Why Protestants Convert, Pt. 1: Conversionitis

by Chris Castaldo and Brad Littlejohn

Twenty-four years ago, at the opening of his classic work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll acidly remarked that “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Since that time, there have been plenty of signs of hope and improvement. The classical Christian education movement, initially spearheaded largely by evangelical Protestants, has grown immensely in numbers and influence, though it remains a fairly small blip on the American educational landscape. New evangelical colleges committed to the renewing of the evangelical mind, such as New Saint Andrews College and Patrick Henry College, though tiny in numbers, punch well above their weight in academic and cultural influence. The number of evangelical graduate students attending top-notch programs has increased greatly over this period (albeit too greatly for the stagnant evangelical job market to bear). The evangelical publishing industrial complex is doing very well, and publishers like Crossway are putting out material of genuine depth and theological weight.

Yet it is no exaggeration to say that the chief beneficiary of this renaissance has not been evangelical Protestantism, but Roman Catholicism (and to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodoxy). The classical Christian education movement is increasingly dominated by Catholic and Orthodox teachers and leaders, and the top graduates of evangelical colleges are disproportionately likely to convert to Rome. Even among established Protestant intellectuals, one can identify a steady stream of high-profile conversions over the past couple decades, including Scott Hahn, Francis J. Beckwith, J. Budziszewski, R. R. Reno, Reinhard Hütter, and Christian Smith, among many others. The conservative politics of the Religious Right, once energized by Baptists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have become increasingly the province of Roman Catholic intellectuals, many of them converts from evangelical Protestantism. Witness, for instance, the trajectory of First Things over the past quarter-century from the ecumenical platform for “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” to the flagship of conservative Roman Catholicism in America.

The Case of Newman

In some ways, there is nothing new about this. One thinks of a quintessential convert to Rome such as John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Newman, like subsequent figures who traversed the Tiber, including G.K Chesterton, Malcom Muggeridge, and Thomas Merton, narrated the reasons for his journey. Newman’s account, however, found chiefly in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is especially helpful by illuminating reasons and attendant circumstances that routinely lead pilgrims Romeward.  

It’s important to note that, for Newman, conversion is a gradual process. “Great acts take time,” he asserts in his Apologia.[1] Or as he had written previously in Tracts for the Times (no. 85), one’s mind is drawn into truth “not by losing what it had, but by gaining what it had not…True conversion is ever of a positive, not a negative character.” This unfolding development, according to Newman, is not strictly rational or propositional; it is an embodied experience that involves one’s heart and imagination—indeed, a heart that lives in relation to other hearts. In the words of his famous coat of arms, cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart). Or in his classic letters regarding the Tamworth Reading Room (1841): “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

John Henry Newman

In this pilgrimage, the heart and the head always work in tandem. For example, in a sermon on “Sudden Conversions” Newman likened the development of one’s faith to the “slow, gradual, and continual” growth of plants: “When men change their religious opinions really and truly,” he writes, “it is not merely their opinions that they change, but their hearts; and this evidently is not done in a moment—it is slow work.”[2] Newman’s famous poem, Lead Kindly Light, makes a similar point concerning this protracted nature of the process:

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

The point of departure for Newman’s conversion began in his teenage years. His religious background up to that point has been described as “a conventional, non-sacramental middle-class one.”[3] Before long, however, he was awoken from his religious slumber by reading the deist Thomas Paine and the skeptic David Hume.  Such reflection eventually led to his conversion to a sort of evangelicalism that was “Calvinistic in character.”[4] This occurred in the autumn of 1816 when Newman was fifteen, and it is understood as his “first” conversion.

Newman would maintain the core of his Calvinist creed for nearly the next decade. After becoming a fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, he took holy orders, and in 1824 he was ordained deacon. Newman then engaged pastoral ministry with great enthusiasm, but it was at this time he started to question a basic tenet among evangelicals: the distinction between “nominal” and “real” Christians.

