Think Before You Convert

Originally written in 2004; has become one of the most popular stops on this site.  At the time I was unaware of the many "variations on a theme" (such as Anglican Use) and we've had two changes in Pontiff, which has brought some new possibilities.  Yet I think that most of this is still relevant to the decision making processes that people are going through when they consider "swimming the Tiber."

Many years ago, I made a trip to Pennsylvania for my family business. My mission was to visit Bethlehem Steel, who was making a large piston-rod for our pile drivers (like the one shown at the left in the lathe.) As they turned it to the appointed size on their lathe, they cut it too small. My job was to inspect the damage and approve their proposed repair.

After visiting the shop and seeing the damage, I went to their office. We unrolled the drawing that we had sent them. Their quality assurance people had stamped on the drawing a big stamp with the following words: “THINK BEFORE YOU CUT.” I couldn’t resist pointing this out to Bethlehem’s people; evidently someone in the shop hadn’t noticed this. (I did approve their repair and it worked fine.)

Today, in the chaos of the Anglican Communion(s), many parishioners and priests are seriously considering conversion to Roman Catholicism. This has been a loud siren song to Anglicans ever since the Oxford Movement. I can sympathise with this: I did it myself. The problem of liberalism in the Episcopal Church has been going on for a long time and Roman Catholicism is an inviting solution to that problem.

Although I believe that God was in my decision to convert, and used that decision to further my Christian walk in ways I did not imagine at the start, experience has been a stern schoolmaster. There are many pluses and minuses for anyone coming from an Anglican background to become a Roman Catholic; what appears below isn’t meant to bash anyone, but to put some things forth that you may not have thought about. (It’s not an exhaustive list either.) My only exhortation is like that to the machinists in the Bethlehem Steel shop: THINK BEFORE YOU CONVERT.

The Pluses:

  • Strong Intellectual and Cultural Tradition. The Roman Catholic church has the strongest intellectual tradition in Christianity; there is none to match it anywhere else. Any church that can produce thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Augustine, and yes even Jerome must have something going for it. The cultural tradition is equally deep, in all of the art forms with the likes of Dante and Raphael. This is a strong draw for many.
  • Broad Ethnic and Socio-Economic Reach. Roman Catholicism deserves the designation of “catholic” because it is truly encompasses so many groups of people. This is especially interesting for Episcopalians because, as noted elsewhere on this site, the rhetoric about being “inclusive” frequently runs out of gas. (The liberals are getting an expensive lesson in real “diversity” from the Africans these days!) When he visited my first Catholic parish, my brother noted that there were people there who actually looked like they had “worked with their hands” for a living. Also, traditional Catholics have a humility about them that so many of the rest of us could stand to emulate (their marriages stay together better, too.)
  • Solid Eucharistic Theology. The Catholics have the best (not necessarily perfect) theology of the Lord’s Supper of anyone. The Bible simply doesn’t support a purely symbolic Eucharist.
  • Strong Apostolic Succession. The Catholic church has a better documented continuity of apostolic succession than anyone else. The issue of Petrine succession underscores this.
  • Well Thought Out Liturgy. Doctrinal difficulties noted, the Catholic liturgy is well thought out and succinct, and when performed properly is of great beauty.  (Well, in English, it was until they messed up the translation…)

The Minuses:

  • Authoritarian Structure. This is a common gripe of non-Catholics. Roman Catholicism invented the reduced role of the laity, which has been sadly reproduced elsewhere. But there are some other implications of this that most people don’t think about:
    • Catholic parishes have even less autonomy than their Episcopal counterparts. Freedom to pursue an agenda (be it “traditional” liturgies, Charismatic renewal, etc.) that isn’t popular at the diocesan level can get “cut off at the pass” in a hurry.
    • The current conservatism of Roman Catholicism is largely a product of Pope John Paul II. The forces of liberalism in “first world” Roman Catholicism are stronger than most people realise. Had his election gone another way, their response to, say, Gene Robinson’s elevation would have been entirely different. Although John Paul has stacked the College of Cardinals with conservatives, as with Supreme Court nominees, anything can happen with a new Pope.
  • The “Article 32” Problem. Although not a cure-all to the child abuse woes, the celibate priesthood is in reality a disaster.
  • The Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catholic view of the Mass as a sacrifice–which is tied up with their view of the church–is unbiblical. (So is their view of the church.) The Anglican emphasis on the “once offered” sacrifice is Biblical.
  • An Aversion to Enthusiasm: “Via Media” Anglicanism has its own brand of this, but Roman Catholicism, from Joan of Arc to the Jansenists, has an ingrained aversion to any kind of real “sold out to God” kind of commitment on the part of its laity, and to some extent on its religious too. This is a product of institutionalism, which sees this as a threat. The problem with this is simple: in these anti-Christian days, people in the middle of the road get run over.

If I Were an Archbishop…

One thing that gets kicked around in Anglican circles is the idea of an “Anglican Rite” within Roman Catholicism. (That shouldn’t be confused with the existing “Anglican Use” that one does find in the American Catholic church.) From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, and if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t pursue it for the following reasons:

  • The Maronite and Byzantine Rites came from Eastern Churches with independent apostolic succession. Anglicanism, like the Confederacy, seceded from Roman Catholicism. That’s why they don’t really accept the apostolic succession of Anglican orders. (what that has to do with apostolic succession is hard to understand.)
  • The Episcopal Church has shown a real talent in shedding membership. Why go to the trouble of setting up another rite when you can just wait and pick up the pieces on your own terms?
  • The existence of a married clergy in any “Anglican Rite” would create serious problems with the rest of the church.

Some Parting Thoughts

Anglicanism is in many ways the greatest lost opportunity in Christianity. It was started with the idea of restoring the Church to a sound Biblical-Patristic base while including the apostolic succession and liturgy–in effect, “having it all.” Things got sidetracked in the “Roundhead-Cavalier” struggles of the seventeenth century, and Anglican churches too often cater to people whose first desire in their relationship with God is to limit it. The liberals have used this to their advantage and now the bitter fruit of that has come full circle.

Growing up Episcopalian, I always got the impression that the church had a gut lack of confidence in the validity of its own sacraments and the value of its own doctrine. But in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the preface for Whitsuntide reads as follows:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind, in the likeness of fiery tongues, lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them, and to lead them to all truth; giving them both the gift of divers languages, and also boldness with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel to all nations; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ.

If we have the apostolic succession, the apostles’ teaching, and the power of the Holy Spirit, what else do we need?

Update: Note to my Roman Catholic friends

As you can see in the comments below, I get many comments from Roman Catholics on some of the things I say here.  My only request is this: before you comment away, take a look at one or more of the following:

I enjoy the dialogue, but make a stab at least at understanding my position before initiating it.

61 thoughts on “Think Before You Convert”

  1. I’m an Irish Catholic and philosooher and I love the cultural and intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church Esp ignatian spirituality but worship in a high Anglican Church- love the liturgy and aesthetics and agree with much Anglican theology but miss the soirituality of the various Catholic orders in Anglicanism and the monastic tradition..

Leave a Reply

Sailing the Last Voyage with Newton and Pascal

%d bloggers like this: