it is God’s love for us. Therein lies a fundamental difference between traditional Catholic and traditional Protestant theology. Wilkins masterfully argued that the passage is referring to our love for God.
The hour long discussion afterwards was bracing but civil and respectful. Evangelical doyen Richard Mouw spoke and asked a very good question about the salvation of the thief on the cross. (Viz., that he did not have time to express love for God and seems to have been saved solely by God’s love for him.) Hans Boersma of Regent College also spoke up as did several others including yours truly who simply pointed out that Wesley seems to provide a middle ground on this issue. For Wesley, and for many evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition, God’s love for us and our love for God cannot be separated and our salvation is based on both. (Of course, it would take an entire book to unpack that as Wesley also believed, with Luther, that salvation is by grace through faith alone. It’s just that he argued that faith that saves is never “alone” but always accompanied by love for God and neighbor.)
One reaction I have to most of the so-called evangelical-Catholic dialogues I have attended is that “evangelical” often means Luther (and possibly Calvin). Movement evangelicals tend to get overlooked. Yes, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogues and documents did include many movement evangelicals. That seemed to be the exception. My hope is that this current series of Evangelical-Catholic dialogues will include and even highlight a broad spectrum of movement evangelicals.
Present at this current conference are quite a few movement evangelicals-turned-RCC. I’m not aware of any RCC-turned-evangelicals present. (Although I don’t know all the participants or attenders personally.) This is another notable feature of many such Protestant-Catholic dialogues I’ve attended. These seem often to center around issues of what evangelicals (or just Protestants) can learn from Roman Catholics. But real dialogue would evidence genuine openness on the parts of Catholics about what the RCC church and its adherents can learn from Protestants and evangelicals. That I seldom hear discussed by Catholic participants in such dialogues.
Here again is where my distinction between evangelicalism as an ethos and evangelicalism as a movement should be helpful. Of course a RCC person can be evangelical in the ethos sense. I think there are bound to be tensions, but I don’t see any reason in principle why a RCC person cannot be evangelical in ethos. The RCC allows much more latitude than many people understand. Such an RCC person would, in my opinion, have to believe the Bible trumps tradition when there’s a conflict (most of them will deny there is any conflict) and that the fullness of salvation requires a personal conversion to Jesus Christ and cannot be merely sacramental. I have met RCCs who seem to be evangelical through and through. I’m thinking, for example, of Brennan Manning (among many others).
Whether a RCC person can be evangelical in the sense of belonging to the postfundamentalist, post-WW2 evangelical movement is something else. Of course, no one can stop one from claiming to belong to it; there’s no magisterium of all evangelicals and there’s no such thing as a membership card. Historically and sociologically (if not theologically), the postfundamentalist evangelical movement has been thoroughly Protestant even as it is also multi-and transdenominational. I have met some charismatic Catholics, however, who hang around evangelical parachurch organizations and attend Protestant charismatic meetings and seem to consider themselves somehow attached to this evangelical movement. Evangelical leaders, however, have been reluctant to recognize them as authentically evangelical. Very often, when a movement evangelical joins the RCC he or she is released from his or her position in an evangelical organization.
I have no final word to say about whether an RCC person can be evangelical; I think it’s a question open for discussion. Sometimes I wonder why one would want to be evangelical, other than to infiltrate the movement and convert evangelicals to Catholic beliefs and practices, but I don’t conclude that his or her motives must be sinister.
I do think that a person can probably only be authentically evangelical in spite of and not because of his or her RCC identity. By that I mean insofar as RCC identity normally includes belief in papal infallibility, the Marian dogmas, sacramental salvation, etc., a person who is RCC and wants also to be evangelical (in the movement sense) would have to live with significant cognitive dissonance. So would those evangelicals who accept him or her as both Catholic and evangelical.
One thing I object to most strenously is any attempt to forbid proselytizing between RCC persons and evangelicals. The two traditions seem different enough to me that both sides will inevitably feel called to evangelize the other. That doesn’t mean they have to think of all evangelicals or all RCC persons as unsaved. It means that the differences are deep and wide enough that passionate believers on both sides must feel it would be better for persons to “come over” to their side–that their Christianity will be more full and correct if they do.
A word to those organizing these evangelical-Catholic dialogue events: Please invite former RCC persons who have converted to evangelical faith to speak. There always seem to be former evangelicals (or just Protestants) speaking but seldom (in my experience, never) former Roman Catholics.
Finally, one thing I find ironic is that we hear in scholarly circles of theologians and biblical scholars much about Protestants converting to Roman Catholicism and I sense a bit of triumphalism among RCCers about that. But what about the millions of RCC adherents in Latin America converting to evangelicalism? And the thousands (if not millions) of Hispanic persons converting to Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelical Christianity right here in the U.S.? I often get the feeling from BOTH Catholics and Protestants that this is not a good thing. (Many Protestants, for example, think the forms of evangelical life Latin American and Hispanic Catholics are converting to is not very sound.)