Monday, September 10, 2007

A Few More Thoughts on Converting

In my observation, the conversion of practicing Catholics from Catholicism to evangelicalism is usually precipitated by an existential crisis--the Catholic Christian senses he really doesn't know God after all, and is seeking a conversion experience (i.e., a "born again" experience) not available in the Catholic church.

In contrast, when evangelicals convert to Catholicism, the conversion is often precipitated by an intellectual crisis (as with Francis Beckwith), wherein the former evangelical finds Catholicism to be a more theologically/intellectually satisfying expression of Christianity (particularly regarding justification, or the relationship between Scripture and tradition). But a felt need for conversion (i.e., spiritual regeneration) is not the reason evangelicals turn toward the Catholic Church (though I'm sure there are exceptions).


Anonymous said...

I really do not understand how the evangelical bodies can facilitate a conversion experience. By and large, all they seem to do is offer a subjective experience that produces a Christ who mirrors the person seeking the conversion. There is no objective standard. And it's all based on Enlightenment standards anyway - the "turn to the self" as the ultimate authority.

Isn't the whole evangelical philosophy entirely a new creation, rather than anything that could be cognate with Catholicism or the Lutheran Church?


Anonymous said...

Any analysis that presumes some theological mirror equivalency between Catholicism and Evangelicalism is distorted from the getgo. First I don't think there is any mirror equivalency on the sociological issue of which types of Catholics and which types of Evangelicals convert. Catholics who turn to evangelicalism overwhelmingly tend to be poorly catechized and ignorant of Catholic teachings and history. Evangelicals who convert to Catholicism overwhelmingly are not poorly catechized or ignorant.

Secondly, your "experiential" explanation of conversion only confirms my first point. The born-again "experience" has more to do Schleirmacher, William James, and a U2 concert than Christ and the Apostolic Church's understanding of the Christian experience. As Americans we all yearn for that transcendental, oceanic feeling of our own divinity. Evangelicalism mostly feeds into this American-Gnostic spirituality. Catholics who want to commune with Sts. Whitman and Thoreau more than Sts. Irenaeus and Augustine will be much more at home in Evangelicalism.

Thirdly, conversion is a one-time salvific event for evangelicals of the Reformed axis. Everthing after that is nostalgia. It's Catholicism that emphasizes the constant, life-long process of conversion (metanoia) through the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. I need conversion and I need to experience it, but not according to American definitions of experience. Something far more ancient and timeless governs my experience which is more real and authentic than what passes for religious experience in Evangelicalism.

So please don't draw these false divisions between the intellectual and the experiential. Such dualisms may exist for Evangelicalism, but not for Catholicism.

Randy said...

I do think many Catholics have conversion experiences and remain Catholic. Some even have conversion expereinces through evangelical minstries like Billy Graham or Alpha. Still they see it as an experience of God to add to the sacramental life.

Those that leave the church are typically those who have a very weak sacramental life. They rarely go to mass and never go to confession. They don't understand the Catholic faith and typically beleive whatever they are told about it by evangelicals. They are counted as Catholics but often they are so nominal they could be anything.

Anonymous said...

But a felt need for conversion (i.e., spiritual regeneration) is not the reason evangelicals turn toward the Catholic Church (though I'm sure there are exceptions).

Hm. I'd say conversion is definitely a (the?) major factor when going from evangelicalism to Catholicism - the feeling that you are crossing into the fulness of the faith and of the mystery of Christ, i.e. being more deeply converted.

You may be right that the intellectual motive is perhaps the initial push, but it very quickly becomes about conversion. But I'm not sure: I think perhaps the intellectual/desire-for-conversion reasons are inseparable and part of the same thing.

- Dev (Cath. convert)

Taylor Marshall said...

Am an exception to the rule.

I was received into the Catholic Church through an existential crisis. As a Calvinist and then later Anglican, I became more Catholic until it led to a moment of crisis over whether I could actually be a Christian in good conscience within the Anglican Communion.

MM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MM said...

Hi Gerald,

Just wanted to thank you for your work. I have been recently been referring both to your blog and to your great essay 'Augustine and the Justification Debate' lately, without having made the connection that it was the same author for both! I definately hope to be a returning visitor here. All the best to you-

Gerald said...

Thanks everyone, for your comments. Perhaps my point in this post was clouded by our mutually differing conceptions of conversion.

The point I was trying to make is that most (nearly all?) evangelicals who convert to Catholicism do not do so in an attempt to "become saved." In other words, they do not believe they were anathema prior to their Catholic conversion, but view rather their conversion as the logical next step in their already existing relationship with God.

In contrast, many (most?) Catholics who leave Catholicism and embrace evangelicalism believe that only in leaving the Catholic Church have they truly encountered God for the first time, and that had they died prior to their evangelical conversion, they would have gone to hell.

