Holy Church: Finding Jesus As a Reverted Catholic; A Testimonial Response to Chris CastaldoJan 27th, 2013 | By Casey Chalk | Category: Featured Articles
This is a guest article by Casey Chalk. Casey was born and raised in a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C. Casey was baptized into the Catholic Church and received the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion before leaving the Church with his parents for evangelicalism at the age of eight. Casey attended the University of Virginia, where he was introduced to Reformed theology. Upon graduation in 2007 (B.A. History, Religious Studies; Masters in Teaching), Casey became a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary. However, an intensive period of study of the “Catholic question” ultimately resulted in Casey’s reunion with the Catholic Church in October 2010. He was confirmed at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia at the Easter Vigil in 2011. Casey works for the federal government, and joyfully also received the sacrament of marriage in August 2012 with his wife Claire.
There is an interesting exchange that takes place all the time in evangelical churches, organizations, and Bible studies, especially in the United States. It is that moment when former-Catholics discover an ally, a fellow journeyman who found his or her way out of the Church and into evangelicalism, someone who can relate to the many negative experiences or unbiblical beliefs they endured during their time as Catholics. These conversations can be a great source of encouragement, discovering that others had experienced what we experienced in our path of following Christ.
As a former Catholic who spent years in evangelical and Reformed circles, I myself had my fair share of those conversations. So has Chris Castaldo, an Italian American and former Catholic who worked full-time in the Catholic Church for several years, and has published a book, Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic (Zondervan, 2009). In this book Castaldo explains his own conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism through a series of chapters assessing what he believes to be the five predominant reasons why Catholics leave the Church for evangelical Protestantism, based on two years of research interviewing Catholics and former Catholics across the United States. Castaldo is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as Director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
As a descendant of Catholic Irish and Polish immigrants to the United States, I too was raised Catholic but ultimately chose evangelicalism, and later Reformed theology, in my desire to follow Christ faithfully in my search for biblical Christianity. Except, unlike Castaldo, I’ve come to realize that the five reasons typically given by former Catholics, though I am sympathetic to them, are not sufficient to warrant leaving the Church Christ founded, nor were any other reasons I sought to employ in rejecting Rome’s claims. In sharing some reflections on my reversion to Catholicism, I would like to contrast briefly my own experience with that of Castaldo and those he describes in Holy Ground in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of their reasons for abandoning Catholicism and identify a few concerns with their manner of assessing Catholicism’s claims.
Encountering Christ in Evangelicalism
I was born into a Catholic family, though both of my parents would readily admit that they were not devout, did not accept some Church teachings, and were both drawn to elements of evangelical Protestantism. Following my first communion at age eight, my parents left Catholicism and eventually landed in a non-denominational evangelical community. Their decision was at first disconcerting to me, given that their departure from Catholicism was upsetting to our Catholic extended family. However, I witnessed throughout my adolescence a profound change in them as they fell in love with Christ and His Scriptures and appeared to be transformed into more loving, patient people. I too, in my senior year of high school, was exposed to a classmate whose suffering and personal trials were so overwhelming that I cried out to God to make sense of such evil – and found the answer in Christ’s death and resurrection. As for Catholicism, it was something I had come to distrust and question, especially based on the sermons I heard at our evangelical church declaring the Catholic Church to be in grave theological error. By the time I left for college, I was a fervent evangelical, convinced that I had found the purest form of Christianity.
That fervor met a rude awakening in religion classes at the University of Virginia where I was exposed to strong academic criticisms of the historicity and coherence of Scripture by religion professors who took a particular delight in turning the worlds of evangelical students upside down. Unfortunately, I think many evangelical college students come to grips with the disconnect between what their secular university religion classes teach and what they grew up believing, by embracing the modern, almost Kantian dichotomy between academia and their personal faith. I suppose it’s an easy way to avoid the dilemmas we confront in the wake of several centuries of Protestant scholarship defined by historical criticism, source criticism, and form criticism, as well as a strong distrust of the supernatural.
However, I did not view such a dichotomy between the intellectual and spiritual life as intellectually coherent. Either Scripture was historically reliable, Protestant theology logically consistent, and evangelicalism a defensible form of Christianity, or it was time to abandon the whole project. I took it upon myself to go in search of evangelical scholarship that could provide me with an adequate defense of Scripture. What I found was a wealth of evangelical scholarship, some apologetic, some more scholarly, presenting a formidable defense of Scripture’s historicity and veracity. I confess, of course, my natural bias – within evangelicalism I had experienced a dramatic spiritual communion with Christ through prayer and meditation on Scripture, and matured in my love for others. I wanted to prove to myself and others that my faith was not some sort of wish fulfillment.
This leads me to a reflection that would be influential in my eventual return to Catholicism: neither I, nor I doubt many evangelicals, have systematically engaged every single attack on the historicity or veracity of Scripture. At least for myself, I read enough to be satisfied that there were reasonable defenses of Scripture, and moved on with my life. Was that intellectually lazy? Possibly, but we all must do it, to some degree. It is simply impossible to reserve judgment until we address every single challenge presented against Scripture, or any other belief, for that matter. I think to a degree I justified my lack of comprehensiveness by noting the flawed reasoning of those who attacked Scripture: they refused to accept the possibility that the supernatural could exist, and this predisposed them against the content of Scripture, and inclined them to seek flaws within it. To me this seemed intellectually dishonest and unfair. This reflection would in turn be helpful as I considered the claims of Catholicism several years later.
