[Note: this review was written around 1990.]
Dan O'Neill, ed., The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories,with a Foreword by Walker Percy (Crossroad, 1989, pp. xv + 187; $8.95 paperback). Reviewed by Philip Blosser, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Lenoir-Rhyne College.
At a recent conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a special luncheon was arranged to allow converting Protestant pastors to discuss the problems involved in carrying on their lives as new Roman Catholics. This remarkable phenomenon is just one indication of the apparently growing series of defections to Rome from evangelical and mainstream Protestantism ranks over recent years. Wishing to satisfy my curiosity about the matter, about two years ago I picked up Dan O'Neill's book, The New Catholics, and began reading. Stories such as those told by these converts could easily be multiplied many times over today, yet O'Neill's volume continues to offer a reasonably accurate cross-section of recent converts and remains a good benchmark and starting place for anyone interested in the phenomenon.
O'Neill, who is Pat Boone's son-in-law, begins his Introduction to this book by recalling how the November 7, 1986, issue of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of America's evangelical Protestants, carried a bold feature headline on its cover: "AMERICA'S CATHOLICS: WHO THEY ARE; WHAT THEY BELIEVE; WHERE THEY ARE GOING; WHY SOME STAY; WHY OTHERS LEAVE." O'Neill comments: "As a Catholic convert from evangelical Protestant ranks, I found this focus on American Catholicism as interesting for what was not said as for what was. There might have been a final subtitle: 'WHY NON-CATHOLICS JOIN.'" This book may be considered a sampling of recent answers to that question.
Who are these converts? They are a new generation of those rediscovering and returning to ancient liturgical churches-- much as Wheaton College Professor Robert Webber describes in Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church(1985), which he wrote shortly after he became an Episcopalian; or as former Campus Crusade for Christ staffer Peter Gilquist describes in Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith(1989), shortly after he and some 200 other evangelicals joined the Greek Orthodox-- a move also made recently by Frankie Schaeffer, Jr., the son of Francis A. Schaeffer of L'Abri fame. They are part of a movement, like the Oxford movement of the last century, that is rediscovering what novelist Walker Percy calls in his Foreword "the old-new Jewish-Christian Thing, the one holy Catholic apostolic and Roman Thing." None of these converts may be as notable as Louis Bouyer, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, or John Henry Newman, who rocked the religious establishment by his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845. But at a time when evangelical Protestants are making inroads among Catholics, and alienated Catholics are dismissing their religious tradition as an embarrassing dinosaur, it is significant that we find the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge, Walker Percy, Thomas Howard, Sheldon Vanauken, Richard John Neuhaus, William R. Farmer, William Oddie, Scott Hahn, and a multitude of lesser-knowns swimming upstream, against a tide of disaffected Catholics, to embrace the "Roman Obedience."
Why do they convert? There is a theme, running through these accounts, of a search for spiritual identity-- a theme very much like that of Webber's and Gilquist's books. It finds expression, in some cases, as a longing for holistic spirituality, a return to mystery and sacramental reality in the experience of worship; or as a weariness with sectarian differences and a desire to embrace the whole church in all its antiquity and catholicity. Very often, it resolves in a sense of "coming home," as in the selection by Pat Boone's daughter, songwriter Cherry Boone O'Neill, which concludes with a song she composed about her union with Rome, entitled "The Family Reunion"; or as in the story of another convert who envisions his pilgrimage as a "sheep's search for a shepherd," and finds himself at last "safely in the fold of Rome, under the care of the faithful shepherd John Paul II."
In an article entitled "Mistaking Rome for Heaven" (Christianity Today, May 12, 1989), evangelical theologian J.I. Packer contrasts this sense of "coming home" among converts to Catholicism with "what makes Roman Catholics into Protestants, [which] is always convictions about God's revealed truth," and asks: "Is it healthier for a change of church allegiance to be motivated by a feeling of at-home-ness, or by a conviction of truth?" What is striking about the stories of these converts, however, is precisely their repeated accounts of struggle with "convictions of truth." If any concern runs through their stories as a major theme, it is this. Sometimes it surfaces as distress over theological modernism, with its roots in Protestant liberalism, and over hermeneutical and ecclesiastical innovations, such as those leading to the ordination of homosexuals-- or, for that matter, of women. Sometimes it surfaces in concern over the biblical imperatives of care for the poor and homeless, the sanctity of human life and marriage, and the clear-cut stance of Rome against abortion, divorce, and gay/lesbian relationships. But most often it surfaces in a desire to get beyond the sectarian contradictions and disunity in the Body of Christ and recover the authoritative orthodoxy of the ancient and apostolic Church of Rome, with its magisterium and Pope.
While this is not a book of apologetics, it is interesting to follow the snatches of theological reflection by which these converts seek to explain their moves to Rome. One recurring provocation is the distressing observation that Protestantism has spawned hundreds of sects. In his chapter, Dale Vree (editor of The New Oxford Review) cites the Oxford Encyclopedia of World Christianity (1982) as noting more than 28,000 denominations of Christianity. The tone of some writers is not always irenic. One refers to his former denomination as "a small sect that had arisen out of the heated fantasies of nineteenth-century millenarians" and reviles its concept of the Church as "this huddling together of a handful of saints who cling to their list of niggling do's and don'ts while the rest of humanity gropes blindly toward perdition."
