Home to Rome?
By T.A. McMahon
In the October '98 newsletter, I wrote of an encounter I had with a young man who had converted to Roman Catholicism from an evangelical Christian background. My thrust in our conversation had to do with wanting to know his reasons. As an ex-Catholic, my personal fascination with such conversions revolves around knowing only too well what they're getting into-and even more shocking-what they've rejected.
Not long afterward I received a book packed with testimonies of evangelicals who had converted to Roman Catholicism. The title of the book (edited by Patrick Madrid) was Surprised by Truth, and although I was indeed greatly surprised by each personal story, truth was not the stunning factor. The truth by which they were so surprised had to do with each author's astonishment over the discovery that, contrary to what he or she formerly believed, and in some cases adamantly opposed, Catholic dogma is true! The following reflects the general sentiments of all the contributors to the book: "The Catholic Church seemed to have everything so well thought outit was a marvelously complex and consistent belief system unparalleled by anything I had ever encountered in Evangelicalism....I believed Catholicism had the best moral theology of any Christian body..." (pp. 246, 248).
The subtitle of the book is 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic. Two of the converts originally had Catholic backgrounds but became evangelicals; one was a United Methodist, one Jewish, one a self-described Baptist fundamentalist; one had an Assembly of God background, one was Dutch-Reformed Calvinist, and four, along with Scott Hahn (who wrote the foreword), studied at conservative, evangelical Presbyterian seminaries (Gordon-Conwell and Westminster). Nearly all the contributors had been active evangelicals, either as pastors or teachers. So why did they take the road to Rome?
Bob Sungenis, former evangelical radio "Bible answer man," minces no words: "The plague of 'protestantism' has spawned thousands of quarreling sects. Time itself has shown that Protestantism is not God's plan for his Church, but rather, is a dismal failure. As a Catholic, I am now at peace, away from the roiling controversies of Protestantism, secure in the consolation of the truth" (p. 132). Gordon-Conwell Seminary graduate Marcus Grodi writes, "As Protestants we had become infatuated by our freedom, placing personal opinion over the teaching authority of the Church. We believed that the...Holy Spirit is enough to lead any sincere seeker to the true meaning of Scripture. The Catholic response to this view is that it is the mission of the Church to teach with infallible certitude" (p. 51).
While most evangelicals are under the impression that the Scriptures encourage us to emulate the Bereans of Acts 17:11, that concept has led to a problem for these folks. T. L. Frazier notes, "Like the Bereans evangelized by St. Paul, I searched the Scriptures daily. I believe it was ultimately this practice which undermined my faith in the 'born again' religion....As time went on, I slowly began to lose faith in the Fundamentalist religious system to interpret Scripture in an objective manner" (pp. 190,194).
Spelling out their hopelessness in personally being able to come up with an infallible interpretation of the Scriptures, all the contributors came to the same conclusion as Grodi: "Eventually I realized that the single most important issue was authority. All of this wrangling [over] how to interpret Scripture gets one nowhere if there is no way to know with infallible certitude that one's interpretation is the right one. The teaching authority of the Church in the magisterium [is] centered around the seat of Peter. If I could accept this doctrine, I knew I could trust the Church on everything else." Accept it they all do.
Nearly every testimony included a litany of favorite Catholic apologetic defenses: apostolic succession, papal authority, non sola scriptura, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, proofs from early Church history, baptismal regeneration, the rejection of salvation by faith alone, prayers to the saints, the perpetual virginity and sinlessness of Mary, papal authority and infallibility, etc. Taking their words at face value, their conversions only came after serious study, great anguish, and much prayer: "The more I read Church history and Scripture the less I could comfortably remain a Protestant. I saw that it was the Catholic Church-the Roman Catholic Church-that was established by Jesus Christ, and all other claimants to the title 'true Church' had to step aside....It was the Bible and Church history that made a Catholic out of me...." (Grodi, at p. 56).