Amidst my studies to defend Scripture, I was introduced to Reformed theology through the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), as well as through authors like R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, and J.I. Packer, among many others. This marked a transition in my faith journey. For one, the Reformed faith seemed to make more sense of Scripture in its entirety than did my non-denominational evangelicalism, and explained many passages neglected by other evangelicals. Secondly, the Reformed faith introduced me to Reformed writers such as John Calvin, John Piper, and Michael Horton, whose reflections on Christ, the gospel, and the Scriptures were far more inspiring and intellectually robust than what I had previously experienced. Finally, the Reformed faith and its links to Calvinist scholars of the previous centuries was the answer to my concerns as a history major that American evangelicalism seemed largely disconnected from the history of Christianity. I became a passionate defender of Calvinism, and upon graduation, enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) and became a member of a PCA church. I was ready for a lifetime of theological study and service in the Reformed tradition, and had no doubts or concerns with Reformed theology. To put it simply, I was more proud of being Reformed than I was of anything else in my life.
Encountering Problems in Evangelicalism
Several years later, however, I was confronted with an unusual dilemma when my best friend, a student at Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA) in St. Louis, Missouri, started to question the Reformed faith shortly before finishing his Master of Divinity degree. His concerns with the Reformed faith and his interest in Catholicism led me to employ all the tools at my disposal to counteract what I perceived as one of the gravest theological errors, and to prevent my friend from making what I perceived to be possibly the greatest mistake of his life. I should know, of course, because I myself had been a Catholic and had grown up around many Catholic extended family. So I read Reformed critiques of Catholic faith and practice, engaged the faculty at RTS, and consulted the pastors and elders at my PCA Church, several of whom were, like myself, former Catholics. The enterprise, was, I admit, entirely biased. I was seeking to find the “silver bullet” to demonstrate the errors of Catholicism. However, in less than a year, the tables had turned and I was consistently finding myself on the defensive, seeking to defend numerous theological and historical issues, including sola scriptura, sola fide, and the supposed connection between the faith and practice of the early Church and that of the Reformed tradition.
Catholicism, meanwhile, was at least plausible, if still a very unappealing option for a number of theological and personal reasons. Some concerns seemed larger than life. How was I suppose to assess the Catholic claim that Catholic tradition and the the teaching of the Magisterium had authority that was binding on the conscience? Did I have to read, study, and assess prayerfully every official Church document ever written in order to determine whether its doctrine was compatible with Scripture? I’d have to quit my job and devote the rest of my life to such a pursuit. And meanwhile, was I suppose to abstain from communion or resign from my PCA church and become some sort of “independent” Christian until I had resolved these dilemmas? That certainly seemed contrary to Scripture’s calling to unite ourselves to a visible community of Christians (e.g. Hebrews 10:25). I could spend the rest of my life in some sort of theological limbo, only to find some new scholarly analysis throw the whole Protestant experiment into flux, as the New Perspective on Paul has done since the 1970s. Is this really what Jesus intended for us, that every Christian study Scripture, theology and Church history until we are each able adequately to resolve such controversies as justification? And adequate to whom, exactly? The short history of Reformed denominations such as the OPC and PCA and their own battles with the Federal Vision should be enough even for the casual observer to recognize the complexity of these issues. The complexity certainly seemed at odds with the Reformed understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture, where the ordinary individual Christian is supposed to be able to determine from a “plain reading” of Scripture what is necessary for salvation. (WCF 1:7).
My work sent me overseas to Qatar and Thailand for a time. I viewed the trip as an opportunity to clear my mind, read a number of books and articles that Calvinists and Catholics had recommended, and pray through the theological issues apart from the increasingly emotional conversations at church and seminary. While in Thailand, I journeyed to the historic capital city of Ayutthaya for a day-trip, walking among the ruins and exploring the architecture of Buddhist shrines, an unlikely and entirely unfitting location to reflect on Christian theology, I admit. However, by the time I was on the train back to Bangkok, I had concluded that Reformed theology is not an accurate or adequate explanation of Scripture or Christian history. I returned to the United States, and within two weeks had submitted my formal resignation to my PCA church, received the sacrament of reconciliation (my first in about 18 years), and entered into an RCIA program at a local Catholic parish.
Although there were many reasons that precipitated my return to Catholicism, I think the most foundational were my growing concerns with the Protestant understanding of the formation of the canon, and the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Concerning the formation of the canon I doubt I can add much to Tom Brown’s analysis of the canon question (see his “The Canon Question“), but I will add that I encountered a very unsatisfying answer to my question of why Protestants do not accept the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament as Scripture, as Catholics and Orthodox do. The Westminster Confession of Faith’s proof-texts (i.e. Luke 24:27, 44; Romans 3:2; and 2 Peter 1:21) for the rejection of the Apocrypha in WCF I.3 are puzzling and easily refutable, given that none of the passages address the Apocrypha and its inspiration or inerrancy. More substantively, many Protestant and Reformed scholars argue that the Apocrypha contains historical errors and that its theology directly contradicts the rest of Scripture. The claim that the Apocrypha contains historical errors seemed oddly similar to what more liberal Protestant scholars have been saying about the Old and New Testament for several centuries, as I discussed earlier. And the claim that the theology of the deuterocanonical books is at odds with Protestant doctrines such as sola fide (e.g. Tobit 4:11, 12:9) only begged the question, and would have applied no less to James’ epistle in the New Testament. (e.g. James 2:24)
My study of the canon also led me to read and study the Apocrypha myself, something that most Protestants in my experience have never done. What I found was at times notably different in style and content from the Hebrew Bible. However, I also read passages such as Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which would be difficult not to see as a prophecy fulfilled in the passion narratives of the gospels. Indeed, the following passage inspired in me a deeper love for Christ:
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he is annoying to us; he opposes our actions, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, Because his life is not like that of others, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the righteous and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him in the end. For if the righteous one is the son of God, God will help him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With violence and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.” [RSV]
Concerning sola scriptura, I wish to tread lightly, doubting whether I am able to add to Bryan Cross’s, Neil Judisch’s, Matt Yonke’s, David Anders’, and Michael Liccione’s arguments critiquing sola scriptura as neither scriptural, historically defensible, or logically consistent.1 However, I would like to add a few of my own reflections on the inadequacy of sola scriptura. First, Reformed and other Protestants will often argue that it is better to trust in the authority of Scripture alone as opposed to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition. However, I found that as a Protestant I trusted the authority of historians, biblical scholars, and theologians to provide me with the most reliable texts, the most accurate translations, and the most historically and culturally faithful interpretations of those texts. And yet I had never met any of these individuals, had only indirect access to how they had gone about their research, and was largely ignorant of the biases they may or may not have brought with them in their work. I started to realize that as a Protestant I was just as much trusting in a “magisterium” of Protestant historians, scholars, and theologians as the Catholic who trusts in the Church.
This has become even more noticeable as evangelical scholars have begun to cast doubt on the inspiration of certain texts in the New Testament, such as Mark 16:9-20 and John 8:1-9, because those passages do not appear in the earliest New Testament manuscripts. This assessment of debated passages of Scripture places a problematic emphasis on palaeographist’s present best determination of the chronology of manuscripts as the primary determinant of authentic Scripture, an imperfect science to say the least. Such a method undermines sola scriptura by seemingly placing the equivalent of magisterial authority in the hands of archaeologists and New Testament scholars, and may influence what future generations of evangelical Protestants view as authentic, inspired, Scripture, especially if further archaeological developments unearth further manuscripts, or Protestant scholars decide to employ some other criteria to determine what is true Scripture.
On a more psychological level, I came to realize that no Christian can possibly approach Scripture without a host of predetermined data points that inform his or her interpretation. There can be no “Scripture alone,” because our interpretive lens will be inherently defined by the sermons we’ve heard, books we’ve read, or theological concepts we’ve been taught. The Reformed Christian, in essence, believes in Scripture plus whatever interpretations he inherits from Calvin plus Warfield plus Bavinck plus whomever has informed his interpretive paradigm. The same can be said for the Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and even Catholic. However, only the Catholic’s interpretive paradigm allows him to reply to such a charge by saying “yes, exactly, that IS how I interpret Scripture; how could I do any other?”
In turn, although I had many strong reservations about the Catholic Church, I had read enough to see the Catholic interpretation of Scripture as plausible, at the very least. However, more fundamentally, I became persuaded that Jesus Christ was actually bodily present in the Eucharist, a belief informed by Scripture, the writings of Catholic apologists, and the testimony of Catholic friends experiencing spiritual transformation through the sacrament. It was an incredibly strange, but ultimately enlightening experience to observe some of the most intelligent and pious people I knew bowing before and worshiping what I had assumed were simply bread and wine. In the midst of my many remaining doubts, I sensed His call in the sacrament, a pull very similar to my initial conversion to know and love Christ when I encountered evangelicalism. I wanted to receive Him, to be united to Him and to His Church.
Initial Reflections on Castaldo’s Project
Given this short background, let’s consider the reasons given by Castaldo and many other Catholics for their rejection of the Catholic faith in favor of Protestantism. They are: (1) former Catholics want a “full-time faith” rather than Catholicism, which draws a sharp distinction between the responsibilities of the clergy and the laity; (2) former Catholics want a “personal relationship with Jesus,” as opposed to a set of rules; (3) former Catholics want “direct access to God,” rather than accessing Him through the papacy and the priesthood; (4) former Catholics want “Christ-centered devotion,” as opposed to what Castaldo argues are the “aspects of Sacred Tradition [that] can eclipse the Christ-centered message of Scripture; and (5) former Catholics want to be “motivated by grace instead of guilt.” Although Castaldo does not state explicitly that these were his own “top five” reasons for leaving the Catholic Church, he intersperses personal anecdotes related to all five reasons, and never raises any objections to these reasons, suggesting that these were very much at work in his own conversion, and may be considered his own.
As a preface, some of Castaldo’s reasons resonate with me given our similar experiences, but for the reasons I explain below, they are largely irrelevant to the more foundational issues dividing Catholicism and Protestantism. Most notably, much of Castaldo’s research demonstrates that peoples’ experiences in the Catholic Church are incredibly varied, and that what they often experienced as Catholicism was in some sense an inadequate or inaccurate reflection of authentic Church teaching. Multiple times, Castaldo refers to some bad experience in a Catholic parish that pulls someone away from Catholicism and toward evangelicalism, but then qualifies the story by noting that the experience or doctrine is not what the Catholic Church formally teaches. Such bad experiences or poor catechesis are unfortunate, but an assessment of a religion’s veracity should not be based on the subjective experience of individuals in a particular place, but on that religion’s official doctrines and authentic practice. Castaldo may not believe such experiences are sufficient grounds for abandoning Catholicism, but these anecdotes consistently obscure , rather than clarify, the true lines of division between Catholic and Protestant doctrine. If I were to reject Catholicism because a priest tells me Scripture is inconsequential in Catholic doctrine, I would not have rejected Catholicism, but a faulty depiction of it. Likewise, if I were to reject Reformed theology because the female pastor at a PCUSA church encourages me to pray to “mother, child, and womb” instead of the Trinity, all the OPC and PCA pastors who hear of it would likely start pulling out their hair. We are all called to seek the truth in honesty and charity, even when it is obscured by poorly-informed or even dissenting religious practice.
