Evangelicals ‘Crossing the Tiber’ to Catholicism

In the fall of 1999, I was a freshman at Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Massachusetts. There, fifteen years earlier, a professor named Thomas Howard resigned from the English department when he felt his beliefs were no longer in line with the college’s statement of faith. Despite all those intervening years, during my time at Gordon the specter of Thomas Howard loomed large on campus. The story of his resignation captured my imagination; it came about, ultimately, because he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Though his reasons for converting were unclear and perhaps unimaginable to me at the time (they are actually well-documented in his book Evangelical is Not Enough which, back then, I had not yet read), his reasons seemed less important than the knowledge that it could happen. I had never heard of such a thing.

I grew up outside of Boston in what could be described as an Irish-Catholic family, except for one minor detail: my parents had left the Church six years before I was born when they were swept up in the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the 1970s. So Catholicism was all around me, but it was not mine. I went to mass with my grandparents, grew up around the symbolism of rosary beads and Virgin Mary statues, attended a Catholic high school, and was present at baptisms, first communions, and confirmations for each of my Catholic family members and friends.

All throughout this time my parents never spoke ill of the Catholic Church; though the pastors and congregants of our non-denominational, charismatic church-that-met-in-a-warehouse, often did. Despite my firsthand experience with the Church, between the legend of my parents’ conversion (anything that happens in a child’s life before he is born is the stuff of legends) and the portrait of the Catholic Church as an oppressive institution that took all the fun out of being “saved,” I understood Catholicism as a religion that a person leaves when she becomes serious about her faith.

And yet, Thomas Howard is only the tip of the iceberg of a hastening trend of evangelicals converting to Catholicism. North Park University professor of religious studies Scot McKnight documented some of the reasons behind this trend in his important 2002 essay entitled “From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals become Roman Catholic.” The essay was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and was later included in a collection of conversion stories he co-edited with Hauna Ondrey entitled Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy.

Thomas Howard comes in at number five on McKnight’s list of significant conversions, behind former Presbyterian pastor and author of Rome Sweet Home, Scott Hahn, and Marcus Grodi founder of The Coming Home Network International, an organization that provides “fellowship, encouragement and support for Protestant pastors and laymen who are somewhere along the journey or have already been received into the Catholic Church,” according to their Web site. Other featured converts include singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot and Patrick Madrid, editor of the Surprised by Truth books, which showcase conversion stories.

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McKnight first identified these converts eight years ago, and the trend has continued to grow in the intervening years. It shows up in a variety of places, in the musings of the late Michael Spencer (the “Internet Monk”) about his wife’s conversion and his decision not to follow, as well as at the Evangelical Theological Society where the former President and Baylor University professor Francis J. Beckwith made a well-documented “return to Rome.” Additionally, the conversion trend is once again picking up steam as the Millennial generation, the first to be born and raised in the contemporary brand of evangelicalism, comes of age. Though perhaps an unlikely setting, The King’s College, an evangelical Christian college in New York City, provides an excellent case study for the way this phenomenon is manifesting itself among young evangelicals.

The King’s College campus is comprised of two floors in the Empire State Building and some office space in a neighboring building on Fifth Avenue. The approximately 300 students who attend King’s are thoughtful, considerate and serious. They are also intellectually curious. This combination of traits, it turns out, makes the college a ripe breeding ground for interest in Roman Catholicism. Among the traits of the Catholic Church that attract TKC students—and indeed many young evangelicals at large—are its history, emphasis on liturgy, and tradition of intellectualism.

Lucas Croslow was one such student to whom these and other attributes of Catholicism appealed. This past spring, graduating from The King’s College was not the only major change in Croslow’s life, he was also confirmed into the Catholic Church.

Croslow’s interest in Catholicism began over six years ago when he was a sophomore in high school. At the time, Croslow’s Midwestern evangelical church experienced a crisis that is all too common among evangelical churches: what he describes as “a crisis of spiritual authority.” As a result of experiencing disappointment in his pastor, Croslow began to question everything he had learned from him. This questioning led him to study the historical origins of scripture and then of the Christian church itself. Eventually he concluded that Catholicism in its current form is the closest iteration of the early church fathers’ intentions. He asks, “If Saint Augustine showed up today, could we seriously think that he’d attend a Southern Baptist church in Houston?” The answer, to Croslow, is a resounding “No.”

