Saturday, September 20, 2008

a letter on my last week before becoming Catholic

I wrote this letter to describe why I am becoming Catholic. I realized some of you may appreciate this as well. Hope it's helpful in understanding my change better. Names and other personal elements have been altered, but the substance remains.

Dear ____

I hope all is well with you and ____.

I'm writing to you because you are a person who is close to me, and I think it is fitting that I share what we have come to believe about the Church established by Christ. A few weeks ago I met with a good Protestant man to discuss my thoughts, but he is not as close to me and my family as you. The point is that these are serious matters that have been on my mind for a while, and I think now I am at the stage where I am able to express myself about what we believe consistently and thoroughly.

Coming to where we have been has been one of the best things that has happened to me spiritually speaking, for it has helped me grow away from a position that I now realize was spiritual elitism, to a deep love for all Christians. I must admit that when I was attending other churches I would look down on even some Calvinist congregations, while my judgment was even harsher for non-Calvinist groups such as the one that first shared the word of God with me.

This mentality was even with me after we had joined, and so I must say that it was quite surprising to see quotes from famous Catholics like Mother Teresa, Fulton Sheen and G.K. Chesterton in the meditation section at the beginning of our order of worship. At first I was even upset about this openness. Were we playing with fire in embracing Catholics as brethren? Wasn't the Pope the Antichrist? These and other questions have been going through my head on a conceptual level, and on a practical level. For I had been taught that Rome's exclusion of Protestants for believing that they were not saved by works was an exclusion of the gospel. They were in essence synagogues of Satan for renouncing the simplicity of the gospel. When I first started following Christ at the age of 15, my first "treatise" on theology (written 2 weeks after professing faith, mind you) was a mockery of praying the Lord's Prayer word for word, advocating praying in the Spirit of the Lord's Prayer only. And while I eventually came to see that that practice itself was not the problem, the fundamental idea of Rome's gospel as founded upon works was still with me. And yet at where we are technically members, we would put quotes by Catholics in our bulletin. Were we being inconsistent?

Beyond these quotes in the bulletin that would frighten me somewhat, I recall being at a home fellowship group and hearing you saying that we as Presbyterians could learn from the monks who took good time to be silent. Additionally, Rev. Jim T. once preached a sermon discussing the nature of God's sovereignty in light of the petition in the Lord's Prayer which asks the same God that His will would be done in earth as it is in heaven. To explain this mystery it was to my great surprise that he recommended a book that he even produced from the pulpit, reading from Jesus of Nazareth, a book written by the current Pope. Lastly, a prominent member who is an author, Ellen V., has advocated a real acceptance of Catholics by Protestants in her book The Body, which she co-authored with Charles C.

Running parallel to my change from the OPC to the PCA and seeing this openness towards embracing Roman Catholics as brothers (without agreeing with their particular views that set the two groups apart), in moving to the East Coast I also met several devout Catholics in the area. These are not your run of the mill individuals that are uninformed about their Church's history and beliefs, which seemed to be the only brand of Catholic back in California (upon cursory analysis, at least). They are fervent believers who understand what they believe, and why. Several of them are also former Presbyterians. When I had first encountered these individuals I was taken aback, for my understanding of Catholic theology repeatedly would be challenged by their (seeming, at least) sincere love for me and more importantly, for the Lord. One person in particular went out of his way to buy me a book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer. I appreciated the gesture, but honestly I had no real mental interest in evaluating the claims of a Church that seemed so wrong. And so, from August of 2005 until May of 2007, I left the book on my shelf.

As I said, my ingrained idea was that to be Catholic was to deny the gospel. Sure, there could be saved Catholics, but that had to be in spite of their theological backdrop, not because of it. Needless to say, my experiences out here left me feeling quite unsettled and confused.