Some even had additional help. Regarding his wife's initial resistance to conversion, Paul Thigpen writes, "I entrusted her to the grace of God and the intercession of St. Ann." Former Presbyterian minister Scott Hahn turned to the Rosary for help. Julie Swenson tells us, "I was brought to the realization of the role of Mary's intercession in our conversion, and what a prominent role it was....Blessed Mother Mary! I very clearly sensed her strong maternal presence ["Mary" promises her omnipresence to all Catholics] that night and her powerful intercessory work on my behalf..." (p. 158). Tim Staples has a similar experience: "After a few minutes I felt the strong urge to ask Mary to pray for me. 'I don't know if I am doing this right, Mary. I don't know what is going to happen, but please help me! Please pray for me!' At that moment, the peace and joy of Christ flooded my heart. I almost felt the prayers ascending to God from Mary, my newly-found mother....I have never doubted the Catholic faith since that day" (p. 239).
All of the critical issues raised in Surprised by Truth (SBT) can't be considered in this brief article (they are covered, however, in the many materials we offer dealing with Catholicism), yet there are a few which need to be addressed.
For each person in the book, and other former evangelicals they list, the most convincing factor regarding their conversion was the study of Church history. Two of the writers give the same quote from the most famous of the Protestant defectors to Rome, Cardinal John Henry Newman: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" (pp. 56, 154). "This one line," says Grodi, speaking for a host of others, "summarizes a key reason why I abandoned Protestantism...and became a Catholic" (p. 56). Swenson declares, "[Newman] was right. My study of the early Church showed clearly that it was Catholic in its beliefs and practices..." (p. 154). Contributor Dave Armstrong agrees: "In the end, my innate love of history played a crucial part in my forsaking Protestantism, which tends to give very little attention to history..." (p. 251).
Well, let's give it some attention.
History, one will find, is not exactly an infallible guide, although many Catholic apologists work hard at raising it to that level. They tend to be selective to a fault. Arguably Catholicism's chief lay apologist, Karl Keating, writes regarding conclusive evidence for the belief in the communion elements being the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ, "Whatever else might be said, it is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the accounts of the Last Supper literally. There is no record in the early centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and the metaphorical accepted" (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 238; emphasis added). Pretty definite language-however, there are many such documents and they're not that difficult to find.
William Webster, an evangelical who pays a great deal of attention to Church history, points out (in The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, which we offer) that early church history presents not just the Catholic view, but most of the views we find today: "There is the literal view of transubstantiation which could be that expressed by Chrysostom; the Lutheran view of consubstantiation, which could be taught by Irenaeus or Justin Martyr; the spiritual view of Calvin, which is closely aligned with Augustine; and the strictly symbolic view of Zwingli, which is similar to that expressed by Eusebius" (p. 122). To the "symbolic view" list, Webster adds Theodoret, Serapion, Jerome, Athanasius, Ambrosiaster, Macarius of Egypt, and Eustathius of Antioch. While they are not exactly household names for many of us, we do know how highly Augustine is esteemed among Catholics. Yet he was not a fan of literal transubstantiation: "'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,'says Christ, 'and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.' This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us." (On Christian Doctrine, 3.16.24; emphasis added)
Church history is fascinating and has value, but it's a house of cards for anyone trying to construct infallible dogma or biblical doctrine. No Roman Catholic Church dogma of which the former evangelicals of SBT became practitioners was catholic (universal) among the early Church fathers. Even Pope Gelasius I (a.d. 492-496) denied transubstantiation. It was not officially recognized by Rome until a.d. 1215.
Although only one of the evangelical conversion testimonies in SBT gives the impression that biblical salvation was clearly understood and a profession of faith was made, all the converts are very clear about rejecting salvation by faith alone in favor of Catholicism's gospel of meritorious works for salvation. James Akin writes that "the simple 'faith alone' formula is not an accurate description of what the Bible teaches about salvation....[A]s a result of God's grace, we are capable of doing acts of love which please God and which He freely chooses to reward. One of the rewards, in fact the primary reward, is the gift of eternal life" (p. 63; emphasis in original).
