Considerably more traffic moves in and out of Rome than most people realize. Figures I have seen indicate that more people travel from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism than the other way around, yet conversions to Catholicism are well publicized whereas those turning to the Protestant faith are not. We read of the latter only through the media of small tracts, magazines, or autobiographical books written by ex-priests.
Let us consider the reasons behind these departures from Rome. For more than two years I have been asking former Catholics why they left their former church, and one of the greatest influences, those who are now Protestants say, has been the Bible. Just what part does the Bible play in these conversions?
Those who have made the change seem to have fallen into one of four groups: fundamentalists, near-fundamentalists, liberals, or agnostics and atheists. O! the 160 converts whose stories form the basis for this article, we find these proportions: Evangelicals—74. Evangelicals with one or more liberal beliefs—26. Liberals and Unitarians—49. Those belonging to no religious group—11.
We cannot assume that 160 cases make a sufficient sampling for accurate ratios of the destinations of persons who leave Rome. I know of no statistics on this. Certainly Catholics do not know how many leave their church. One who left 17 years ago still receives requests for money, which indicates she is “still on the books.” However, there is one matter of which we can be sure. A definite tendency toward what some might call the extremes of the religious spectrum has been so obvious since early in the research that I feel a study of thousands of converts would merely add further proof of this interesting phenomenon. As would be expected, we find that the part the Bible plays is great in the first group, less in the second, and relatively small among the others.
All of the 74 evangelicals accepted the Bible as the Word of God. To them it is “the only way to salvation,” “the only authority,” “the perfect and only rule of life.” Said one person, “I believe every word of it,” and another, “I believe it from cover to cover.” Ten of the 26 near-evangelicals accepted the Bible as God speaking. One man who had read from the Book to an old Negro ex-slave said, “By and large, the Bible is God’s Word in a sense not true of any other book.”
All but six of the 49 liberals questioned were Unitarians, and none of them accepted Scripture as the infallible Word of God; and in the remaining group were the 11 persons belonging to no religious group—the humanists, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists.
Statistically, then, what part did the Bible play in the conversions of those who turned from the Roman Church to Protestantism? Of the 74 evangelicals at least 61 said or indicated that it played a great part. One testified, “the most important part,” another, “it was everything.” In a few cases its greatest influence was experienced after conversion. Eight of the 26 near-evangelicals indicated the Bible was a great factor in their conversions. One wrote, “During my school days I roller-skated to daily Mass without breakfast.” She once thought she wanted to be a nun, a missionary. She states, “The Bible played a great part in my spiritual growth.” One man who was born in South America wrote: “The presentation of the Bible by a Sunday school teacher … in Bogotá made a deep impression on me … (it) played a great part in the change.”
Thus we have the stories of some 100 converts whom we could call Christians, and we see that the Bible played a great part in their conversions. “One of the boys I went to school with was converted to Christ and he began speaking to me of the Bible,” one person stated. “1 laughed at him and told him that (it) was not enough for salvation. He then gave me a Roman-Catholic Bible … the more I read (it) the more the Spirit of God showed me the truth.”
The fact that the Scriptures are stressed far less, and tradition and church dogma far more, in the Roman Catholic church means that most Catholics have little knowledge of the Bible. One convert said that he had never seen a Bible until he was 36 years old! And another who changed at the age of 39 asserted: “When I was a Catholic I never had a Bible.”
Many of the converts grew up in other lands; many were converted several years ago. (Today it is true that in the United States Bibles are advertised in Catholic publications, but still much less than missals and prayer books.) Sometime the attitude of the church has backfired. An Italian told of priests ordering him to burn a Bible. “The Bible had been sent to me by two of my brothers who had emigrated to the U. S. A. … I was led to bum (it) by a private teacher … and by two arcipreti (arch-priests) … I rebelled … and became confused. (I) had lost faith in the Roman Catholic church for ordering me to put the Bible into the fireplace.” He studied history, read of the Reformation and the popes, and in Rome went to a Protestant church and received another Bible. Today this man is a minister in the United States and has three sons in the ministry.
The Bible And Christ
Other evangelical Christians tell of the part the Bible played in their coming to know Christ as Saviour. One was invited to a Protestant service where the preacher quoted, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” He felt “an overpowering sense of the presence of the Lord.” After he later “went forward,” he borrowed both a Douay and a King James Version of the Bible and compared them, sometimes for four hours a night. Another, whose brother had been converted, wrote: “At the age of 24 my brother first talked to me about the Bible.… For a long time I resented (this).… One night … he was talking to me.… The Holy Spirit convicted me. That night I wasn’t able to sleep, knowing that both families (his and his wife’s) would be against us. Just before daybreak I made my decision. I decided to trust Christ as my Saviour.” He has been preaching for over 35 years and says that he has influenced hundreds of French-speaking Catholics to find Jesus Christ through the Bible.
The Reverend John Badamo began his story in Wheaton, Illinois, and finished it in old and historic Perugia, Italy (whose inhabitants in the year 1216 stripped the corpse of Pope Innocent III of its jewels, and threatened in 1226 to steal the body of St. Francis of Assisi). He stated, “I was drawn to Protestantism because of the emphasis upon the Bible.… (It) played one of the most important roles in my conversion.’
Part of one woman’s story was told by her husband. Theirs had been a mixed marriage. He was preparing to be a minister and his Catholic wife became interested in what he was studying. He wrote, “At first she did not believe the things that she read and that I told her.” He then invited an ex-priest to dinner. “I believe that he had the greatest influence on her, and his knowledge of the New Testament did the rest.… She changed almost overnight, and there followed many days of questions at the end of which she was no longer a Catholic. She had found Jesus Christ in the New Testament.”
A husband and wife from Puerto Rico told of their spiritual pilgrimage. As a Catholic his life had included drinking and affairs with other women. He also had a violent temper. One evening he came home, half-drunk and angry, and broke 75 phonograph records. His wife had noted that the Protestants in their country lived differently than did the majority. For a long time she wished that they might join a Protestant church, for it might change her husband. It did. Now there is no cursing, no drinking, far fewer outbursts of temper—and honesty. When I asked the wife in what ways she had changed, her first statement was, “We have a happier home.” The Bible was a great factor in making it so.
Just what does the Catholic find in the Bible that causes him to start, or to make, the definite break with the church of his childhood? From several came a general answer. One concluded that “there was a discrepancy between the teachings of the Bible and Catholicism.” Another, as she read the Bible, contrasted what she read with the teachings of Catholicism, and came to feel that “it did not follow the Word of God.” Another was more definite: “The Lord taught me the truth from my own Roman Catholic Bible, which contradicts the fallacies of my once Roman Catholic religion.”
The Second Commandment
One specific part of the Scriptures which made a great impact upon many converts was the Second Commandment. One man was shocked when he read it in both the Douay and King James versions. This was the first time he had even heard of it, and he was 39 years old! Perhaps not all readers know that while the official teaching is that the Catholic should pray to the person whom a statue represents, in actual practice in many parts of the world, individuals often do adore and worship the statue of the saint. A woman said, “I was really worshiping the saint” (Maria de la Grazia). Another convert “disliked praying to idols.” Another woman said, “I never could understand or tolerate praying to statues.”
The Catholic may come to feel, then, that there are too many figures between Jesus and himself. One woman “walked the streets looking for a church that would tell me something about Jesus Christ. I was tired of hearing about the saints.” Perhaps she was a bit dramatic, but she expressed the feelings of many when she said, “I couldn’t find Jesus Christ for the rubbish piled on top of Him.”
Closely related to the above is another passage of Scripture which many converts quoted—1 Timothy 2:5. The Reverend Mr. Badamo writes that “great emphasis is placed upon praying to Mary and the saints. Protestants emphasize that ‘there is … one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ … the Roman Catholic church is teaching error when it places the priesthood, Mary, and the saints between the individual and God.… Our Lord said ‘Come unto me (not Mary, Joseph, or an angel) all ye that are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ ”
A number who changed were impressed by John 3:16. The first verse of Scripture one woman learned was “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins …” (1 John 1:9). She also quoted, “For there is one mediator.…”
Many converts are deeply troubled when surrendering a religion which emphasizes the church for one founded on the Bible. Many such persons suffer from feelings of guilt. All psychologists agree that the experiences of the earliest years determine one’s style of life, and many of these people were surrounded from infancy with statues and crucifixes. They were taught that theirs was the only true church, and that outside it there is no salvation. (They may not have been told there are qualifications to this.) Some do not escape this atmosphere, these virtually compulsive habits, and these beliefs without terrible wrenchings of the soul.
Those who were devout Catholics and are now devout Protestants enrich the evangelical heritage. They bring with them the traditional “zeal of the convert.” And because the Bible meant much in their conversions and means much to them now, they add to its emphasis in the churches they join.
To sum up, for those who became converted and who are today genuine Christians, the words of a devout acquaintance, a sermon by a dedicated minister, and attendance at friendly Protestant services, were among the greatest factors in their changing. And these usually have been felt in proportion to the light they reflected from the Bible and the influence they had in persuading the Catholic to “search the Scriptures.”
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