Secondly, Castaldo’s project is not so much a systematic analysis of the historical and theological debates between Catholicism and Protestantism than it is a cultural analysis, discussing the values and practices that shape American Catholics and lead many to become evangelicals. Though this presents an interesting vignette of the Catholic-Protestant debate, it suffers from an inherent weakness: examining what former Catholics want from a Christian community or religious experience, rather than what is true or what they truly need. Castaldo recognizes this weakness, acknowledging that evangelicals sometimes form their beliefs to their own tastes, rather than to Scripture. He even jests that some evangelicals act as if they believe in a Jesus “in running shoes sporting a Sergio Tacchini sweat-suit jogging beside us on the treadmill.” Castaldo’s answer to this problem seems to be a more theologically-robust, biblically-informed, and tradition-friendly evangelical Protestantism, built upon the core tenets of the Reformation (pp. 61, 94-96, 103). Yet Castaldo’s research exposes the degree to which Protestant religious experience suffers inherently from a problematic ecclesial consumerism (see “Ecclesial Consumerism“), according to which one is guided by what one perceives one’s spiritual desires to be, and what one perceives to be the best way to satisfy those spiritual desires, according to one’s own interpretation of Scripture. Fundamentally, this project starts with what the individual Christian consumer wants in his spiritual life, rather than “What did Christ establish?”
Cataldo seeks to combat this tendency by urging individuals to base their conversions to Protestantism on Scripture, rather than on spiritual preference. But implicit even in this model is the assumption that individuals have the interpretive authority to determine for themselves from Scripture how best to worship Christ and form Christian communities. Whether one is determining what is most spiritually beneficial or what Scripture teaches, if one is treating oneself as Scripture’s highest interpretive authority one is implicitly taking to oneself more authority than any semblance of Church hierarchy. In essence, even Castaldo’s attempts to avoid ecclesial consumerism in evangelical Protestantism fail, because not believing in a hierarchical Church founded by Christ makes everyone an authority unto him or herself. Yet if following Christ means following Him not according to our own whims or personal interpretations but via the authorities and shepherds He has established, it is spiritually dangerous to establish religious markers based on personal preferences or private interpretations, lest we become like Cain or Korah, two Old Testament personalities known for prioritizing their own preferences in their worship. Choosing to leave a religious faith or join another based on what we want is in that way a subtle form of idolatry, insofar as one creates ‘church’ in one’s own image, according to one’s own judgment of what one needs spiritually and how best to worship God.
Finally, Castaldo invests notable energy in emphasizing the importance of the visible Church to Catholicism’s theological self-understanding. On several occassions Castaldo summarizes the centrality of the risen Christ’s continuing role in the visible Church to Catholic theology, referring to the Catholic understanding of totus Christus, “total Christ,” according to which Christ is manifested through the Catholic Church and her members (pp. 30-31, 97-98, 132). Castaldo further acknowledges the Catholic critique of Protestant tendencies toward individualism, calling this individualism a “legitimate flaw within evangelicalism,” and urges Protestants to take the importance of the visible Church more seriously (133). However, Castaldo fails to provide a positive Protestant alternative to what is or isn’t the visible Church, something that Jesus (John 17:11) and Paul (1 Corinthians 1:10) seem to have believed was a reality.
At times Castaldo appeals to the divergent doctrines that many Protestants have argued separate the orthodox (historical Protestantism) from the heretical (Catholicism), doctrines such as justification, in order to bolster his five reasons. But then he approvingly cites examples of devout Catholics who followed Christ, such as Ignatius Loyola (pp. 77-79). Castaldo appears to waver between viewing the Catholic Church as a perpetuator of heresy or alternatively as just one of thousands of Christian denominations that compose the visible Church. If the Catholic Church is a legitimate part of the visible Church, Castaldo leaves unresolved how this is to be reconciled with five hundred years of Reformed Protestant theology that has argued otherwise. Moreover, if Castaldo approves of these five reasons, it seems reasonable that evangelicals are free to leave their evangelical denominations or churches if they cease holding the five reasons Castaldo outlines in his book. Indeed, it is possible Castaldo has not provided an exhaustive list, and that there are other things individuals are entitled to receive from their Christian religious communities that, if not provided, justify their exit from the Church for a different religious institution. The absence of a Protestant alternative to Catholicism’s recognition of the necessity of the unified visible Church, and what, if anything, obligates Christians to remain united to it calls into question the role this doctrine plays in Castaldo’s thinking.
The first reason Castaldo gives in Holy Ground for Catholic conversions to Protestantism is that former Catholics want a “full-time faith,” something which Catholicism, with its sharp distinction between the responsibilities of the clergy and laity, supposedly cannot provide. Castaldo argues, “for many, the unfortunate result of such a sharp Catholic clergy-laity distinction is an undermining of Christian calling and purpose.” He qualifies this statement by saying that “this is not to say that Catholics can’t enjoy a lay vocation. Indeed some do. However, for many, encouragement to engage in ministry was nonexistent.” He adds, “from Scripture they came to believe that in Christ they are actually spiritual priests whose ministries are on equal footing with ordained clergy” (p. 39).
It is worth noting firstly that Castaldo’s objection is question-begging in that it assumes that every Christian is called to an ecclesial ministry, and that therefore the Catholic clergy-laity distinction prevents lay Christians from fulfilling their ministerial calling. Catholic teaching indeed does not share this assumption. That issue aside, Castaldo readily admits that Catholicism teaches a form of the “priesthood of all believers, which applies to the entire church.” He even notes two documents from Vatican II that addressed the need for more lay ministry participation: Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Although Castaldo is indeed taking issue with Catholic doctrine on the role of the clergy in the Church, he seems more concerned with the poor or varied application of Catholic doctrine at the parish level.
In my own experience, I have been encouraged by Catholic priests, laymen, and literature to view my family, my work, and the entirety of my life as an “apostolate” where I am called to love, serve, and proclaim the gospel. The Arlington Diocese (where I live) is full of opportunities for laymen to invest whatever skills or passions they possess in the work of the Church: to name but a few, Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, Regnum Christi, Opus Dei, RCIA, CCD; the opportunities for service are practically endless. The mission of Opus Dei, in particular, is to “spread the message that work and the circumstances of everyday life are occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society,” and is found in nineteen cities interspersed throughout the United States. Of course I am well aware that I am fortunate enough to live in a diocese well known for being one of the strongest, most devout dioceses in the United States, which may give me an unfair advantage over those in parts of the country with less of a presence of devout Catholics. However, as discussed above, to eschew Catholicism because of its varying practice geographically fails to engage Church teaching adequately and creates a standard for determining religious truth based on an assessment of the relative spiritual strength of a Christian community, rather than the trustworthiness of that religious community’s doctrine and authentic practice. It may be the case that some dioceses offer more opportunities than others for lay ministry – but this is an experiential, rather than a doctrinal concern.
