Our convictions are never entirely safe. Any time an intelligent peer who also strikes us as a man of integrity—a good man, let us say—advocates for a worldview in contradiction with our own, we are obligated to take the disagreement seriously.
This is true all the more when such a person moves out of agreement with us. For here, we must tell ourselves, is someone who takes the truth seriously. Laying all his cards on the table in The Last Word, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel implies this uncomfortable fact when he admits, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”
Now, as of late, it has become public knowledge that Mark Galli, the former editor-in-chief of the popular evangelical magazine Christianity Today, has entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Admitting that Galli’s conversion is a powerful cause for Protestants to take a serious look at why they reject Catholicism, Protestant theologian Chris Castaldo has responded with some critical but admirably charitable and thought-provoking remarks. Listing three of Galli’s stated motivations for converting, he graciously admits merit where he feels it’s due, but ultimately concludes that the reasons remain insufficient for justifying a departure from Protestantism. Here are some thoughts in response:
Reason #1: Disenchantment
Christians want to experience genuine, uncontrived worship wherever they gather. But Castaldo admits that overeager attempts to make church relevant and attractive has led to the disenchantment of many evangelicals. The unfortunate result of trying too hard to provide a “seeker-friendly” experience, he writes, is “congregations of people wondering what exactly it was they were seeking—nothing, it seems, that they couldn’t have found in an inspiring TED Talk or rock concert.” Thus, some (like Galli) will be drawn toward an experience more solemn and liturgical.
But in the end, he’s not writing to sell the Catholic Church as the better option. While acknowledging the arresting power and beauty of the outer expressions of Catholicism, he still sees the Protestant option as something deeper on offer. He cites theologian Brad Littlejohn who reminds us of the Reformers’ contention, that the beautiful exterior of the Catholic Church is ultimately nothing more than “a painted façade, a simulacrum of the real thing.” While the Roman Catholic Church hinders and distracts its members with superficialities like transubstantiation, the ecclesial hierarchy, and the prayers to the saints, the Reformers insist on delivering believers back to the center—to Christ, that is:
Rather than revealing the supernatural in the natural . . . their transubstantiation could only replace bread and wine with heavenly substances. Rather than granting the faithful believer access into the Holy of Holies to feast before the Lord, they left him to gawk from the outer courts while the priestly class interceded on his behalf and brought some morsels of grace out to sustain him on his weary pilgrimage. Rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of God’s presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, they encouraged him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.
Castaldo thinks Littlejohn’s quotation offers valuable insight. But all I see here is a regurgitation of sixteenth-century Reformation rhetoric. It implies a false “either/or” that caricatures the Catholic reality: it implies that one cannot believe in the Blessed Sacrament and appreciate the extraordinary in the ordinary elsewhere; that one cannot know Christ through sacramental communion and enjoy intimate spiritual communion with him elsewhere; that one cannot request the prayerful intercession of the heavenly congregation of saints and go straight to the God in prayer. This aged, false dichotomy just does not represent the authentically Catholic experience.
When Albert Einstein proved relativity theory, some took his discovery to be a stark upheaval of physics as classically conceived. As a result, they also saw it as a threat to the common assumption of the universe’s thoroughgoing intelligibility. But this was the wrong way to look at it all. As John Searle notes, “Relativity is not a refutation of traditional physics, but an extension. It requires us to think in counterintuitive ways about space and time, but that is no threat to the intelligibility of the universe.”
This example from science serves as an analogue for my next point: Protestants should not see conversion to Catholicism as a deletion, but rather as an extension of their doctrines and practices. What the Protestant experiences when he converts to Catholicism is not a shedding of old excesses. Rather, he finds in those apparent excesses a perfection of goods he already possesses. Galli testifies to this in a recent interview when he notes, “In many ways, I became a Catholic not to reject my evangelical convictions but merely to ground myself more deeply in them.” You will almost never meet a convert to Catholicism who resents their former Protestantism.
Reason #2: Quest for Clarity
Castaldo notes that Galli—like Cardinal Newman—was unsatisfied with being his own highest interpretive authority. Not that private interpretation is all bad. But one should humbly check his fallible interpretations; he should “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).
Castaldo writes further, “Until Christ returns, we will continue to see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). In the meantime, thankfully, we have the illuminating grace of the Spirit, who imparts divine faith, hope, and love.” Sure. But every Christian also knows that there are things in the Bible that are hard to understand (see 2 Pet. 3:16). Do we need the grace of God to help us work through these hard passages? You bet. But who’s to say that such grace cannot operate in individuals and through the Church?
We must see things as through a mirror dimly for now. But who’s to say we have only one mirror (so to speak) to peer through? For if one has a variety of mirrors to choose from of varying dimness, should he not turn especially to the least dim of all?
