Why Protestants Convert, Pt. 2: The Psychology of Conversion


Penitent Saint Peter, by Jusepe de Rivera

by Brad Littlejohn

Introduction

In our first post, we introduced “conversionitis,” the phenomenon of recent Protestant defections to Rome (or the East), the impact of which is greater than mere numbers might suggest. The pervasiveness of this trend is apparent above all in shifting plausibility structures: once a dramatic event, evangelical conversions to Rome now seem a perfectly natural thing to do, or to read about others doing. For the brainy young evangelical, dissatisfied with the religion of his parents, but too faithful to rebel in any more dramatic way, the Catholic Church has become almost a default option—something at least to be reckoned with and wrestled with, even if he ultimately rejects conversion. 

To understand this phenomenon, the best place to start, we contend, is not with the theological claims that have lain at the forefront of Protestant/Catholic debates for centuries, and which many converts themselves foreground in narrating their own trajectories. The proper place to start, rather, is where most conversions begin: in the soul. In this post, accordingly, I will consider three main psychological motives that seem to draw many evangelicals, especially younger ones, toward Roman Catholicism.

Now, in highlighting these psychological motives, I am certain to exasperate some—rather than tackling the hard theological questions from the start, they will say, I am poisoning the well by psychologizing the conversion process so it can be more easily dismissed, or demeaning the convert’s experience by portraying it as fundamentally irrational. This is not our purpose. For one thing, we start here simply because, whether the conversion is one from Protestantism to Rome, or Rome to Protestantism, or Hinduism to Christianity, the literature on conversion shows that purely intellectual motives are rarely the most prominent ones, certainly at the start. Indeed, as Newman recognized, conversion is an act of the whole person, not just a transformation of the intellect. Second, highlighting these deeper motives is actually an attempt to take the narratives of many converts seriously. A common theme among those converting to Rome or wrestling with it is to critique Protestant “Gnosticism” and to celebrate the ways in which Rome satisfied spiritual longings that evangelicalism could not, providing worship for the whole body and soul, and not just the mind. Finally, my purpose here is not to minimize the real appeal of Rome, but rather to highlight the challenge which Protestant pastors and teachers must face. As we said in Part I, “if evangelical Protestantism cannot sustain and satisfy the souls and bodies of its adherents, we can hardly complain when they look elsewhere.”

The key psychological needs driving conversions can be effectively summarized under three headings: Authority Hunger, Holiness Deficit Disorder, and the Inner Ring. 

I. Authority Hunger

We live in an age of broken homes and broken families, as many a weary pastor can attest and grim statistics will bear out. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have been raised in stable homes, under a mother’s nurturing care and a father’s vigilant oversight, we can’t help but feel the fragility of these primal gifts, without which we wither or wander aimless and hungry. Although technological revolution and social revolution hard on its heels have profoundly disrupted both traditional mothering and fathering roles, the latter has surely taken the harder hit. The tight biological connection of mother and child is enough to ensure that most children will grow up with some kind of meaningful tie to their mothers, but fathers can detach more easily, and, without the constraint of rigid social and legal norms, often do. These constraints have evaporated in recent years, and fatherlessness is a true epidemic of our age. 

Even fathers who remain faithfully at their posts struggle today to discern and inhabit their paternal vocation in a world that seems to be in revolt against the very notion of paternity and all that it represents: structure, rule, hierarchy, authority, continuity with the past, courage in response to external threats and firmness in response to internal chaos. I have known several stories of converts to Rome with real father hunger in their past, men and women looking for the church to fill a deep personal void in their own lives. But beyond such stories, which may be isolated cases, the fact is that we are all—as a society, as a culture, as a church—in a state of hunger for authentic authority. We still have government, because humans can’t live without it, but we don’t have governors; we have exchanged therapists and bureaucrats for leaders, and are told we must reject as “toxic” the virtues with which we long to fill this hole.

We live in a world that seems to be in revolt against the very notion of paternity and all that it represents: structure, rule, hierarchy, authority, continuity with the past, courage in response to external threats and firmness in response to internal chaos.

