You can learn a lot from comparing Catholic converts to Protestantism with Protestant converts to Catholicism. Catholics tend to leave because their basic needs aren’t being met. Protestants tend to leave because only their basic needs are being met. I think that the best evidence shows that Catholics need to be better at presenting and living “Christianity 101,” while Evangelicals need to graduate to a deeper and more knowledgeable Faith.
I. A Profile of Those Who Leave Catholicism
The statistics on those leaving the Catholic Church in America can be downright frightful. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed over 10,000 cradle Catholics, and the results were disturbing. For every six children raised Catholic, one left the Catholic Church for Protestantism, one lost their faith entirely, and two remained Catholic but reported not having a “strong faith.” So not only are we losing one-third of our members outright, but another third seem to be lost to lukewarmness. And this is just based off of self-reporting: if anything, the real situation might be worse. The results are here, and well worth the read.
Right now, this gaping wound in the American Church is possible to ignore, because there’s a large wave of Catholic immigrants, particularly from Latin America. As a result, within the US, Catholicism is technically growing. It’s just that most of this growth consists of people moving here from other countries, rather than getting saved, or arriving at the fullness of Catholic Christianity. It’s the difference between making money, and losing money, but transferring money from your savings account to make it appear you’re still profitable. It masks the problem, it doesn’t solve it.
A. People Thirsty for Truth
So what can we learn about the actual problem, and how can we solve it? Here’s a couple of interesting statistics:
- 71% of “unaffiliated” ex-Catholics report that they “just gradually drifted away from the religion.” This was the highest percentage reason given by far: no principled objection, no sudden (de)conversion experience, just sort of wandered off.
- 71% of Protestants, on the other hand (including 78% of ex-Catholic Evangelicals) reported that they left because their spiritual needs were not being met.
These folks seem to be saying something very similar. As Catholics, they weren’t connected. It wasn’t as if they were on fire for the Catholic Faith, and something caused them to suddenly renounce their faith. They left because they weren’t on fire, causing them to either look elsewhere or give up entirely. In contrast, only 65% of “unaffiliated” and 50% of Protestants reported leaving because they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teaching. It doesn’t appear the doctrines are what are primarily causing the exodus. Put another way, a Catholic generally doesn’t become Baptist because of their teachings on infant Baptism, but because they express their love for the Lord in a way which the spiritually thirsty Catholic longs for.
B. People Badly Misinformed.
Many Catholic reverts (people who go from Catholicism to something else, back to Catholicism) describe how little they knew about Catholicism at the time they left. Part of this is because they often left before they had a fully matured faith:
Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18,as did one-third who are now Protestant. Among both groups, an additional three-in-ten left theCatholic Church as young adults between ages 18 and 23. Only one-fifth who are now unaffiliated(21%) and one-third who are now Protestant (34%) departed after turning age 24.
And compared with those Catholics who stayed true to their faith, those early years look quite different. Ex-Catholic Protestants were the least likely to have gone to religious education classes a child, least likely to have gone as a teen, and least likely to have attended a Catholic high school. They were less likely than those who remained Catholic to have gone to Mass, either as a child or as a teenager. And those who left Catholicism for nothing were worst off: while 74% of them attended weekly Mass as a child (already a sadly low number), a mere 44% of them went weekly as teenagers. So in part, the problem is simple enough: if you don’t bother coming to find out what the Church teaches, you’re not going to learn, and you’re not going to feel impassioned for the Faith. In this sense, the statistics are reminiscent of the statistics for high school and college drop-outs: they’re often the people who didn’t bother coming to class.
What this means, practically speaking, is that one of the common characteristics of ex-Catholics is their inability to explain what the Church they left actually taught
. While hardly scientific, you can find plenty of evidence of this in places like this forum
, in which a Catholic asks ex-Catholics how many of them believed in the Real Presence while they were Catholics
. The first person to respond claimed that he had
believed in the Real Presence, but it was one of the first beliefs he sacrificed, since:
If you could actually conjure up Jesus Christ, bodily, wouldn’t you want to show him off to your friends first, maybe visit some hospitals & jails with him, bring him to work…instead of sticking him in a piece of cracker ?
When the Catholic responded that Catholics don’t believe that Jesus is “conjured” and put into the Eucharist, but that the Eucharist is Christ, the ex-Catholic was confused:
I distinctly remember my priest telling me Jesus was in the bread. He got there when the bread is put into the little gold cupboard (I don’t remember what it’s called), the priest said something I didn’t quite hear, and told us Christ was in the bread.
So while a survey might show that he had a reasoned rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the truth is, he has no idea what the Church actually teaches on the issue. What he described was something between the Lutheran view (often called consubstantiation) and the Indian in the Cupboard. Catholics don’t believe that the tabernacle is in any way responsible for the consecration of the Eucharist.
What we end up with are people who detest what they wrongly think are the faith-stifling doctrines of the Catholic Church. Or as Abp. Fulton Sheen so charmingly put it
There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.
You might assume that the picture looks the same for those ex-Protestants who become Catholic. Far from it.
