Rev. Leonard Klein is becoming Catholic after 30 years as a prominent Lutheran pastor.

Klein presided at his last service as a Lutheran pastor June 29. The 57-year-old former editor of Lutheran Forum is leaving to pursue the Catholic priesthood. He plans to attend St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore for eventual ordination in the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.

Klein spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake about his decision to enter the Church.

What led to your vocation as a Lutheran pastor?

I grew up in a Lutheran church/Missouri Synod congregation in a very active church family. We lived on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. My parents were farmers. I have two younger sisters and a younger brother.

People often thought that I should be a pastor. I went to Yale planning to be a lawyer but in college sensed a call to the ministry. I received my basic theology degree from Yale Divinity School.

What precipitated your journey to the Catholic faith?

It began in seminary. In many ways, the question of whether I belonged in Orthodoxy or the Catholic Church began with my reading of patristics [the study of the early Church fathers] in seminary, but at that point there were good theologians who were claiming Lutheranism could claim a true catholic pedigree. I entered the ministry believing that.

It was the move of American Lutheranism away from its Catholicity that forced me into crisis.

Was there a specific incident or individual that led you to explore the claims of the Catholic faith?

Although there were certainly many, I normally give two moments. One was the decision in the mid-1990s by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national executive board not to restrict payments for abortions in their health plan.

The other was the Formula of Agreement for full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three reformed churches in 1997. It seemed to me this bartered away the doctrine of the Real Presence. The dialogue partners were honest that they had failed to reach agreement on the Lord's Supper. The dialogue settled on the lame notion that we taught differently about the mode of the Presence, when it was the actuality that was being debated.

I was a public and vocal critic of the 1988 merger plans between the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

There were three dangerous moves in the constitutional process: sidelining the bishops from real power, the quota system and the notion that those attending assemblies were voting members rather than delegates. This allowed the fiction that an assembly was itself the church. I characterized the merger as an activist putsch to create a left-leaning system, and the constitutional moves were demonically brilliant in guaranteeing it.

Was there a particular hurdle that was more difficult to jump than others?

There was a double hurdle. The first was family. The second was that I have a wonderful parish. Sometimes those who do this are in a very difficult position. For the past 22 years I have had an intensely liturgical and sacramental parish. It is a historic congregation with a vigorous sense of mission. In my biography for the vocations board I said that it would have been very easy to slip into a prosperous retirement a few years down the pike.

Theologically, there were no hurdles. Over the years I've developed apologetic lines on the dogmas that trouble people. The dogmas made sense to me as a Lutheran. One of my lines is that “the infallibility of the pope is nothing compared to the infallibility of a Protestant church convention.”

Regarding the dogmas of Mary's immaculate conception and assumption, I say that the assumption says where Mary obviously is and the immaculate conception teaches that she must indeed be there.

The documents of Vatican II, the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and the saints of the Catholic reformation — Charles Borromeo, Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri, Robert Bellarmine — and Cardinal [John] Newman have had a strong impact on me.

What role did the Lutheran crisis regarding sexuality play in your conversion?

That, too, was very important and influenced my timing. I did not want a blow-up over the pastorally demanding issue of homosexuality to be the apparent reason for my leaving.

I was very active in the group that left the Missouri Synod back in the 1970s. A lot of us in the East broke because we found the Missouri Synod increasingly sectarian and [we] had a more Catholic view of the church. A number from that faction are now Catholic. My involvement in the original Missouri Synod split is why I don't want to go through another schism to remake the Lutheran church.

How has your family reacted?

My wife and I both have elderly parents living, so the decision was a bit of a struggle for them.

Our children have been very supportive. Our elder daughter, who is married to a Catholic and has a child, will be entering with us as will our disabled younger daughter who lives with us. Our son has not chosen to do this at this time.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.