To my evangelical friends,
I admire you. I really do. And you might be surprised that many other Catholics admire you, too.
We admire your knowledge of Scripture and your Bible studies. We admire your zeal for evangelism and missions. We admire your willingness to publicly stand for your faith even when it means you’ll be made fun of or humiliated.
But most of all, we admire your deep love of Jesus. What can possibly matter more?
These are all things the Catholic Church has, of course, but we Catholics don’t always live out our faith very well.
Yes, everyone has sin, evangelicals included (you’d be the first to admit this), but I know you’re the real deal because I was raised in an evangelical congregation and attended Wheaton College, the so-called “Harvard of evangelical schools.” Some of the most prayerful, loving followers of Christ I’ve ever known are evangelical Christians.
Nonetheless, in 2010, about a month before I graduated from Wheaton, I joined the Catholic Church.
Before I lose you, let me say this isn't just another conversion story – I’m going somewhere with this.
I didn’t join the Catholic Church because I thought Catholics had the best programs or the best preaching. It wasn’t that I was disillusioned by hypocritical evangelicals or thought the Catholic Church was scandal-free (heard of any scandals in the Catholic Church?). Nor did I join the Church because I thought I personally connected better with liturgy or something.
No, I joined the Catholic Church because of something I’m sure you can relate to: I wanted to follow Jesus. And I was convinced the Catholic Church was the place established by Christ where people are supposed to do that.
But that doesn’t mean I look back at my time as an evangelical negatively. On the contrary, I and many other evangelical-to-Catholic converts are immensely grateful for all the great things we received from evangelicalism. I’m sad to say it but I probably wouldn’t know Scripture as well as I do today if I had been raised Catholic. Indeed, my time as an evangelical prepared me to be a better Catholic.
Which brings me to main point of this letter: we need you.
There are many parts of the Body of Christ, St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, each with a unique but indispensable role. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (vs. 21) As baptized Christians, evangelicals have gifts the Church needs to effectively carry out her mission of saving souls – gifts we’re sorely missing out on.
I’m referring to a problem many of you are already troubled by: the Body of Christ is suffering in her witness of the Gospel because we aren’t united and working together.
Now, as I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think sola scriptura is good enough to establish unity among Christians. We’re several centuries into the Protestant project, and I think it’s clear to everyone it only leads to endless splintering, lowest-common-denominator pluralism, and lonerism. But not the Church.
For that, I think we have to go back to the source: the Church of the ages, the Church of the martyrs and saints, the Church founded by Christ, with bishops in succession back to the Apostles, the Universal (aka Catholic) Church. That’s what I’ve done.
But hold on a second, you say, isn’t the Catholic Church corrupt? Didn’t she need a reformation?
The Catholic Church is always in need of reformation, at least when it comes to the holiness and faithfulness of her members. It was true in the 1st century, it was true in the 16th century, and it’s still true today.
And that’s where you come in. We need your help with another authentic Catholic reformation.
You see, the Protestant reformers weren’t the first people to seek Christian reform. Many of the Church’s greatest saints were reformers during times of terrible corruption and unfaithfulness. You might already look up to some of them: St. Gregory the Great, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis of Assisi, and many others.
But don’t you remember the message St. Francis of Assisi heard from Jesus? If you’re unfamiliar with the story, he was praying in a small, crumbling country chapel when Jesus spoke to him from the crucifix, “Francis, repair my Church, for it is in ruins.” Francis originally took this to be a command to repair the church building, but it became clear as time went on that God had called him to reform the Church spiritually.
Notice Francis was called to repair the Church, not start a new one. We need to build up the Church Jesus founded, not take it on ourselves to start Church v.2.0.
This is the difference between the saints and the Protestant reformers. The saints sought reform from within the Church, whereas the Protestant reformers chose schism – and we’ve been dealing with the disastrous results ever since.
Of course, they chose that route because the they diagnosed the problems in the Church as not merely moral but doctrinal, though they couldn’t agree on what the correct doctrine was.
Today, it’s not clear to me that most evangelicals really have a problem with most of actual Catholicism. Catholics believe people are saved only by Jesus, who is God incarnate and the only one worthy of our worship; we believe in the absolute necessity of God’s grace and mercy for salvation; we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and final in all it says; we believe in sin and judgement, heaven and hell, the desperate need for evangelism, for repentance, faith, hope, and love, etc.
Yes, there are areas of significant disagreement: the precise nature of justification, the number of books in the Old Testament, the role of oral Tradition, the Sacraments, etc. But that’s why we have a Church, which Scripture calls “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15): to correct us when we’re wrong. Choosing a church because it agrees with one’s theology is the opposite of how the Church is supposed to work.
And while certain evangelical leaders are obviously very committed to their particular permutation of these doctrines, I’m not sure how committed most run-of-the-mill evangelicals really are to these positions. If you’re an evangelical who is more interested in “just following Jesus” than continuing the intractable theological debates of the last few centuries, I’d like to suggest to you that you don’t have a good reason to remain Protestant, since it was those debates that caused the schism in the first place. In fact, the living Magisterium of the Church may be precisely what you are looking for: with its principled authority, grounded in Christ, to set boundaries for interpreting Scripture and settle disagreements, it provides a way for people to move past endless bickering (but without abandoning theology altogether) and better focus on following Jesus.
Of course, as I’ve already said, lived Catholicism has problems. But I’d like to challenge you to view the problems differently. Rather than using the problems as ammo against Christian unity, can you help us improve things?
In other words, can you take the best things of evangelicalism – your zeal for evangelism, your knowledge of Scripture, your creative engagement of the culture, etc – and bring them with you to the Catholic Church to enrich her from the inside?
If you lament that most Catholics don’t know Scripture, for example, then come to the Catholic Church and start Bible studies. If you lament that Catholics aren’t evangelizing, start an evangelization training program for Catholics. Or whatever you feel inspired to do. But try to fix the problems.
And you wouldn’t be totally alone. You may be surprised to learn that many former evangelicals are already doing this. Indeed, in just the last few decades there’s been a stunning turn of history, one that no one in the not-so-distant past could have seen coming: from the rubble of the heretical, scandalous, sacrilegious nonsense that’s been eating away at the Catholic Church the last few decades, God has apparently chosen to bring about part of His reform through a small but significant trickle of conversions to the faith from a group that has historically taken Catholicism to be its worst sworn enemy: evangelical Protestantism.
Really, who saw that coming? But that’s God for you.
Spend some time in Catholic circles, and you quickly find that many (though certainly not all) of the Catholics who are leading new ministries, coming up with new programs, or otherwise trying to reinvigorate authentic Catholic life are converts from evangelicalism.
But there’s a lot of work to do.
Which is why we need you.
The door’s open. I’m inviting you to come back to full communion with the Catholic Church so we can work together to do what the Protestant reformers should have done: reform the Church Christ gave us.
I’ll warn you up front: it’s hard work. Sometimes it’ll seem like we’re not making any progress. We’ll get resistance from Catholics comfortable with the status quo, and might sometimes feel tempted to pull another Luther. But I truly believe that if, like the saints before us, with utter dependence on God’s grace, we persevere in humility, patience, prayer, and daily personal conversion, we can make a difference.
Then, strengthened with all of the gifts of the Body of Christ working together in the way Christ intended, we can more effectively go save some souls.
Brantly Millegan is an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.