One might wish to demur here, and point out the large body of doctrine and experience that evangelical denominations, at least, share in common. But song-writer John Michael Talbot laments, in his chapter, that the things that divide even these denominations, such as the meaning of the sacraments, are not trivial afterthoughts, but differences over the most basic things Jesus commanded us to do: "Do this in remembrance of me . . . Go . . . make disciples of all nations . . . Baptize . . . Teach them to observe all that I commanded you . . ."
This leads, in turn, to another frequent assertion: that the Protestant principles of sola Scriptura and "private interpretation" are simply inadequate. Why? A number of reasons are offered. They are powerless to prevent the multiplication of conflicting and often heretical-- interpretations, apart from an authoritative magisterium (the apostolic teaching authority of Rome). They have no basis in Scripture. Sola Scriptura violates the principle of causality-- that an effect cannot be greater than its cause: if Scripture is authoritative, then how can one deny the authority of the Church, which, gave us the Bible (through its apostles) and determined the Canon (through its early bishops)? Former Gordon College Professor Thomas Howard notes: "All the heresiarchs believed in the inspiration of the Bible, but it took the Church to say, 'This is orthodox' or 'That is heterodox.'"
Such arguments may carry little weight for those who believe that the whole Church went off the rails around the time of Constantine, or, as some 'free church' folks insist, as early as A.D. 95. Conceding this problem, Howard responds: "My difficulty with this line of thought has been settled forever by Saint Augustine's argument against the Donatists: no matter how mucked up the Church is, you can't start anything new." Such a thought simply would not have occurred to those in the early Church: "You couldn't just hive off and start something else." Acknowledging that things did get pretty mucked up, Dan O'Neill points to documented cases among the ancient Roman occupiers of Palestine of converts to Judaism, in order to show how they saw, in the face of a shattered and beaten Jewish society, that salvation was nevertheless of the Jews: "In spite of a history of wicked, faithless kings, temple harlots, arrogant and manipulative priest, and competing religious views . . . they endured circumcision and humiliation among their peers to convert. They recognized in the Law and Prophets that God was speaking through this people." O'Neill's analogy is obvious: If the Jews continued to be the people of God before the birth of Christ despite their human failings, the sins that blight the history of the Roman Catholic Church are not necessarily evidence that she is not what she claims to be or that the Holy Spirit has forsaken her.
Sheldon Vanauken (author of A Severe Mercy),in his own inimitable way, cites three arguments that convinced him "that the Holy Spirit did not leave off His guidance of the Church of Peter in matters of faith." First, not one of the wicked popes of the Avignon 'Captivity' and Great Schism altered doctrine: "In the very year that Henry VIII's obedient Parliament named him head of the English church, Pope Paul III went through the streets of Rome in sackcloth and ashes for the sins of his predecessors-- but not for their errors in doctrine." Second, the timing of the pronouncement of the long-believed-in doctrine of papal infallibility as official dogma, which came just before the unforeseeable inroads of Secularizing Modernism: "Imagine the howls from the likes of Hans Kung if it were defined today! As it is the Catholic faithful . . . know that, if need be, out of the depths of Parnassus the oracle will return into the world: the ex cathedra utterance of the Magisterium. The Church has the bomb." Third, the unforeseeable chain of events leading to the pontificate of John Paul II, the intelligent, powerful defender of the faith, "the white knight of Christendom." Vanauken admits that the Holy Spirit can guide anyone: "But does anyone really see the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the Spirit of the Age, guiding, say, the Episcopal Church-- as a church-- away from all error? Come on!"
Books and reading figure in these accounts as much as one might expect. Anticipating the "clamorous rejoinders" to everything he says, Howard interposes between his own remarks and any agitated protests the following books: John Henry Newman's An Essay On The Development Of Christian Doctrine,Ronald Knox's A Spiritual Aeneid,Louis Bouyer's The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism,Henri de Lubac's Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man,Dom Bede Griffths' The Golden String: An Autobiography,and the Baltimore Catechism:"Demolish them before you demolish me," he writes. One finds also the usual references to writers one expects-- from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Merton. But there are some surprises, too. A number of contemporary writers, a couple of them anthologized in this volume, figure prominently in a number of accounts, including Vanauken, Howard, and Christopher Derrick, whose father was converted by G.K. Chesterton (himself a convert). Among the most often cited was Chesterton himself. But-- as Walker Percy muses in his Foreword-- "guess who turns up most often? C.S. Lewis!-- who, if he didn't make it all the way, certainly handed along a goodly crew."
There is little here that will clear up the misgivings of evangelical Protestants about Roman dogma concerning Mary, the saints, Purgatory, and the like, and a number of things that may dismay them. Still, there is plenty to warm the heart here, and much to promote sympathy and help to overcome the old crabbed caricatures of "Papists" that prevent Protestants and Catholics from embracing one another as "separated brethren."