Leading your Protestant friends into the Catholic Church can seem like a hopeless task. Your friend may seem too far away, too biased against Catholicism, or even too apathetic.
In particular, an issue that seems unimportant to you may really bother your Protestant friend. You listen to his concerns and respond with what to you is a slam-dunk answer, but he is unconvinced and keeps bringing up the subject. These situations require you to dig deeper, both into the issue and into your store of patience. Let’s look at three examples I have encountered, and how to deal with them.
A cradle-Catholic-turned-Protestant friend named Jen messaged me with difficulties she had with the Catholic Church. In particular, she was appalled at the lack of moral discipline exercised by Catholic priests and bishops. She wrote:
How does the Catholic Church ignore the New Testament’s insistence on keeping the local assembly pure from the defilement of sin? For example, Paul’s excommunication of the sinning man in 1 Corinthians [1 Cor. 5:1–13]. He does not just isolate this particular situation as unique but further explains the general principle of dealing with sinful members of the Church. Those who call themselves brothers and yet are fornicators, sexually immoral, covetous, and thieves are to be removed from the fellowship of the Church, delivered over to Satan, and excommunicated from the body of Christ.
I have seen Protestant churches do this, and it actually brings sinning people from a state of sin to repentance. And yet, as I told you, I grew up Catholic, and I don’t believe I ever saw this, nor do I think most Catholics today would even be aware that such a thing is required in the body of Christ.
Although I could see what Jen was saying, this issue had never been an important one for me. The only thing that mattered to me when I was investigating Catholicism was doctrine. How the Church exercises disciplinary authority over its members is a valuable topic to discuss, I thought, and certainly one where legitimate criticism can be made against many Catholic bishops and priests, but it is not one that I considered to be a foundational issue.
For instance, perhaps a priest should call out a local politician who publicly professes beliefs in direct contradiction to Catholic doctrine—for example, in favor of legal abortion. But if he fails to do so, that doesn’t mean that the teachings of the Catholic Church are false. It just means that a priest failed to do his duty. (Or perhaps the priest called out the politician privately, or in some other way we weren’t aware of.)
I responded to Jen that, historically, the Church has used disciplines like excommunication more liberally than has been done in recent decades. And I agree with her that discipline should have the medicinal effect of bringing the sinner to repentance and return to full communion with Christ and his Church. But I emphasized that this was not a doctrinal issue.
I then brought the question back around to authority, the central issue:
Realize too that, although some Protestant pastor or board of elders may “excommunicate” a person who goes to their church, where does their authority come from? How is it, exactly, that they can excommunicate someone? In the case of congregationalists like Baptists, that person just leaves First Baptist and goes to Second Baptist, and bam! he’s back in communion with “the church.” So the question is: what constitutes the Church, and how do I know if I am in full communion with it?
The Catholic Church answers this question by pointing out that communion with the bishop of Rome (and the bishops in communion with him) is the authoritative standard for communion with the Church. In other words, Christ appointed rightful authorities on Earth to lead his Church, and it is these men, and only these men, who have the authority to excommunicate someone. The Protestant model says that anyone who interprets the Scriptures accurately has authority, but each person decides whether another interprets them accurately, so there is really no authority beyond the individual.
In situations like this, it’s important to turn the spotlight back on Protestantism’s lack of legitimate authority. Doing so shows that, even if Catholics aren’t exercising discipline enough, at least they have the ability to properly exercise such biblical discipline. Protestant leaders may act as if they have such authority, but in fact they don’t have it, and the ridiculousness of them pretending they do is demonstrated in the fact that an “excommunicated” Protestant can just leave that church and be welcomed at the one down the street.
As always, be willing to concede valid points your friend makes. In this situation, I agree with Jen that Catholic bishops and priests should be exercising their rightful authority to discipline members of their flock, even to the point of excommunication. The failure of many bishops to discipline Catholics who flout the Church’s teachings and promote grave evils is scandalous. That said, I am not a priest or a bishop, I do not know the situations in their full context, and I believe that laity should be extremely careful in publicly criticizing clergy for not using the discipline rod more liberally.
“Catholics seem dead to me,” my Baptist friend Stephen said to me. “I go into my church, and I see life, vibrancy. But when I think about all the Catholics I know, you are one of the only ones who even acts like he believes in Jesus.”
