Catholics should celebrate when anyone enters the Church. After all, we have it on good authority that the angels in heaven do. But when a prominent Protestant converts, we might not just feel like celebrating; we might feel like doing a victory dance in the end zone.
We should fight the urge.
Francis Beckwith was president of the Evangelical Theological Society until he quit the post to return to the faith of his childhood. The story of Beckwith’s conversion to Catholicism has much to teach us.
The first lesson is this: The human attempt to build a version of Christianity without the sacraments was tragically flawed. Christ didn’t come merely to teach us all a lesson; he came to give us real channels of grace that incorporate us into his life. To pretend otherwise, as modern evangelical Protestantism does, is to strip his mission of its power and life. The more Christians of all stripes we can bring back to the sacraments, the better.
But the second lesson is this: Despite the tragic decision of Christian denominations to split from the Church, there is still much good in Protestant Christianity, and the biggest conversions come when we treat Protestant believers with respect. A condescending attitude, a tone that suggests that evangelical Protestants know nothing — these are surefire ways to repel the interest of would-be converts.
It’s telling to note the contemporary works that sparked Beckwith’s return to the Catholic Church. He cites the “Joint Declaration on the doctrine of Justification” by Lutheran and Catholic scholars and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences by Norm Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie. He also refers generally to First Things magazine, the journal of religion, culture, and public life which is edited by Father Richard John Neuhaus, who was a Lutheran pastor before his own conversion.
Each of these works is concerned with promoting mutual understanding between Catholics and Protestants.
After reading these, Beckwith read two works by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI: Introduction to Christianity, originally written decades ago, and Truth and Tolerance, a more recent work. Again, these aren’t works of apologetics per se, but explorations of Catholic truth.
It is ironic but true: Attempts by Catholics to correct Protestant misunderstandings often do much more to strengthen Catholics’ faith than they do to change Protestants’ minds. The attempts by Catholics to understand what Protestants get right are what attracted Beckwith to the faith.
There are several reasons this is the case.
The most obvious is the cliché that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. Yet the deeper truth is that we can’t reach anybody we don’t love. Love and freedom are fundamental to our human dignity. We would never think of joining up with someone who has done nothing but criticize and belittle us. But if someone has respected us and appreciated what we’ve gotten right, then we’re more likely to listen when they offer to show us how to get even more right..
That’s because, ultimately, Catholics don’t convert people — the truth does.
To bring people to the truth, what’s necessary isn’t to expose the error of their ways — but to dispose them to seeing the splendor of the truth.
As he was exploring the Catholic faith, Beckwith called a prominent evangelical philosopher who was a friend of his and read aloud an excerpt from Cardinal Ratzinger’s book. The Washington Post printed the paragraph from the book.
Beckwith asked his friend to guess who it was who said it.
“He reeled off the names of a bunch of evangelical theologians,” Beckwith told the Post. “I said, ‘No, it’s Ratzinger!’ And he said, ‘So he’s one of us!’”
“‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life,’” quoted Cardinal Ratzinger in the excerpt, continuing, “this saying of Jesus from the Gospel of John expresses the basic claim of the Christian faith. The missionary tendency of this faith is based on that claim: Only if the Christian faith is truth does it concern all men; if it is merely a cultural variant of the religious experience of mankind that is locked up in symbols and can never be deciphered, then it has to remain within its own culture and leave others in theirs. That, however, means that the question about the truth is the essential question of the Christian faith as such, and in that sense it inevitably has to do with philosophy.”
With these words, Cardinal Ratzinger points out that Christianity isn’t just a religion, or a group of religions. It is truth itself — the Truth. Truth has all the power to attract it needs without our feeling the need to help it out, because the truth is Christ himself.
We just need to be willing to let others in on it.