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A Baptist on conversions to Catholicism

August 31, 2006

Over at the Generous Orthodoxy ThinkTank, an evangelical Protestant blog, Baptist intellectual Coleman Fannin has a post on the recent Christian Century article that covers the recent flurry of Protestant scholars converting to Catholicism (you may remember Insight Scoop’s post on the topic). Anyhow, Fannin writes with an openness and an honesty that I have found rare these days among Protestant and Catholic thinkers alike. Consider his remarks regarding Catholicism’s appeal:

In short, I think the Catholic Church is probably the most faithful ecclesial body today, and for a number of reasons. The primary one is that it alone has been able to sustain a trans-national witness able to, at least partially, resist the all-encompassing demand for allegiance of the modern state(s) and its culture(s). Separation of church and state – a providential development – requires a robust church, something sorely lacking among Protestants of all stripes. In this situation our differences begin to look rather small.

Why then does Fannin himself choose not to convert?

So why not convert? First, my wife and I would have to convert together, and neither of us are at the point of trying to convince the other. Second, I certainly have issues with certain positions of the Church, the exclusion of female and married clergy being high on the list. I also think the magisterium still needs the free church critique of Yoder and others.

In my opinion, Fannin’s second reason is far better than the first. Certain Catholic positions with which one does not agree do indeed provide a legitimate reason for remaining outside the Catholic Church. Interestingly, however, Fannin mentions only two positions (though there are probably more), one of which is not essential to the Catholic faith (celibate clergy). His first reason, while understandable, is not a total obstacle. Consider, for example, Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Dr. Hahn converted years before his wife. As the story goes in Rome Sweet Home, his conversion created tension, misunderstanding, feelings of betrayal and even resentment. But as he so eloquently remarks, such can be the trade-off in following Christ.

Fannin also justifies his Protestant encampment from a denominational perspective:

First, the last thing evangelicals (and other Protestants) need is a “brain drain,” if you will. Second, the Catholic Church remains one part of a divided whole, that is, equally “in the ruins.” To me, to convert now would be a very Protestant thing to do; that is, as an individual I’d be picking my favorite denomination.

I personally do not think the demand for Protestantism to maintain its stock of intellectuals outweighs the demand that comes in the form of a personal call of Jesus Christ. My advice to anyone who feels drawn to Catholicism is to discern the call and discard prejudice. Yet is it not interesting that Fannin seems to be saying that, at least right now, Catholicism is his “favorite denomination.”

Fannin concludes his piece with the following statement:

I see my calling as one of teaching Baptists and other free churchers to be more catholic and to work for the unity of the church, not, as Kaspar (sic) says, by a simple return to Rome, but by mutual conversion to Christ.

But is it really possible to work for unity when you have already decided that one particular denomination, in this case Catholicism, does not suit your situation and preferences? I do not know what Fannin’s unity would look like if he insists on preserving the identity of certain denominations (i.e. free church Protestantism). Does he mean that he wants to work for unity among a select cross-section of Protestantism?

I applaud Fannin for his candor, courage and honesty. It really speaks volumes when a Protestant expresses on an evangelical blog his admiration, albeit with great caution, for the Catholic Church’s presence in the world.

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