Still, how does all this relate to conversionitis? If anything, the Catholic Church has historically stressed its maternal character—“Mother Church,” personified in Catholic theology by the Blessed Virgin—and no doubt another essay could be written on the ways in which Roman Catholicism fills a maternal void for many moderns struggling to understand the meaning of motherhood and femininity. Still, there is no getting away from the fact that priests are addressed as “Father,” and “Pope” itself means “Papa.” For many converts, these are not just titles, but central answers to the hunger that drives them to Rome. The Catholic Church has certainly sought to downplay the idea of “the hierarchy” since Vatican II, but it is telling that most converts are among the conservatives or traditionalists that want to reverse that trend—and if they are frustrated with the Holy Father at the top of that hierarchy right now, Francis, it’s because he seems to lack any patriarchal firmness. 

Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St Ambrose To Enter Milan Cathedral (Anthony van Dyck)

At the root of many conversion narratives is a desperate search for authority in an age that has all but blacklisted the very word. Authority is, of course, inescapable, as well as absolutely essential to human agency and freedom. We cannot be free—that is, we cannot meaningfully act—except in response to some kind of summons that points us toward some good; and we cannot maintain freedom in the face of disordered desire without some kind of structure that holds us on our course toward that good. Western society in general, and Western Protestantism in particular, has failed abysmally in recent decades to provide forms of authority that can summon us toward the good and sustain us in pursuit of it. The authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers argued, is a kind of false simulacrum of authority, a shortcut rather than the real thing, since it nullifies freedom rather than sustaining it; rather than guiding the soul in pursuit of the good, the hierarchy claims to itself posses the good, so that the laity can simply rest in obedience—learning doctrine if they are so inclined, but trusting implicitly if they prefer. 

But when the glory of real authority departs our churches, we can hardly be surprised when false images of it are hurried in to replace it, or when our people wander out to worship at the high places, where at least they can feel themselves in the presence of something higher and greater than they.

II. Holiness Deficit Disorder

This leads naturally to consideration of the next motive, which we might call “Holiness Deficit Disorder.” This disorder is probably so familiar to so many of us that it needs no lengthy exposition. It is a plain fact that precious few of our Protestant churches give their worshippers a sense of being in the presence of the holy, a sense of ascending into the very presence of the Almighty and falling before His throne to cry, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 5:11). 

In part, Protestantism is a victim of its own success, a victim of taking a powerful Gospel truth and emphasizing it in isolation from all else in the Scriptural narrative. Martin Luther proclaimed the glorious gospel of grace against the backdrop assumption that our God was a consuming fire, in whose presence sin could not abide. This was precisely why our only hope was in the alien righteousness of Christ, the Lamb who stood in our place in the presence of the Almighty, the clothing with which we were shielded from God’s wrath. Eventually, we became so accustomed to the shocking notion that a Holy God could pardon filthy sinners that we forgot there was anything particularly odd about it. Surely, as modern theology teaches, since God is love, He loves the presence of His creatures however stained they might be? Rather than standing confidently before Him clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we waltz casually into his presence with gym shorts and a latte. We have remembered Hebrews 12:18: “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest” and forgotten Hebrews 12:28-29: “thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,for our God is a consuming fire.”

Eventually, we became so accustomed to the shocking notion that a Holy God could pardon filthy sinners that we forgot there was anything particularly odd about it. . . . Rather than standing confidently before Him clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we waltz casually into his presence with gym shorts and a latte.

Most evangelical churches, in their eagerness to make God seeker-friendly, have left their worshippers wondering what exactly it was they came there seeking—nothing, it seems, that they couldn’t have gotten at a movie theater or pop concert. Hungry souls wander in desperate for something other than their mundane, materialistic, digitally-saturated lives, and they’re treated to light shows, projectors, and interactive “tweet-the-pastor” sermons. 

