I was embedded in American evangelicalism for 50 years, first as a convert, then as a Presbyterian minister, and then as editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, a leading voice in evangelical Christianity. Why would someone like me become a Catholic?
It would take a book to even scratch the surface, for conversion is a complex reality. But in this space let me give just one reason. In what is often called his high priestly prayer, Jesus said this:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they [the disciples] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. – John 17:20-23
Given that his death is but a few hours away, this might be considered Jesus’s “last will and testament” for his disciples. And it is clear, that more than anything else, Jesus wants his followers to be one.
The Roman Catholic Church rightly claims to be the original Church of Christ. Fifteen hundred years after Christ died and rose again, a significant portion of Christians left that Church, a group today we call Protestants. As most Catholic historians acknowledge now, the Church was corrupt in many ways, and Protestants were often justified in their anger at the Church.
But today, 500 years later, we are in a completely different situation. The Roman Church has reformed considerably, and it has clarified many of its doctrines, which in the 16th century confused many believers about saving faith. In sum, many crucial things that divided us are no longer in play.
Take the doctrine of justification by faith, perhaps the greatest dispute back then. A little over 20 years ago, Lutherans and Catholics reached an accord, which among other things said this:
In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
The accord acknowledges that each tradition puts different emphases on how grace, faith, forgiveness, and good works relate to one another. But it is remarkable what they now share when it comes to justification by faith.
After reading and studying this and other documents, like those from Vatican II, I find no Catholic teaching that is cause enough to stay separated.
As a Protestant, no denomination I joined (Presbyterian and then Anglican) fit perfectly with every one of my convictions. And yet I joined them to be one with those fellow believers. In joining the Roman Catholic Church, I believe I am joining the original Church that Jesus himself founded and blessed.
Similar to my Protestant experience, there are some things that don’t fit easily in my heart and mind in Catholicism. But you are not asked to have perfect faith before joining the Church; you only have to be willing to live under its discipline and strive to learn to believe all it teaches – knowing that these teachings can always be brought out in even deeper clarity.
As the great Catholic John Henry Newman noted, doctrine does develop in the Church. And it’s not a mystery how it does: by Catholics wrestling with one another over the meaning of some doctrine. The Lutheran-Catholic Accord is one example.
In short, I became Catholic because I was convicted by Jesus’ high priestly prayer: I could no longer justify remaining separate from the Church Jesus founded. I wanted to be organically, institutionally connected with it. And by God’s grace, he’s allowed that to happen.
Mark Galli is a religion journalist and writer living in the suburbs of Chicago
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