On a different level, however, I can relate to Castaldo’s concern with the alleged Catholic clergy-laity distinction. When I was considering the claims of the Catholic Church, I was put off by the high esteem given to the priesthood and consecrated life – it sometimes did feel, as Castaldo argues, that those unconsecrated Catholics could never reach the degree of holiness or importance reserved for those embracing the religious life. Indeed, one will often hear people refer to the religious life as a “higher calling.” However, I came to see that my fears were illogical and overlooked scriptural distinctions between clergy and laity. For one, Christ himself appointed twelve men as apostles, whom Protestants themselves argue had a level of authority unequaled among the rest of the early Church – as their writings were believed to be inspired by God and inerrant. Was the special authority given to the apostles a threat to the role and significance of other early Christians? Or am I jealous that the apostles received such a high calling I cannot attain, something that remains true for all eternity (Revelation 21:14)?
Furthermore, the Church has never taught that the distinction between the clergy and laity means the work of the laity is unimportant or cannot be spiritually significant and rewarding. Indeed, there is a significant distinction between a calling to Holy Orders or religious life, and the calling to sanctity. We are all called to sanctity, and Holy Orders does not guarantee greater sanctity, nor does a lay vocation entail lower sanctity. The Church teaches that all have the opportunity to grow in sanctity and virtue, and Church teaching on the higher calling of religious vocation does not preclude those called to the lay vocation from receiving the grace needed for sanctification or heroic virtue (CCC 1803-1845). An examination of the many saints revered by the Church demonstrates this clearly. Take for example, Saint Germaine Cousin – a poor French girl in the late sixteenth century who prayed the rosary, attended Mass, and was abused by her father and mother-in-law until the point of death at the age of twenty-two. Her life consisted of no formal “ministry” as we might understand it, and she leaves us no writings. Yet her humility and acceptance of suffering stand as a testament to her faith; so much so that a friend of mine who came into the Church last Easter chose her as her confirmation saint. Or examine Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian wife, mother, and physician in the twentieth century who refused to undergo an abortion despite a fibroma in her uterus that threatened her life and the life of the child. She died in childbirth, a testament to her faith in the value of human life. These saints, and many others, demonstrate the clergy-laity distinction does not prevent the Church from honoring lay Catholics for their role in the “priesthood of all believers.”
Castaldo’s first objection to Catholicism thus fails on several grounds, including the question-begging nature of assuming that all Christians are called to ecclesial ministry, elevating the subjective experience over doctrine and authentic practice as a means of evaluating Catholicism’s truth claims, and failing to recognize the strong and ongoing tradition of the spiritually significant roles of the laity in the Catholic faith.
Relationship with Christ or A Set or Rules
Castaldo secondly claims that many former-Catholics want a “personal relationship with Jesus,” as opposed to a set of rules, which is what many former-Catholics experience during their time in the Church. From not eating meat on Fridays to confessing one’s sins, the Church has seemingly created an intricate, overbearing system of regulations that are often seen as straying far from the Bible. Instead, Castaldo claims that in their encounter with evangelicalism Catholics find an intimate and inviting relationship with Christ, where He is a close friend (John 15). As before, Castaldo is quick to note that many Catholics have also taught and exemplified the idea of a deep and personal relationship with Christ, including Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Blaise Pascal, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, Therese of Lisieux, and many others (p. 81).
I can easily resonate with Castaldo and other former-Catholics on this subject, because I remember the great freedom I felt in believing that my status before Christ was determined not by my strict adherence to a long list of Church-concocted rules, but by His work on the cross and my trust in it. However, in returning to Catholicism I have found just as much teaching and exhortation to pursue a deep and personal relationship with Christ. When I meet with my spiritual director on a monthly basis, his response to my reflections, concerns, or anxieties is often simply to ask “have you brought it before the Lord?” Castaldo notes the presence of Catholic saints, priests, and writers who fostered an incredibly intimate love for Christ – there are many such people in dioceses throughout the country. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing in Catholic teaching that discourages us from such a pursuit, and everything in Catholic doctrine is ultimately aimed at achieving the deepest possible communion with Christ. For example, the prologue to the Catechism begins:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.
So what then of the many rules the Church mandates? Is this not a hindrance to our relationship with Christ, in that we will lose sight of knowing and loving Him in the midst of all these rules? As a former “Christ-Centered” Reformed Christian, I think it is easy to hold this assessment, and I have certainly felt this tension as a Catholic. However, it is worth noting that there are only five precepts of the Catholic Church in the United States: (1) attending Mass on Sundays and the six Holy Days of Obligation; (2) receiving the sacrament of reconciliation once a year; (3) receiving the Eucharist during the Lenten season; (4) observing the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence; and (5) providing for the needs of the Church (CCC 2042-2043). Are these rules “heavy burdens, hard to bear,” unnecessarily laid on the shoulders of the faithful, as Christ condemns in Matthew 23:4? Some of them, such as Sabbath observance and church attendance, are familiar to evangelicals and Reformed – indeed, I knew many Reformed folk who were far stricter in their observance of the Sabbath than what is mandated by the Catholic Church. Other precepts could hardly be considered burdens – to receive the sacrament of reconciliation once a year is unlikely to require more than one or two hours of one’s time, depending on one’s distance from a Catholic parish. Indeed, many Catholics are happy to go to confession monthly, if not more often, as a means of grace in their battle with sin. Likewise, to view the precept to receive the Eucharist during the Lenten season (especially if one is already attending weekly Mass) as a burden would be a strange assessment, especially if it is indeed the body and blood of Christ, the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324).
