As a non-denominational, evangelical convert to the Catholic faith I’ve lived through what sociologists call a paradigm shift.
I went from being an arm-raising, grape-juice drinking, Bible-believing unaffiliated evangelical to a rosary-praying, priest-confessing, saint-loving Catholic. But it didn’t happen overnight.
For me, there are certain lines I can trace–a certain narrative—through nearly a decade’s long journey that led me home to Mother Church. In my own journey, I can check off certain boxes and say, definitively, yes, that made me become a Catholic.
So, naturally, I wanted to help others to avoid a similar fate.
For me, it’s too late: I’ve got rosaries stuffed into my dresser, a crucifix over the front door, and I’m lobbying hard to put a statue of St. Francis in the garden to scare away the wayward squirrels—before they eat all the tomatoes.
It’s too late for me, but there’s still hope for you.
If you can, with the help of our Lord and your closest friends and family, avoid these certain pitfalls, while I can’t promise, I can assure you that you’ll have a much easier time avoiding the trap that I fell into.
Friends, I offer some unsolicited advice: here’s how to not become a Catholic.
A convert’s guide.
Don’t Read Scott Hahn
One of the first mistakes I made as a Protestant was to read Dr. Scott Hahn.
Dr. Hahn is a renown bible scholar, and Catholic convert. In the 80’s Scott and his wife Kimberly were part of a wave of famous Catholic converts from Protestantism. Dr. Hahn, an evangelical pastor and staunch anti-Catholic, had a radical conversion Catholicism. He began to speak about his experience and one of his talks was recorded. Passed around on cassette tape, his incredible story began to draw others towards the ancient faith. The popularity of Scott and Kimberly’s stories touched off a massive wave of Catholic conversions and encouraged the pair to write a book based on their experience called Rome Sweet Home.
Do not read Rome Sweet Home.
What you’ll discover is that Scott and Kimberly are intelligent, well-read, and well-meaning people. They were, both, deeply schooled in orthodox, ordinary evangelical theology and incredibly well-versed in Scripture. Dr. Hahn graduated at the top of his class from an evangelical seminary.
They were actual Christians who became actual Catholics.
I had no idea this kind of thing even happened.
Dr. Hahn is now a highly renowned biblical theologian, a prolific author, and a voice of authority, compassion, and expertise in the Catholic Church. He’s brought his evangelical fervor to Catholicism and hasn’t slowed down.
Reading a conversion story as fulsome as Rome Sweet Home is dangerous. In the story of Scott and Kimberley, and the stories of other converts to Catholicism, you’ll see echoes of your own faith journey. You’ll encounter questions you may have asked, or may not have, but you’ll sure be asking now.
And, if you’re not careful, your road may begin to take a slight jog to the left and you may find yourself at the very beginnings of a Rome-bound journey.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Don’t Read Church History
A second, major mistake that I made was to read Church history—the history of Christianity.
I did my best.
I tried to select a truly academic, historical overview from as secular a source as possible. I didn’t want history tainted by an overly Catholic perspective, a heavily Protestant point-of-view, or a work of pseudo-historical merit. I wanted the real, scholarly deal. I’m a History major, after all, so I figured I could hack it.
I chose the 800-page Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch (among other sources I’ve read since).
Do not read The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
MacCulloch describes the history of the Reformation with sometimes mind-numbingly minute detail. It’s, truly, a thick slog and you could begin thesis work based on any of the small sub-sections MacCulloch includes. It was a decidedly academic text but, as a result, gives you an intensive overview of why the Protestant Reformers split from the Catholic Church in the 16th century and what was happening in culture and society which underpinned it all.
But reading Church History is dangerous.
From a in-depth reading it’s clear just how tenuous some of the decisions and attitudes of the Early Reformers were. How much of Martin Luther’s personal story of enlightenment is exaggerated. How much of his doctrine of justification and the very things he split from the Church over are driven directly by a manic personality. How so much of the Reformation was thrust forward by cultural, not religious, details. How politics, war, and the European dynasties proliferated and exacerbated tensions.
