Why Stay Protestant?

(With the coming theological winter, it seems almost absurd to write about the differences between crumbling denominations. Aggressive secularism is hollowing out Western Christianity. While most of my writing on religion has tried to avoid internecine conflict, the differences between Protestants and Catholics arise from time to time and so I thought I’d organize some broad thoughts in a single place.)

Over the years, I’ve had several Catholic friends and converts ask why I ultimately didn’t convert to their denomination. During my first two years of college, I spent a significant amount of time with Catholics, including at the (then?) US Opus Dei headquarters in NYC. I attended these gatherings with a good friend, who eventually decided to convert from Evangelicalism. I came close to converting, but ultimately decided against it. This has surprised some Catholics. I suspect this is because the standard narrative is that Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are crossing the Tiber in great droves.

Statistically, the narrative isn’t quite so neat: in recent years, Catholicism has lost millions of adherents, most of these converting to a kind of nonreligious spiritualism/secularism or to Protestantism, while millions more Protestants remain Protestant. For every one person who converts to Catholicism, about six leave leave the church.

Still, the notion that Catholicism is attracting large numbers of Protestant converts, with no movement in the other direction, can create the impression that there is something irresistible about Catholicism to anyone who studies it. My reasons for remaining Protestant haven’t changed a great deal, although they have become more refined, especially since seminary. I would like to share some of them here.

Whenever I read Catholic apologists, I’m fascinated by the near-total absence of robust exegetical arguments. Most attempts to turn the discussion to Biblical passages result in either a denial that my “private interpretation” is reliable — thus shutting down an exegetical debate before it begins — or lay interpretations shared, as far as I can tell, by virtually no Biblical scholars who study these passages.

On the first measure — that I cannot interpret the Bible, so any defense of Protestantism I offer is just my own, unreliable judgment — epistemological objections to interpreting the New Testament strike me as self-defeating. God asks us to interpret him every time he communicates with us. How can we understand him if we don’t engage in interpretation? Or how does someone come to understand that their “private” interpretations are wrong unless they first interpret the speech that tells them so?

Since I don’t have a problem with issuing “private judgment,” here are some exegetical reasons I remain Protestant. Off the top of my head:

  1. Broadly Protestant notions of justification are clearly taught by the Bible.
  2. Pauline church government is authoritarian in some respects but is a distant cousin to the modern Magisterium.
  3. NT (and OT) ethics support the implementation of the death penalty in ways that are alien to Francis’s ethical statements and implications.
  4. Contra the post-Vatican II ethos, Christ and Paul are utterly unsympathetic to salvation for those who refuse to submit directly and openly to Christ and his Gospel.
  5. Biblical unity is defined by adherence to core doctrine. Organizational fealty is never primary in the NT’s exposition of authority and unity.
  6. Related: when I read the church fathers, I don’t think many of them would recognize some of the core beliefs of modern Catholicism.

I think there are creative, (probably) internally consistent ways for Catholics to overcome these exegetical concerns and remain faithful Catholics. Maybe reading Cardinal Newman allows converts some measure of intellectual peace when comparing the first three centuries of the early church’s views on, say, ecumenicism and what is taught by the modern Magisterium. Development is a powerful notion that can erase apparent or actual contradictions. But as a Protestant, I see no reason to appeal to something like Newman’s sense of doctrinal development, and so what is claimed as development really looks, from the outside, like a set of socially and politically conditioned deviations and contradictions from the earlier deposit of faith.

Perhaps my greatest reasons for staying Protestant are practical. The refrain of lay Catholic apologists is that Protestants must submit to the Magisterium. Yet if the primary lens of theological inquiry is authority, why is so much of the heavy lifting done by Catholic laypersons? In the time I spent considering conversion to Catholicism, every single apologetics book, essay or article recommended to me was written by a lay Catholic. Why aren’t the bishops engaged in apologetics? Aren’t they the authoritative teachers within Catholicism? If so, why would I trust the exegetical, theological, and philosophical arguments put forth by lay Catholics who have no direct oversight or approval of bishops? To trust these arguments would be to trade one set of private interpretations for another.