Croslow’s belief that the Catholic Church most accurately reflects the intentions of the early church fathers is echoed throughout the movement as other evangelicals seek a church whose roots run deeper than the Reformation. Further, due to the number of non-denominational churches that have proliferated since the Jesus Movement, many evangelicals’ knowledge of their history runs only as far back as the 1970s. These are the young believers who are attracted to a Church that sees itself as the direct descendent of the religion founded by Saint Peter and the apostles.

Another recent convert and current King’s sophomore, Nick Dunn, agrees with Croslow about the need for a historically grounded Christianity, however he emphasizes the liturgical aspects of Roman Catholicism as a motivation for converting. When he moved to New York City to attend The King’s College he had a difficult time finding a church that was similar to his home church in San Diego. The churches that he attended in New York, even the evangelical ones, often were a bit more structured and incorporated some liturgical elements into their services. In time, Dunn realized that these liturgical practices, which had been all but absent from his church life to that point, were quite rich.

When he asked his parents why their church didn’t have a benediction or a call to worship, they answered as many evangelicals would, saying that they don’t like “these ritualistic or religious kinds of things.” Eventually, after attending mass at St. Francis of Assisi in midtown Manhattan, Dunn became interested in learning more about Catholicism. It was living like a Catholic, Dunn says, that finally made him to decide to convert.

In much the same way that many evangelical churches have discarded Church history, so the liturgical structure of worship was left by the wayside as these churches made claims to the “freedom” that comes from forsaking the bounds of the Catholic Church and even mainline Protestant denominations. But for many young evangelicals and former evangelicals like Dunn, this move to be free of liturgical strictures came at the expense of religious practices that have been a part of Christianity for two millennia, and to these believers, the loss is too great. This is precisely why many evangelical churches have, as Dunn witnessed, made an effort to reintroduce those once forsaken elements into worship services.

Chris White, a 2009 King’s graduate, shares the concerns of Croslow and Dunn, while adding another of the main reasons why many evangelicals are converting to Catholicism: intellectual hunger.

White describes himself as a “victim of Church history classes that start in 1517,” the year Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses. That is, until he took a course entitled “Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought” at TKC. It “raised certain questions within me,” he says of the course. White cites Boston College philosophy professor and TKC visiting faculty member Peter Kreeft’s Catholic Christianity as a factor in his conversion, but he also points to a number of other courses that he took at King’s that led him to the point of conversion. He says of the college’s curriculum that it is “not a ‘great books curriculum’ but it draws heavily on the liberal arts tradition.” He adds, “You can’t study the liberal arts without confronting the rich history of Catholicism.”

Indeed The King’s College is a microcosm of the larger community of young believers whose frustration with the lack of authority, structure, and intellectualism in many evangelical churches is leading them in great numbers to the Roman Catholic Church. This trend of “Crossing the Tiber” (a phrase that also served as the title of Stephen K. Ray’s 1997 book on the phenomenon), has been growing steadily for decades, but with the help of a solid foundation of literature, exemplar converts from previous generations, burgeoning traditional and new media outlets, and the coming of age of Millennial evangelicals, it is seeing its pace quicken dramatically.

Back in 1985, when many of the most recent converts were still singing Sunday School songs in evangelical churches, Thomas Howard wrote in the postscript to Evangelical is Not Enough that after completing the text in 1984, he formally converted to Catholicism at the Easter Vigil in 1985. Ultimately, Howard concluded that the question that matters most is “What is the Church?” His answer, like that of Hahn, Grodi and Talbot, and now of Croslow, Dunn, and White, is that the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church”—the historical, traditional Church—can only be the Roman Catholic Church.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrolmag.com and columnist at Patheos. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, SoulPancake, and The Daily, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald