Sunday, September 09, 2007

Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and the Conversion of the Christian

It is well observed how many countless former Catholics (some lapsed, some devout) are now in evangelical churches. So many of these converts, rather than finding Christ in the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church, found themselves still in need of Christ. They intuitively knew they had not yet connected with God—had not yet been born again (in spite of their baptism)—and they sought an expression of Christianity that offered a conversion experience. But why do Catholics feel the need to leave the Church in order to find this experience?

I suspect it has to do with the tendency for Catholicism to emphasize the intrinsic nature of the sacraments, most notably baptism. Catholicism—by the very nature of its doctrine of baptismal regeneration—cannot offer an adult conversion experience for practicing Catholics, precisely because one’s baptism has supposedly already eliminated the need for such conversion. Consequently, the adult Catholic who knows himself to be truly in need of spiritual regeneration cannot turn to his Catholicism for help; his Catholicism already declares him to be regenerated. He must either suppress his sense of spiritual discontent, or deny the efficacy of the sacraments, (which is tantamount to denying his Catholic faith).

Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is more than ready to entertain the possibility that even its most devout members might yet be in need of conversion (as often proves to be the case). Evangelicalism can hold out the opportunity for the “conversion of the Christian” in ways that Catholic sacramentology does not allow.

So when a practicing Catholic comes to view himself in need of conversion, he has already, by the very admission of this need, in some sense denied his faith, for his faith insists that he cannot be in need of conversion. But the evangelical who is in need of conversion does not face the same quandary. He need simply embrace his evangelical teachings.


Canadian said...

I don't think a high sacramental view is the problem. The Lutheran's believe in baptismal regeneration, and the true body and blood in the eucharist and we don't have the same accusations against them very often. Orthodox, Lutheran's and Catholics all believe that salvation can be lost so, though some may out of neglect give the impression that faith and repentance and perseverance are irrelevant, this is not their dogmatic stance. But is the evangelical answer really a solution? We have shifted the assurance of God's presence to our zeal, piety and feelings. Hence, modern worship tries to create the "feeling" of God's presence through musical and emotional manipulation, religious experience, altar calls etc. I for one am a mystery and liturgy starved Baptist and no longer embrace anabaptism. The scripture repeatedly describes God really accomplishing things in baptism and the supper. What Rome, Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism all need is pastoral nurture and vigorous preaching of the living Word himself along with the sacraments themselves. (Actually, they need to be unified by the intervention of God, first. John 17)
Your scenario could be reversed. I for one am presently looking to the ancient church (primarily Eastern) for much needed grounding of my faith in Christology and Trinitarian thought. There is a "life" of the church that we have missed in evangelicalism.

Gerald said...


Thanks for your thoughts. My first response is that my post was not intended to be a critique of all things "high church". Evangelicals could stand to listen again to the ancient liturgies, and to remember that the Church did not begin in the 1500's. My appreciation for Augustine and my interaction with godly Catholic believers has helped move me beyond the narrow fundamentalism that marked evangelicalism's early years. Having said that, however, I remain an evangelical and have not embraced a high church ecclesiology--mainly because I don't see it in the early Church as portrayed in Scripture, and secondly because it just doesn't seem to work all that well in certain respects.

Regarding your comments on Lutheranism, I see the same tendency in Lutheranism as well (and really in all high churches that have a neo "catholic" sacramentology). And while I agree the problem is related to pastoral/doctrinal neglect in some instances, I think it is more than that.

Communion rightly follows baptism, precisely because communion is the participation/continuation of the spiritual life began in baptism. The Eucharist means nothing apart from baptism. But in churches that practice infant baptism, the assumption is made that all practicing/baptized members of the faith community are now regenerated. Such just simply isn't true. By constantly pointing people toward the Eucharist when they have not yet been regenerated (even while baptized) creates a context in which mere religion flourishes.