Furthermore, on what basis are these Church-mandated rules to be rejected? If it is because there is no explicit scriptural mandate for Holy Days of Obligation or days of fasting and abstinence, this again begs the question, because it presumes sola scriptura, a problematic doctrine that Called To Communion has addressed elsewhere. As an aside, there is indeed scriptural precedent for the five Catholic precepts mandated in the United States – especially if the Church hierarchy is instituted by Christ and has authority to mandate areas of discipline such as mass attendance or fasting (cf. Acts 15:28-29).
Finally, the Church urges us to view every rule as a means by which to foster closer communion with Christ. The sacrament of confession, rightly understood, is a means by which Christ Himself offers forgiveness, operating through the priest. As the Catechism teaches, “reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament” (CCC 1468). Participating in fasts, be they from meat or otherwise, are a means by which we can unite ourselves more deeply to Christ in His sufferings, deepening our spiritual understanding and union with Him, as well as removing ourselves from undue affections for this world. Fasting helps us “acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart,” freeing us to more fully love and appreciate Christ (CCC 2043). Holy Days of Obligation are also intended to deepen our relationship with Christ, as evidenced most recently in the Solemnity of the Mother of God, celebrated on the first day of January. Though Mariological, it is also deeply Christological, with its scriptural reflections on the sonship Christians acquire through Christ (Galatians 4:4-7) and the wondrous circumstances of the incarnation (Luke 2:16-21). Any and all of these precepts holy Mother Church, acting on behalf of Christ, has the authority to establish as a means of forming the spiritual life of her children, thereby sanctifying them through habits of religious practice.
Who Needs a Priest When I Can Pray to God Myself?
The third reason Castaldo gives is that former-Catholics want “direct access to God,” rather than accessing Him through the papacy and the priesthood. He explains that ex-Catholics have concerns with the “visible authority structure rooted in the popes and bishops,” and the pope’s “clerical function, his relationship to the priesthood” (pp. 72-73). He goes on to provide several scriptural proof-texts to argue that in order to “access God’s presence,” we need only the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). The argument, essentially, is that the Catholic hierarchy of priests, bishops, and popes is an unnecessary hindrance to direct access to God, and there is no scriptural warrant for the mediatory nature of the priesthood as Catholics understand it.
I confess that this issue was not a major stumbling block in my return to Catholicism, although I remember an elder at my PCA church telling me that he was concerned that in returning to the Catholic Church I had embraced a form of “sacerdotalism” that he viewed as unbiblical and unjustified. Contrary to what non-Catholics, or unfortunately ex-Catholics may believe, there is nothing in Church doctrine that suggests that Catholic laypeople cannot pray on their own, read Scripture on their own, or foster spiritual intimacy with God on their own. Of course ordinarily the sacraments can only be administered by priests or bishops, and the Church does indeed teach that these sacraments are the place where we most fully meet Christ, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Castaldo’s objection was of less concern for me for a few reasons. First, I recognized that the entire Old Testament spoke to a priestly system where some individuals served a mediatory role between God and His covenant people. As one steeped in covenant theology during my time as a Reformed seminarian, it became increasingly strange to believe that with Christ’s role as the perfect great high priest, the priestly system was done away with entirely. Wouldn’t it make more sense, and foster more continuity between Old and New Testaments, for a priesthood to continue, now only greater than that of the old covenant? Indeed, whereas in the old priesthood, priests offered bloody sacrifices for the sins of Israel, and were unable to effectuate God’s redemptive power, priests in the new covenant offer a non-bloody sacrifice, Christ Himself, which is fully effective to forgive sin, unite us to God, and change us within. As I made that intellectual transition, much of the New Testament began to elucidate this idea of a continued priesthood (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:18; Hebrews 10: 19-22).
Secondly, I was excited, rather than dismayed at the prospect that the priest’s mediatory role could extend to me graces I had hitherto lacked while Protestant. For example, the sacrament of reconciliation does not simply forgive sins. By grace it also strengthens the Christian against whatever sin he or she is struggling with – a very exciting proposition I have found to be true in practice! If Christ established the sacraments, then there is more grace available to us through communion with the Church than through an individualism that makes the Church quite unnecessary.
Finally, I recognized that as a Protestant I had another mediator between myself and God, though few Protestants would ever look at it as such. Whenever I sat down to read Scripture, I read a particular translation offered by a particular group of scholars with a certain theological bent (the NIV, evangelicals; the ESV, Reformed scholars). I had essentially accepted their mediatory role as translators, bringing the vernacular language of the Old and New Testaments to me as an English-speaking American. Not only that, but I had also accepted their mediatory role in determining what is and isn’t Scripture – for example, they had determined to exclude the deuterocanonical books accepted by the Catholic Church. In turn, I had trusted other scholars, theologians, and pastors to mediate to me the meaning of Scripture, especially those passages that were confusing or appeared contradictory. They may not have been priests, but I certainly needed them both to gain access to Christ in His Word, and to understand it properly.
Castaldo’s fourth reason is that ex-Catholics want “Christ-centered devotion,” as opposed to what he argues are the “aspects of Sacred Tradition [that] can eclipse the Christ-centered message of Scripture,” which he claims is that Jesus is “the one intermediary between God and humanity,” referencing 2 Corinthians 4:6 and 1 Timothy 2:5 (p. 103). Castaldo is referring particularly to such devotions in Catholicism as praying to saints, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that of the rosary.
