From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic

Article excerpt


People convert to Roman Catholicism for a variety of reasons and, though the stories that follow will illustrate a fairly uniform paradigm, it is mistaken to think persons convert to Catholicism for one basic reason.1 Moreover, because recent technical study of conversion provides an opportunity to examine various sorts of conversions, in the following study we shall focus on why evangelicals become Catholic. My favorite story of a traditional conversion to Catholicism is by Alec Guinness, known to most of us as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the mega-hit Star Wars. While acting the role of a priest in Father Brown in Burgundy, France, he tells the story of a late-evening shoot that attracted a fair number of local folk, including children. In his autobiography he writes,2

A room had been put at my disposal in the little station hotel three kilometres away. By the time dusk fell I was bored and, dressed in my priestly black, I climbed the gritty winding road to the village. In the square children were squealing, having mock battles with sticks for swords and dustbin lids for shields; and in a cafe Peter Finch, Bernard Lee and Robert Hamer were sampling their first Pernod of the evening. I joined them for a modest Kir, then discovering I wouldn't be needed for at least four hours turned back towards the station. By now it was dark. I hadn't gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, "Mon pare!" My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me. I didn't dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly with a "Bonsoir, mon pere," and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. He had had a happy, reassuring walk home, and I was left with an odd calm sense of elation. Continuing my walk I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-- absorbed prejudices.

Not many can tell such a story, but such an event contributed to Guinness's conversion. G. K. Chesterton, on my Hall of Fame list for those who know the joie de vivre, was converted, in part, because after writing a book called Heretics, he was challenged to write not only what he was against but also what he was for. The next book, called Orthodoxy, was a robust defense of a path he was charting for his own life on his own journey that ended in Catholicism.3 Once, when asked, "Why did you join the Church of Rome?," Chesterton replied, "To get rid of my sins."4 Like America's great baseball spinner of tales, Dizzy Dean, Chesterton would have had other answers on different occasions.5 I must add that two of Chesterton's finest books, St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox"6 and his Autobiography, illustrate for us one of Chesterton's forgiveable stylistic features: in his own autobiography we get almost no biography, while in someone else's biography we get a lot more autobiography.7 That sentence, if I may be so bold, also illustrates his love for paradoxes.

Famous converts are regularly paraded by Catholic evangelists, and none has done the job better than Fr. Charles P. Connor (a Catholic name if ever there was one!) in his Classic Catholic Converts,8 where he offers vignettes of such notables as Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Henry Newman, Robert Hugh Benson-whose father was no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury-Edith Stein, Jacques Maritain, Ronald A. Knox-whose father was an influential Anglican-Dorothy Day, and Malcolm Muggeridge-and that does not give the whole list. Two recent studies on the conversion of intellectuals to Catholicism reveal a rich and fascinating complex set of factors, involving personal faith, intellectual stimulation, historical perception, as well as political commitments. …