Though, as with any high-church Protestant, conversion to Roman Catholicism is always in the back of my mind, I have really come just short of sticking my toe in the Tiber only twice. Both times I was deterred by the unscheduled absence of a priest from his office, once in Boston and once in Washington; crestfallen, a good night’s sleep was enough to put the idea out of mind. But coming to that point meant leaping over a hundred roadblocks that, ultimately, prove themselves the greatest obstacles to any would-be convert: I mean, of course, Roman Catholics.
Now before we get off on the wrong foot, I do not say that because I believe Protestants are on the whole more affable than Catholics, or because I resent those Catholics I have encountered in spiritual dialogue. On the contrary: what I want is mainly to shed some of my own insight onto what G. K. Chesterton meant when he said, “There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.” Indeed, I have met many a Catholic who seem not to like converts —who are frustrated and dismayed upon discovering a creature to whom the complete and magisterial truth of Rome is not entirely evident at first glance. This is, of course, not always the case: I have also encountered any number of youth evangelism groups who entice students with pizza and ice cream and (I am sorry to say) flirtation, and do not get around to the religion bit until one’s thoroughly stuffed and head-over-heels in love. But that is a matter, perhaps, for another essay.
What I would like to offer my Catholic friends is a guide to the behaviors and approaches to evangelism that I have found deeply off-putting. Why? Because I believe in religious dialogue for its own sake. I am a Victorian: I reject the persecutionism of the Elizabethans and the ecumenism of the Postmoderns. I believe in, proverbially, burning one another at the stake and then sharing a few pints down at the pub. I believe in loving accusations of heresy. I believe either the Reformed or the Counter-Reformed faith is true, and I do not want to adhere to the wrong one only because my opponent’s skewering me the wrong way. I believe this is a war in which we should arm our enemies to the teeth and say, “May the best Man win,” because we know He will.
So, here are my recommendations to my Roman Catholic brethren, who may freely disregard what I say if they find it offensive:
1) Don’t attack the Reformers.
This is a fallacy tantamount to the ad hominem and as likely to backfire on the Catholic as any ad hominem would.
The truth of the matter is that Protestants today generally do not care very much about John Calvin and Martin Luther and Henry VIII. Most Calvinists accept that Calvin was a rather nasty character, that Luther had a rather disagreeable fetish of some sort, and that Henry VIII was a tyrant. But if you would like to see an otherwise-indifferent Protestant defend his Founding Reformer, make that man’s personal shortcomings the crux of your argument against the other fellow’s faith. A moderately well-versed Protestant will be able to give at least a remedial defense of his respective Reformer’s character—but the conversation (and thus the conversion) will perish there.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is a poor debating style. As I said, it is a particularly revolting fallacy to attack a thought on account of the thinker. We can find any number of great and gruesome men on both sides of the Reformation, and the sorry (or perhaps glorious) fact is that any number of rascals and miscreants have lived and died within the true faith —whatever that is. It’s no use dismissing the Calvinist because you don’t like Calvin anymore than it would be to dismiss Platonism because you do not think highly of Plato.
The second and more important reason is that it makes the Protestant feel as though his ideas are not being taken seriously. Of course he does not believe in Calvinism by force of Calvin’s personality. If he is a good Calvinist (that is, a Calvinist worth arguing with), he has read the Institutes of the Christian Religion and been convinced by Reformed Christianity in its own right. Attacking his chief Reformer shows that you do not take the conversant Protestant’s own convictions and arguments seriously. And perhaps you do not; but do not applaud yourself as doing any service to the Catholic faith by hardening a man against it for the sake of getting a rise out of an opponent. Dismissing the Calvinist because you are not overly fond of Calvin is the easiest way of being thrown out of his heart and slamming shut the doors of his mind.
2) Don’t argue from the Church’s authority.
