People grow weary of evangelicalism all the time, and in what follows we give ear to several ex-evangelicals as they tell their stories and give their reasons. Listening is an important aspect of apologetics. It’s important not to rush into a defense of the faith without knowing first what issues are at stake—not if we want our apologetics to be personal. That is our aim in these “Exit Interviews.”
Christian Smith is a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of numerous books on faith and cultural issues. He was the first to describe the religion of emerging American adults as “therapeutic moralistic deism.” In this interview, we discuss his more recent conversion to Roman Catholicism and his book, How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps.
The title of your new book itself suggests you may be writing “Ninety-Five Theses for a Counter-Reformation.”
It’s kind of tongue in cheek. I wouldn’t call it a “counter-reformation.” But the number of steps I think it roughly takes most people was in that ballpark, so I thought that was a convenient number. Obviously it does refer to Luther’s theses.
The first half of the book focuses on what you call “normal evangelicalism.” Could you explain what you mean by this?
First of all, the argument of the book is that I don’t think any evangelical becomes Catholic by looking at some new evidence and becoming convinced. It requires an entire paradigm shift, to have some fundamental questions about the general approach of the status quo, and this is something most American vanilla evangelicals will understand. It’s a certain subculture, a certain world with certain institutions and parachurch ministries: you go to a Bible study, you read Christian books, your kids go to a Christian college, and you’re a nice person. I try to spell out what that looks and feels like as the baseline from which a lot of people are quite content, but some people realize that there are problems here and feel the need for some kind of change.
The paradigm is supported by a whole subculture then, so that you’re saying that evangelicals aren’t necessarily troubled by the challenges to that paradigm?
That’s right. It’s possible for many people to not have very many difficulties, or what I call in the book “anomalies”—things that just don’t fit or can’t be explained. And really, I think as long as people are comfortable in certain church settings or don’t think too hard about certain questions, it’s possible for them to continue on. In some sense the epitome of it for me is the Christian bookstore these days, where the theology section is paltry, and what’s in it you may not think is even theology; then there are whole other sections of kitsch and popular books on how to live your life successfully. In general, increasingly, I think that what’s demanded by Americans out of religion is moralism. They want help to live a moral life and have social control; they want help to cope and get their worst impulses under control. It’s kind of self-management, therapeutic stuff as we’ve talked about in the past. And the book publishing industry is highly responsive to that. That’s what sells, so that’s what’s out there on the Christian bookstore shelves.
I see the same problem. There are books on how Christ can help you live the spirit-filled life, but not a lot of books on who Christ is or the Holy Spirit. In step 25, you describe evangelical Bible studies that end up not focusing on the Bible at all.
I’m sure there are a lot of good Bible studies out there, and a lot of well-intentioned people, so I don’t want to go overboard. But it’s not only my opinion. There have been some recent academic studies by anthropologists who have examined evangelical Bible studies. They report that people don’t pay much attention to what the text actually says. People search around in their heads, their memories, and their feelings for something that seems to connect to the text. And then they conclude, “Oh yeah, that makes me feel like…” or “What I think is that…” or “In my opinion, what it means is…” Usually the text is serving as a pretext to affirm something they already believe, rather than as an authoritative text to challenge what they already believe. There’s no other way to put it. There’s a lot of sharing of ignorance.
You mention the passion for relevance, kitsch, bookstores that aren’t really bookstores but gift shops, scandals that undermine the integrity of the church, and subjective moralistic emphases in preaching, but aren’t all the things that frustrate you and me about evangelicalism also present in the Roman Catholic Church?
Actually, some of that isn’t present in the Catholic Church, or it’s different the way it’s present. But let’s set that aside and focus on the part that is present. In the end, those things that annoy me about evangelicalism and annoy you shouldn’t finally adjudicate the matter. I present them in the book as the first steps of realizing that something doesn’t add up here, but they’re not really the reasons somebody would become Catholic.
The real reason people would become Catholic is that they believe that after having worked through the anomalies and having a crisis of understanding, in the end the Catholic Church is the church in which the fullness of the gospel subsists, and that this is where one ought to cast one’s lot and do one’s best to help it out and move in the direction of faithfulness. In other words, I don’t think that in the end the question can be solved on empirical grounds such as, “Well, this works better.” That’s more of evangelicalism’s problem: “Find me a church that makes me happier.”
I think it has to be resolved on theological grounds on which people disagree. Then, however, you have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church has a lot of problems, and there are reasons for that; but this is the place to be, to hang my hat, and to work toward greater faithfulness. I say in the book that one of the reasons the Catholic Church has so many problems is because all the Protestants have left. It’s like a body that’s been cut in half, and then half of the body has been mutilated into tiny little pieces. Do we really expect that to be a healthy body? Catholicism needs its Protestant brothers and sisters.
I couldn’t agree with you more that the issues have got to be doctrinal and not just cultural, superficial, and pragmatic. Turning to theology then, why did you leave evangelicalism to become a Roman Catholic? What made it all unravel for you?
In retrospect, I see that it was really a thirteen-year process of development. One of the key phases or moments in it for me was realizing that the Bible alone doesn’t settle any disputes. I know there’s a difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura, which is how most American evangelicals treat the Bible, and which I fully acknowledge is somewhat distinct from a more sophisticated Reformation approach. Nevertheless, that’s how it’s worked out. The idea is that ordinary people can read the Bible, and it tells them everything. In fact, that kind of approach generates unbelievable fragmentation and disagreement that’s irresolvable. So I finally concluded that the idea of “just appeal to the Bible” doesn’t fix anything; it doesn’t persuade anyone; it doesn’t resolve anything.
The Doctrine of Justification
Over the years, I have been growing more and more convinced of the importance of catholicity, the unity of the church, which I know is understood many different ways. But the increasing fragmentation, disunity, disagreement, inability to get together, even in evangelicalism where people say, “Well, we agree on the basics, but it’s just peripheral things that we don’t, and we can cooperate.” That’s not true. People fundamentally disagree on all sorts of core things, but the scandal of disunity and the scandal of conflict and fragmentation became huge for me.
In 1999, I learned that the Catholic Church and most of the world’s Lutherans settled their disagreements about justification with a document not many people know about. Basically, they removed their anathemas from each other and said they essentially agree in substance on justification by faith, and I would say that essentially the Catholic Church moved toward the Lutheran position. In any case, you have the formal principle and the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith—and I think the Catholic Church’s teaching on that is now orthodox.
Do you think the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” has really solved the issue of justification?
The Catholic Church says on record that salvation of any human being is absolutely and completely the result of Christ’s meriting salvation and justifying people and saving them from their sins. It has nothing to do in its source with human good works. Any good works are nothing but a working out of Christ’s good works that works through them.
A lot of us grew up with poor caricatures of Roman Catholic teaching, and we didn’t realize there is a doctrine of grace, even a doctrine of justification in Roman theology. It’s just different from the doctrine the Reformers believed was taught in Scripture. I have serious doubts about whether the Catholic catechism and the contemporary teaching of the Roman Catholic Church actually do agree with the Reformation understanding of salvation by grace, not just in its source but in the middle and at the end. It seems as if that’s one of the big rubs between our communions. Of course, we know that Rome teaches that initial grace, the first justification that occurs in baptism, is all of grace, but then after that it’s an increase of justification by cooperating with grace, and finally God’s grace and our merits together winning that final justification. All along grace is present, but it’s not grace alone.
I don’t think that this characterizes the teaching as I understand it. For example, in the Catholic Church we use the word “merit,” and it means human merit, but that human merit is completely participating in or enjoying the fruits that Christ won in his obedience. Essentially, what I argue in the book is that even when we get past the absolutely false or only half-true understandings that many Protestants have of Catholicism, there are tricky issues around how language gets used, nuances of meaning. The Catholic tradition is not exactly how John Calvin would put things, but I really don’t find it at all unorthodox. Clearly, to me, the only two potentially reasonable possibilities for sustaining orthodox Christian faith into the future in the West are Catholicism or historic confessional Protestantism. Once Protestantism starts to move away from the confessional approach and a self-conscious embracing of history, then I think it’s all over in the long run.
In my view, the Joint Declaration is far from getting the Roman Catholic partner in the dialogue to move in a Reformation direction, and actually represents more of a capitulation on the Lutheran side, as evidenced when it says that “the justification of sinners is forgiveness and being made righteous.” That’s all the medieval church ever said. The Reformation would never have happened if being made righteous was something that the Reformers thought justification was. That was the whole point of the debate.