And, if you’re not careful, you might realize, like I did, just how shaky the foundation—the very origins—of my Protestant faith truly was. And how adequate and immediate the response of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was in cleaning up places the Church of 1,500 years had gone awry.
Spoiler alert: They do an excellent job.
In my lack of understanding of Church history I thought the Reformers sailed in to reclaim an ancient Christian faith that was lost to the mists of time when the Roman church went astray. In reality, it was a much more complicated movement, a split, from the singular Church which Christ had established by a group motivated by all kinds of things.
I was surprised by what I learned.
Don’t Read the Early Church Fathers
A third mistake that I made was nearly fatal: I began to read the Early Church Fathers.
Understand, these are the apostles of the apostles, the Christians who were taught by the very first Christians that Jesus taught. These are giants of Christianity who had direct access to those who heard Jesus’s very words, and touched his flesh. As an evangelical I didn’t even realize that this material existed and once I learned about it, I couldn’t get enough.
Do not read the Early Church Fathers.
As a naive, curious Christian I began to read the Early Church Fathers only to find out that they were startlingly Catholic. The Fathers wrote about Jesus being really present in Holy Communion—not simply as a symbol—as early as AD 100. They wrote, endlessly, about the importance of submitting to Bishops and respecting the authority of the Church—a Church which, in their minds, Jesus began, the apostles continued, and then passed on to them, by appointing them into places of authority.
When I began to realize that the Early Church didn’t look like the evangelical tradition I had grown up in I was shocked, and then confused.
I was always told, as an evangelical, that “house churches” were biblical—that independent, small groups of Christians meeting in an “upper room” was what happened in the first centuries of Christianity.
Instead, the Early Church is decidedly Catholic in its doctrine and its hierarchical structure, and if you’re not careful, you may come to a similarly shocking conclusion as I did.
And then what?
Don’t Meet Any Great Catholics
The next mistake you might make is to meet some great Catholics. Don’t do it.
You may have already come to realize, at this point in your journey, especially if you didn’t heed my earlier advice, that there are some pretty amazing Catholics out there.
Maybe you’ve read people like Scott Hahn, Stephen Ray, G.K. Chesterton, Frank Sheed, or Bishop Robert Barron. Sure, they’re great, and they’re vigorous, enthusiastic Christians (who are also Catholic) but you haven’t met them, so you’re still relatively safe.
Be careful though, don’t meet any great Catholics in person.
As soon as you meet great Catholics you’ll realize that right in your very neighbourhood, right in your workplace or your community centre or—heaven forbid—your local Catholic parish, there are actual Catholics.
Catholics who might be trying, for real, to live out the Christian life. Catholics who are striving to represent Jesus to the people around them.
Catholics who are devout and know their faith and their Bible and have a true heart for the pursuit of Christ and the love of their neighbour and, Heaven forbid, they may even know a lot about their faith and can talk about it credibly, intelligently.
And those are the ones you certainly want to avoid, at all costs.
Don’t Start Living Like a Catholic
But, if you’ve already met devout Catholics there’s still hope, even at this late point in the journey I can offer this solid piece of advice: Don’t start living like a Catholic.
You’ve been warned.
Because at a certain point in my journey towards Catholicism I realized that for all the book learning I’d done, for all the lectures and stories I’d heard, and for all the conversations I’d had (mostly with myself) I simply had to begin to live the Catholic life.
I had to try it on for size and see if, living it out, it actually made any sense.
Don’t live like a Catholic!
Don’t start going to Mass—especially avoid Daily Mass at all costs—or asking for the intercession of the saints (because you’ll get it!).
Don’t try to pray the rosary (it’s shockingly easy to learn!).
Don’t dabble with the Liturgy of the Hours or Eucharistic Adoration because you might fall in love with these decidedly Catholic practices and then there’s very little I, or anyone else, can do to help.