Of course, more traditional or confessionalist Protestant churches might hold out against the times with an insistence on more restrained, formal, serious, Word-centered worship, but this too tends to contribute to the epidemic of Holiness Deficit Disorder. The Protestant Reformers rightly called the Church back to a Word-centered worship in an era that was positively starved of the life-giving food of the Scriptures, but they equally stressed the importance of the sacraments. Every infant came into the Church through the mystery of baptism, and the Eucharist—in the late medieval church reserved almost entirely for the clergy—was brought back into the center of worship, ideally as a weekly rite for the whole community of the faithful (though in practice, most communities were unable to adjust to such a radical notion, and Communion improved only marginally to a monthly or quarterly rite). The Reformers labored tirelessly over liturgies that would lead the whole body of believers together on the journey of ascent to the presence of God each week: through confession and absolution, to adoration and instruction, and finally to rejoicing together before God’s throne. The delicate balance they struggled to achieve between mind and body in worship, between individual and corporate, between Word and Sacrament, largely collapsed in the boisterous, democratizing solvent of America, and few churches have been able to find their way back to it.

We live increasingly in a world of artifice, buffered from anything not of human making by layers of technology, cocooned inside our own conditioning. It has been 125 years since Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote 

“all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge & shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod”

and our detachment from the world charged with the grandeur of God has intensified into alienation. Just as we are increasingly hungry for an authority that is not of our own making, we are increasingly hungry to experience a reality that is truly other—before, beyond, and above us: in short, an experience of the holy. Driven by this hunger, many evangelicals wander into a Catholic Mass and hear for the first time the singing of a Sanctus, see for the first time the reverential breaking of the bread, feel for the first time what it’s like to bow humbly in the presence of God. They are captivated, and understandably so. They sense a holiness there that fills a hole, and they are convinced that it is the soul-food they have been seeking for years.

It was the contention of the Reformers that the beauty of holiness in which Rome gloried even then was but a painted façade, a simulacrum of the real thing. Rather than revealing the supernatural in the natural, the extraordinary in the ordinary, their transubstantiation could only replace bread and wine with heavenly substances. Rather than granting the faithful believer access into the Holy of Holies to feast before the Lord, they left him to gawk from the outer courts while the priestly class interceded on his behalf and brought some morsels of grace out to sustain him on his weary pilgrimage. Thus, rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of God’s presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, they encouraged him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.

III. The Inner Ring

The first two reasons we have considered here are lofty and laudable desires indeed. We can’t help but sympathize with the hunger for fatherly authority and authentic holiness that leads many out of Protestantism. The final motivation is perhaps a baser one, though let him who is without this sin cast the first stone. It is the almost universal psychological phenomenon that C.S. Lewis aptly diagnosed in his brilliant essay “the Inner Ring,” embodied in the character of Mark Studdock from That Hideous Strength: the desire to be part of something bigger, better, more influential, more sophisticated—to be on the inside, to be in the know, to be able to wink and nudge and share a laugh at the expense of those benighted uncultured outsiders (whom you may have been part of just five minutes ago). Of course, like all disordered desires, the desire for the Inner Ring thirsts ever unfulfilled, since there seems to always be a ring more inner, a clique of true influencers among the influential. But that does not stop us from thinking that just round the next bend, after the next promotion, we will have arrived. “This desire,” writes Lewis, “is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.”

It is surely not too uncharitable to note that the Roman Catholic Church seems almost to have been designed so as to maximally gratify this universal human impulse. With her complex graded hierarchy of regular clergy from the ordinary parish priest to the conclave of cardinals to the papal curia, not to mention the myriad little hierarchies of her myriad monastic orders, each with its own inner circle, with her love of secrecy and mystery, with her graduated ascent of holiness from the catechumen to the saint to the Blessed Virgin herself, the Roman Catholic Church has more rings within rings than the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos. Against all of this the Reformers fiercely protested with their radically levelling “priesthood of all believers.” And with much of this protest, Vatican II seemed to grudgingly agree four centuries later, so that if the Catholic Church still conceals layers of secrecy and hierarchy, this is seen as more a bug than a feature by many modern Catholics. 

However, in the American religious and political scene, Catholicism has captured the Inner Ring in a new way during the past generation. Not that long ago marginalized in American public life (John F. Kennedy had to all but disavow his Catholicism to run for president), Roman Catholics have rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of cultural, intellectual, and political leadership—both among liberals and conservatives. The shift is vividly symbolized in the makeup of the Supreme Court, which since 2010, has lacked a single Protestant justice, and now has six Catholic and three Jewish justices currently sitting on the bench.[1]Among seriously intellectual political and religious conservatives, Catholic writers and institutions have vaulted to positions of leadership, from First Things magazine to Robert George to Ryan Anderson. Evangelical friends working in conservative politics in DC tell me that nearly all of their co-workers are Catholic, many of them recent converts. 

