I am not converting to Catholicism.
Not yet, anyway.
But there are certainly allures the Catholic (capital C) church presents, which I have become more aware of the older I get. Before I dive in, let me expound a little bit on what the past few years have looked like for me, theologically.
I was born and raised in the American Evangelical church. It was great. It was not an oppressive, secular-music-CD-burning type of church, but an authentic one that strove to love God and love everyone. Then I was with a mission organization, followed by Moody Bible Institute, both of which are strictly Evangelical.
Presently, I am attending Denver Seminary, another Evangelical school, pursuing my Master of Divinity degree, with an emphasis in Theology. Needless to say, the past 28 years of my life have been shaped by and revolved around the Evangelical church.
I’m not one of those angry Millennials plotting to destroy the Evangelical tradition, though I am beginning to see more faults in it, and I’m beginning to dismantle mental blocks which throughout my life painted the Catholic church as ‘the enemy.’
For instance, in my Church History class this semester, the professor told us of a recurring horror story: People tire of the rock-concert type of church and dive into Christian tradition. They begin to see the twisted roots of Evangelicalism and this leads them to a more liturgical church. Then, through further theological exploration and historical understanding, they convert to (gasp) Catholicism. A hardcore Baptist, my professor warned us of the temptation toward Catholicism and shared a few of his reluctancies with the church. (Granted, his hang ups are the same ones I encounter: Confession, Papal authority, saint worship, veneration of Mary, etc.)
However, He shared this pattern with such passion you would think these folks were leaving Christianity altogether and hailing satan! If pushed, I’m sure he would concede that these people are still brothers and sisters in Christ, so why such antagonism toward Catholicism?
I experienced the same amount of resistance a few years ago, when I posted on Facebook:
“Evangelicals are people who know they’re not Catholic, but most don’t know why.”
Many people firmly replied, I know why! I would never be Catholic! and so on. I know there are deep wounds and pain inflicted by the Catholic church, but frankly, the same could be said of just as many Evangelical churches. The difference is, if one Evangelical church hurt you, you could move to a different one and have a completely new start while remaining in the same denomination/tradition.
The Catholic church on the other hand is like an Aspen tree: each cluster of Aspen trees is the same organism, connected underground through a vast root system, making it the largest organism on earth. In the same way, each Catholic cathedral is a single building, but all connected through the same episcopacy and run from one hierarchy: Rome.
Alternatively, Evangelical traditions could be compared to any other type of tree: Each pine tree is a pine, but it is also its own unique organism. Killing (or renouncing) one pine tree doesn’t hurt all the other pine trees the way it would an Aspen. To renounce Aspenism is to renounce all Aspens everywhere.
My perspective toward the Catholic church began to soften last year when I moved to Guatemala. Not only is nearly everyone in the country a Catholic, but I met several Americans who had converted to Catholicism for very legitimate reasons. One stands out. He hd been living in California several decades ago and saw the poor and immigrants being mistreated in his neighborhood. After reaching out to several local churches, he found that the only church in his area doing anything to help was the Catholic church. It was then that he joined it, and never went back.
Of course that story is completely anecdotal, and is not meant to say Catholic churches always help and Evangelical ones never do. It is merely to say that for him, his reason for switching denominations was entirely legitimate, as well as unique to his passion. He cared deeply for social justice, so he aligned himself with a church that not only believed similarly, but acted on it.
Now, moving on to my point.
Before studying very in-depth, I, like most Evangelicals, saw the Catholic Church as the evil entity in the 16th century which needed to be taken down by the heroic Martin Luther. They were the undeniable Good Guys standing up to the empirically Bad Guys — the Catholic Church.
That was my simplified understanding, but after looking more closely, I have found it is far more nuanced than that. Ironically, some of this came about through the very class taught by my hardcore Baptist professor.
Was there actual evil being perpetrated by the Catholic church in the name of God in the 16th century? Yes. I think that is undeniable, and I would wager that today’s Catholics would agree. Is there actual evil being perpetrated by leadership in today’s Catholic church? Yes. But again, sadly, which denomination is completely free from corrupt leadership? It’s a logical fallacy to fault an entire organization for the misdeeds of a few of her members. You need a better metric.
But was the dividing of the church the best solution? How was splintering the Church supposed to strengthen it? My professor told us this joke:
“The Catholic church feared that if it let people read and interpret the Bible for themselves, they would end up with thousands of denominations. They were wrong. There are MILLIONS of denominations!”
For a little thought experiment, think this through: Imagine there is an organization which is trying to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick all around the world. Which would be more efficient: to have one unified global body going about this end, or to have 30,000 individual bodies doing it, assuming that in either case you have the same number of humans participating?
There are roughly 30k Christian denominations in the world.
The Catholic church still is one body which holds the same beliefs universally, and is under one authority.
It’s no wonder my friend’s Catholic church in California was more effective in poverty alleviation than the local Evangelical churches. One was pulling resources from over a billion people worldwide to provide aid, while the other was pooling resources from a few hundred local congregants.
It’s this very strength and unity which could also cause the top-down corruption which was witnessed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. If the entire church is working toward advancing God’s kingdom, loving outcasts, and providing for the needy, the Catholic church could be an inconceivable force for good. If, however, the Popes are corrupt and the Bishops are greedy, the entire thing could quickly be doomed.
What I see in those who decide to leave Evangelicalism and turn to Catholicism is simple: hope. They see a sinful, imperfect expression of the Catholic church, but see how much good it could do.
Most who stand outside the Catholic church and point fingers at it simply see the same faults, but without the hope of what it could be.
So, which is better: A huge, worldwide institution with bottomless resources but many problems in the infrastructure; or a relatively tiny church with meager resources, but relatively smaller problems? Are the Catholic church’s problems magnified simply because it’s an exponentially bigger organism than your local non-denominational church?
I’m not arguing for one side over the other. If anything, I am simply arguing for more understanding and less antagonism within the Body of Christ.
One things Catholics emphasize which the Evangelical church could learn from is unity. They are not competing against other Catholic parishes, but working in unison with them. They don’t see other local expressions as competition, but as teammates. How much more powerful could the 30,000 Evangelical denominations be with that mindset? What if we, like the Catholics, minimized our theological differences in favor of unity in mission?
May we learn from one another.
May we be unified.
And may we pray with the Church universal, Maranatha! Come swiftly, Lord Jesus!