With news of J. D. Vance’s entrance into communion with the Roman Catholic Church, it is worthwhile raising the question about the relations between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Vance, of course, is the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a book in which he describes white poverty in Appalachia and where he received some instruction from a variety of evangelicalism. In an interview with Rod Dreher, Vance explained his reasons for leaving Protestantism and joining Rome:
I became persuaded over time that Catholicism was true. I was raised Christian, but never had a super-strong attachment to any denomination, and was never baptized. When I became more interested in faith, I started out with a clean slate, and looked at the church that appealed most to me intellectually.
But it’s too easy to intellectualize this. When I looked at the people who meant the most to me, they were Catholic. My uncle by marriage is a Catholic. Rene Girard is someone I only know by reading him, and he was Catholic. I’ve been reading and studying about it for three years, or even longer. It was time.
It probably would have happened sooner if the sex abuse crisis, or the newest version of it, hadn’t made a lot of headlines. It forced me to process the church as a divine and a human institution, and what it would mean for my two year old son. But I never really questioned over the past few years that I would become Catholic. . . .
one of the things I love about Catholicism is that it’s very old. I take a longer view. Are things more daunting than they were in the mid-19th century? In the Dark Ages? Is it as daunting as having a second pope at Avignon? I don’t think so. The hope of the Christian faith is not rooted in any short-term conquest of the material world, but in the fact that it is true, and over the long term, with various fits and starts, things will work out.
That hardly counts as a Damascus-Road experience, which is why I raised last Spring at another outlet the question of whether a switch from one form of Christianity to another constitutes a “conversion”:
Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia and a conservative voice in the church, recently wrote positively about an event sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation honoring people with disabilities. Tebow, of course, is the former football star from the University of Florida, who in fits and starts tried a career first in the NFL and then Major League Baseball. He also gained notoriety for praying after scoring a touchdown and wearing eye-black during games (to reduce glare) that featured biblical citations. Tebow is, in other words, an evangelical Protestant and Chaput is a conservative Roman Catholic. And yet, Chaput referred to Tebow, though “not a Catholic,” as “a committed Christian.”
Even more recently, David Mills, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, wrote about Protestants in similarly positive ways. To the fear of no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, Mills wrote, the “church does not think Protestants will go to Hell because you don’t join up.” Instead, it “teaches that your church may well be for you the way to live with Jesus and to enter Heaven.” With explanations from the Baltimore Catechism (1885), Mills reassured worried believers not in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome: “You’re in, my Protestant friends.… We want you to be Catholics, but understand why you’re not.”
Someone might be tempted to disregard the opinion of a mere lay person, but Mills’ argument appears to line up with that of a successor to Christ’s apostles. That’s pretty mainstream. So perhaps the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants are not so great — the latter need not worry about the eternal fate of their souls outside Rome, and both sides may regard the other as Christian, sort of like different denominations within Western Christianity (I will let the Eastern Orthodox speak for themselves).
If this is a fair reading of current relations between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, why do we continue to hear about “conversions” from Protestantism to the Roman Catholic Church? If you go from a Methodist congregation to a Baptist church, you don’t call it conversion. If you switch from an Anglican parish to a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation, again, you don’t use the language of conversion. So why do ex-Protestants regard their membership in the Roman Catholic Church as a form of conversion? Is this the product of a bygone era of church history?
Take the case of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder in 1809 of the first American congregation of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, whom in 1975 Pope Paul VI canonized as a saint. A woman who struggled to find religious meaning amid the death of a husband while rearing five children, Seton experienced some spiritual satisfaction in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening only to identify later with the communal and sacramental character of Christian piety in the Episcopal Church. Still, she continued to search and in 1805 “converted” to Roman Catholicism. The recent biography of Seton by Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, shows that Seton took comfort in the tactile nature of the church’s “murals, gestures, saints, and sculptures.” As O’Donnell writes, “God’s literal presence … thrilled her.” O’Donnell does not determine whether Seton had actually been a Christian while either an evangelical or Episcopalian. Surely, though, before joining the Roman Catholic Church Seton was Christianish.Seton’s religious migration contrasts in many ways with the twentieth-century intellectuals that Alan Jacobs follows in his recent book, “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.” The French philosopher, Simone Weil, Jewish by birth but never practicing, showed an interest in Roman Catholicism but her conversion according to Jacobs never became complete. Another French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, was an atheist who thought the natural outcome of his lack of belief was suicide. He only became open to the possibility of faith after hearing Henri Bergson’s lectures, though Bergson himself was not a Christian. The modernist poet, T. S. Eliot had no religious belief as an adult; his poem “The Wasteland” was a description of his own ruin, Jacobs argues. Another poet, W. H. Auden, grew up in an Anglican home but had no faith. When in the mid-1930s his poetry made him famous, Auden thought he had forever abandoned Christianity. Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis, like Auden, grew up in Ulster Protestantism but by the age of seventeen told a friend, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” These lives are the stuff of conversion— that is, going from no belief in God and Christ to communion in a Christian church.
In which case, the better word to use for Christians who go from Protestant to Roman Catholic may be “upgrade.” That term is one we commonly apply to computers, like calling the move from Windows XP to Windows 10 an “upgrade.” The old system can still run a number of tools and programs but it lacks the features and capabilities of the new system. An upgrade is even supposed to eliminate some of the bugs of the old system, which is often what some deduce about going from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism (or vice versa). You receive a better (not new, of course) and improved version of Christianity but you do not start using a computer for the first time. An upgrade is when you retain the same operating system. In the world of computing, “convert” applies better to what happens when someone goes from a PC to an Apple. There, as I understand, old files and programs do not work and users need to learn a whole new set of icons, names, and applications. Do people who go from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism really think they previously did not believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the need of Christ’s death for forgiveness of sins, the infallibility of the Bible, or the benefit of prayer? Aren’t Protestants and Roman Catholics basically using the same Christian hardware and software with programs that include more or less features — Douay-Rhiems or King James’ Bible, church calendar or Sabbatarianism?
Of course, when someone goes from one version of Christianity to the other, part of the appeal is to be rid of the bugs that afflict the old system. For many non-Protestants, Protestantism, especially its low-church varieties, seems long on tackiness and short on tradition and ritual. Conversely, Roman Catholics who go from Rome to Protestantism may believe they are eliminating the bugs of praying to saints and misplaced trust in bishops for the sake of a simple and exclusive trust in Christ. Either way, the switch from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism involves a calculation of benefits and liabilities, not a dramatic change from unbelief to confidence in God.
Perhaps the best way of challenge the word, “convert,” is to remember those famous lines from John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace.” The phrase, “I once was lost, but now am found, ‘Twas blind but now I see,” may apply to some who joins the Roman Catholic Church, though Newton’s understanding of total depravity is some distance from the post-Vatican II church’s view of human nature. But to apply Newton’s lines to someone who trusted Jesus as a Protestant and then puts her faith in Jesus plus the church is at least simplistic, if not wrong-headed, for anyone who ponders the often dark and impenetrable ways of God in the human soul.