Most Protestants and Anglican converts I know recall “authority” as the central issue catalyzing their conversion. They identified the Church’s Magisterium—that is, the ecclesial teaching authority—as the missing solution to the central problem in non-Catholic Christianity—namely, the problem of biblical interpretation. In bishops, they came to discover successors to the Apostles. In the pope, they came to discover the chief Apostle and successor to St. Peter. And aside from the biblical proofs that grounded their paradigm-shifting conclusions, they discovered in the idea of the Catholic hierarchy a purely rational necessity.
In temporal affairs we always utilize the order and process that flows from hierarchical structure. Imagine a professional world without CEOs. Imagine schools without principals. Imagine football teams without head coaches. For that matter, imagine churches without elders and pastors. Christ, in forming his Church on earth, was not merely thinking metaphysically. He was also thinking pragmatically (see Acts 15).
Converts often turn to the early Christian writings for assistance. They might ask, for instance, how the earliest Christians interpreted Jesus’ handing over of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to Peter (see Matt. 16:18; Isaiah 22:15-25)? They may inquire further how the same kind of “binding and loosing” language spoken to his apostles in Matthew 18 and John 20 was understood by the early Christians? What did the Christians closest to the Apostles understand Jesus to be doing?
What you find in the Church Fathers is an explicitly Catholic interpretation. That is why—as early as the first century—you find figures like Clement of Rome (a successor of Peter according to Irenaeus) writing such things as this in his Letter to the Corinthians:
Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.
Do the extrabiblical writings of the early Christians come with the inerrant certainty of the Scriptures? Of course not. But many of them serve as early, historically reliable witnesses to how the Apostles must have understood the teachings and intentions of Christ.
The teaching authority of the Church is a gift to the partially blind. Galli affirms: “One thing that has brought me a great deal of peace is the inherited tradition and wisdom of the Church known as the Magisterium. Many Protestants misunderstand this. . . . The Church’s teaching helps us think more deeply and more clearly about what it means to be a Christian, as well as the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness.”
Reason #3: Church Unity
In the Catholic Church, Galli finds an awesome claim towards which he has been drawn: the claim to be the one true Church founded by Christ, teaching the deposit of faith entrusted once for all to the apostles (Jude 1:3).
There is obviously a close link between doctrinal clarity and Church unity. The New Testament is clear about Christ’s intention that his Church be one in mind and spirit. Castaldo humbly admits the grievous state of widespread splintering among Protestants. He also rightly mentions today’s infighting between Catholic traditionalists and non-traditionalists. But, as grave and embarrassing as our own ad intra conflict may be, is there not a significant difference to admit here? While Protestantism has splintered into thousands of denominations over the relatively short course of five centuries, the Catholic Church has experienced only the most minute fracturing in comparison over two thousand years.
Like St. Augustine acknowledged hundreds of years ago, Catholicism really is a sort of miracle itself. How is Roman Catholicism still here? How did it survive the schism with the East and live to tell the tale? How has it remained steadfast in light of the centuries of corruption and persecution it has endured? How did it persist beyond the Protestant Reformation, still to remain the largest religious denomination in the world? And how has it mustered up the integrity to remain unconditionally immovable on moral issues like contraception, abortion, and divorce and remarriage? Even when the rest of Christendom began to glide down the slippery slope of cultural compromise in recent centuries, the bishops and popes have held strong. Why? Because the dogmas of the Church are not theirs to change.
These are all questions worth pondering. “True unity,” writes Castaldo, “is diverse men and women who define themselves by the gospel, an adherence shared by Christian traditions from every tribe, tongue, and nation.” But this just seems far too vague. True unity is being one in mind and spirit as a single body of Christians. And as Galli has seen, Catholicism offers not only unity with today’s Catholics but with the vast majority of Christians of every century since Christ.
At the onset of his article, Castaldo offers the following quote from theologian Carl Trueman:
[We] need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.
This sentiment, it seems to me, is sorely antithetical to the Judeo-Christian spirit. The Christian Church has been built upon the foundation of Christ, yes, and also fortified by two thousand years of deep thinking about hard issues, fraternal debate, and a tradition that says with Isaiah: “Come now; let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). How, then, can we continue to seek genuine unity among ourselves as Christians, if some have resolved, as Trueman urges, to resist Catholicism by “a positive act of will and commitment”?
Praise God that Mark Galli has become an evangelical Catholic. Castaldo wants to say that Galli’s desire to call himself both evangelical and Catholic is an attempt to soften the impact of his choice. But he couldn’t be more mistaken. It’s not a ploy. Because Catholicism is evangelical by its very nature. Any Catholic who has ever denied this (and surely there have been many in recent times) has done so out of ignorance. Again, this isn’t an either/or thing: Catholicism just is the fullness of evangelical Christianity.