I can very much appreciate this argument, as it was a central stumbling block to my return to Catholicism. Even after I started to be convinced that Catholicism had a better explanation for the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and a more biblically faithful theology, when I looked at the Church’s practices, it seemed like Christ often took a backseat to other devotions. To one who wholeheartedly accepted Michael Horton’s “Christ-centered Christianity” as gospel, Catholic devotional life seemed to muddy the waters, if not lead people away from Christ. I wondered, “if we as Protestants have enough trouble keeping our eyes and hearts focused on Christ, won’t devotions to saints and Mary complicate things further?” Even after I had come to accept that asking for Mary’s intercession in the rosary was not a violation of Scripture, I remember thinking “There’s six ‘Our Fathers’ and fifty-three ‘Hail Marys’? How can this be right?” However, a few concepts re-aligned my thinking on Catholic devotion such that I came to realize that Christ still remains the very center of Catholic devotional life.
First and foremost is the centrality of the Eucharist to Catholic devotional life, what the Church has termed the “source and summit” of the Christian life, a topic I intend to address in further detail in a subsequent article. From a Catholic perspective, the Eucharist is Christ himself, and receives far greater honor and attention than anything else in the liturgy or popular devotion. Indeed, unlike Mary or any other saint, the Eucharist is worshipped as God. From the very beginning of my exploration into Catholicism, I came to realize how very central the Eucharist is – it is quite simply impossible to speak too highly of the Eucharist. It is “our daily bread,” the means of salvation, the source of all grace, the remedy for every ill, anxious thought, or sinful habit… and most radically, it is Jesus Himself. There is a reason why every priest and parish is required to offer Mass daily, and why so many spiritual directors, Catholic literature, and Church documents urge Catholics to receive the Eucharist as frequently as possible, and to spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. If the Eucharist is Christ, it’s hard to imagine getting more Christ-centered than that.
As for the rosary and devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary or other saints, it is important to keep in mind that the rosary as well is a Christ-centered devotion. In it, the Catholic asks Mary to pray for him or her to meditate on the mysteries of Christ’s life. Although the Catholic verbally says many “Hail Mary’s” the purpose is not to elevate Mary above Christ, but to allow the repetition of the prayers to enable the Catholic to enter into a meditative form of prayer, focused particularly on Christ. Once I understood this, and tried to pray the rosary with this in mind, I saw Scripture and Christ’s life in a way that richly deepened my knowledge and love of Christ. Certainly in Catholicism one may find misapplications or misinterpretations of Marian devotion, or devotions to other saints, that obscure the centrality of Christ. But to reject Catholicism for misapplications of its teaching is to reject a straw-man, just as if I were to reject Reformed theology because some Reformed theologian or pastor advocated something at odds with traditional Reformed theology or practice.
”Grace Instead of Guilt”
Castaldo’s fifth and final reason for the exodus of Catholics to evangelicalism is that ex-Catholics want to be “motivated by grace instead of guilt” (p. 105). In describing another ex-Catholics’ move to evangelicalism, Castaldo explains that “unlike his rules-oriented experience of the Catholic Church, Andy now enjoyed a personal relationship with Christ by faith.” Other ex-Catholics tell Castaldo, “instead of religion, I now have a relationship with God.” Castaldo asserts, “it’s not necessary for one to first get right with the Catholic Church by observing the sacramental stipulations before receiving salvation from Christ. Rather it comes by faith alone” (p. 111). Castaldo then goes on to explain how the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone serves as a counteractive force to guilt, by enabling the Christian to rest in God’s salvific work through Christ’s death and resurrection (p. 116-120).
Of Castaldo’s five reasons, I find this one most compelling, as I reflect on the great comfort that came from my acceptance of the Protestant doctrine that I was saved by grace through faith alone. To accept the Catholic position, an internal spiritual transformation had to occur so as not to be overcome with guilt in the face of the depravity and continuance of my sin. It would be impossible to explain fully my spiritual transformation in rejecting the Protestant model that Castaldo and so many ex-Catholics have come to accept and love, but a more modest endeavor would be to highlight a couple key points. First, it is worth noting that the belief that we are saved by “faith alone” in Christ’s redemptive work may be a doctrine that brings great spiritual consolation, but as other CTC contributors have argued, it is a faulty methodology that compares competing versions of the gospel based on how good they seem to us.2 Moreover, if the Protestant conception of justification by faith alone is a novel interpretation that departs from the ancient tradition (cf. “Tradition I and Sola Fide,” and the Catholic understanding is fully compatible with Scripture (cf. “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?“), then it seems we should follow the traditional understanding of justification preserved by the Church at the Council of Trent and more recently in the Catechism.
Furthermore, Catholicism does not teach that being “right with the Catholic Church by observing the sacramental stipulations” is the only way one may receive grace from Christ. It teaches that the sacraments are the “ordinary means” by which this takes place. As CCC 819 teaches, wherever Christians participate in the sacraments, or read, meditate, or preach Scripture, they may access the grace of Christ. Reformed theology likewise has a doctrine of “ordinary means,” claiming that Christ comes to Christians through the preached Word of God, but noting the possibility that Christ may use other means as He sees fit, given His sovereignty.
