In this month when the Protestant Reformation is commemorated, this former Protestant wants to ask a big question. “Does Pope Francis want Protestants to convert to Catholicism?”
Excuse me. I meant to say, “be received into full communion.” That is the ecclesiastically correct term these days, although “convert” simply means “to change” and of course we all need to follow the path of conversion of life every day.
Putting that quibble, aside does Pope Francis–and for that matter–the rest of the Catholic hierarchy expect, want, desire, encourage, pray for Protestants to convert to Catholicism?
The pope’s record is ambiguous at best. He allegedly told his friend -Anglican schismatic bishop Tony Palmer- not to convert, but to stay where he was and do good work for church unity there. The pope also, apparently, advised a Lutheran woman who was married to a Catholic man not only not to convert, but to go ahead and receive communion.
A good friend of mine who runs an apostolate helping converts into the church was disturbed by these actions and opinions of the Holy Father, so he wrote to him. The letter was open and frank–“Does the Holy Father desire Protestants to convert or not, because if not, then we’ll close up shop.” The reply from a papal assistant was vague. Something along the lines of “The statements of the Holy Father must not all be given equal weight…” Well.
The fact of the matter is, almost all of of us who are converts from Protestantism have stories to tell of being discouraged from conversion. Either we, or people we know, have gone to Catholic parishes eager to become Catholic only to have the liberal priest say something like,
“Oh, my goodness! Why would you want to do something like that? After Vatican 2 you don’t have to become Catholic. You’re good as you are.” or they might say, “I think it is best for you to work for Christian unity where you are in your own church.” If the rejection wasn’t as obvious as that it was more like, “Well, I suppose we could work something out for you. Why don’t you start coming to Mass and we’ll talk again in six months’ time?”
When they did finally start RCIA too often they were met by Sister Sandals who told them they didn’t really need to convert and there was no such thing as hell and probably she would be ordained as a priest before too long. Geesh! Then the potential convert would pull out his big black Bible and his copy of the catechism and Sister Sandals would start getting jittery.
My experience of this strange rejection was not in the matter of conversion, but ordination. The church was crying out for priests. My eighty year old Irish Catholic priest, every year on vocations Sunday, would practically weep in the pulpit saying, “Where are the priests? The Lord is calling! Who will answer?” There’s me putting my hand up….”Pick me! Pick me!” Instead I was met with intentional delays, suspicion, kindly condescension, incompetence and outright rudeness.
Why is this? It’s simple. Liberal Catholics don’t expect Protestants to convert to Catholicism because they don’t think they need to. It is true that we recognize them as our “separated brethren” and acknowledge their faith and baptism, but we also acknowledge that they are separated. Not only that, when two lines begin to diverge as they continue (unless one of them changes their direction) they do not get closer: they become separated further.
Why should Catholics want Protestants to convert? Not from any misplaced triumphalism or self righteousness, but simply because Catholicism is the fullness of the Christian faith. My book More Christianity is a friendly exposition of this truth written for Evangelical Christians. The book explains what is good and true within Evangelical Protestantism, but also explains how that truth is truncated, partial and often sincerely and innocently distorted.
We want Protestants to convert not for our sake, but for their sake. It’s like the master of the feast saying to the person who took the lowest place, “Friend! Come up higher!”
We invite Protestants to convert to Catholicism as the Father in the story of the prodigal son welcomes his runaway son home again. Does that mean we think all Protestants are living in sin and living in the pig pen? No, but we do recognize that they are estranged from the family feast and they would be better off and experience a fuller Christian faith if they came home.
Furthermore, we miss them! The Catholic faith would be fuller and more exciting and dynamic if they came home. Sometime I’m going to list all the many apostolates, ministries, new insights, religious orders, ordinations and ministries brought into the Catholic Church by converts. We should be actively encouraging Protestants to convert because we value them. We value their gifts. We value their zeal. We value their love of the gospel. We value their Bible knowledge. We value their humor, hard work and humility.
More than that–Catholics themselves are leaving the church in droves because the Protestant churches offer something they too often have not found in Catholicism–a real, dynamic, joyful introduction to Jesus Christ. Instead they’ve been given a religion of good works–the liberal mish mash of social gospel and being nice.
I think this attitude of “There now, you’re perfectly alright where you are. No need to bother converting” is patronizing and rude. I think it is also fueled by fear of appearing triumphalist or superior. This is a false humility.
Instead we should be saying, “Welcome home!” or as one British author said with typical Brit humor, “Come on in. It’s awful!”
Of course we should continue all the “ecumenical talks. I’m sure they do good to keep things warm and friendly. They also provide a job for a good number of churchy folk who would otherwise be unemployed.
But at the end of the day we should also put a friendly arm around the shoulders of our Protestant brothers and sisters and say, “You know you could do something tremendous for the cause of church unity….You could become a Catholic.”
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