Why Become Roman Catholic? A Response to Christian Smith and Others
Don’t get me wrong; I have great respect for sociologist Christian Smith and many others who have converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. The history of this goes back a long way; I can remember when Gordon College English professor Thomas Howard converted. Then came Peter Kreeft and many, many others. I have had excellent, bright, very evangelical students who have converted to the Church of Rome—from so-called mainline Protestantism and from evangelicalism. I have no personal quarrel with or even personal criticism of converts to Roman Catholicism or animosity or antipathy toward Roman Catholics. Here I only want to ask a question and answer it myself while leaving the door open to responses from Catholics (especially Protestant converts to Catholicism).
A few years ago Christian sent me the manuscript of his book The Bible Made Impossible where he describes and decries “pervasive interpretive pluralism” which is the indisputable fact that there exists among even sincere, dedicated Christians a plethora of seemingly irreconcilable interpretations of the Bible. Pervasive interpretive pluralism is a reality beyond dispute and it seems to become more pervasive all the time.
I agree that it is a problem….
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Not long after his book was published Christian joined the Roman Catholic Church. I assume (although I have not confirmed this with him) that one reason was to have an authoritative interpreter of Scripture, to avoid pervasive interpretive pluralism. Other Protestants who have converted have given me that as their primary reason.
One of my best students converted to the RCC. When I asked him why he was doing that he said because he did not want to make his own decisions about Christian belief; he wanted someone else to do that for him. I volunteered, but apparently I was not what he wanted. I pointed out to him that by converting to Rome he was making his own decision; nobody was deciding that for him. Of course, there’s the possibility that God was deciding that for him, but I’m not taking that into account here. If I were convinced that was the case I would, of course, agree with his decision.
The big problem here is that the Roman Catholic Church’s interpretation of Scripture is just one more example of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Of course, Catholics don’t think so; they will disagree with that claim. But, of course, every Christian group thinks its interpretation is the right one! So what makes the RCC’s interpretation(s) better than others?
The usual answer given is that it is ancient and venerable—continuous with the apostles themselves via apostolic succession. But, of course, the Eastern Orthodox churches have even a better claim to that. And while there is much overlap between EO and RCC doctrine and interpretation there is also much disagreement.
I am a church historian and historical theologian and I am convinced by my own many years long study of church history and historical theology that many novel interpretations of Scripture with which the apostles would not agree have crept into RCC doctrine—especially the dogmas of papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas. But, of course, I realize that’s debatable. But that’s my point exactly! Joining the RCC does not solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism except in the minds of those who do it. (Even then, I think they will find interpretive pluralism within the RCC. It may not be as “pervasive” as among Protestants, but it’s there nonetheless.)
As an analogy I will bring up the U.S. Constitution. Talk about pervasive interpretive pluralism! Among even educated and intelligent American citizens, even among experts in American jurisprudence, pervasive interpretive pluralism is rampant! It’s a fact beyond dispute. But, someone will say, America has a Supreme Court to settle disputes about the meaning of the Constitution. True enough, except it doesn’t really settle them. It settles some of them de jure but not always de facto. The debates continue and who would really argue that Supreme Court decisions about the meaning of the Constitution are always right? No one in their right mind—unless by “right” they simply mean “enforceable.”
Do Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism really think that the magisterium has always been right—in a sense other than enforseable within the church? Most I have talked with admit that there are some doctrines and possibly even some dogmas of the Catholic Church of Rome with which they do not fully agree. And what about the Catholic Church’s rather slippery way of reinterpreting decisions made by councils such as Trent that condemned Luther and all his followers? Those anathemas have now been set aside. They no longer apply. How is that different from admitting they were wrong in the first place (which the Church does not say)?
My plea to Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism is this: Please don’t use the argument that doing so solves the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. At best, at most, it might for you, but that claim is meaningless to those of us who don’t join the RCC. We see it as just another denomination—partly right and partly wrong (like all of them). Find a better reason if you want us to be impressed.
Civil, respectful, helpful answers (in the spirit of dialogue) welcome…
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