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By D.G. Hart, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History at Hillsdale College.

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Arch­bishop of Philadelphia and a con­ser­v­ative voice in the church, recently wrote pos­i­tively about an event spon­sored by the Tim Tebow Foun­dation hon­oring people with dis­abil­ities. Tebow, of course, is the former football star from the Uni­versity of Florida, who in fits and starts tried a career first in the NFL and then Major League Baseball. He also gained noto­riety for praying after scoring a touchdown and wearing eye-black during games (to reduce glare) that fea­tured bib­lical cita­tions. Tebow is, in other words, an evan­gelical Protestant and Chaput is a con­ser­v­ative Roman Catholic. And yet, Chaput referred to Tebow, though “not a Catholic,” as “a com­mitted Christian.”

Even more recently, David Mills, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, wrote about Protes­tants in sim­i­larly pos­itive ways. To the fear of no sal­vation outside the Roman Catholic Church, Mills wrote, the “church does not think Protes­tants will go to Hell because you don’t join up.” Instead, it “teaches that your church may well be for you the way to live with Jesus and to enter Heaven.” With expla­na­tions from the Bal­timore Cat­e­chism (1885), Mills reas­sured worried believers not in fel­lowship with the Bishop of Rome: “You’re in, my Protestant friends.… We want you to be Catholics, but under­stand why you’re not.”

Someone might be tempted to dis­regard the opinion of a mere lay person, but Mills’ argument appears to line up with that of a suc­cessor to Christ’s apostles. That’s pretty main­stream. So perhaps the dif­fer­ences between Roman Catholics and Protes­tants are not so great — the latter need not worry about the eternal fate of their souls outside Rome, and both sides may regard the other as Christian, sort of like dif­ferent denom­i­na­tions within Western Chris­tianity (I will let the Eastern Orthodox speak for them­selves).

If this is a fair reading of current rela­tions between Protes­tantism and Roman Catholicism, why do we con­tinue to hear about “con­ver­sions” from Protes­tantism to the Roman Catholic Church? If you go from a Methodist con­gre­gation to a Baptist church, you don’t call it con­version. If you switch from an Anglican parish to a Mis­souri Synod Lutheran con­gre­gation, again, you don’t use the lan­guage of con­version. So why do ex-Protes­tants regard their mem­bership in the Roman Catholic Church as a form of con­version? Is this the product of a bygone era of church history?

Take the case of Eliz­abeth Ann Seton, the founder in 1809 of the first American con­gre­gation of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, whom in 1975 Pope Paul VI can­onized as a saint. A woman who struggled to find reli­gious meaning amid the death of a husband while rearing five children, Seton expe­ri­enced some spir­itual sat­is­faction in the revivals of the Second Great Awak­ening only to identify later with the com­munal and sacra­mental char­acter of Christian piety in the Epis­copal Church. Still, she con­tinued to search and in 1805 “con­verted” to Roman Catholicism. The recent biog­raphy of Seton by Catherine O’Donnell, Eliz­abeth Seton: American Saint, shows that Seton took comfort in the tactile nature of the church’s “murals, ges­tures, saints, and sculp­tures.” As O’Donnell writes, “God’s literal presence … thrilled her.” O’Donnell does not determine whether Seton had actually been a Christian while either an evan­gelical or Epis­co­palian. Surely, though, before joining the Roman Catholic Church Seton was Chris­tianish.

Seton’s reli­gious migration con­trasts in many ways with the twen­tieth-century intel­lec­tuals that Alan Jacobs follows in his recent book, “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.” The French philosopher, Simone Weil, Jewish by birth but never prac­ticing, showed an interest in Roman Catholicism but her con­version according to Jacobs never became com­plete. Another French philosopher, Jacques Mar­itain, was an atheist who thought the natural outcome of his lack of belief was suicide. He only became open to the pos­si­bility of faith after hearing Henri Bergson’s lec­tures, though Bergson himself was not a Christian. The mod­ernist poet, T. S. Eliot had no reli­gious belief as an adult; his poem “The Wasteland” was a description of his own ruin, Jacobs argues. Another poet, W. H. Auden, grew up in an Anglican home but had no faith. When in the mid-1930s his poetry made him famous, Auden thought he had forever aban­doned Chris­tianity. Mean­while, C. S. Lewis, like Auden, grew up in Ulster Protes­tantism but by the age of sev­enteen told a friend, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philo­sophical stand­point Chris­tianity is not even the best.” These lives are the stuff of con­version— that is, going from no belief in God and Christ to com­munion in a Christian church.

