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Church hoppin' to Rome

"Mom, I'm thinking about becoming Catholic." For many Protestant parents, this statement is being heard more and more. As long as Protestants continue to devalue tradition, history, and social justice concerns we should expect to hear more and more young evangelicals "going home to Rome." The combination of family church hoppin' to find the best children's and youth programs, combined with the mythology that Protestants embrace sola Scriptura in practice, creates the perfect conditions to usher young adults into Roman Catholicism.

I was recently in a room full of young adults raised in evangelical America. To my surprise, there was not a single person who had been raised in one congregation or denomination---they'd all changed churches at least two or three times. I'm not surprised, then, that we find among this generation a longing for tradition and consistency---especially in a culture of broken families and high levels of geographic mobility. People want to call something "home."

In the September 2002 edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Scot McKnight's article, "From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic," offered good insight regarding the phenomenon of Protestants converting to Catholicism. The list included: (1) a desire for certainty, (2) a desire for history, (3) a desire for unity, and (4) a desire for authority.

A desire for consistency exposes the fact that Protestant theology is wildly divergent on key issues like justification, salvation, grace, marriage, divorce, birth control, social justice, and so on. Moreover, the downplaying of history and distinctiveness among Protestants tend to undermine connection to tradition. If you're Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and so on, your family should know why. Also, no church or denomination really practices sola Scriptura as the only, or final, rule of faith. If your church uses a statement of faith, recites creeds, uses confessions and catechisms, sings from hymnals, and so on, your church has dual authorities---Scripture and tradition. While Scripture has final authority for issues related to salvation and morality, tradition determines who gets ordained, what is taught in Sunday school, what the sacraments mean, who holds what church office, and so on.

A desire for unity exposes grievous bifurcations among Protestants, of which there are over 33,000 different denominations in the world. This does seem consistent with Jesus' desire for unity expressed in John 17. Of course, the "unity" of Catholic and Orthodox communions is often cosmetic. While Protestants put their disunity on display through church planting and denominations, others disagree off the record. The desire for authority is likely a reaction to being raised by a generation of anti-authoritarian baby boomers not carefully distinguishing between good and bad uses of authority. Trustworthy authority can be good for clarifying questions of theology and life as well as providing wisdom. Some forms of decentralization, however, may not be as helpful as we once believed.

To McKnight's list I would add a desire for intellectual leadership in public life. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a history of rigorous scholarship coupled with spirituality and ethical teaching toward forming people committed to piety and making the world a better place, especially for the poor. There have been intellectual contributions by Protestants but there is no comparable, consistent intellectual Protestant tradition that applies spiritual and moral formation to making the world a better place.

In the end, and sadly for some, young Protestants are exposing the weaknesses of their upbringing with their feet. Until Protestants recapture some sense of historic unity and mission to enter the world's cultures, beyond evangelism, this trend will likely continue. McKnight's observations are cause for much reflection.

Anthony Bradley Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.


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