Two Steps for Beginning Your Examination of the Catholic Church

St. Peter’s, Rome

In 2007, Dr. Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society — the nation’s largest Evangelical coalition of scholars, with over 4,000 members — announced that he was converting (technically, reverting) to Roman Catholicism.

Last week, I had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Beckwith, and hearing his reversion story in person (I’d already read about it in his book, Return to RomeConfessions of an Evangelical Catholic). Two particular turning points that he described struck me as instructive for anyone honestly considering the Catholic-Protestant question today. Every conversion is unique, but the things that worked for him might be helpful for you, too.

I. Recognizing Roman Catholicism as the Default Position

The first of these points was his realization that Catholicism should be treated as normative, the starting place for any serious consideration about which Church or denomination to call home. This point was made, perhaps ironically, by the Evangelical Carl Trueman, in a book review he wrote for the reformation21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The review was of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s 2005 book Is the Reformation Over?: Noll and Nystrom argue in the affirmative; Trueman agrees, sort of. The entire review is worth reading, but it’s the conclusion that packs the most powerful punch:

When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room. 

What Trueman shows is that we need a Copernican shift in our thinking on Catholic-Protestant issues. Rather than starting with the presumption that Evangelicalism is right on every issue, and forcing Catholicism to prove otherwise, the presumptions should work just the other way around.

To see why, imagine approaching Christianity from the outside. Or, if you prefer, imagine approaching a different religion. If you discovered that Islam had, since its very beginning (or at least, as near to its beginning as there existed clear records) believed X, and that a minority position arose in recent centuries denying X, which would you assume was the more accurate interpretation of Qu’ran? Which would you presume was the more authentic expression of Islam? These presumptions wouldn’t be insurmountable, but they would at least form a rational starting point for the investigation. And if that’s true from a purely historical perspective, it’s all the more true of Christianity, where we believe that the Founder is still alive, and has sent His Holy Spirit to guide His Church throughout history.

Many a Protestant delays becoming Catholic because he doesn’t understand, or isn’t entirely convinced of, every doctrine of the Catholic Church. A better standard would be to ask yourself: if you were already Catholic, would these questions, doubts, or objections be strong enough to justify leaving the Catholic Church? For some of you, as for Trueman, the answer is undoubtedly yes. But for many, that’s not the case at all. In that case, by your own self-assessment, you lack a sufficient reason to not be Catholic. You might not fully understand why the Catholic position is true, you might see good arguments both for and against a certain teaching, but you don’t have a positive reason to leave the Catholic Church, which is to say that you lack a positive reason for remaining Protestant.

Of course, this analysis risks overlooking the very real difference between those who are considering leaving the Catholic Church, and those who are considering (re)joining. In the case of the latter, there’s a good deal of inertia that can hold you back. Not least of these considerations is that you might well already have a denomination or a local church that feels like home. Sometimes, it’s even more than that: for example, the Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism knowing that it’ll cut them off from the only livelihood that they’ve ever known.

It can be an enormous personal sacrifice to put all of that on the line. But if we’re going to be faithful to the Christ who prayed that we would all be one (John 17:20-23), and who called us to give up everything (including domestic tranquility, Matthew 10:34-38) to follow Him, it’s a risk that we need to be willing to take. Anything less than that is a statement that we’ll follow Christ, but only so long as He doesn’t ask us to do anything hard, like leaving the comfort of our local church community.

II. This Creates a Duty to Investigate Catholicism Seriously

If the burden of proof in the Reformation debates lies on the side of those who reject the Catholic Church, this entails the need to take the Catholic position more seriously than it tends to be taken. If you’re Evangelical because on such-and-such important doctrine, you’ve read only Evangelical authors, and know only the Evangelical position, you’re not meeting that burden. If the only things you’ve read on the Catholic position on this doctrine are from authors arguing against Catholicism, you’re not meeting that burden. Instead, you’re declaring Catholicism guilty without permitting her a word in her own defense.

Beckwith took a different approach: he actually investigated what the early Church believed. Was it the case that the early Christians believed in sola fide, or in forensic justification? He started by reading Protestant authors who talked about the Church Fathers. But then he went to the Church Fathers collection over on New Advent, and read the Fathers for himself. He quickly discovered that while a particular passage, in isolation, might sound Protestant, the Fathers themselves sounded awfully Catholic (both on the issue of justification, and more broadly). It was through this honest exploration that he came to see the strength of the Catholic position, which helped to send him back home.

The ins-and-outs of that investigation will necessarily differ from believer to believer: different people struggle with different aspects of Catholicism. But whether your issue is the Eucharist, or the papacy, or Mary, or purgatory, or justification (or all of the above!), I want to propose a simple standard: you should be able to describe the Catholic position in a way that an orthodox, informed Catholic would recognize and agree with. That doesn’t mean that you will necessarily agree with the Catholic position, but that you should at least understand the position well enough to disagree with it. If you can’t do this, it may well be that your Protestantism is built upon protesting a strawman.

Of course, accepting these two principles won’t immediately end the debate on Catholic-Protestant issues. But hopefully, it’ll help to begin it afresh, framing the debates in a more accurate and reasonable way.

21 Comments

  1. Very insightful! I think my own conversion would have been much swifter if I didn’t begin by assuming *Protestantism* was correct and that Catholicism had to shoulder the whole burden.

  2. This is key: “…Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position.”

    With Eastern Christianity in play, why should Roman Catholicism be seen as the default? After all, four out of the five original patriarchates maintained communion in the East, apart from Rome.

    1. I don’t disagree with you and your references to Eastern Christianity (both Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism). In the author’s defense, he did say, “at least in the West,” and I take that to mean when considering Western Christianity, the default position is Roman Catholicism. As for Catholicism vs Orthodoxy vs Protestantism, the greatest scandal in the Church is that we are separated and not in full communion.

    2. Seraphim,

      I’m glad you asked. I purposely avoided the particulars of Eastern Christianity because it risked muddling the post quite a bit, for three reasons:

      1) Protestantism has historically viewed itself as a reaction to, or attempted reform of, the Latin Catholic Church;

      2) The principle of autocephaly (as understood by the Orthodox) would seem to point Western believers towards the Bishop of Rome… at least as a presumption. That’s also how the history played out in the Great Schism: almost everyone sided with their own patriarch.

      3) The issues that keep most Protestants from becoming Catholic are issues on which Catholics and Orthodox agree (with the notable exception of the papacy).

      Of these, #3 was the biggest reason. Of course, the Catholic-Orthodox question is a big one, and one that warrants being addressed separately. I’ve done that in other posts, and I’ve written on the Petrine origins of the papacy (a topic that I think would be applicable to both Protestant and Orthodox objections). It just didn’t seem helpful or important to bring those issues in here.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  3. Well done as always! When I was discerning the Catholic Church (as an evangelical) I did ont take this approach and wish I had at least been aware of it for consideration. Protestants are taught that they “just believe the Bible” and so the very idea that a given tradition could be the default is rarely even considered or acknowledged (nice Trueman quote btw, *wink*).

    Also, per Seraphim’s comment above, during my journey I was often annoyed that Catholic converts rarely seemed to have even lokked East. I think that the RC vs. Prot. debate is also part of the modern myopia we Westerners seem to suffer from. For me it was “Ancient Church vs. Protestantism” and I spent as much time looking eastward and I did across the Tiber, and the reasons I am Catholic and not Eastern Orthodox now is not for the same reasons I am simply not-Protestant – the two questions are quite distinct.

    1. It is interesting how where one is standing has such an influence on how they approach this question. I have met some who thought just as you did, Roman Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy vs. Protestantism, whereas others see Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same coin and instead see the issue as Roman Catholicism/Protestantism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy. For my own part, as I have studied the environment in which the Reformation took root, I think it is erroneous to consider Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same coin. However, I also think the many nuanced differences between Eastern and Western Christian theology make it erroneous to consider Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as two sides of the same coin. In the end, I think it has to be Roman Catholicism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy vs. Protestantism.

  4. Need to sleep soon, but I liked this:
    “But then he went to the Church Fathers collection over on New Advent, and read the Fathers for himself.”

    New Advent has been a wonderful resource for me for years.

    Also, if you want to find something fast try on Google: “New Advent” “church fathers” [insert issue or Bible passage here]. What a great way to dig through the centuries.

  5. After reading the article more carefully, let me offer the following comment about my own investigations into Catholicism.

    Despite the Italian last name, I was never baptized a Catholic nor brought up with religion. I did live practically next to a Catholic Church for years, so I kept the idea open, because I respected the history of the Church. In my younger and more spiritually precocious I seriously considered if I can find that Catholicism teaches the truth, I’d become a Priest! Day dreams, of course, but serious considerations.

    However, what I found when I investigated Catholic history over the years (very often directly from the Church Fathers, I have read several in their entirety while I have never read Luther or Calvin in their entirety), I found out the following: the Catholic Church sure did change a lot. In fact, in my honest opinion, it really is not the same institutional church at all.

    Many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, in my simple historical view, appear to have developed over centuries. By the time we get to the 5th and 6th centuries, we start getting something similar to meat and potatoes Roman Catholicism, but before that there appear to be several crucial differences.

    Many of these topics should not be addressed here, I’ll just leave them hanging out there so that those who read the article at least see how one person, having investigated both Catholicism and Protestantism as seriously as he was able to, sided with Protestantism.

    1. Siding with Protestantism seems to me something like an ancient Isrealite siding with the the scattered tribes of Israel, at the time of David, instead of the tribe of Judah. And Jesus stated, “Salvation comes from the Jews”, not… “Salvation comes from the Israelites.” It’s a similar comparison because of the results that we can clearly see in the modern world today, that is, thousands of Protestant denominations with myrids of varying beliefs and discombobulated history, as compared to the One Catholic Faith with a very defined faith and very oraganized and documented history.

      Just an observation.