Once you begin to realize that the depth of tradition, of pious practices, in the Catholic Church are almost endless—that you can be a Catholic in so many different, ancient ways—you’ll realize just how incredible it is to have a faith ancestry like this to draw from. The pool is shockingly deep and the water is refreshingly cool.
You may be, at this point, too far gone.
Don’t Give God an Inch
But maybe there’s still hope, maybe the slope is not yet too slippery. Maybe your descent into Catholicism can be halted and I think I have some suggestions that, even at this late hour, can help to prevent your seemingly inevitable conversion into the Catholic Church.
Here’s one idea: Don’t give God an inch.
Don’t, whatever you do, let up even the smallest part of your life to God’s control. He’ll run with it, and that’s the last thing you want.
Don’t yield your will. Stand firm, and refuse to be moved.
I know, in the past, He’s gotten you through some tough times and difficult situations. I know you think you can rely on Him who is Eternal and All-Knowing to bring you through, safely, to the other side.
But you’re wrong!
The minute you give an inch to God, He’ll take a mile, and He may very well take you to a place you don’t want to go. A place of deep reverence, devotion, beauty and—on occasion if you’re lucky—sweet-smelling incense.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest saints and theologians of the Catholic Church, says that if even a small part of your will wants to do God’s will then God will begin to pour out His grace to make it happen. His grace! That interminable grace!
Because the last thing you want is to kind of think about Catholicism and give God room to begin to pour out grace.
Also, I really shouldn’t be quoting Thomas Aquinas either!
Another tip is this: whatever you do, don’t pray.
This could, ultimately, be your greatest mistake. You must simply stop praying altogether. If you insist and continue praying you may, accidentally, pray in a way you don’t mean to. Thoughts, petitions, or thankfulness are all well and good but something else might creep into your prayers and you might, by no fault of your own, pray for guidance in your faith journey.
You might pray for help, and then, friend, you’re done.
You may pray, like I did, for God to help lead and guide you and suddenly all barriers to the Catholic Church might tumble down like those mighty walls of Jericho. And you might find yourself marching right on in.
Because God answers prayers, of that you can (and probably are!) assured. In this area you need to be maximally alert and abide by the old adage: be careful what you pray for.
God gives very good gifts, and loves us very much. That’s exactly what you need to be worried about.
Don’t Let Your Faith Be Challenged
Finally, friends, if you’ve come this far I’m not sure what else we can muster up but I’ll surely try.
You’ve read some conversion stories, the history of Christianity and the shockingly Catholic Early Church Fathers. You’ve met some great Catholics both online and in the real world and you’ve started to make small steps in living the Catholic life. You’ve given up part of your stubborn will to God and asked Him for guidance in your journey. And now you’re here.
How, at the last bastion of common sense, the final battlefield, the great basilica of reason and sanity, can we make our stand?
We must, at this point, completely refuse to challenge our faith.
I recommend burying one’s head in the sand although successful techniques may vary.
In any case, we must refuse to be moved. We must dig in, friends, and dig in deep.
We must read all the authors we’ve always read. Visit all the websites we’ve always visited. Listen to all the same old podcasts we’ve always listened to. Spend time in conversation with friends who only agree with our points of view and refuse, at all costs, to challenge the faith we’ve always known.
We haven’t grown complacent—no way!—we’ve grown confident in our faith. We know what we believe! We’re not scared to think about the Bible, the Sacraments, or the Christian Church in a new way. Nothing scares us, we’re simply too busy or too happy with the way things are right now. We won’t be challenged because we don’t need to be.
After all, Jesus taught that change is bad, complacency is good, and we can get to Heaven by doing what we’ve always done.
Although, if you’ve come this far, and all else fails, maybe you should just become a Catholic. I know I did.
For a great conversation about how (not) to become Catholic, listen to The Cordial Catholic Podcast episode I recorded with Dr. James Tonkowich. Or use the player below,