Why Converts Convert: An Observation

church-open-doorsI have come across countless Christian conversion testimonies in the past five years since my re-entry to the Catholic Faith. Although many of these testimonies have been about conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism, some have certainly been stories of those who have left Catholicism for Protestantism.

I’d like to share an observation.

It seems to me the majority of former-Protestant converts appear to be very thankful for their past Protestant upbringing and the gifts they received in their past church communities; namely, a profound love of the Bible, a deep personal relationship with the Lord and a strong sense of church community. In contrast, it seems to me that many ex-Catholics have contempt rather than gratitude for their former Catholic faith.

I am suggesting that in most cases Protestants become Catholic for intellectual reasons, while it is mostly for emotional reasons that Catholics leave the Church to become Protestant.

Thank You (But No Thank You)

Full-time Catholic evangelists like Tim Staples, Steve Ray and Dr. Scott Hahn have shared with Catholic audiences that they are eternally grateful for the foundation of faith in God which they were given before becoming Catholic, charitably smothering the pro-Catholic apologetical nature of their testimonials with “honey” that reinforces the necessity that despite our fundamental differences we Christians, Catholic and Protestant, have the absolute moral obligation to love one another as we are all, separated or not, members of the same “family.”

In an interview with the National Catholic Register, philosopher Dr. Francis Beckwith shares:

“There is much that I learned as a Protestant evangelical that has left an indelible mark on me and formed the person I am today. For that reason, it accompanies me back to the Church” (He Could No Longer Explain Why He Wasn’t Catholic, 2007).

Influential Catholic apologist and former Baptist, Steve Ray, describes his experience of becoming a Catholic Christian:

“…the Catholic Church encompasses so much more than we had ever known in our Protestant past–the fullness of the faith carefully preserved and nurtured through endless centuries. We are not going from Christian to Catholic, as though we’re leaving the “Christian” part behind. We are developing and experiencing the Christian faith more fully by becoming Catholic Christians” (Crossing the Tiber, p.16).

I think it is a beautiful thing that these converts to the Catholic faith can still look back on their former non-Catholic faith and thank God for their past experience and spiritual gain. This appears to be the trend among former Protestants who have joined the Church. It is not, however, the trend I see in Christians who have left the Church.

On The Contrary

Whereas many former Protestants often attribute their Catholic conversion to an intellectual effort (accompanied by intense prayer) involving a deep investigation of Church history, early Church writings and careful Bible-reading, my observation is that on the contrary many former Catholics attribute their parting from the Catholic faith to “not being fed” (how ironic considering the Mass is centred on the Lord’s Supper with God Himself as the “Main Course”). Catholics who leave the Church often leave, it seems, on emotional grounds rather than intellectual.

Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his invaluable book Faith and Certitude: Can We Be Sure Of The Things That Matter Most?, writes:

“My own experience has made it plain to me that few people leave the Church for intellectual reasons. The main reason by far is moral.”

In today’s relativism-dominated culture, the “this is always wrong regardless of your personal opinion” position that the Church teaches on moral issues like contraception, abortion, and divorce often leave ex-parishioners with a hardened heart since these teachings do not match up with their desired way of living. Thus they go find a more “enjoyable” Protestant church where these teachings are more relaxed (not to mention the more modern music, dynamic preaching and previously unfamiliar warm and fuzzy community atmosphere). A “pillar and foundation of truth” type of Church seems to appeal to less and less people as the generations pass along.

It seems as though Catholics often leave their Catholic faith because they are not happy. They are emotionally exhausted of being Catholic. Their conscience has wreaked havoc on their heart (whether they realize it or not) for long enough and they tap out. They leave the ring completely and turn their back on their opponent, Conscience, which all along was not actually their opponent but standing in their corner all along. They fail to realize the actual nobility of their often-cursed “Catholic conscience”. As Cardinal John Henry Newman acknowledged, our conscience is the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” We ought to obey rather than offend our conscience; especially when our conscience is a well-formed “Catholic” one as there is no better-formed conscience than that.

Yet tragically, it is not uncommon for former Catholics to escalate in their emotional withdrawals after leaving the Church to such a point as to become even anti-Catholic, some even approaching a hatred for their former faith. Take Martin Luther as a high-profile example. The former Catholic priest is responsible for initiating one of the biggest disasters in Christian history—the Reformation—and fell so far out of love with the Catholic Church that he publicly tagged it as the “whore of Babylon”; the pope he also slandered calling him the “anti-Christ” (see On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church).

Not very classy, Martin.

An Alarming Paradox

It seems that many Protestants enter the Catholic Church because of truth, and paradoxically many Catholics leave Catholicism because of truth. Truth as a deterrent for a Christian seems to be a paradox yet this is what seems to happen. We live in a culture where “my truth” is more important than “the Truth.” How we “feel” about something takes precedence over what really “is.” This “choose-your-own-truth” philosophy, A.K.A relativism, which has contaminated our secular culture has also contaminated Christian culture.

What a tragedy! Jesus did not say He is “the Way, the Feeling and the Life.” He said He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Therefore as Christians it is never OK to prefer feelings to truth. Truth always trumps emotion in order of importance. And the truth is that sometimes truth hurts. Just take a look at a crucifix to see the Ultimate Example.

What Does This Mean?

If my observations are true—that is, if most Catholics leave the Church with a bad taste in their mouth and most Protestants leave their church with heartfelt gratitude—then I suggest it tells us at least two things:

1. Judging by the large numbers of Protestants who become Catholic for intellectual reasons and the small number of Catholics who become Protestant for intellectual reasons, a conclusion in favour of the Catholic Church as the “true Church” founded by Jesus Christ appears the best supported.

2. Authentic Catholic living is not easy but it is rewarding. When we attempt to “create our own Catholicism” (as I once tried) or when we forget Who is at the centre of the Mass, a religious “divorce” becomes immanent. We need to evangelize our own parishes.

As I think about these things I have to believe that Catholics who leave the Church do not really know what (or Who) they are leaving and Christians who are not Catholic do not really know what (or Who) they are denying. Yes, Jesus is spiritually present in all Christian churches but his Real Presence is only found in the Catholic Church.

The renowned evangelical philosopher and Christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig, says that we as a culture have fallen into “Intellectual Neutral.” I agree. We need to start thinking on a deeper level about our faith, about reality; and if we do with honesty and integrity, I am convinced that God will continue to win our hearts evermore profoundly through our heads. Jesus says “Come follow me.” It is a great thing to hear Him. It is a greater thing to think about Him. But it is the greatest thing to follow Him.

“and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)

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