With her complex graded hierarchy of regular clergy from the ordinary parish priest to the conclave of cardinals to the papal curia, not to mention the myriad little hierarchies of her myriad monastic orders, each with its own inner circle, with her love of secrecy and mystery, with her graduated ascent of holiness from the catechumen to the saint to the Blessed Virgin herself, the Roman Catholic Church has more rings within rings than the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos.

Part of this shift, no doubt, is a real consequence of the “scandal of the evangelical mind” remarked upon in Part I. Protestantism in America has suffered a precipitous intellectual decline in the last century, and we find ourselves looking around in vain for serious, thoughtful, historically-grounded Protestant voices to address the chaos in the public square and the ethical confusions of our contemporary moment. Roman Catholics have, in large part because they were forced to develop robust institutions in their years of exile from American public life, weathered the decline considerably better, and appear now to tower over the landscape (although from the standpoint of Christian intellectual history, even they are comparatively dwarfed).

However, I don’t think that fully explains it. There are real Protestant intellectuals out there, and lively Protestant institutions of learning. But let’s face it—they just aren’t as slick, sexy, or sophisticated as their Catholic counterparts. Many of them are stained by association with the “fundamentalist” pasts they have tried to leave behind, and indeed the profile of the typical Catholic convert includes some kind of “fundamentalist” past. For many evangelical young adults going off to college, finding their faith under attack, and clinging too tightly to Jesus to fall away from it, Roman Catholicism offers an attractive solution to their shame at their unsophisticated, anti-intellectual religious upbringing: they can remain faithful but feel smart, feel connected to something bigger, better, more sophisticated, more connected to history. If they go off to grad school, the pressure intensifies. As one long-time DC Protestant intellectual confided to me, “The fact is that if you’re at Yale or Princeton, it’s beyond uncool to be a conservative evangelical Protestant; you will be marginalized and persecuted. But it’s still, at least for now, OK to be a conservative Catholic. So if you want to stay conservative, that’s what you become.”

Within the Beltway, or the institutions that feed into it, this pressure intensifies still further. Again, the reasons are complex, and I will touch on them more in Part IV of this series, but at this stage in our country’s political life, if you want to be a Christian conservative with some kind of access to the levers of power, some kind of influence for helping keep our country on track, Roman Catholicism promises your best chance of access to these coveted inner corridors. 

Historically, of course, this is all quite anomalous: Protestants were at the forefront of European intellectual life and politics throughout the early modern period, and even at Catholic courts, like that of France, were filled with leading advisors and thinkers disproportionately likely to be Protestant. Objectively speaking, Protestantism can place its contributions to theology, philosophy, science, law, politics, and art alongside those of any other religious tradition and hold its head high. But in America today, being a Protestant just feels so plebeian, so common, so boring, and those who want to accomplish something meaningful in the world, or for the kingdom, naturally look to Rome for affirmation and access to something higher.

Conclusion

Each of these three reasons—Authority Hunger, Holiness Deficit Disorder, and the Inner Ring—are powerful psychological pulls. Each of them appeals viscerally to something fundamental to the human condition, and each of them answers to a deeply felt lack, whether real or imagined, in contemporary Anglo-American Protestantism. Although all of them, in my judgment, are ultimately misguided, none should be taken lightly. Pastors and teachers should expect to encounter these and have good answers for them. But that is hardly enough. American Protestantism needs to take a hard look in the mirror and ask itself why it has fallen so far from offering meaningful structures of authority, authentic experiences of holiness, and the kind of cultural leadership and intellectual sophistication that attracts the best and the brightest. All of these things Protestantism once boasted, and all of them Protestantism can, I believe, offer again even in our disenchanted age. But it will require hard work and self-examination, and, most importantly, a recovery of a wholesome fear of the Lord.

Stay tuned for Part 3: The Theology of Conversion, by Chris Castaldo (9/20)



[1]Neil Gorsuch is a possible exception, depending on how one defines the terms.