On a recent trip to Durham, North Carolina, I was asked, "What do you make of all the evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism?" What immediately came to mind was two recent and well-known conversions of evangelical scholars: Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, and Francis Beckwith, who at one time was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other well-known conversions to Catholicism in my generation—by men whose writings have been important in my intellectual growth—include the late Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken (not from evangelicalism as such, but from Lutheranism).
These are not minds to trifle with! We're talking about men who were and are at the top of their intellectual games, in sociology, theology, and church history. And none of their motives are to be questioned. When it comes to momentous conversions, we usually don't know our own deepest motives. These are often discovered only long after the fact, or maybe never (at least not until we find ourselves in the presence of our Lord—Ah, so that's what I was doing!).
What I can comment on is the tug of Catholicism on the evangelical heart. Because it is a tug that I must admit has pulled at me and many close friends. But there are tugs and there are tugs. Some tugs come from the Holy Spirit, and these naturally are not to be criticized! But other tugs deserve a little scrutiny.
Like the longing for authority. One of the most frustrating things about being Protestant, and especially evangelical, is that there is really no place to turn when you are ready to end a conversation on a controversial point. There is no authority figure or institution that can silence heterodoxy. No one has your back—well, except the Holy Spirit (we'll come back to this in a moment). The more Protestants there are, the more churches and theologies are birthed. As soon as we say, "The Christian church believes …" we hear someone say, "Well, I'm a Christian, and I don't believe that!" To be an evangelical used to mean one stood for certain theological convictions—penal substitution, inerrancy, and so forth—but now many evangelicals take delight in defining themselves over and against one of these formerly cardinal doctrines, while insisting on the right to be called evangelicals.
So, we understand the pull of the Catholic magisterium. We'd love to be able to say, "The church believes X," and then back it up with a papal encyclical. We want "evangelical" to have clear and firm boundaries, so that when someone says they believe something outside of those boundaries, we can tell them definitively and assuredly that they are no longer evangelicals. We're tired of arguing, of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation. Frankly, we've given up depending on prayer to change hearts and minds. We want to be able to say, "The church teaches …" or "The Holy Father says …" or "All biblical scholars believe …" in a way that separates the sheep from the goats.
The Holy Spirit set the pattern for what church would be like at the day of Pentecost. And it looked like this: Massive confusion. So much confusion that when onlookers tried to describe it, they called it a drunken party (Acts 2:13). When Peter interprets what was happening, he says this:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:1718)