Simply put, Newman had soured on the evangelical tendency to join the individual’s decision of faith to conversion, a connection that he addresses at great length in his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. At stake was the question of Newman and his evangelical forebears concerning the source of “real” Christian life, whether it is properly derived from the sacraments or faith alone. Newman chose the sacraments. This conviction undermined Newman’s distinction between real and nominal Christians and led him to retreat from Reformed soteriology. In his own words, writing in January of 1825, “I think, I am not certain, I must give up the doctrine of imputed righteousness and that of regeneration apart from baptism.”[5]   

In addition to revising his understanding of regeneration, Newman also began to rethink the way sacred tradition relates to Scripture. This occurred at a critical moment when Newman found himself in an extended debate on the nature and extent of religious authority with his Oriel colleague, Edward Hawkins. Newman gives the blow-by-blow:

“He [Hawkins] lays down a proposition, self-evident as soon as stated, to those who have at all examined the structure of Scripture, viz. that the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it, and that, if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church; for instance to the Catechism, and to the Creeds. He considers, that, after learning from them the doctrines of Christianity, the inquirer must verify them by Scripture.”[6] 

“When men change their religious opinions really and truly, it is not merely their opinions that they change, but their hearts; and this evidently is not done in a moment—it is slow work.”

John Henry Newman

Recounting in his Apologia the factors that most influenced him during these formative years, Newman highlights two in particular. The first was an interest in liberal theology, which preferred intellectual to moral excellence. Historians often label this Newman’s “second” conversion, but it was probably too short-lived to be considered a conversion in any proper or significant sense. The other influential factor was his reading of John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827), particularly its sacramental vision. In Newman’s words: “[It] was what may be called, in a larger sense of the word, the Sacramental system, that is, the doctrine that material phenomena are both the types and the instruments of things unseen.” Newman proceeds to explain that sacraments are not simply signs directing the faithful to the mysteries of faith (as many evangelicals taught at that time); they are also the instrumental means by which one encounters them. 

Newman’s eventual movement into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, his “third” conversion by common reckoning, was due to a complex of factors. His decision largely turned on his understanding of regeneration, now placed in the context of sacramental objectivity, and his elevation of church tradition to the height of Christian authority. But as Newman’s Apologia makes plain, these developments happened over many years and in conversation with a range of conversation partners. Lewis Rambo captures the holistic nature of this kind of conversion experience, one that applies to all conversions, when he writes: “The process of conversion is a product of the interactions among the convert’s aspirations, needs, and orientations, the nature of the group into which he or she is being converted, and the particular social matrix in which these processes are taking place.”[7]

“Conversionitis” Today

Regardless of the particularities of Newman’s conversion and the historically well-worn journey from Canterbury to Rome, however, there does seem to be something unique—and if you are a Protestant, uniquely unsettling—about the recent trend of what we might call “conversionitis.” In thus labelling it, of course, we hardly mean to dismiss or pooh-pooh it. It is in large part the natural result of the self-inflicted wounds of the late 20th-century scandal of the evangelical mind, which will take generations to undo. After all, each generation tends to define itself in relation to its parents’ generation, consciously or subconsciously reacting against it in various ways. For evangelicals of the early 21st century, the shallowness, subjectivity, and hypocrisy of Boomer-era Protestantism has been difficult to look past, and the increased urgency of our cultural moment has persuaded many, especially of our best and brightest, that they would be foolish to continue to lean on such a weak reed. Neither Jerry Falwell nor Mark Driscoll are of any use in defending us from the enemies that are now pounding at our gates, and Roman Catholicism still boasts a rich and robust intellectual tradition that can sustain both orthodox faith and evangelical politics. When all the efforts of the dwindling Roman legions could no longer protect Italy from the ravages of Attila the Hun, Pope Leo stepped into the breach, and who can blame the people of Western Europe for placing their faith in him? So it is today. There may well be resources in the Protestant intellectual tradition that equal Rome’s offering—certainly that is our contention at the Davenant Institute. But until we teach them effectively to our pastors, parishioners, and children, we should not be surprised when they go in search of greener pastures.

The current epidemic of “conversionitis” has many causes. In this series of essays, we will look at three different sets of motives: psychological, theological, and sociological, and we will be chiefly focusing on the causes of Roman Catholic conversion, though some of what we say will apply also to Eastern Orthodoxy. Many converts, no doubt, will foreground the theological considerations, insisting that it was the superior truth claims of the Roman Catholic Church which persuaded them. Ultimately, of course, this is the ground on which the battle must be fought, and if Protestantism cannot make its case there, the rest matters little. Still, the fact is—as Newman recognized—for most converts in any kind of religious conversion, personal and social motivations play a large role as well. In drawing attention to these somewhat less “rational” motivations, however, our point is not to discredit conversion narratives as at bottom irrational, or to dismissively “psychologize” any individual’s conversion to Rome. The psychological and sociological motives must be taken every bit as seriously by pastors, parents, and teachers as the theological considerations. We are not mere brains, but souls, and embodied souls at that. If Protestantism cannot sustain and satisfy the souls and bodies of its adherents, we can hardly complain when they look elsewhere.

If Protestantism cannot sustain and satisfy the souls and bodies of its adherents, we can hardly complain when they look elsewhere.

Looking once again at Newman, we find the psychological, theological, and sociological dimensions of conversion on full display. His conversion to Roman Catholicism, like all spiritual conversions, consisted of a “push” and a “pull”—a certain discontent with the Church of England, which effectively pushed him toward the Tiber River, and a thirst for the Roman tradition, which pulled him to the other side.

Concerning Protestantism’s “push,” Newman states his chief contention when he writes that “the Church considers the doctrine of justification by faith only to be a principle and the religion of the day takes it as a rule of conduct.”[8] In other words, he disliked what he saw as decisionism that led to cheap grace, a subjective experience of conversion that marginalized the authority of Catholic tradition and its precepts. His younger brother Francis, an early collaborator with John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, was a particularly egregious example to which John Henry often pointed. Francis’s departure from Christianity for a kind of rational-mystical agnosticism and militant vegetarianism was exhibit-A for why one must be careful to ground faith in something more than subjectivity or reason, that is, in a church with incarnational dimensions.   

Concerning Catholicism’s “pull,” there were several doctrinal and sociological features of the Roman Church that attracted Newman: its claim on catholicity, a rich and textured liturgy, the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty), clerical celibacy—a discipline to which he had committed himself at a young age—and an authoritative magisterium. Perhaps most of all, Newman was attracted to the objective character of sacramental rites, an attraction that had been building for many years in opposition to his personal experience of evangelical Protestantism.

Even though the conversion(s) of John Henry Newman occurred over a century-and-a-half ago and in a social context very different from our own, they are structurally paradigmatic for contemporary converts to the Roman Catholic Church. At the center of this pattern is a particular understanding of the sacraments and the binding authority of church tradition as the divinely accredited organ and oracle of religious truth. The way individuals experience these two factors (sacramental mediation and church authority) is as numerous as the people themselves, but they are nonetheless like train tracks on which the convert’s experience moves. In our next post, we will begin to unpack a taxonomy of these converts, considering how the three different sets of motives—psychological, theological, and sociological—push and pull our friends, loved ones, and sometimes, even ourselves.

Read Pt. II: The Psychology of Conversion

[1] John Henry Newman. Apologia pro vita sua: being a history of his religious opinions. (London: Longmans, 1882), 169.

[2] John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Fransisco: Ignatius, 1987), 1682.

[3] Sheridan Gilley, “Life and Writings.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman, edited by Ian Ker and Terrance Merrigan. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1.

[4] John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Henry Tristram. (London Sheed and Ward, 1956), 29. 

[5]  John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings, 203.

[6] Newman, Apologia, 9.

[7] Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion. (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 7.

[8] John Henry Newman. Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. 3rd ed. (London: Rivington, 1874), 3. 

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