This is downstream of another problem. As a Protestant, I have two basic options when informing my study of the Bible. The first is consulting scholars who think the text is inspired and more or less inerrant. This comes with arguments or assumptions about the nature and quality of the Bible’s authorship: Matthew really did write Matthew, the disciples’s memory of Jesus’s teachings is entirely or almost entirely accurate, Jesus really did make accurate prophecies, he really did miracles as described, and so forth.

The other option is consulting scholars who doubt or actively disbelieve all of the above propositions. They approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion. They doubt Matthew wrote Matthew. They doubt Jesus said and taught everything ascribed to him. Many claim that Jesus’s teachings were issued as a fallible man: given perhaps as a (mostly) good man, but certainly not as a divinely inspired God-man.

When it comes to Catholicism, most or all of the NT Catholic scholars I’m aware of fall somewhere in the second camp. Why would I follow a denomination that approves of or passes over scholars within its own ranks that seem to deny or doubt the reliability and authority of the Bible on such a regular basis? Consider, for example, how the NAB and the USCCB hedge on Pauline authorship. If Paul didn’t author some of the letters purported to be his, that raises questions about their inspiration and, therefore, divine authority.

If the intellectual leaders of Catholicism have a fairly low view of Scripture, that directly undermines the lay Catholic apologists who appeal to the Bible as if it actually teaches what Jesus and Paul really said. Who am I to believe? The Catholic scholar who questions whether half the Pauline corpus was really written by Paul or the lay Catholic apologist who argues assuming traditional authorship? If I take Catholicism at face value, then I would have to believe the intellectual over the lay apologist. And that would mean there’s no reason to take the lay apologists seriously if their arguments appeal to suspect passages written by someone pretending to be Jesus or Paul.

In my experience, lay Catholic converts and apologists aren’t even aware of these scholarly issues, even though they ultimately undermine their Biblical arguments for Catholicism.

It would be easy for a seminarian to fault them for this. But I am less critical: virtually no one converts for purely intellectual reasons. As an outsider looking in, I think the great draw of Catholicism is social stability in an increasingly anti-religious culture. It’s certainly what attracted me — far more than any particular intellectual idea.

In terms of social desirability, Catholicism offers several important features that are often (but not always!) lacking in Protestant circles:

  1. a deep sense of historical continuity
  2. a sense of personal contribution to or cooperation with salvation
  3. a robust and prestigious intellectual tradition, especially when it comes to social and political theory
  4. intellectual and spiritual assurance that troubling theological issues will ultimately be resolved by God-approved authorities
  5. spiritual and theological comity with the world’s second largest denomination (Eastern Orthodoxy)
  6. a strong, aesthetically pleasing liturgy
  7. a faith that spans most major culture groups
  8. opportunities to regularly and confidentially confess personal sin

Furthermore, in the American context, any form of Protestantism that takes the Bible “literally,” is basically despised. In all the important circles, there is enormous social pressure to hide one’s identity as a bigoted, backwards, intellectually inferior, uneducated, and politically conservative Evangelical Protestant.

If you’re a Protestant who attends a church that lacks unity, gives almost no opportunity for confession, and is devoid of intellectual and artistic communities, yet you still believe in God and are looking for a unified force to push back against the secular world that doesn’t have “Evangelical” cultural baggage, you will find Catholicism very attractive.

I think it’s true that you can find the above features in many non-Catholic, even non-Christian, communities. These aren’t intellectual clinchers; the fact that American Catholicism enjoys them more than many Protestant churches is historically conditioned. Yet social appeal isn’t undermined by intellectual persuasion. The best arguments can do is prepare someone to persevere in their current religious circumstances or give them permission to leave for something else. Movement from one to the other is an act of the will.

I say all this because, as far as the social reasons to convert, I am fairly happy in the Presbyterian Church in America. I have found many of the above features in this community. That insulates me from their expressions in other religious (and non-religious) organizations.

For both intellectual and social reasons, I am comfortable remaining Protestant. The obstacles to conversion are just too great. As I used to hear in New England: “You can’t get there from here.”