The most tiresome and unconvincing argument a Protestant encounters from Catholics is that Christ founded one Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and so all others are in error. That is not an argument—it is a doctrine. I know this point is apt to inflame Catholic ire, but again, no man has ever been convinced by the circular logic of, “Christ founded the Catholic Church; therefore, the Catholic Church is true. How do I know Christ founded the Catholic Church? Because the Catholic Church said so.” I am sympathetic to the Roman Catholic reading of Church history, but one must understand that Protestants believe the Church fell into error, namely the errors of idolatry and authoritarianism. Explain the Catholic reading of history, which has tremendous merit in its own right. Do not simply assault him with it.
Put it another way. However true you might feel it to be, no Protestant is receptive to being bludgeoned over the head with extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) and Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken the debate has ended). This is the fallacy of argument from authority—which is not to say that the authority is not real, but a man unconvinced by an authority will not take that authority at its word. Argue for the authority of the Magisterium, not from them. Everything else will fall into place.
3) Give the Protestant credit whenever you can.
One of the reasons so many Anglo-Catholic priests have hesitated to convert to Roman Catholicism is that they see the need to take new Holy Orders as a mark that their years as an Anglican clergyman were meaningless. Of course this is not true—at the very least, the pastoral care they offered to their flock was invaluable—but, valid or not, it is an understandable reservation. The Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges very clearly that a man may vividly encounter the Divine without ever having belonged to the Church. Whether this is sufficient for salvation is another matter, but there is no doubt that men can know God to a great extent without Sacramental intermediaries. Let it suffice to say by way of example that any man can pray, which is no small feat. Indeed, it is one of the greatest and most astounding feats of which man is capable.
None of us like to have our religious experiences trivialized. It is difficult to know where to draw the line; of course a Catholic is not allowed to admit the validity of Protestant sacraments, and only a petulant Protestant will demand he do so. But according to the Roman Catholic faith, God hears a Protestant’s prayers and He touches a Protestant’s heart; indeed, He loves a Protestant as much as He loves a Catholic. The same is true in the Protestant faiths regarding Catholics. It is tantamount that this be borne in mind when dialoging with a Protestant, not only because it is objectively true, but because it is the personal truth Protestants cherish most.
4) Be a robust Catholic.
This is essentially the flip-side of the third point. I have seen dozens of conversions die at the altar of a Novus Ordo Mass, and that is not a coincidence. Many well-meaning Catholics believe that introducing a Protestant to the Roman Catholic Church by way of the Novus Ordo will give them something to which to relate. The problem is that Catholics have never managed to out-Protestant Protestantism. Praise bands, however unseemly, are always better at Protestant churches than they are at Catholic ones; Protestants incorporate multimedia better than Catholics do, etc. There are two reasons for this: the first being that Protestants have been doing it for longer; and the second being that the sacramental Catholic faith—which must still follow the basic frame of the Missal—does not lend itself well to the free-flowing style of Protestant worship out of which praise bands and the like emerged.
If a Protestant is going to become a Catholic, nine times out of ten they are going to become a traditional Catholic—vernacular, if not Latin Massers. We can speculate on the reasons but it is, in my experience, a fact.
If I may speculate, I would say this: the most novus variations of the Novus Ordo were instituted to keep Catholics in the Church and bring apostates home; the needs of converts were given little consideration. And I say this because those who come to the Catholic Church are generally escaping the merely modern for the ancient, the enduring, and the everlasting. They do not want worship that reflects the current mood: they want worship instituted for all men and for all times. And if they are convinced of Catholicism, the sacramental aspect (if that is the right word) of the Mass will be dearer to them than life itself. To say the obvious thing, it is impossible to convert to Catholicism without being converted to the Sacraments; and it is impossible to be converted to the Sacraments without being converted to Sacramentalism—to reverence and adoration for the Body of Christ made manifest.
I say all of this, again, for not reason other than to help Catholic evangelists understand the Protestant mindset, which a “cradle Catholic” could not reasonably be expected to understand. Chesterton makes this abundantly clear in The Catholic Church and Conversion, as does Hillaire Belloc in his introduction to the same. So often converts make the best evangelists for this reason. We notice that Chesterton—like C. S. Lewis with Christianity more broadly—does not frighten or condescend to his audience. Nor, as it happens, does God.
So I would like it very much if any Catholics found this little essay at all helpful in their dealings with Protestants, and to close I say very sincerely, may the best man win.
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