The idea of rewards indeed reflects the Catholic position, because a reward must be merited or earned; it cannot, however, be a "gift." Dave Armstrong concurs with Akin when he argues, "...if a man had a free will, he did not have to be merely declared righteous in a judicial, abstract sense, but could actively participate in his redemption and actually be made righteous by God" (p. 251). Julie Swenson agonized over her former Reformed theology before becoming convinced of the Catholic dogma of being "infused" with righteousness in order to achieve salvation: "[God] doesn't merely declare us righteous (as Luther thought), he makes us righteous....This change is an intrinsic reality, not a mere extrinsic formality-the legal fiction Luther purported" (pp. 155-156).
I learned about legal justification from God's Word, not Martin Luther, and about the process of "infused" righteousness through my Catholic experience. So as I read through SBT, I kept waiting to hear the honest facts from these not-too-recently converted Catholics about what one must actually go through for the "intrinsic reality" of "infused righteousness" to get one to heaven. They never delivered.
So here is my perspective as a "cradled and seasoned" (former) Catholic: I came into the Church through no thought or effort of my own. Someone had to carry me in. My baptism opened the gates of heaven to me, closing the unofficial portal of limbus enfantum (Limbo), where deceased, unbaptized infants are supposed to end up. With original sin effortlessly out of the way I was heaven-bound with no fears, not even of Purgatory. But that would come. Concupiscence (my innate tendency to do evil) would get the better of me, and when I reached an age when I could understand I was doing wrong, and did it anyway, hell was my destination. After having been instructed in the theological facts of life, mortal sin, death, and damnation, First Confession looked good to this third-grader as a preparation for First Holy Communion. Now that which was formerly effortless and assured me of heaven was beginning to be a struggle.
I had to figure out the sins, separate the venial from the mortal, get to Confession before the mortal sins actually did send me to hell, get to Mass, not miss the Holy Days of Obligation (missing any one of ten per year consigns one to hell), try to get from Sunday Holy Communion to Saturday Confession without committing a cardinal sin. The lust-filled teenage years were like walking over red-hot glowing coals, all too real a reminder of where I could be headed. Grace through the Sacraments was supposed to make it easier; it did not for me, nor for anyone else I knew. And I even had an edge-my (middle) namesake, St. Aloysius, was the patron saint of youthful purity!!
The prospects ahead were iffy at best. Sometimes I could even put together a couple of mortal-sin-free, grace-building weeks. But then the bottom would drop out, actually a trap door with nothing below but fire and brimstone. My hope, at the very best, was to make it to Purgatory, which was not a place where I relished going because of all the purging and suffering for sins taking place there-but at least the threat of hell would be over. I was told there were many things I could do (and that could be done for me) to lessen my time in Purgatory (although no one could have absolute confidence, since God would finally decide whether or not I was truly deserving).
Peace and joy at "Home" in Rome? Try to find even a devout Catholic who isn't continually guilt-ridden and fearful! On the other hand, I've read and heard a number of positive spins on the gospel according to Rome (actually including how wonderful Purgatory will be!), but nothing that really changes what I've outlined. If Roman Catholicism's salvation were true, then the above process is what the eleven converts have to look forward to.
But it's not true, and there is a very simple reason why it can't be. The penalty for sin is death, separation from God forever. The full penalty for everyone's sins must be paid, even "venial" ones. There's nothing we can do to acquit ourselves of the penalty. As sinners, there is no grace to assist in meriting our own salvation. There is no sufficient penance, no purification process (temporal or in Purgatory), no reparation, restitution, suffering or sacrifice of ours that will satisfy Divine Justice. Either we ourselves must pay the full penalty-death and separation from God forever-or we must receive by faith Christ's free and complete gift of salvation. He alone completely satisfied the infinite requirements-the sinless, perfect Man and God our only Savior, who loves us beyond measure. Faith alone in Him, enabled by grace, is all we can do to be saved. There is no one else, no other way. TBC