Tony Palmer: The Case for Conversion

Bridge Across the Tiber

Bridge Across the Tiber

Before you make any comments on this post please read the whole thing…both pages. Thanks. Fr DL

Can you disagree with the Pope?

Sure. Last week I posted about some traditionalist Catholics who do nothing but correct the Pope. These extremists correct Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope St John Paul II, Pope Paul VI and Pope St John XXIII. When I said they resemble the liberal cafeteria Catholics they so dislike I also pointed out that there is nothing wrong with questioning or challenging a pope’s personal choices.

The underlying question is “Do you have a basic trust in the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ the Church? Do you have a rock solid belief that the Pope is working for the best of the church and the promulgation of the Catholic faith? Can you listen to him and obey him as your shepherd and as the Vicar of Christ?”

If “yes” then criticisms of the pope’s style, his personal choices, his taste and his decisions in pastoral matters are just talking points. It’s like having a good marriage but you can’t stand your wife’s new hairstyle. It’s like loving your husband but you wish he’d give up bringing fish home and gutting them on the kitchen table. It’s like loving your wife but cringing when her mother comes over.

With this in mind, I read with consternation Austen Ivereigh’s article for the Boston Globe which gives more detail about Pope Francis’ relationship with freelance Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer. For those who don’t remember, Palmer met the Pope when he was working in Argentina as a Protestant missionary. Tony Palmer, a South African, was married to an Italian Catholic, and the question of his converting to the Catholic church arose in his conversations with the then Archbishop Bergoglio.

Palmer and Bergoglio had intense discussions about Christian separation, using the analogy of apartheid in South Africa. They found common ground in believing that institutional separation breeds fear and misunderstanding. Bergoglio, whom Palmer called “Father Mario,” acted as a spiritual father to the Protestant cleric, calming him (“he wanted to make me a reformer, not a rebel,” Palmer told me) and encouraging him in his mission to Christian unity.

At one point, when Palmer was tired of living on the frontier and wanted to become Catholic, Bergoglio advised him against conversion for the sake of the mission.

“We need to have bridge-builders”, the cardinal told him.

Should the then Cardinal Bergoglio have advised Tony Palmer to convert to Catholicism? In fact, the more we learn about Tony Palmer, the more interesting the question becomes. He was very involved in joint Catholic-Charismatic renewal and evangelization ministries.  Wouldn’t that ministry have been undermined if he became Catholic? Was Cardinal Bergoglio, in this instance, correct in advising him to stay put?

The doctrinaire would say, “The Catholic Church is the one, true Church. Everyone outside it is going to hell and therefore it was wrong to tell Tony Palmer not to convert!” Unfortunately it’s not always that easy. Sometimes it is better, for all sorts of reasons, for a person to stay where they are. Those of us who work with converts–especially clergy converts–(and I get about two or three emails a month from clergy thinking of converting) realize that for family, faith and financial reasons immediate conversion is not always the answer. When a person’s livelihood and the security of their family is at stake, prudential judgments are necessary. If a person is moving towards the Catholic faith we meet the person where they are and walk with them on that journey. The journey is not always smooth and is often very, very difficult.

It took me twenty years to finally take the step to become a Catholic.

Therefore one can’t judge Cardinal Bergoglio’s call with Tony Palmer because we don’t know the whole situation.

What I can do, however, is say what converting to the Catholic  Church rather than remaining an Anglican did for me.

Firstly, it gave me clarity of vision. In the Anglican Church all was a muddle of relativism and personal opinion. Once I became a Catholic things began to move in a positive direction. My mission, my calling and my beliefs were clear enough that I could engage in mission with much more enthusiasm and purpose.

Could I have done more to further church unity by remaining as an Anglican priest? I doubt it. I did not become a Catholic because I planned on evangelizing or bringing others into the Catholic Church, but I have now been given a ministry to non-Catholics that I never would have dreamed of as an Anglican. Through my books, apologetics, website, blog and radio show I have reached hundreds of thousands with what I hope is a positive, intelligent and warm explanation of the Catholic faith to non-Catholics. I don’t go out seeking to convert people, but they read my books and hear my story and many have written and told me that they have become Catholics because of my work.

I write this not to boast, but to say the for me, staying in the Anglican Church would not have helped build bridges or bring about church unity at all. I have been able to do much more for church unity by taking the step towards unity myself, and this one step of obedience has reaped far more graces and conversions than I ever could have begun to do by remaining an Anglican.

Why then did Cardinal Bergoglio dissuade Tony Palmer from converting? Continue Reading