The point of my post was that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration itself makes it very difficult for Christians in this situation--those who intuitively know that they are not yet regenerated--to find resolution within in their high church faith community, for by the very definition of its dogma, they are not in need of conversion. So I don't think it is merely a failure to communicate sound dogma, but that the dogma itself is what creates the problem to begin with. High church Christians seeking conversion can't easily find it in their Church. If I were a priest/pastor in a high church, this is something that I would want to give some thought to.

And I agree that evangelicalism can swing too far toward "naval gazing", fixating on one's faith, emotions, etc. But what I see in the best expressions of evangelicalism is not an attempt to "create" a feeling of God's presence, but rather to celebrate a sense of God's presence.

Appreciate the thoughts.


Dennis Martin said...

I think you missed the location of the conversion theme in Catholicism. Most non-Catholics (and not a few, nominal, Catholics) are unaware of the long, powerful tradition of conversion to a more devout practice of faith. Objective power of sacraments by no means, even theoretically, eliminates the need for conversio, since the ex opere operato theology of sacraments does not say that the sacraments overpower a person against his will, rather, merely that the sacrament does not depend for its fundamental efficacy on the recipient. Even in ex opere operato sacraments the degree to which the power of the sacrament affects the recipient does depend on the recipients opening or closing himself to that power. The sacrament is powerful in itself but God does not treat us like puppets, we have free will, so we can refuse to dispose ourselves and thus receive little from the sacrament or even "eat and drink [the powerful sacrament] to our condemnation," to quote a certain 1st-century theologian.

Conversio functions in Catholicism in all the lives of saints. Catholicism fully recognizes that, while baptism of an infant transforms him into an adopted child of God (Jn 1, Romans), it does not guarantee he will live a holy life. The latter is up to him after he reaches the age of reason and can distinguish right from wrong.

Conversio morum is used in Benedict's Rule to summarize the monastic life--a life of sanctificiation, growth in holiness, total surrender (to use some terms recognizable to Protestants and evangelicals). Many canonized saints were monks or nuns but many were not. All of them converted their lives (turned around their lives, convertere). Some radically (from a life of great sin), others gradually, seemingly always devoted to Christ from childhood. But what they have in common is an increasing growth in holiness, Christlikeness (agapicness).

And every single Catholic who goes to confession with genuine sorrow for post-baptismal sin that has separated him from God converting, turning around. Conversion is built right into the center of Catholicism.

If that's true, why do so many nominal Catholic encounter Evangelicalism with its emphasis on conversion and see something fresh and claim that they weren't taught this as Catholics?

In some cases they may not have been taught even the basic principles of the sacrament of confession, or they may have been taught but weren't paying attention, or they may have been paying attention but did not see it as a radical, crisis sort of thing.

Or it may be mostly a language thing. While "onvertere" and conversion have been widely used among Catholics for centuries, it is possible that some people have not really encountered that word but learned the principles of confession in different terms and thus do not know how to "map" Evangelical conversion language on to their own Catholic teaching. This is more likely if they have not been taught very much at all or if they weren't paying attention when the teaching was going on.

But simply to say that Catholic doctrine of objectively efficacious sacraments preclude a theology of conversion misunderstand in a major way both Catholic sacramental theology and Catholic spirituality.

Dennis Martin said...

Just to follow up on my earlier comment (with apologies for several typos), here's the traditional prayer that a Catholic can pray as he prepares for sacramental confession:

O almighty and most merciful God, Who hast made me out of nothing, and redeemed me by the precious Blood of Thine only Son; Who hast borne with me to this day with so much patience, notwithstanding my sins and ingratitude, behold me, O Lord, prostrate at Thy feet to implore Thy forgiveness. I desire most sincerely to leave all my evil ways, to forsake this region of death where I have so long lost myself,and to return to Thee, the Fountain of life. I desire, like the prodigal child, to enter seriously into myself, and with the like resolution to rise without delay and go home to my Father, though I am infinitely unworthy to be called His child, in hopes of meeting with the like reception from His most tender mercy. I know Thou desirest not the death of a sinner, but that he may bconverted and live. I know Thy mercies are above all Thy works, and I most confidently hope, that as in Thy mercy Thou hast spared me so long, and hast now given me this desire of returning to Thee, so Thou wilt finish the work Thou hast begun, and bring me to a perfect reconciliation with Thee." (From The Roman Catholic Daily Missal [Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2004], p. 55)

Note that it simply tracks the Prodigal Son story, that it explicitly uses the term "be converted," that it's all predicated on God's grace--even the initial stirring of the desire to repent and return (con-vertere) to God is from God, and the penitent then begs God to complete that which God has begun in his heart.

