Friday, October 08, 2010

How not to win converts

This takes me back nearly twenty years to my own reception into the Church and the difference I then marked between fellow-converts of two stripes. One was grateful for the fuller understanding of truth and unity with Christ found through the Catholic Church, but continued to express profound appreciation for the nurturing background he had experienced in his erstwhile Protestant communion. The other seemed to spend all his time defining his newfound Catholic identity in terms of how it differed from his erstwhile Protestant communion, which he routinely denounced for its errors, narrow-mindedness, and general stupidity. In my experience, examples of the former included Louis Bouyer and Thomas Howard. The latter was exemplified by Franky Shaeffer, Jr., who, although he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy rather than Roman Catholicism, eminently typified this kind of dismissive and critical attitude toward his parents' religious affiliation.

With this distinction in mind, I read Francis J. Beckwith's "The Perils of Intra-Christian Apologetics" (The Catholic Thing, October 1, 2010), from which I now present just a few excerpts:
In March 2006 one of my graduate assistants, a Baylor doctoral student, visited my office to discuss with me his personal journey in the direction of Catholicism. An alumnus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an ordained Baptist minister, this student, I’ll call him Joseph, told me that he and his wife were on the brink of choosing to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. He wanted to know from me, President-Elect of the Evangelical Theological Society, if I could give them any reasons why they should not make the move. Much to Joseph’s surprise, I said “no.”

Although I was a year away from my own Catholic moment, I had reached a point in my Christian journey where I began to see more peril than promise in intra-Christian apologetics....

There is a question here that many Catholics eager to evangelize other Christian brothers and sisters may not appreciate. As someone who now has been on both sides of the Tiber, I need to explain precisely what I mean. I could not in good conscience provide what Joseph requested. For I did not know whether, at that time in his journey, Catholicism was becoming to him the only Christian tradition that he thought plausible to believe. Because he was a follower of Jesus and cared deeply about his walk with Christ, I had to treat Joseph’s inquiry with a certain delicacy, making sure that I did not place in his path a stumbling block. Months after meeting with me, he and has wife were received into the Catholic Church, and I soon followed.

But we often forget that no one comes to the question of intra-Christian dialogue and disputation with a blank slate. Consider, for example, the poorly catechized cradle Catholic who finds herself confronted by one of the many itinerant and irascible “Protestant apologists” whose polemical and superficial tomes are published for the very purpose of shaking the faith of such Catholics. The goal, of course, is to get the papist prey to “accept Jesus in her heart” and to become “born again.” But what if the Catholic, overwhelmed and ill-equipped, thinks of Catholicism as really the only legitimate Christian option, even though she does not know it very well? And what if the arguments against the Catholic Church simply destroy all of Christianity for that person? In that case, the Protestant apologist, though winning the argument, cooperates in the loss of a soul.

Similarly, imagine the case of the prodigal Protestant, an Evangelical college student who encounters on campus young and enthusiastic Catholic apologists. They spend most of their time with their Evangelical friend trashing the Protestant Reformers and contemporary Evangelicalism in such a way that the student, rather than entertaining Catholicism, considers abandoning his Christian faith altogether. This is because the student grew up an Evangelical Protestant in a vibrant ecclesial community that was the center of his family’s social, cultural, and religious life for generations. For such a person, Catholicism is not even on the conceptual radar. Thus, his Catholic friends, though intending no harm, contribute to his loss of faith in Christ.
Read more.... and see what you think.

[Hat tip to J.M.]


David M. Wagner said...

Make it more complicated still: factor in the sharp and (I fear) increasing truculence of Eastern Orthodox apologists. With them, it's irenicism at the top -- Kirill & h
Hilarion with Benedict, etc. -- but not in the trenches.

"1204-Want Some More?" :)

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

For most of my life the CAtholic Church has foundered in a fever swamp of fast food sainthood (we are all saints now, V2 has ineptly encouraged us to think), easy, the-fix-is-in canonizations (Faustina through the yeoman efforts of her fellow countryman, JP2), and the fast-talking spin artistry that ecumenism has become.

I should like to suggest that "sainthood" is a false and pernicious goal -- let's just keep it at maintaining the commandments and the traditional teachings of our Church. Satan preys on the ambitious. Is our goal to be saved, or to have a slickly "Catholic" movie about us peddled in the pages of the latest Ignatius brochure?