In other words, the movement from Catholicism to evangelicalism is an attempt to find salvation. The movement from evangelicalism to Catholicism is an attempt to connect with God in a deeper way (or to satisfy intellectual difficulties with sola scripture, etc.).

Julie said...

As a Catholic I can say there is a LOT of pressure from protestants to convert -- college, the workplace, etc. I have been proselytized many, many times. And never has one of these people told me anything about Catholicism that was true. And these people will TELL you that you will encounter God for the first time by leaving the Church, that you will be saved, etc., if you leave Catholicism. And they are not nice about it. I have quite often heard insults and ridicule directed at my church. And sadly, there are many, many poorly catechized Catholics. There is a saying in Latin America that points to the importance of Catechesis: "An ignorant Catholic is a future Protestant." How many times do we read in the newspaper about some protestant mission group that is going to a Catholic country, thinking they are doing God's work by going there to convert Catholics. It is so sad. Because they have no idea of the truth, of 2,000 years of truth. Watching Journey Home on EWTN has been an immense help to me in learning my faith and also the faith, in a very respectful and kind way, of other churches.

Sancho Panza said...

Good Morning Gerald-

Couple of quick questions perhaps you would/could shed some light on- should you be so kind and/or inclined. I stumbled to your blog through your (brother?) Todd's paper on suburbia/missional church.

1. Your blog seems more attuned to obscure theological relevancies (than the todd heistand blog which pointed here). Do you have any interest in the missional church or are these blogs in any way related?
2. The church you indicate you are on staff seems to be a very suburban non missional typical program oriented church, and I was surprised again as it would pertain to the blog/article that led me to find this page?

Maybe there is no link, just that I started reading about missional church in the suburbs and through that somehow ended up here?

Thanks for any indication, and btw as I read through the archives , the post on MENSA was quite interesting.

Gerald said...


Yes, Todd is my brother. His blog is far more devoted to "missional" topics, than mine. Iustificare tends toward historical theology. Not sure why Todd's paper would have linked to my blog.

If you're looking for a missional blog, I recommend Todd's blog ( or, a blog he and others have set up.

Many blessings,

Sancho Panza said...

Ah, I see. Thank you and good day.

Sancho Panza said...

Perhaps a few thoughts before I leave, seeing as you seem to be pre-occupied by the catholic-evangelical dialogue-

In mans quest and desire for meaning, a person in their own thought processes will inevitably build a contruct of thinking that will or will not ultimately satisfy the soul. Whether or not the empty formalities of the Catholic church could be called an existential waypoint is quite a leap. And so the distinction between what is perceived to be true by an individual, and what is actually true may indeed be seperated by a chasm wide and deep. The theological underpinnings of the modern evangelical church are indeed passe, but attempting to project a seperation between an intellectual crisis and an existential crisis is akin to defining the difference between psychology and psychosis?

Well, at any rate, enjoy your journey. I may be back from time to time- if only to see where your train of thought leads you in your quest for meaning and truth.

Qui vitam sine termino

Sancho Panza said...

Before you respond hastily, allow me to edit my previous post ever so slightly. When I stated "the theological underpinnings...passe". Maybe better stated as the practical and programatical manifestation of those underpinnings. The modern evangelical church in n. america is indeed infested with empty formalities as well, confining God to their "programmes" which are no more barometers of spitirual health than they are effective in developing true Jesus followers. And thus, whether defined as an intellectual or existential crisis in a search for meaning, it is irrelevant. The self made construct of truth andthe pursuit thereof in the mind of the pursuer defines what the realm of the pursuit contains.

Gerald said...


Sorry to be so slow in responding. It's been a busy week.

I'm not entirely certain I follow the general thrust of your two comments. I wonder if perhaps you've read more into my post than was intended. My aim with this post was not to argue for the superiority of evangelicalism over Catholicism, but only to note what I have observed regarding the reasons people leave one for the other--reasons that both sides would do well to be aware of as they seek to minister to their constituents.

Sancho Panza said...

Gerald, the general thrust of my comment is only to point out that you take a great deal of liberty in attempting to define something so subjective. People build a construct for themselves to rationalize their own existence, and the choices and resulting consequences of their choices define the reality they exist in. Therefore, for anyone of us to try and define the set of values that preceed any choice (whether evangelicalism, catholism, even a trip to the market...which market?) is a proposition filled with conjecture at best.

Gerald said...


Therefore, for anyone of us to try and define the set of values that preceed any choice (whether evangelicalism, catholism, even a trip to the market...which market?) is a proposition filled with conjecture at best.

I've not tried to be as ambitious as that. My observation in this post was to note the reasons that peoples themselves frequently give for why they convert. Most catholic-to-evangelical persons I've talked with or known, have stated that they converted for the reasons mentioned in my post. Likewise in evangelical-to-Catholic conversions. To the extent that they themselves know why they converted, and have articulated it clearly, I stand by my observation.


Sancho Panza said...

Indeed. Well said, and I too would be persuaded as you have stated it in this response.