It was in May of 2007 that this confusion reached its apex, because I had learned that the then President of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis Beckwith, returned to Rome.
When I had been attending a non-denominational denomination known as Calvary Chapel, Beckwith would frequently speak to us on the importance of glorifying God with our minds as well as our hearts. He brought the idea that apologetics were not apologies, and with many other good Christians, he kindled my interest in Reformed theology. At his return to Rome, I was also surprised to hear that it was the understanding of the Catholic view of justification and how it is not as anti-Protestant as one would imagine. For the idea of justification is really the thing that Luther railed upon most as he wrote against the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to our church's friendliness to Catholics and these conversions, there is also the matter of the New Perspective on Paul. While not a staunch advocate of this position, when I would read those who advocated it, I did not see a dangerous error, which is what has been said by the general assemblies of the PCA and elsewhere. That theologians such as Norm S. and others can demand that baptism has objective effects on the baptized (without asserting that it saves the baptized) and that faith must be living, active and obedient did not strike me as heretical (or bordering on heresy). It struck me as the key to more accepted movements such as Tim K.'s Sonship program, which emphasize the believer's continued need to grow in the Gospel and to embrace one's position wrought by Christ's death and resurrection by believing that there are objective consequences of being Christian that are manifested in this life. And yet, the formal rulings of general assemblies have held this view to be denying the grace of the gospel. Some have even accused this position of being intrinsically Roman Catholic in its orientation. Again, my sympathy with this broad and varied theological movement led me to want to know more about Catholicism itself.

And so with the friendliness to Rome by good Presbyterians, Beckwith's conversion and the thoughts that some Presbyterians were "too Catholic" in the eyes of some, I finally opened up the book bought by my friend on Catholicism, and read it. I've also checked out nearly every book in our church library and read the relevant parts. There are many arguments and considerations that could be mentioned that are the fruits of my reading and arguments, but the main thing I want to say is that with each distinctive Catholic doctrine that seemed so idolatrous or contrived, I found the support of both logic, history, and the Christ-centered attitude that to me is the essence of the Gospel. I was shaken greatly by these discoveries, so much so that at this point I am preparing myself and my family to convert to Catholicism.

This was the last thing that I could imagine happening to me, but as I said, in reading Bouyer and others, we found our hearts saying Amen at so many points. Sure, some specific doctrines struck us as odd initially, but I can say that there are so many things about my life and the history of the Church that have coalesced into a beautiful harmony when I looked at them from the Catholic perspective.

I understand that this must seem quite unexpected to you, and there may be some questions that you have about my understanding of the Gospel. I would be open to discussing my change of heart about the Catholic Church, but would like to do it the right way.

So I would like to set forth what I think would be good grounds of discussion, assuming that you do have such questions. If you would like to meet or talk on the phone (etc.) to discuss my change in views about the Catholic Church further, I think it would be wise to have an agenda or basis for discussion. For my part, if asked to meet on this issue I would point to these sources of Catholic theology as most helpful in explaining Rome's position: The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Catholic Christianity by Peter Kreeft. If you would like to have the conversation hinge around a work that is critical of Catholicism and have me defend or clarify on the matter, I would like to know what that book/essay/line of reasoning is, so as to have time to meditate upon it. If this sort of meeting does not seem desirable or necessary to you, I can respect that opinion as well.

In light of what I shared, I think of one particular argument that is offered in Kreeft's book on Catholicism. I think it touches at the essential matter of why we feel called to become Catholic.

A common way to defend the truth of our Lord's message and mission of saving us by His blood is to take Him at His word. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or our Lord.

In Catholic Christianity, Kreeft argues that in a sense, the same must be true of the Catholic Church, given Her claims. They must be liars, lunatics, or from the Lord, to assert their visible primacy, infallibility, and charge to lead all Christians on earth. As Christ's spiritual headship of the Church (and this world) leads him to make a claim of divinity, so too does Rome's claim of physical headship of the Church place it in a claim of divinely appointed authority. To make this claim while not really having it is to be either a liar or a lunatic, driven mad by power. But if the Catholic Church is justified in making this claim, it deserves our allegiance. Because of our growing affinity towards embracing Catholics as my brothers and the combined experience of evaluating their claims, we are taking steps to join the Catholic Church. To me, the only other option is to call them liars or lunatics. The testimony of history, the level of love that I have seen in talking to Catholics, the reading of their documents expressing their perspective, and the perspective of loving Christians, has led me to deny the validity of the idea that their claims are made out of pomposity or presumption.