In which case, the better word to use for Chris­tians who go from Protestant to Roman Catholic may be “upgrade.” That term is one we com­monly apply to com­puters, like calling the move from Windows XP to Windows 10 an “upgrade.” The old system can still run a number of tools and pro­grams but it lacks the fea­tures and capa­bil­ities of the new system. An upgrade is even sup­posed to elim­inate some of the bugs of the old system, which is often what some deduce about going from Protes­tantism to Roman Catholicism (or vice versa). You receive a better (not new, of course) and improved version of Chris­tianity but you do not start using a com­puter for the first time. An upgrade is when you retain the same oper­ating system. In the world of com­puting, “convert” applies better to what happens when someone goes from a PC to an Apple. There, as I under­stand, old files and pro­grams do not work and users need to learn a whole new set of icons, names, and appli­ca­tions. Do people who go from Protes­tantism to Roman Catholicism really think they pre­vi­ously did not believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the need of Christ’s death for for­giveness of sins, the infal­li­bility of the Bible, or the benefit of prayer? Aren’t Protes­tants and Roman Catholics basi­cally using the same Christian hardware and software with pro­grams that include more or less fea­tures — Douay-Rhiems or King James’ Bible, church cal­endar or Sab­batar­i­anism?

Of course, when someone goes from one version of Chris­tianity to the other, part of the appeal is to be rid of the bugs that afflict the old system. For many non-Protes­tants, Protes­tantism, espe­cially its low-church vari­eties, seems long on tack­iness and short on tra­dition and ritual. Con­versely, Roman Catholics who go from Rome to Protes­tantism may believe they are elim­i­nating the bugs of praying to saints and mis­placed trust in bishops for the sake of a simple and exclusive trust in Christ. Either way, the switch from Protes­tantism to Roman Catholicism involves a cal­cu­lation of ben­efits and lia­bil­ities, not a dra­matic change from unbelief to con­fi­dence in God.

Perhaps the best way of chal­lenge the word, “convert,” is to remember those famous lines from John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace.” The phrase, “I once was lost, but now am found, ‘Twas blind but now I see,” may apply to some who joins the Roman Catholic Church, though Newton’s under­standing of total depravity is some dis­tance from the post-Vatican II church’s view of human nature. But to apply Newton’s lines to someone who trusted Jesus as a Protestant and then puts her faith in Jesus plus the church is at least sim­plistic, if not wrong-headed, for anyone who ponders the often dark and impen­e­trable ways of God in the human soul.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    First, the headline is 100% wrong. The question, as the poet put it is “to be, or not to be” and the author’s unwill­ingness to con­sider these more fun­da­mental ques­tions betrays the nar­rowness that belies the fun­da­mental falsehood of the premise. You dont have to upgrade. You dont have to convert. You dont even have to believe (only a fool would claim that the evi­dence sup­ports a christian faith claim).

    Second, what is this doing in the col­legian? This is an apolo­getics doc­ument that has no place in the news­paper of a serious aca­demic college. The same flavor of drivel is printed at places like cedarville uni­versity and bob jones.

    • Camus53

      It’s in the fine tra­dition of Betsy Devos and others who use any and every edu­cation facility to pros­e­lytize.

      BTW…this is one unholy example of a writing mess.

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        This was written by a pro­fessor?

        • Camus53

          My old mentor, English Chair Dr. King would have given this the waste­basket treatment.

  • Pelopidas

    This article will probably make some Roman Catholics uncom­fortable. That dis­comfort should be telling.

    • Jen­nifer Melfi

      I think that the dis­comfort is shared by all who used to love a Hillsdale College devoted to defending liberty that is now a nom­i­nally Christian echo chamber — that has dumb stories/papers like this in the student news­paper.