I should like also to suggest that, if we are not in pursuit of a deliberately conspicuous and posing "sainthood", then there is no need for us to pursue our "separated brethren" like used car salesmen in windowpane-plaid jackets. Protestantism is a house of cards, largely held up today by its political foundation of utilitarian capitalism. Catholicism does not share this dismal foundation with protestantism. To truly open souls, the destitution of protestantism, its utter inadequacy as the vessel of Christ's truth, will in time become obvious. All Catholics need to is keep to their oars.

Pertinacious Papist said...


This recalls what was noted by my friend, Thomas Howard, en route from his Protestant background to Rome. The Catholics, he said, unlike the Protestant televangelists and various other fundamentalist revival hucksters, were not plucking at the sleeves of every passerby. The same thing could be said of Opus Dei. One has to practically beat down the door to gain an audience.

This could betoken two very different things: (1) indifference to the eternal destiny of souls, which could be the case with a great number of AmChurch Catholics, or (2) a confident disposition associated with what Howard, citing St. Augustine, called the proposition: Securus judicat orbis terrarum ("The judgment of the whole world is secure") -- namely, an attitude that says, following St. Paul: "The world is without excuse, since what can be known about God is there to know, provided you don't suppress it." I think it was Newman who, when asked why he didn't do more to argue and persuade his separated brethren to follow him into the Church, responded by saying: let them find their own way.

Now, not even Newman remained mute on the issue of the issues that divide Catholics and Protestants, and penned a number of books with an apologetic cast, such as his work now published under the name of Anglican Difficulties. We needn't and shouldn't be indifferent to the eternal destinies of non-Catholic souls. Yet the best way of being a help in that regard is growing in our own understanding and practice of the Catholic Faith ourselves and thereby bearing witness to it, not by watered-down efforts at evangelization that end up offering a protestantized "Catholicism-and-water" to our non-Catholic friends.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Newman was a Church leader, albeit a convert. His commitment was total, as is that of any truly genuine priest or nun (this is a grayer point than it used to be, alas). As a scrupulous and influential observer of Church teaching, he ought to have written a book or two.

For the rest of us, let us keep the commandments, keep to the traditional teachings of our Church, and disavow the bad advice of the last council, that we are all called to be "saints" in some momentously yet vaguely significant, public manner. This is a pernicious teaching, to which many souls might one day owe their damnation.

The ballyhooed "call to sainthood" was a cheap, used car saleman ploy to attract our protestant brethren, who habitually think of themselves as saints, often for doing not much more than a lot of public posing. The implication of the council's call was that laggard Catholics needed to catch up with their up to date separated brethren, who had long ago brushed off the dust of humble religiosity, and become an army of great spiritual leaders. That such a message could have issued from a Catholic council is astonishing, if not scandalous.

I have seen the fruits of the ridiculous "call" among Catholics, as have we all: (1) Catholic "saints" who have determined that they are beyond the need for confession (2) lay Catholics who do not understand or care about the nature of the Eucharist, and Catholic clerics who trivialize it (3) Catholics who have ceased to practice their faith in favor of some protestant entertainment center which makes no significant demands upon their self-indulgent lifestyles, but provides the spritz of Christianity that they seek in order to fulfill family obligations.

The list goes on and on. My favorite personal anecdote is of the knucklehead EMHC who, at a reception following a funeral mass, stood by sheepishly as his companion, a lovely, if somewhat shopworn, Lutheran lassie -- a real estate saleslady, I believe -- loudly and demonstratively announced that she and her devout Catholic boy friend were moving in together! A true V2 profile in ecumenism, that!!

Roger Lessa said...

The following is from the comment section of the article, Mike Oct. 3, 2010. Mike makes a good point and also we can't be so bold as to not understand grace works in the life of all on this journey in exile.

This is importantly misleading, I... think. Of course there are cases in which the counterfactual consequences of what you might have done are bizarre and unexpected. But such strange hypotheses about what would happen were you to do X are, really, skeptical hypotheses. And it's a serious mistake to begin deciding what you're going to do on the basis of skeptical hypotheses. We never know (for sure, for certain, for good and all, etc.) what would happen were we to take a quite reasonable course of action in evangelizing. But that certainly cannot mean that you (morally) should not take what presents itself as the reasonable course. It's mistake to make it a practical rule to refrain from taking the course that reasonably suggests itself on the basis of counterfactual hypotheses that (epistemically) might result from what you do. It shouldn't even give you much pause. That sort of reasoning--like all skeptical reasoning--is paralyzing and very likely to cause as much harm as it is designed to avoid.