Now, this is a traditional prayer printed in a traditional Missal (1962 Missal). The language certainly has not been used in catechism classes over the past 40 years in most parishes. And the concepts also may have been neglected in many, many instances, in favor of touchy-feely, I'm ok, you're okay theology. But where that's been done, it represents a falsification of the Catholic faith.

And even in the most "progressive" Catholic parishes the Prodigal Son story still gets read. Of course, many Catholics may not be paying attention, and if their religious education was not traditional, they may truly have missed out on the centrality of conversion in the sacrament of confession. In traditional Catholic spirituality, daily examining one's conscience to identify where one has done right and wrong and then regularly confessing one's sins (which, to be valid, must involve an honest desire to cease sinning and "amend" one's life, by God's grace--that phrase is built into the standard expression of contrition) were the basic building blocks.

So, to summarize, a serious of small conversions took place everytime Catholics went to confession and these added up to an overall life of constant conversion. Catholic theology insists that no matter how much one has converted to Christ, there's always room for greater conversion. And, if one backslides into serious sin, then one has to convert (repent, confess, be absolved) or one risks hell.

One of the key ways this was taught to Catholics was through the lives of the saints, where repentance and lifelong conversion stories abound.

But in the last 40 years, confession has become infrequent and lives of saints less well known for most Catholics. This may explain why Catholics are so drawn by crisis-conversion Evangelicalism. But if this is the explanation, then it represents a deformed Catholicism, rather than explaining the phenomenon as arising from the heart of Catholic objective-sacrament theology.

In your initial posting you focused on baptism. In Catholic (and Orthodox) theology, baptism cannot be separated from the sacrament of confession because, apart from the very early church where they thought people might totally avoid God-alienating major sins after baptism, it became clear that people do sin after baptism, cut themselves off from God, and thus need a way to be reconciled to God. That's the sacrament of confession.

In other words, conversion for Catholics is located fundamentally in the sacrament of Confession, but that sacrament then is the key to "sanctification" and growth in holiness for one's entire life. All traditional Catholic spirituality manuals I know of emphasize this role for confession/conversion. But, to be sure, traditional spirituality manuals fell into disuetude after Vatican II--not in the circles I live in, which are traditional, but in most Catholic parishes. The traditional approach is already starting to come back--because it works, whereas the touchy-feeling I"m OK, you're OK, doesn't work.

Ben said...

Hi Gerald, Ben here, followed the link from Millinerd's site.

Just quickly: You might be ignoring the demographic aspect of this--How many of these ex-Catholics were ever really Catholic to begin with except by Baptism? Every time I come across one of these ex-Catholics they have been poorly catechised or not catechised at all. Their Catholic past consists of being baptised as a baby and then a few perfunctory Easters and Christmasses after that. Maybe they went to Mass as a child, but have abandoned it by their teens. Their view of Catholicism is typically a pastiche of anti-Catholic rhetoric that they picked up later on. Typically at the time of their "conversion" they were only nominally Catholic, and had in fact abandoned Catholicism long before. Often I find some who seem to wear their former "Catholicism" as a badge of honor in a sort of Saul/Paul way, "I was the biggest X, but now I am Y."

I don't doubt that there are some who were serious Catholic who later converted for concrete reasons, nor do I think that your analysis is wholly wrong.

But by and large the situation is as I have described it.

Bradley said...


Your thoughts all over this blog are very helpful. It's nice to see someone trying to actually HELP Roman Catholics consider legitimate concerns rather than using them as an occasion to blast them to hell. I commend you for thinking outside the evangelical bubble, and for treating your critics with graceful combinations of patience and wit. Look forward to talking with you soon over the phone.