I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question. Of course, I have to be careful in giving an answer, insofar as I can’t peer into the hearts and thought processes of another human. Only they know the true answer to that question. But let me venture a few thoughts.
Notwithstanding the efforts of ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together), the divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism are long-standing and the reasons multi-faceted. Whereas the vast majority of Protestants remain suspicious of Roman Catholicism, a few, often well-known figures (e.g., the late Richard John Neuhaus, Thomas Howard, Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith), find a home in Rome. Before I address why we see such “conversions,” let me say a few words about why most evangelical Protestants are still suspicious of Rome.
The following are merely observations. I make no attempt to determine whether or not these evangelical fears are justified or misguided.
(1) Many Protestant evangelicals are energized by the Protestant martyrs of the reformation and post-reformation period: Hus, Cranmer, Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Ridley, etc. They fear that dialogue with the RCC is a disservice and dishonor to those who gave their lives for their convictions. They were tortured and died for their refusal to embrace the Roman Catholic Mass or bow to papal authority. ECT represents for many evangelicals a tacit dismissal of such heroes of the faith: “Are we selling out those who sacrificed so much? Why are we willing to compromise so easily on matters that were to them a question of life and death?”
(2) Evangelicals fear the loss of theological integrity. They believe that the only way to enter a dialogue with Rome is by compromising on several key theological issues. Most evangelicals believe that unity is theologically based. Cooperative efforts must be grounded in theological consensus. Is this biblical? Is it feasible?
(3) Many evangelicals are afraid of liturgy and ritual. They are put off by the external trappings of the RCC and believe them to be a threat to the simplicity, genuineness, freedom, and spontaneity of faith in Jesus. Perhaps they grew up Catholic or know someone who is Catholic and are personally aware of the potential of relying on a religious ritual devoid of spiritual substance. A biblically based theology of symbol and sacrament would go a long way in diminishing such fears.
(4) Evangelicals often fear that Roman Catholic theology and practice detract from a single-minded focus on Jesus. Devotion to Mary, praying the rosary, penance, confession, etc., strike them as distractions from and perhaps substitutions for the worship of the Son of God alone. Associated with this is their belief that Catholics are obsessed with the pope, a mere man (as evidenced by the deference shown him, the honorific titles given him, and the habit of bowing in his presence or the kissing of his hand, foot, ring, etc.).
(5) Evangelicals are concerned that the RC concept of justification, doing penance, and the Mass, etc., detract from, and perhaps even deny, the centrality and sufficiency of divine grace. This raises the question of whether or not Sola Fide is itself the gospel.
(6) Evangelicals tend to be individualistic in their faith. Thus they do not like being told what to do and what not to do. They fear that papal authority and the magisterium of the church would rob them of their freedom as Christians. In other words, evangelicals are quite serious about the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer and the concept of “soul competency” (a favorite term among Baptists).
(7) The single most basic reason for evangelical reluctance to ECT and other forms of dialogue or ecumenical activity is their suspicion that Catholics are not saved. The question they ask themselves is: “How can someone be born again who denies Sola Scriptura, who puts their trust in the sacrifice of the mass, who affirms the existence of purgatory, who grants such high privilege and power to both the Pope on earth and Mary in heaven, who believes that salvation is, at minimum, a cooperative effort of God and man?” This suspicion casts a long shadow over all efforts at dialogue between evangelical and Catholic. But do Catholics, in fact, believe what evangelicals think they believe? It would appear that open and honest and prolonged dialogue is at this point absolutely essential.
O.K., so why then do some (many?) evangelical Protestants “convert” to Catholicism?
1) Aesthetic – Many appeal to the experience of being moved by the architecture of RC church structures, the incense, the beauty of liturgy, the mystery, the solemnity, the drama, the vestments of the clergy, the church calendar, the sense of transcendence, religious symbolism, etc.
2) Historical – Some appeal to the belief that the reformation was a rebellion and that Protestantism is a deviation from the historic stream of the true church. They also point to a desire for unity with the past and the appeal of tradition.
3) Theological – Some convert for strictly theological reasons. They insist that sola scriptura, sola fide, etc. are wrong. Many have become persuaded of a sacramental/sacerdotal approach to God’s mechanism for dispensing grace together with a belief that Protestantism is Gnostic and fails to embrace the incarnational principle of scripture.
4) Social – The growing secularization of society, together with the diminishing influence of the evangelical church, have led many to Rome. They often find in the RCC a stabilizing anchor and unified front to fight the battle against the paganizing of culture.
5) Personal – Many Protestants point to their bad experience in the church, often citing an oppressive and legalistic fundamentalism.
(6) Authority – Many appeal to papal infallibility, as over against the theological schisms in Protestantism, that they believe offers a stability in which their souls/minds might find rest in an uncertain and irrational age. In other words, it is the allure of a purported unshakable voice of authority that puts to rest countless and otherwise irresolvable theological disputes that draws so many to Rome. The idea of a Spirit-led, authoritative teaching office, known as the Magisterium, brings a measure of relief to those who’ve grown weary of arguments, debates, and doubts about what the Bible means and how we should live.
(7) Denominational – By this I have in mind the disdain many feel toward the divisions and denominations in Protestantism. They are offended by the obvious disunity that exists and what they perceive as the failure to take seriously the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that we all be one. Needless to say, this wrongly assumes that there is in contemporary Catholicism a monolithic and unified theology, when in fact there are numerous “catholicisms” that often deviate from Rome.
I’m sure there are other reasons people give for their spiritual pilgrimage to Rome, but these are the ones I most often hear.