After evaluating Rome's claims I can see only these two types of responses: embracing Rome fully, or rejecting Rome fully. That Rome is a neutral third party of Christians who happen to make such absolute claims does not make sense to me. So I have concluded that the only fully consistent response to Catholicism besides agreement is anti-Catholicism, as was historically the case with the first edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and other early Protestant statements.

Again, my purpose in writing this is not ultimately polemical. Each person has to take their time to think about all of the issues wrapped up in the single issue of the Church and come to a conclusion. But as I have sifted through the evidence, I am compelled to be persuaded by the claims of Rome, and cannot violate my conscience by remaining out of full communion with her. At the same time, I respect and believe that there are many sincere Christians who cannot and will not on this side of heaven come to agreement with me on this issue.

After all, the Church has been horribly ripped since 1054 between East and West, and since the 1500s, so many Europeans who were good Christians went to war with each other over the issue of the Reformation. This obscures our ability to evaluate such long standing wounds in the Body of Christ. Please understand that my main motivation in these studies has been to embrace all Christians, and that as we transition to joining the Roman Catholic Church we will never hesitate to call you and many other dear people our brethren in Christ.

But at the same time, I must say that given the call of Scripture to be fully united with no schisms (1 Corinthians 1) and to be one with each other as the Father and the Son are one (John 17), it is necessary for us to take whatever steps are needful to fulfill these verses to the best of our ability. In our analysis of the situation, we see this happening through a body of believers that claims authority over all believers, namely through submission to the bishop of Rome.

I will forever be indebted to you for looking out for us as friends and spiritual parents in the Lord. I wish you all the blessings from our Father, who is the source of every good and perfect gift. But I must also be honest and inform you that even if we do not move, we will be moving to the Catholic Church. Please let me know what needs to be done to be taken off of the membership rolls-while we do desire that to happen, we do not desire to take you and everyone who is Protestant down from our list of brethren whom we admire, respect and pray for. My prayer is also that you would continue to hold us in a similar regard.

Apologies for the length of this e-mail but I wanted to lay out my heart as clearly and fully as possible.

In the peace of Christ,


M. Swaim said...

Congratulations on your conversion! When I came into the Church at the '05 Easter vigil, one of my biggest issues was the fact that I couldn't talk smack about Evangelicalism anymore...

contrarian 78 said...

Thanks for your comment. I have already realized that there are many other things I should have written in that e-mail, but we're all learning.

Hoping the smack stops on all sides and the truth grows in our hearts,

The Sheepcat said...

Jonathan, welcome!
When's the big moment scheduled for?

contrarian 78 said...

Do we know each other?

At any rate, it will be this Saturday.

The Sheepcat said...

Sorry, Jonathan, I suppose I might have introduced myself. I think I've seen you around at Fr Dwight's combox, and in any case that was where I saw your big news.

Principium Unitatis said...


What an amazing journey. Three years ago, I would have said "No way!". :-)

May the Lord bless you and Susan today.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tim A. Troutman said...

Welcome home.

George Weis said...

Hi Jonathan,

What an excellent letter. I think you achieved relaying the message in a completely loving way. May you be blessed for it.

I am not a Catholic, but am often found buzzing around blogs like yours as I am also poking around in early Church writings.

I hope to keep tabs on you. I appreciate your heart in this. May you be blessed for the sake of Christ!


Neal Judisch and Family said...

Congratulations, Jonathan. My family and I also entered into the Church during Pentecost this last year. Enjoy your second honeymoon.

Peace to you,


Gretchen said...

Welcome home, and thank you for posting the very touching letter that describes a bit of your conversion.

Jason Stellman said...

Hi Jonathan,

I'd like to contact you privately if you wouldn't mind, but I couldn't find an email address. I'm also from a SoCal Calvary background (and once a big fan of Beckwith).



contrarian 78 said...

Thank you all, for your comments.

Tiber Jumper said...

Welcome Home!

Maggie said...

Welcome home! I too "read myself into the Church" from a PC (USA) background, and it's always so uplifting to read of another homecoming :-) May God bless you and your family!