II. A Profile of Those Leaving Protestantism for Catholicism
While the majority of converts between Catholicism and Protestantism are leaving the former for the latter, it’s not a one-way street. The Evangelical Scot McKnight, in the September 2002 edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
, looked at those travelling in the other direction. What do those Evangelical converts to Catholicism look like? His full report is fairly good (PDF
), and this summary
by Michael Vlach isn’t bad. He notes some of the major reasons Evangelicals become Catholic:
- Certainty: The quest for a surer doctrinal foundation, instead of the innumerable competing theories within Protestantism. McKnight quotes David Mills as describing how he asked eleven Evangelical scholars about the Biblical view of divorce and remarriage, and walked away with nine different answers. Catholicism presents Herself as the Truth, rather than one possible idea.
- History: Recognition that the early Church was Catholic. If Christ didn’t abandon His Bride, the Church, then He was leading the Catholic Church for quite a while. Given that, we should expect Him to remain in control of the Catholic Church.
- Unity: Christ established (Mt. 16), and called for (John 17), One Church, and is against schisms; the Catholic Church appears to be that One Church. If Christians are ever going to be truly and totally united, in communion with one another, it’ll be within the Catholic Church.
- Authority: McKnight concedes, “I might as well say this up front: in evangelicalism (and Protestantism in general), the authority of the Church resides in two spheres—the Bible and the specific interpretation of the Bible by the interpreter himself or herself.” There is no such thing as “the Bible alone,” since it’s the interpretation of the Bible that’s divided so many Christians. Catholicism recognizes this openly, and has a clear and sensible answer: the Church is placed as the pillar of foundation of Truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and She answers questions of Biblical interpretation. Protestantism tends to close its eyes to this problem, leaving each individual to imagine that their interpretation is the obvious one the Bible intended.
The two “prototypical” examples McKnight points to are John Michael Talbot and Scott Hahn. Both men were already well-known, active and passionate Evangelicals who found something even better in Catholicism. McKnight’s other examples show that this isn’t unusual: Catholic converts from Evangelicalism see it as building upon their Evangelical foundation. So, for example:
David Currie, whose testimony is told in his book, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (whose title is not as accurate as it is clever), says, “Evangelicals have eighty percent of the truth, including most of the important issues.” To illustrate what I mean by rhetoric as language used to explain the meaning of life and the paths we have walked, Currie states: “I see my decision [to convert to RC] as a natural outgrowth of my Evangelical commitment.”
While fewer in number than those leaving the Catholic Church, these are an incredibly faithful few. While a distaste for Catholicism leads many to renounce it for Protestantism (or nothing at all), it’s a love for Evangelicalism, and more specifically, for the Jesus Christ they discover there, that leads Evangelicals into the fullness of the Catholic Church.
III. Milk and Meat
I’m reminded of the Pauline imagery about weaning infants from milk to meat (the NIV says “solid food”). In Hebrews 5:11-14, we hear:
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
And again in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2,
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.
I think that there are lessons in there for both Catholics and Evangelicals:
- Catholics need to do better at explaining, and living, the elementary truths.
As we saw above, the people who leave the Catholic Church often leave because their most basic spiritual needs aren’t being met. Not only do many of them not know the basics of what the Church believes, they often don’t know the basics of Christianity at all. A great many of them are unfamiliar with the Bible, let alone the Catechism, and have only a vague (and probably incorrect) idea of the Trinity or who Jesus is.
Think about someone learning basic math. You don’t throw them into an Advanced Calculus class and wish them luck. You make sure that someone walks through the basics with them. Evangelicalism is great at presenting Christianity 101 — in part, because Evangelicalism essentially is Christianity 101. Catholicism has a more advanced understanding of Christ and His Church, but this is only helpful if those truths are being communicated. So there’s a constant need to explain Christianity, in understandable terms, to those who aren’t familiar with it, including some who call themselves Catholics.
Catholic parents in particular have a large responsibility here. What the Pew Forum study showed is that parents who are active about their faith, even simply bringing their kids to Mass every week, are more likely to have those kids grow into faithful Catholic adults. They are also supposed to be the primary educators of their kids — those kids might be too timid to ask a priest about what “Trinity” means, but they’ll readily ask mom or dad. Mom and dad have a responsibility to always “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Protestants Need to Grow Towards Catholicism
Christianity 101 is great. It’s fantastic, even. Most of the world, including many nominal Christians, are failing to reach even this. And someone can live and die in Christianity 101 deeply in love with Christ. But ultimately, He’s called us to more than Evangelicalism and Protestantism. He’s called us to what we Catholics call “the fullness of the faith.”
If a student discovered, upon figuring out the multiplication tables, that he loved math, a smart teacher would encourage this growth. Don’t abandon the multiplication tables, but move beyond it, pick up a protractor, and see how far this love takes you. The same is true here. Evangelicals should explore those things which have been largely off-limits until now: the writings of the Christians from between the time of the Apostles and the Reformers should not only grace Evangelical bookstores, but be read with seriousness. The beauty of the Liturgy described in the ancient liturgical texts, and seen in the best Catholic and Orthodox churches today should be embraced as a way of pleasing God. And there should be serious self-examination about some hard questions; for example, on the Holy Bible:
- How do we know which Books are in the Bible?
- What should we do when Christians disagree about the Bible’s interpretation?
- Who were the people who told us which Books were in the Bible, and what did they believe?
- Which Bible(s) was/were used in the Early Church?
At a minimum, this sort of spiritual pilgrimage should make Evangelicals more Catholic, and with a bit of learning, contemplation, and honest examination of hard questions, many of the wounds which bitterly divide us could be healed. But beyond even that, the end-point of these inquiries and this spiritual pilgrimage should be the Catholic Church.