Even if the Joint Declaration “solved” the differences between the Vatican and the World Lutheran Federation, what about the Vatican newspaper citing the Council of Trent, the official statement, reminding Roman Catholics that they must hold as dogma that “eternal life is at one and the same time grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits,” and adding that the Joint Declaration does not represent a consensus on justification from the Vatican’s point of view.
Obviously, the Catholic Church is a complicated institution, and there are different points of view. There were some people in the church who were not happy with the Joint Declaration. I guess I would say that the Joint Declaration has authority over an article in the newspaper. I would argue that it’s necessary to make a distinction between the truth that words express and the fallible words we have to express those truths. I think if we had the time to really sit down and parse out all of these statements, if we would ask Catholics to spell out what they mean, we would realize there’s a central agreement on the crucial core doctrines.
I agree wholeheartedly that you have to account for the fact that the truths we’re trying to state are full of mystery and wonder, and they can only approximate the truth. But it does seem that the sixteenth-century opponents in the Reformation debate realized what the other party was saying and disagreed, and the Roman Catholic Church today continues to say they still hold to the Council of Trent. That’s not a newsflash; it’s not as if we believe that dogma can be reformed. We can state things differently, but we can’t disavow the canons of the Council of Trent. I’d love to hear your response to these canons.
Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, would say that he holds to the canons of the Council of Trent. But we don’t have to necessarily interpret those canons the way you’re interpreting them. And I wonder, at some point, don’t our words mean what we say? And didn’t the conversation partners in the Reformation at least have the merit—no pun intended—of understanding each other and not obfuscating?
I would say that there was understanding and misunderstanding. When Erasmus and Luther could not agree on the clarity of Scripture, I argue they actually had different things in mind. So in the Joint Declaration, the Catholic Church renounced all of its anathemas against Lutheranism.
My question, though, is when it comes to something like the Joint Declaration, it actually does not say, “We renounce our excommunication of those who hold the views that Lutherans held in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” but that “we no longer regard our conversation partner to be the group excommunicated by the anathemas of the Council of Trent.” This is because the Lutheran World Federation moved and accepted the definition of justification that Rome has always had, namely, that it involves not just imputation but actual renovation. We should mention that the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, and a whole host of confessional Lutheran bodies did not sign on to this. In the case of the Lutheran World Federation, however, if the Lutherans give up Lutheranism and the mainline more liberal branches of Lutheranism are no longer Lutheran, of course the Vatican can say we no longer condemn you, because you no longer hold contemptible views. It says that our conversation partner no longer is that person we condemned in the sixteenth century.
To understand what words mean, one has to put them into the larger context and understand the development, the larger language that’s being used, and so on. I think that the Catholic Church doesn’t come out and say, “We were wrong,” but I think that it is rethinking, in light of a new understanding, a way to express its doctrine of justification that is itself, in that sense, moving toward the Lutheran, and not just the Lutherans becoming Catholic. Let me put it to you this way: if this agreement of 1999 had been presented to Luther in 1520, do you think he would have started the Reformation?
Yes, because this is exactly what was presented to him in 1520, and this is exactly the view the Joint Declaration holds: that justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. That view was exactly the view of the Roman Catholic Church, and exactly the position that Martin Luther and John Calvin said was anathema.
So when you read multiple pages in my book quoting from various Catholic sources about justification and grace and such from the catechism and a lot of other official documents, this doesn’t all add up to a satisfactory doctrine to the point where it’s worth remaining separate?
I’ve read the whole Catholic catechism, been involved in ecumenical discussions, and I have great respect for the heritage we both share. But I have to say that I really don’t see a renunciation of the principle of our merit contributing to the merits of Christ as an issue that has been taken off the table. I think we still disagree over the sola part of sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo. I think it’s that participle that’s still the sticking point. No Reformer thought that the medieval church didn’t believe in Christ, faith, or grace. The whole Reformation was over whether it was Christ alone and his merits alone that justified sinners.
Thank you for taking the time to interview with us. One thing I do appreciate is the spirit of the conversation, and I think we can both agree and encourage others that these are issues worth talking about.