Theologians Who Became Roman Catholic: A Review


Jonathan Fuqua is assistant professor of philosophy at Conception Seminary College. Daniel Strudwick is professor of theology and the dean of the President’s Honors College at Quincy University. Their volume titled By Strange Ways: Theologians and Their Paths to the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022) brings together the testimonies of ten theologians, two women and eight men, by which they explain why and how they became Roman Catholic. It can be thought of as something of a sequel to the volume Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), edited by Fuqua and Brian Besong of Saint Francis University. Although books retelling the conversion stories of Roman Catholics of varied religious backgrounds have been available for many years, Strudwick notes in his introductory chapter that this is the first book which focuses specifically on the conversion experiences of theologians (p. 18). The contributors to this volume in order are: Barney (Barnabas) Aspray; Melanie Susan Barrett; Lawrence Feingold; Scott Hahn; Paige E. Davidson Hochschild; Joshua H. Lim; Jeffrey L. Morrow; Rev. Andrew J. Summerson, S.Th.D.; Matthew Thomas; and Petroc Willey.

Each conversion story is unique while also resembling the others in various respects. Strudwick himself notes two commonalities which all the testimonies seem to share. The first is that of the notion of “journey” (pp. 18–19). This is perhaps not surprising insofar as conversions are typically processes requiring the passage of a long period of time fraught with intellectual and personal battles, internal struggles, conflicts with others, and the like. The second is “that the contributors assembled here make clear that their entrance into the Catholic Church was a broadening and deepening of elements of truth that they had received earlier” (p. 19).

Aspray, Hahn, Hochschild, Lim, and Thomas specifically tell the story of how they had determined to convert to Roman Catholicism as a result of perceived inadequacies in the various forms of Protestant religion which they had known earlier. This kind of narrative is very subtle if present at all in Willey’s testimony, which sooner seems a reflection on the importance of a realist conception of reality and the experience of deep beauty for the possibility of conversion. Hahn and Hochschild especially point to their convinced experience of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, either during the Mass or Eucharistic Adoration, as inspiring in them the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church.  Barrett, Feingold, and Morrow explain in various ways how they became Roman Catholic despite having grown up in relatively non-religious Jewish households. Morrow and Summerson especially emphasize the power which concrete acts of kindness and care shown by Catholics had in their own coming to be Catholic.

There is a further dimension discernible in very many of the testimonies collected in this volume. Aspray, Barrett, Hochschild, Lim, and Thomas especially complain about the lack of resources within Protestant theology for dealing with the problem of doctrinal dispute and disagreement. The solution to this for them was the respect for ecclesial tradition and notion of an infallible magisterium which Roman Catholicism offers. The situation of the theologian in Protestantism is characterized as subjectivistic or relativistic. Each person is in the unfortunate position of having to be the measure or standard of truth for him- or herself. Roman Catholicism offers objectivity in place of subjectivism and a release from the burden of having to invent one’s system of doctrine on one’s own.

In some cases, the factors motivating conversion might be thought to be undermined by their historical naïveté or even ignorance. Aspray writes of his shock to find that “the early Christians were episcopalian, i.e. that they believed that the first apostles had appointed successors to govern the Church after they died. These successors were called bishops, and—this was the crucial issue—these bishops were the final authority to settle matters of dispute. When a controversy threatened to divide the Church, the bishops would gather together and debate until they came to an agreement, which they believed was guided by the Holy Spirit” (p. 37).

The historical evidence does not support Aspray’s assertion. In 1 Clement one finds the idea that the apostles appointed persons to be overseers in the churches they had founded and insisted that the office of overseer remain permanently. In Didache one also finds the instruction that individual congregations appoint for themselves overseers and deacons. But there is no notion in either of these texts that the bishops as “successors to the apostles” were left in place over the church as a whole rather than over their individual congregations. There is not obviously any text in the New Testament or early post-apostolic sources which justifies the opinion that some person other than Christ himself is over the church as a whole (cf. Matt. 23:8–10). Neither does one find any such notion in later sources, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Irenaeus mentions only that the apostles left behind their place of government to the bishops who passed down simply what they learned from the apostles themselves. But Irenaeus grants that the apostles chose their successors carefully, looking for persons who were trustworthy and proven, since they appreciated that these bishops would hardly be infallible and are themselves subject to error in principle (Against Heresies 3.3.1). Tertullian likewise mentions that no one is guaranteed to be safe from error, not even bishops, except the Son of God himself (Prescription against the Heretics 3).

What is more, it is plainly not true that the decision reached after a gathering of bishops was considered definitive simply as such. Between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) there were other councils held at Antioch (341), Sirmium (351), Sirmium again (357), Arminium (359), Seleucia (359), and Constantinople (360). The theology of these councils was not Nicene, but it was proposed by bishops who had gathered to teach theology nonetheless. Yet these councils did not receive lasting support. The ascent of Theodosius to the throne began with the persecution of non-Nicene “heretics” in Constantinople in 380. And the conclusion of the Council of Constantinople (381), the pro-Nicene theology of which was taken as given ahead of time, was then enforced by imperial decision. The question of the nature and extent of the theological authority of bishops and of councils is more complicated than Aspray lets on.

Many of the contributors seem to think that the only alternative to submission to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching authority is setting oneself up as a standard of truth. Aspray writes that “for me, it came down to a simple question: Do I trust my own understanding of the Gospel more than that of the early Church? How likely was it that they failed to grasp what Jesus wanted when they put more than one item in the ‘deposit of faith’ bag, and that I (or anyone living today) understand better than they did what belongs and does not belong in that bag?” (p. 40). Hochschild writes: “Practically speaking, I could not imagine a cruciform life in which the veracity of the Church somehow depended upon my own theological judgment” (p. 124). Lim writes that a critical moment in the process of his conversion was his joining a traditional Reformed church which allowed him to “explore the Protestant tradition” and “turn away from my own ability to understand Scripture toward a dependence on the wisdom of teachers who went before me” (p. 147). And Thomas considers that one must make a choice between “to believe and practice Christianity, as it was expressed in the Bible and lived out in the early centuries of the church” or else “a pick-and-choose Christianity, where one adopted things that appealed to him from the faith and left out the other parts” (p. 214). But it is both possible and necessary to object to this line of reasoning from a few different points of view.

None of the authors who contribute to this volume consider the possibility of a third option between religious subjectivism and Roman Catholicism, namely a kind of fallibilism or critical realism about religion. According to this third perspective, the truth of one’s religious convictions is not a matter of subjective preference, nor of official ecclesial approval, but rather a matter of their correspondence to their objects. What makes an opinion about X to be true or false is X itself. But our ability to know X is in various ways affected by a number of factors that belong to us simply as finite creatures. We can only ever know things as far as our various powers for knowledge allow, whether it be our perceptual faculties which make experience possible for us, or our hermeneutic grid by which we interpret the world, and so on. Because we cannot escape ourselves and simply see a thing as it is, it is always possible that future experiences will undermine earlier convictions about things. It is therefore out of place to claim finality or infallibility about one’s theological opinions. They must rather be justified rationally by argument. But this is not subjectivism. One is still trying to know the realities themselves. It is just that one tries to do this with an awareness and appreciation of one’s fallibility. It is certainly obvious that such a “fallibilist” or “critical realist” approach to matters of religion hardly can satisfy the Roman Catholic, for whom the articles of faith require firmer, stronger, and unwavering conviction. But the fallibilist does not need to satisfy the Roman Catholic precisely because fallibilism is being proposed here as an alternative between subjectivism and Roman Catholicism. It is a different approach to religion.

One might also question the logic which seems to be operative in these particular conversion testimonies. Either it is possible to attain to knowledge of things or not. If it is not, then one does not escape subjectivity simply by becoming Roman Catholic. One has simply come to have a different subjective appropriation of the object of one’s faith. But if it is, then it does not follow that one must choose between subjectivism and Roman Catholicism. There is no subjectivism after all, since knowledge of things is possible. To the contrary, it is now Roman Catholicism which must prove itself to possess the knowledge of reality that it purports to be offering others. What it teaches should be knowable to those to whom it preaches, just as a scientist must propose his theories for the consideration of others by appeal to the evidence, since it is possible to attain to knowledge of things. But this kind of defense of certain beliefs is not easily done without an appeal to tradition, as Thomas himself admits (p. 232–233). Yet the appeal to tradition is a notoriously weak argument in matters of rational inquiry. The fact that certain things have long been believed or done does not by itself justify them.

There is a deeper issue here which might be touched on briefly by way of conclusion. What is common to these conversion testimonies is a conception of religion as a matter of submission to an antecedently existing reality. One either submits to the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church or turns oneself against it. One either comes to accept what it proposes as true or rejects it. But this picture of things can be called into question. The reason why they are so concerned with subjectivism and the apparent anarchy of Protestantism is that there seems to be no way to ensure agreement. The facts are not themselves clear enough to demand assent on their own. But what if the essence of the Christian faith is not a matter of submitting to an antecedently existing body of doctrines? What if it is rather a matter of collaborating with God and with other believers in a common project of shaping the world? What if the facts are unclear because God is not himself concerned with those things? God tells the human being in Genesis to take dominion over the earth and to subdue it (Gen. 1:28). One might instead come to think of the Christian religion in these terms. It is about collaborating with God and Christ through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the recreation of the world. There is no grand revelation to which to submit. There is only Jesus who calls all persons to work with him toward the creation of a new world. The focus of Christian life is not submission to something outside of oneself but rather the creation of a new reality by God’s help and through his power together with others. As for the way in which that new world is to be created, here there is very little ambiguity. It is to be done in love of God and of neighbor, in humble service to others, out of concern for the poor and the needy, and so on. Perhaps the point is not to throw oneself headlong into a grand scheme of doctrine but rather to try to build something with God’s help and that of others. I talk a bit about this in my forthcoming books Theology of the Manifest and Theological Authority in the Church.

There are many more things that could be said, but this review should end with a positive remark. Many of these testimonies are very beautifully written and succeed in conveying something of the beauty of the Roman Catholic Church’s theology and vision for human life. There is no doubt that there is very much in Roman Catholicism that is to be appreciated and cherished with the heart. Its concern for human beings, for beauty, for truth, for love, and for God is a gift to the world. It is of course another matter whether the distinctive doctrines of this church are true. There I have my disagreements. But becoming Roman Catholic has done an indisputable good in the lives of many of the contributors to this volume, and that fact is to be celebrated. It certainly benefited me in various ways to read about it.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x