Stephen’s perception is, sadly, all too common and all too understandable. If the Catholic Church is true, so the argument goes, why do many Catholics not seem to be living in a relationship with Christ? Why do so few know their faith or read the Bible? Why do so few demonstrate a change in their lives?
Stephen believed that vibrant Protestants enter the kingdom ahead of (or instead of) listless Catholics. And he could be right. Jesus said he would spew out from his mouth lukewarm souls (see Rev. 3:16). The sacraments are not magic. As one Catholic evangelist put it, Catholics have a billion dollars in the bank, and most use a single dollar of it, whereas Baptists have just a hundred dollars in the bank, and most of them use all of it.
As with Church discipline, the issue of lifeless Catholics was not a big impediment to my conversion. In my mind, people are fallen sinners, and so even the true Church would be full of folks just going through the motions. But it was a monumental obstacle to Stephen, and that is what matters.
I did my best to help him realize that Protestant churches, too, have nominal members and “pew-warmers” and that this doesn’t entail that Protestant teachings themselves are wrong. He agreed, but for him it was scandalous that Catholics in general live lives that look non-Christian.
I also shared with him some of the reasons for the widespread loss of faith: the Sexual Revolution, the upheaval after the Second Vatican Council, the rise of secularism in the West, the increasingly hostile postmodern society we lived in, and so on. These problems, I pointed out, have had a disastrous effect on all Christian churches and communities, including Protestant ones.
He countered that, if Catholicism were the true Church, shouldn’t it buck the prevailing trends more markedly than any other Christian group? It should, I agreed, and regarding doctrine and morals, it has done so. But even the true Church is made up of human members with all their faults.
Such issues are stumbling blocks for certain Protestants, particularly those who place a lot of stock in judging a tree by its fruits. The best thing you can do is remind them that sin and human failings will always be with us and then introduce them to Catholics who are living their faith.
You can also share with them stories of faithful and intelligent Protestants becoming Catholic. I ended this talk with Stephen by smiling and saying, “You’re right: there are lots of nominal and dead-looking Catholics. All the more reason we need you to become Catholic and help us evangelize those guys!”
Sometimes your friend won’t fixate on something you find unimportant but will be unconcerned about something you do find important. For example, some Protestants resist the Catholic Church because they think it ultimately doesn’t matter what church you belong to. To them, “it’s all good.” Catholics are Christians; Protestants are Christians. Sure, we disagree on things, but none of those things is that important. We are already unified to a sufficient degree because we all believe in Jesus, and nothing more needs to be done.
You can try to make such people care, but the nature of their indifference often makes them immune to theoretical argument. Often, the best you can do is show them in word and deed how life-altering the consequences are of being Catholic versus Protestant.
My friend Brandon had been going with his wife to a nondescript Protestant church for several years. He and I had never spoken about religion because I never got the sense from him that it was important to him. Then one day we had a political discussion, and it led to a conversation about morality, in particular about the sanctity of human life.
Brandon and his wife had a daughter. She wasn’t baptized, and he wasn’t sure if she should be. Their church placed little or no emphasis on baptism, so they just kept going along with the current, slowly floating, metaphorically speaking, with the lazy river of choose-your-own-adventure Protestantism.
The conversation we had, though, sparked another conversation. I was doing my utmost to persuade him to care about the humanity of unborn children. He was amenable to the idea in general, and over time, he came to be firmly pro-life. At that point, he began to wonder about his Protestant church as I continued to gently prod him on what he believed and why.
By God’s grace, his conscience was pricked, and he started to study his denomination. He learned its origins—an Englishman in the 1800s who was dissatisfied with the existing Protestant buffet started it—and made the decision to leave. Though we had discussed Catholicism for six months, he wasn’t ready to become Catholic. Instead, he and his wife joined an Episcopal church.
Brandon and I kept talking, and after three years of prayer and discussion, he and his wife decided to become Catholic, along with their daughter, who was baptized and received First Communion. They chose my wife and me to be their godparents. They had two more children and have been involved in multiple apostolates at their church, from music to men’s retreats to RCIA. Their gentle spirits have blossomed in the Church and been a blessing to many.