    2. Craig,

      Thanks for chiming in. I appreciate hearing your perspective. In your investigation, did you find that the Church Fathers sounded Protestant or compatible with Protestantism? Or just that nobody today believes what the early Christians believed?

      Also, you said that ¨the Catholic Church sure did change a lot. In fact, in my honest opinion, it really is not the same institutional church at all.¨

      Are you talking about beliefs or Church structures? I appreciate your prudence and respect in not derailing this into a side discussion on some particular doctrine, but your comment could be read in a couple of ways.

      Institutionally, the Church has grown exponentially since the first centuries. Of course, we see this growth right away. What the Church looks like on the morning of Pentecost, with a handful of believers in the Upper Room, isn’t what she looks like by that evening, with some 3,000 more members. So just as Microsoft looks very different now than it did when it was in Bill Gates´garage, the same is true of the Catholic Church.

      Not only would we not deny this, but we would point to it as a sign of being the true Church. In Matthew 13, Christ promises that the Kingdom of God will grow from a mustard seed to the largest of garden plants. Obviously, that full grown plant looks very different from the seed, and someone looking at the two side-by-side would be tempted to believe that they were not the same thing. So it is here. The Church went from being a tiny band of followers of Christ to the largest institution in the world (and the oldest in history).

      Doctrinally, something sort of similar has happened. Doctrines do develop, and we see this process of development from the earliest days of Christianity. Challenges to the faith arise — be it a new heresy, a modern bioethical challenge, or any number of the threats the Church has faced throughout the ages — and the Church has to answer these in the light of the Gospel. Responding to these questions leads to a fuller understanding of her own faith. But development is not a code for “changing doctrines.”

      G.K. Chesterton put it best:

      “In short, it was what is technically called a Development in doctrine. But there seems to be a queer ignorance, not only about the technical, but the natural meaning of the word Development. The critics of Catholic theology seem to suppose that it is not so much an evolution as an evasion; that it is at best an adaptation. They fancy that its very success is the success of surrender. But that is not the natural meaning of the word Development. When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less. Development is the expansion of all the possibilities and implications of a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out; and the point here is that the enlargement of medieval theology was simply the full comprehension of that theology.”

      Another way to imagine it is like a su doku puzzle, in which we aren’t given new revelation, but gradually see how the pieces that we’ve been given fit together. I talk about that here.

      In Christ,

      Joe

    3. I’ll let you have the last word on the latter point as not to derail the discussion, and also because it is a matter of opinion whether the evolution in the church is good, bad, etcetera. No one would deny the Church has changed for legitimate reasons, simply due to circumstances. Arians did not exist in the first century. Mormons did not exist in the 4th century, etc. I do not deny the CHurch will adapt to challenges by God’s grace, so we can leave that there.

      Concerning the former, I actually try real hard not to try and picture the Church so as to avoid creating some sort of delusion in my own mind, because if I picture it it’s just going to look like how I want it to look, which would be all sorts of wrong.

      My honest impression could be summed up as there were a plurality of elders, elders were appointed, there very well could have been Arch-Bishops (Tituts appointed elders throughout Crete, so wouldn’t that make him an elder above the other elders?), and the early Church strived hard to remain Catholic/Universal (Council of Jerusalem, Galatians, 1 CLement, Ignatius’ letters, etcetera.)

      God bless,
      Craig

  6. Coincidentally, the first reading at Mass today came from Exodus 4:1 and really described the Catholic Church, and faith, fairly well, in my opinion:

    “Moses spoke to the people and said:
    “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
    which I am teaching you to observe,
    that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land
    which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
    Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees
    as the LORD, my God, has commanded me,
    that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy.
    Observe them carefully,
    for thus will you give evidence
    of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
    who will hear of all these statutes and say,
    ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
    For what great nation is there
    that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
    whenever we call upon him?
    Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
    that are as just as this whole law
    which I am setting before you today?

    “However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
    not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
    nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
    but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

    1. The point above is, that there is a strong correlation between Moses in his relation to the twelve tribes/ people of Israel and Jesus in His relation to the twelve Apostles/people of the Church. Both were to be great and unified populations (ie. Nation, Kingdom,Church, etc..) complete with statutes, commandments and decrees (think ‘canon’ laws), that order, govern, and harmonize the entire population. Both were to be highly visible, such that their very existence would be a witness and “give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations who will hear of all these statutes and say, ” ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ And “what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law..”.

      So both populations are depicted as highly unified and highly visible.

      But how can the ecclesiology found in the many different forms and ‘faiths’ of Protestantism compare in any way with what is depicted in the teachings of Moses in the O.T. and Jesus in the N.T. ; Moses talking of the future people of Isreal and Jesus talking of the future people of His ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Church’?

      On the contrary, The Catholic Church with it’s great organization, it’s Ecumenical Councils, it’s canon laws, it’s catechisms and liturgies, it’s multitudes of monuments, monasteries and great cathedrals, it’s great libraries, it’s deep traditions, it’s beautiful sacred music and sacred art, it’s history of converting countless peoples and nations….all of these things can correspond to what we find in both the teachings of Moses, as well as Jesus.

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