Why Converts Choose Catholicism

Dave Shiflett, described by Chuck Colson as “one of the most astute culture watchers and writers I know,” has written Exodus to answer the question he poses in the subTITLE: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity (Sentinel, New York, 2005).

An accomplished journalist and a member of the White House Writer's Group, Shiflett writes in a breezy and personal style from a perspective that fairly represents the new religious styles but clearly favors religions that don't consider “dogmatic” a dirty word.

Why is his book important? Over the long term, a people's health can be measured by whom they worship, how they worship, and what difference it makes in their day-to-day lives.

Today, Christianity is spreading like wildfire in Africa and Asia, while its influence is rapidly diminishing in Europe. We will have to see whether Pope Benedict and his youthful troops in the new ecclesial communities can pull off a miracle, but the intermediate prognosis is grim.

That brings us back to Shiflett's America.

A recent survey shows that the United States, unlike Europe, continues to hold steady as a nominally Christian country, with over 80% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians. Given the drastic decline in public and private morals since 1960, the obvious question is: How can this be? Imagine a 1950s American mother waking up in 2005 and turning on the television or the radio, or picking up a popular magazine. She would probably suffer a fainting spell, if not cardiac arrest, from the assault of deeply immoral attitudes toward marriage, family and sexuality.

The reason this can happen in a nominally Christian country is that the definition of “Christianity” in America has changed, and this is the story that Shiflett's book tells.

The great culture clashes that divide our country presently are at their root theological: They pit those who acknowledge religious authority (either Biblical or exercised by a divinely guided inspired Church) against those who ground their principles on the unencumbered moral right of each person to create his own personal religion, regardless of objective morality and doctrinal belief.

Shiflett, who classifies himself “as an itinerant Presbyterian, with an emphasis on the itinerant,” demonstrates first with statistics, and then through interviews and anecdotes drawn from the northern Virginia and D.C.-area, that “Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity.”

Even The New York Times cannot duck the evidence: “Socially conservative churches that demand high commitment from their members grew faster than other religious denominations in the last decade.”

Shiflett turns first to the Episcopal church, which was once the prototype for a traditional denomination. Many former Episcopalians have fled to more conservative Protestant denominations, or to the more liturgically minded and doctrinally based Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Shiflett devotes considerable space to the Episcopalian membership drain provoked by the ordination of an openly practicing homosexual, Gene Robinson, as bishop (an event that continues to roil church members worldwide). Some Episcopalians consider this the last straw, but the same noise was heard when the Episcopal church revised the Book of Common Prayer, ordained women, and blessed homosexual unions.

To capture the “loyalist” position that embraces even a changed church, Shiflett presents the thinking of Rev. Hertherington, an Episcopal priest: “He called for broad-mindedness, justice, quality, equality and hospitality. … He made it clear that the contemporary virtues of openness, inclusion, hospitality and tolerance have won over Biblical admonition, especially regarding sexual sin.”

After examining “celebrity heretics” such as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and describing their “missionary” work in deconstructing traditional Christianity, Shiflett allocates the rest of the book to the destinations of refugees from heresy and ersatz religion.

Chief among these, as we might imagine, is the Catholic Church. As Shiflett puts it: “When heretics make headlines, they are also making Catholics, and very good Catholics at that. Some take a long while to reach Rome, but once there they have joined not only the ancients but also the rapidly expanding Catholic population of the Southern Hemisphere. Before many more decades pass by, those who fear Catholic power may find themselves pining for the days when all they had to worry about was a tunnel connecting the Vatican to the White House.”

In his section on the Catholic Church, Shiflett interviews converts such as Al Regnery, the well-known scion of a conservative publishing house of the same name. Regnery converted from Episcopalianism along with an old friend and writer, Andy Ferguson, who at one time wished to become an Episcopal priest.

Ferguson was strongly impressed by the Church's history and consistent liturgy, while Regnery was attracted by “commitment to principle, institutional vastness and forgiving attitude.”

Shiflett also discusses other high-profile converts, such as Judge Robert Bork, dean of Washington columnists Robert Novak, possible presidential candidate (and evangelical turned Catholic) Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and popular radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham.

Remaining chapters are quite helpful, particularly for Catholics seeking to understand the mindset of fellow Christians who are united with us on so many issues, except the fundamental ones of authority and the sacraments. (I refer to the Southern Baptists and the evangelicals.)

To gain insight into the Southern Baptists, Shiflett interviews two important and influential members: Richard Land and Albert Mohler. He writes that interviewing them gives an insight into how evangelical thinkers see the world:

“They aren't triumphalistic — quite the opposite. They are not chauvinistic, for they have little hope of stopping, on a societal scale at least, what they believe is an irresistible anti-Christian juggernaut. Nor does this type of orthodox Christian buy in to the argument that America is a shining city on the hill, or for that matter worthy of God's benevolence.”

Moving on to that broad group of generic Christians that come under the umbrella of “evangelicals,” Shiflett profiles Colson, for whom he once served as speech writer. Colson's story is well-known — how a Boston-born, Ivy league-educated, Republican henchman under President Nixon went to jail in the Watergate era, had a born-again experience, and founded the Prison Fellowship, which evangelizes criminals with notable success.

According to Colson, “the purest form of Christianity is practiced in prison. In prison you don't have to worry about stepping on anyone's toes if you talk about sin. As they say, the hangman's noose concentrates the mind.”

At the same time, he has tough words for the so-called “soft” evangelicals with their mega-churches:

“Colson says they are purveyors of ‘self-centered worship. You may get people to come to those churches, and you may have church growth. But you will not have church impact. The reason is that church becomes increasingly like the culture. People go in, see a skit, listen to some music, hear a soothing sermon, and think they have done their Christian duty. They are entering the exact precarious position the mainline found itself in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Perhaps we Catholics, who lived through the last 40 years in the United States, know exactly what he means, as our own drop in Church attendance demonstrates.

Shiflett finishes his excellent survey of the exodus from “liberal” Christianity to “conservative” Christianity by re-telling perhaps the most dramatic conversion story of all to demonstrate the power of orthodox Christianity.

That is the conversion to Catholicism of the father of legal abortion in the United States, the Jewish-born former atheist Dr. Bernard Nathanson.

Colson, who attended his baptism, recounts, “It was a sight that burned into my consciousness, because just above Cardinal O’Connor was the cross. … I looked at the cross and realized again that what the Gospel teaches is true; in Christ is the victory. He has overcome the world, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against his Church.”

Shiflett's book moves the case for unity in the Church forward. Although he does not say so, his storytelling and interviews clearly show that Christianity without a divinely instituted authority to guide and govern leads inexorably to a total reliance on private judgment and utter chaos in doctrine and morals.

John Paul II's greatest goal of unity among all Christians was not accomplished in his lifetime. That project continues, however, and where else could it end except in returning home to Rome?

Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey III is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. (frmccloskey.com)

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