Over the weekend a member of a mailing list I subscribe to asked an interesting question. Reflecting both on some of the highly-publicized “defections” of former Protestants to Roman Catholicism and some he has witnessed personally he asked “What is the appeal of Roman Catholicism?” I have sometimes wondered the same. Why is it that many Protestants eventually convert to Catholicism? To put things in context, my experience shows that a far greater number of Roman Catholics become Protestants than the other way around. I do not think the conversions to Catholicism represent an epidemic. Still, it is worth thinking about.
I think it is interesting and important to note the type of person who leaves Protestantism and turns or returns to Rome. It is my experience that the people who make this transition are not people who are simply Bible teachers or students of the Bible but are people who are enamored by philosophy. It is not the expositors who cross the Tiber, but the philosophers. For the man who regards the Bible as the highest source of authority and who loves to search the Scriptures and to share what the Spirit teaches Him in its pages, Rome offers very little. However, for those who love philosophy, it can be argued that Rome offers far more.
In my experience more people return to Rome than turn to her. It is not unusual to see people experience an apparent conversion but, after a period of time, to return to the Church. Just recently I heard from some friends we hadn’t spoken to in some time and were surprised to learn that their family news included the baptism of their youngest child and the first communion of one of their older children. While they consider themselves Protestant, their roots are Catholic and it seems they have either succumbed to family pressure or have not lost their convictions about certain Roman Catholic beliefs. This reminded me of another friend who did the same thing. Despite being saved and being baptized in a Baptist church, he still had his children baptized in a Catholic church. Clearly something in the Catholic system goes very deep into the soul and captivates people. There are some portions of the Catholic teaching that is difficult to leave behind.
Here are several ways I believe Protestants can become enamored with Catholic theology. I will also, very briefly, suggest some solutions:
History - The Roman Catholic Church has done a masterful job of presenting itself as the one, true church. It claims to have an unbroken line of succession from the Apostles and claims that it most accurately represents the faith of the early church. Most Protestants are not sufficiently educated in church history to refute or even to disbelieve these claims. Thus Rome seems to offer the privilege of returning to the church at its most basic and its most pure. This shows how important it is that we, as Protestants, educate people so they know that Catholicism is a perversion of biblical doctrine and the teaching of the early church. We cannot afford to give up this ground.
Harmony - Roman Catholics often point to the “hundreds of thousands” of Protestant denominations as evidence of the superiority of Rome which seems to have much greater unity. This view is simplistic and ignores the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has many factions and parties. Still, as Protestants we have to cede that disunity within the church has served to harm rather than to assist our witness to Roman Catholics and to others who need to hear the gospel. The solution, though, is not to band together despite the gospel but to make the gospel the point of our greatest unity.
Authority - The Roman Catholic Church offers a kind of security that is missing in Protestantism. Because in the Roman system ultimate authority is the realm of the pope and the Church, its members are absolved of much of the hard work of searching the Scriptures and seeking to properly understand and apply them. Protestants believe in the right and responsibility and privilege of each person to interpret the Bible with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Church teaches that a person’s greater responsibility is simply to obey what the church stipulates. As Protestants we need to teach what a joy and privilege it is to have the Holy Spirit present with us so that we can search the Scriptures and have confidence that what we learn is true. Yet we need to understand that we cannot go it alone. We need to rely on the assistance of other Christians before us.
Ignorance - There is startling ignorance among Protestants about what Catholic theology and practice. Many Protestants are taught things about Rome that are simply not true. Thus when they meet Catholics or experience Catholic worship they are unprepared for what they experience. They are surprised to hear many of the same words, to share many of the same elements of worship. Many of the most important differences between Catholic doctrine and the theology of the Bible are quite fine and subtle. Those who know little more than “Catholics believe in salvation by works” can be easily wooed by the reality of Roman Catholicism. It is important that Protestants know Catholicism as it really as rather than being taught a mere caricature.
Ritual - Protestantism, especially in its more “popular” forms, has become very de-ritualized. While there are some forms of Protestant worship that maintain a greater amount of ritual (Anglican churches, for example, and even certain forms of Presbyterianism) most are very casual. What is meant to be casual can, to some, appear flippant and disrespectful. Conversely, Roman Catholic worship has the outward appearance of being much more serious and, in many ways, more respectful. This attracts certain people, and perhaps especially those who have been accustomed to worship that is based more on ritual. The solution here is not to return to ritual, but to return to a sense of gravity that marks times of corporate worship as being different from times of entertainment and amusement.
I think, though, that the ultimate reason is this: the Roman Catholic Church may well be Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I acknowledge that these are fighting words but I will stand by them. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church offers salvation to no one. This is not to say that there are no true Christians within the Catholic churches. Rather, it is to say that these people are saved despite Catholic doctrine, not because of it.
The concept that we can do nothing to earn or merit or contribute to our salvation is repugnant to the natural man. Yet a religion of no grace at all may also prove repugnant. Catholicism manages to offer enough grace to give it a semblance of biblical orthodoxy, yet still attributes to man a portion of the work necessary to save himself. It masterfully interjects just enough grace that it can be said fairly that Catholicism is a religion of grace. Yet it also requires works so it can also be fairly said that it is a religion of works. If we believe what the Bible teaches—that our works merit nothing before God, then we know that we need to reject Roman Catholic theology as being not just unbiblical, but anti-biblical. Catholic theology is brilliant for its mimicry of biblical theology but when we examine it closely we see that it must be rejected. It is but a clever counterfeit of what Scripture teaches.
There will always be some Protestants who leave for what they perceive as the greener pastures of Rome. Yet preventing people from being attracted to Rome really should be remarkably easy. We need Christians to simply teach the Word, to teach Christian doctrine, and to provide the historical context that will show that it is the invisible church, the true believers, who are the true successors of the Apostles. We need to share the gospel and be shaped by the gospel, and then leave the rest up to God.