Even indifferent Protestants can be moved by grace. See if God opens up a door with friends of yours like Brandon and simply take one step at a time toward helping them discover the truth.
Most times we plant seeds. Oftentimes we water. But occasionally our Lord gives us the grace of getting to bring in the harvest.
You may find yourself in the happy position of seeing your Protestant friend soften toward the Catholic Church, become convinced of its truth, and decide to enter. Rejoice! This is a great gift, for you and for him, and one that we give God the glory and thanks for.
Bringing the ship into harbor can be tricky business, though. And even once in the harbor, the waves can hit the dock when they are disembarking and seeking to finally stand on the terra firma of Catholicism. Let’s look at these last three phases of navigating the Tiber.
Phase 1: Nearing the shore
Your friend is getting close. You’ve seen signs that he is warming up to the Church. He understands the arguments, has been praying, and is beginning to see that the Catholic Church might just be what it claims.
Be careful not to smother your friend; give him the space he needs. Be ready to answer any questions and offer friendship and spiritual support, but watch to see if he draws back, and be prepared to leave space for the Holy Spirit to close the deal.
I had a friend who reached this point, and I had to back way off, because in addition to becoming Catholic, he had to admit that I was “right” and he was “wrong.” For some, swallowing pride is not difficult, but for others, it can be one of the last obstacles. At all costs, avoid triumphalism. Your celebration is not in being right, but in being used as an instrument of our Lord to bring a soul into his Church.
Phase 2: Coming into port
He has made his decision and told you he wants to be Catholic. What do you do next? Typically, he speaks with the local parish and inquires into the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program.
Sometimes the timing works out, the fall “semester” is about to begin, and he is able to start immediately and be received into the Church at the Easter vigil the following year. But if the waiting period before the next RCIA class is going to be lengthy, encourage your friend to talk with a deacon or priest at the parish to find out if there are any options for receiving instruction.
During this time, he also has to share the news of his upcoming conversion with his friends and family. This can be the most difficult of all steps for a convert. He may have Protestant loved ones who are shocked and disturbed that he is becoming Catholic. They may send him books and videos, show up at his house, and even call him before the board of elders at his Protestant church. The pastor may visit him; his friends will email him with long messages explaining all the evils of Catholicism in hopes of convincing him to change his mind.
If this happens with your friend, encourage him to share with you any fears he has. He may want to forward you emails he has received for help in answering them. Just because he is becoming Catholic doesn’t mean he has heard every argument against Catholicism, let alone the rejoinder to them. Go fishing together on the shores of the Tiber and find the answers to challenges with which he may be presented.
Sadly, many converts from Protestantism see many of their friends and family cut off those relationships. I lost many friends, men I considered as close as brothers, and it cut me to the quick. He may lose friends, too. Encourage him not to burn bridges, and to try to see ahead to a time when tempers settle and people see that he is still the good man they know, only now Catholic.
Phase 3: The Tiber is crossed
Your friend has become Catholic. It is the ending of his journey across the Tiber, but it is the beginning of a much greater journey, one that will last him his whole life.
I wish you could tell him that it’s all downhill from here, that it will be easy and pleasant. But we know that is not the case. You still have a role to play, both as a friend and as a guide to a neophyte in the wide landscape of Catholicism.
Encourage him to dive deep: adoration, learning about the saints, daily Mass, devotions. He may even need to leave the arguments and apologetics aside for a while. I know I did. I wanted to immerse myself in the Catholic faith and discover what treasures lay beneath the surface.
Suggest that he consider getting to know fellow Catholics by getting involved: Knights of Columbus, men’s groups, the St. Vincent de Paul society, or just helping with the parish seasonal festivals. The goal is to help him get connected to the Catholic community and for him to have the opportunity to serve the Church and the world as a Catholic.
He may face disappointment or even disillusionment. We know that the Catholic Church is made up of people, and people can be selfish, rude, and inconsiderate. That can be jarring. Also, some liturgies are celebrated with appropriate reverence and beauty; others are done in a sloppy and slipshod way.
Finally, keep being a good friend to him. The bond you have forged as a Catholic who led him into full communion is unique and the effects eternal. While you may not remain close friends your entire life, you will always have this special connection.