JM said...

"To truly open souls, the destitution of protestantism, its utter inadequacy as the vessel of Christ's truth, will in time become obvious."

You think? I am not at all so sure, given your admission that, "For most of my life the Catholic Church has foundered in a fever swamp..." If you hear a clear defense of objective truth at 1st Evangelical Church, and a New Age gabfest at St. John's down the road, not much at all is obvious. If JPII is Koran-kissing, and Notre Dame's theology head is giving interviews saying that since V2 everything is up for grabs, and priests are being outed right and left, the facts are soon anything but clear. Except for the fact that what once upon a time you thought you knew as Catholicism seems nowhere to be found. Years ago in First Things a woman convert (formerly a female pastor in Methodism!) had an essay, "Becoming Catholic, Making It Hard." That sums up the experience of many.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Lessa,
Would you please translate you post into english?

Mr. Wagner, we must have run into the same Eastern Orthodox folks. :)


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

I was writing about PROTESTANT souls truly open to conversion, as I believe the context makes clear.

But I certainly see the irony of "lost" souls looking to shed their bankrupt protestant identities and be "found" again in the Catholic Church -- even as "Rome Sweet Home" seeks to amalgamate its Catholic identity with a protestant-friendly "Church of God" plasticity.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall reading in the Catechism about a universal call to holiness. I have heard people talk about how we are all called to sainthood (from some OD supernumeraries fyi), but I don't recall ever reading a universal call to sainthood in an official document. I'm open to the possibility that this is a semantic quibble, but just for us sticklers for the paperwork, is there a universal call to sainthood in VII docs?

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about this topic for a while and I have to ask why on earth we are not supposed to strive for sainthood. Its why I attend Mass, pray, go to confession, repent all that sort of stuff. I'm trying to understand what is wrong with that. Would you care to explain?


Roger said...

The post was from the comment box by Mike. If your asking what I thought of what Mike is saying I will try and explain. This is only an attempt at what I think Mike means. If you are skeptical about evangelization as to its outcome and effects that may in fact be detrimental to a persons salvation you will most probably never try. This view places emphasis on faith coming from what the evangelizer may say and not on where faith actually comes from. Faith is from God acting through grace given to all people. A person who evangelizes another through his or her own merits without Christ's grace merits nothing.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

We are sinners who humbly acknowledge our weakness and pray to God for the grace to resist our corrupted ways (by obeying His commandments, and availing ourselves of the sacraments) and be worthy of the salvation He offers us.

That's the way it used to be. The Catholic Church was a church of sinners, not of saints. Now the humility is gone, and we are all presumptive saints. We are so convinced of our sainthood that most of us just don't see the need of confession -- its part of the old dark gothic precounciliar Church, that we have come to be ashamed of (so anxious we are to encounter modern culture, and to be thought well of by its hig priests). We take the kids to work in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, or volunteer to be a lector or EMHC, or a million other gestures of painless and self-esteem-worthy charity, but we neglect to pray and confess our sins. We are "saints" after all.

I would recommend Fr Garrigou-Lagrange's chapter on "The Spiritual Age of Beginners" in volume one of "The Three Ages of the Interior Life."

I would also suggest that no genuine saint recognizes himself or herself as a saint. They are far too humble for that, and they are only too aware of the weaknesses and sinful proclivities they retain, no matter how prolific their public acts of charity and private prayers.

The person who resolves to be a saint in the superficial, protestantish, post-V2 sense in which that term is bandied about these days, however, is anything but humble. He is vain, prideful, fundamentally unserious, and thus a prime candidate for satanic seduction. He is, in the example I offered from my own experience, an EMHC who lives in sin. Catch the paradox? He didn't.

Anonymous said...

"Securus judicat orbis terrarum" doesn't literally mean "The judgment of the whole world is secure." Whatever St. Augustine was driving at, the grammar makes "Securus" a nominative and "orbis terrarum" either nominative or genetive. In either case, it is not the judgment but the judge who is "securus." "Judicat" is the verb. This is not to say that the translation is necessarily wrong as an interpretation but that the Latin has the judge being secure before making the judgment.


Anonymous said...

Btw,holiness is "sanctitas" and a saint is "sanctus." A call to holiness is a call to sanctity. A holy person is "sanctus," albeit not necessarily canonized or finished his earthly course.

Let's go back to Latin.