These issues aside, I think the claim that Catholicism presents a theological model more motivated by guilt than grace is a penetrating one that deserves attention. Although the Church does indeed teach that guilt may be a beneficial force in encouraging Christians to avoid sinful behavior, this is seen as the lowest form of obedience to God – as one who “stands before God as a slave, in servile fear” (CCC 1828). Rather, it is far better for the Christian to act as a free son out of a love for God and love for virtue, precisely because the Christian in fellowship with God is filled with thanksgiving and understanding of God’s gracious movements toward the Christian, and wants to worship Him in thought, word, and action (CCC 1822-1828). Former Catholics do Catholic teaching a disservice when they claim that disregard for Church mandated fasting or Holy Days of Obligation should engender guilt by adding to “Jesus’ suffering on the cross” (pp. 115-116). Any rule in Catholicism is oriented towards deepening our love of Christ, growth in holiness, and participation in the divine nature — the exact “personal relationship with Christ,” ex-Catholics yearn to acquire. Adherence to the law, rightly understood, should be a means of growing in the blessed life, rather than a deterrent to it. Furthermore, the Church encourages consistent return to the sacrament of reconciliation – not simply because it is a great blessing and benefit to receive consistently both absolution for sins and the grace to fight sin, but also because it enables Catholics to better form their consciences precisely so they are not racked by guilt or confusion when they fail to honor a fast or forget to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation. The longer I am Catholic, and the more I go to confession, the more I understand my sin, its gravity, and what it does to my relationship with Christ. Again, we must carefully distinguish between the misapplication or poor catechesis often found in Catholicism, and authentic Catholic practice in accord with what the Catholic Church actually teaches.
Finally, Castaldo’s charge seems to place Catholicism and its alleged guilt-inducing rules at odds with the Protestant faith and its emphasis on God’s gracious acceptance of the sinner, not based on adherence to a set of a religious obligations but solely on the basis of divine favor. Yet Castaldo and other former Catholics could hardly be implying that God accepts even the defiant sinner who has no intention of repentance, and intends to continue actively disobeying God’s commands. Certainly even the Protestant would hold that the converted sinner must desire holiness and seek to reject sinful patterns of behavior. It seems then that Castaldo and other former Catholics equate “rules” with “guilt,” in that one “feels guilty” more often in Catholicism, because there are seemingly more rules to violate, or that there are more opportunities to “incur guilt” in Catholicism because of its rules. Determining which system of doctrine to follow based on which offers the fewest rules or incurs the least guilt again returns us to fashioning a religion according to one’s own desires, rather than receiving the religion Christ has revealed through the Church He founded.
In assessing the conversion stories of those who have left Reformed theology for the Catholic Church I have witnessed a trend. Before I returned to Catholicism, I had my own assessments of these Catholic conversions – assuming they were due either to a desire for the “smells and bells” of a deep, historical liturgy, or the possibility that the convert didn’t really understand the Reformed faith. There were many theories I and others proposed to negate these Catholic conversion stories. Now that I am on the other side, I realize how such hypothesizing failed to further ecumenical dialogue, in the same way that accusing Castaldo or other former-Catholics of not understanding Catholicism, or conjecturing as to their hidden motives would be counter-productive. The reasons given by Castaldo’s study are reflective of general trends in the United States, and Castaldo appears both to have his finger on the pulse of this particular subset of evangelicals, and to possess a much more nuanced view of Catholicism than do many evangelicals. I might also add that upon reading his book, I am inclined to believe that Castaldo is a devoted Christian with a serious mind, that he is after the truth of Scripture and of Christ, and that he is desperate to know Christ more.
That said, the two most apparent problems throughout Castaldo’s analysis are (1) the disconnect between what many experience in Catholicism and what the Catholic Church formally teaches, and (2) evangelical ex-Catholics appear to place their own personal interpretations or consumerist demands over the models of religiosity established by Christ in His Church. Regarding the first, that Catholic catechesis in the United States and elsewhere has been so poor for so long is a very sad reality, and I empathize with my many former Catholic brothers and sisters who found great spiritual benefit in evangelicalism since leaving the Catholic Church. However, evangelicalism presents a new series of intellectual and theological dilemmas that are not easily addressed, including the nature of the visible Church, and what reasons may justify severing oneself from the Church. I think Castaldo would agree that choosing a church is not like choosing one’s favorite ice cream – something formed simply by preference. If there is indeed a visible Church, and that Church is the Catholic Church, and if what that Church offers is Christ and what that Church teaches is scriptural, we must beware of abandoning it for any reason, let alone the five offered by Castaldo.
Regarding the second problem, the assessment Castaldo and other Catholics have made in their decision to choose evangelicalism over the Catholic Church reveals an implicit form of ecclesial consumerism that fails to address the possibility that the Catholic Church is the institution founded by Christ, and that what former Catholics think they need may in certain respects be opposed to what Christ Himself wants for them. If Christ has established a clergy-laity distinction, then wanting a Christianity without such a distinction is wanting something contrary to what Christ has established. If Christ through His Church has given us precepts to obey, then wanting a spirituality without such precepts is wanting something contrary to what Christ has established. If Christ has established a priesthood in the New Covenant by which His grace is given to us through sacraments, then wanting a Christianity without sacraments or without any other human beings acting as channels of divine grace is wanting something contrary to what Christ has established. If Christ through His Church has provided devotions that incorporate the communion of the saints, then wanting a Christianity devoid of such devotions is contrary to the form of religion Christ has provided to us through His Church. And if Christ has established laws that induce guilt when they are disobeyed, then wanting a Christianity in which there is no guilt is wanting something other than what Christ has established.
In each case, therefore, we return to the question of whether or not the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, and whether Christ teaches and guides the faithful through His Church. I believe evangelicals truly want more of Christ, but our love and desire for Christ should lead us to follow Him and grow in Him in the way He has established. I hope even my Protestant brothers and sisters would agree that Christ knows better than we do what we need. If the Catholic Church is Christ’s Church, then we should follow Him by following His Church, and we may find, surprisingly, that what He provides us through His Church is ultimately what we truly need and want.
- See “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority,” “The Tu Quoque,” “Mathison’s Reply to Cross and Judisch: A Largely Philosophical Critique,” “Some Preliminary Reflections on Mathison’s Dialectic,” “Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture,” “Sola Scriptura vs. the Magisterium: What Did Jesus Teach?,” and “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue Between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross.” [↩]
- See the blockquoted section in comment #39 of the “Is the Catholic Church Semi-Pelagian?” thread. [↩]