Friday, August 06, 2010

Magazine: Growing Trend--Evangelicals ‘Crossing the Tiber’ to Catholicism

The magazine Religion Dispatches has a new piece up by Jonathan Fitzgerald, entitled, "Evangelicals ‘Crossing the Tiber’ to Catholicism: Under the radar of most observers a trend is emerging of evangelicals converting to Catholicism."

As he points out, there are an increasing number Evangelicals coming into the Catholic Church. In fact, while my wife and I were at Fuller we witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Indeed, students would come up and ask us if they could follow us to daily Mass (which was celebrated at a Catholic Church down the street). I went to Mass with many fellow students who had never experienced a Eucharistic liturgy. . . and, for many of them, once they started attending they couldn't stop.

Here's the story as Fitzgerald reports it:
In the fall of 1999, I was a freshman at Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Massachusetts. There, fifteen years earlier, a professor named Thomas Howard resigned from the English department when he felt his beliefs were no longer in line with the college’s statement of faith. Despite all those intervening years, during my time at Gordon the specter of Thomas Howard loomed large on campus. The story of his resignation captured my imagination; it came about, ultimately, because he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Though his reasons for converting were unclear and perhaps unimaginable to me at the time (they are actually well-documented in his book Evangelical is Not Enough which, back then, I had not yet read), his reasons seemed less important than the knowledge that it could happen. I had never heard of such a thing. . .

. . . [M]y parents never spoke ill of the Catholic Church; though the pastors and congregants of our non-denominational, charismatic church-that-met-in-a-warehouse, often did. Despite my firsthand experience with the Church, between the legend of my parents’ conversion (anything that happens in a child’s life before he is born is the stuff of legends) and the portrait of the Catholic Church as an oppressive institution that took all the fun out of being “saved,” I understood Catholicism as a religion that a person leaves when she becomes serious about her faith.

And yet, Thomas Howard is only the tip of the iceberg of a hastening trend of evangelicals converting to Catholicism. North Park University professor of religious studies Scot McKnight documented some of the reasons behind this trend in his important 2002 essay entitled “From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals become Roman Catholic.” The essay was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and was later included in a collection of conversion stories he co-edited with Hauna Ondrey entitled Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy.

Thomas Howard comes in at number five on McKnight’s list of significant conversions, behind former Presbyterian pastor and author of Rome Sweet Home, Scott Hahn, and Marcus Grodi founder of The Coming Home Network International, an organization that provides “fellowship, encouragement and support for Protestant pastors and laymen who are somewhere along the journey or have already been received into the Catholic Church,” according to their Web site. Other featured converts include singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot and Patrick Madrid, editor of the Surprised by Truth books, which showcase conversion stories.

Would Saint Augustine Go to a Southern Baptist Church in Houston?

McKnight first identified these converts eight years ago, and the trend has continued to grow in the intervening years. It shows up in a variety of places, in the musings of the late Michael Spencer (the “Internet Monk”) about his wife’s conversion and his decision not to follow, as well as at the Evangelical Theological Society where the former President and Baylor University professor Francis J. Beckwith made a well-documented “return to Rome.” Additionally, the conversion trend is once again picking up steam as the Millennial generation, the first to be born and raised in the contemporary brand of evangelicalism, comes of age. Though perhaps an unlikely setting, The King’s College, an evangelical Christian college in New York City, provides an excellent case study for the way this phenomenon is manifesting itself among young evangelicals.

The King’s College campus is comprised of two floors in the Empire State Building and some office space in a neighboring building on Fifth Avenue. The approximately 300 students who attend King’s are thoughtful, considerate and serious. They are also intellectually curious. This combination of traits, it turns out, makes the college a ripe breeding ground for interest in Roman Catholicism. Among the traits of the Catholic Church that attract TKC students—and indeed many young evangelicals at large—are its history, emphasis on liturgy, and tradition of intellectualism.

Lucas Croslow was one such student to whom these and other attributes of Catholicism appealed. This past spring, graduating from The King’s College was not the only major change in Croslow’s life, he was also confirmed into the Catholic Church.

Croslow’s interest in Catholicism began over six years ago when he was a sophomore in high school. At the time, Croslow’s Midwestern evangelical church experienced a crisis that is all too common among evangelical churches: what he describes as “a crisis of spiritual authority.” As a result of experiencing disappointment in his pastor, Croslow began to question everything he had learned from him. This questioning led him to study the historical origins of scripture and then of the Christian church itself. Eventually he concluded that Catholicism in its current form is the closest iteration of the early church fathers’ intentions. He asks, “If Saint Augustine showed up today, could we seriously think that he’d attend a Southern Baptist church in Houston?” The answer, to Croslow, is a resounding “No.”
. . .

You can read the rest here.


Moonshadow said...

students would come up and ask us if they could follow us to daily Mass

That's the biggest thing, if we can get them to experience the liturgy but at least the ones I know (i.e., women) are all conditioned to think the mass is the supreme sacrilege that sullies them even to observe. God forgive them if they attend out of compassion, like to a funeral.

My two cents. I'm glad your experience has been more positive.

bbmoe said...

Chalk another one up to the enduring influence of the Church fathers.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Of course, an important question along the lines of Croslow's is, if St Augustine (or St Cyprian or St Ambrose or whomever) were to show up today, could we seriously think that he would attend an average Roman Catholic parish with a steady diet of Haas and Hagen, the St Louis Jesuits, and the various other crimes against traditional Christian liturgy discussed in such books as Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing? I think this is a relevant point because one the driving forces behind Evangelical conversions to Roman Catholicism is the historical dimension of liturgical continuity, and at least in this respect, the Roman church is in fundamental ways different from the Church of Sts Augustine, Ambrose, and Cyprian.

Anonymous said...

This will stop when the fundamentalists realize that the Catholic Church doesn't hate science and doesn't teach the Earth to be 6,000 years old.

JohnDave Medina said...

I am one who was making the transition from fundamentalism -> evangelicalism and now am going from evangelicalism -> Catholicism (the stop at evangelicalism was very brief). I blame it on church history! :-)