Friday, July 12, 2019

Why are bright guys suckered by Catholicism?

There are some very smart converts to Catholicism (as well as some very smart cradle Catholics). What's the appeal? If Catholicism is gravely mistaken, why can't they see through it? In my observation, there are at least four factors–which doesn't mean every bright convert exemplifies all four motivations:

1. Catholicism has a very rich, wide-ranging intellectual and artistic heritage that's naturally appealing to the religious-minded intelligentsia.

2. Many Catholic intellectuals are Thomists. Thomism presents a much less inviting target for atheists than a Bible-centered faith. Thomism is abstract and abstruse. Most atheists know nothing or next to nothing about Thomism, so they have no line of attack. If, by contrast, you have a Bible-centered faith, that instantly gives them hundreds of openings since there's a cottage industry of stock objections to Scripture.

3. Catholicism requires converts to make fewer accommodations to unfashionable beliefs. Take the facile way Bishop Barron relegates "problem passages" in the OT to pious fiction or allegory. They can leave "embarrassing" beliefs behind while retaining "respectable" beliefs they share in common with their secular counterparts. A Bible-centered faith doesn't have the same loopholes. It must stand and fight. 

4. Finally, if you're smart enough, you can defend almost anything, and you may revel the challenge. Here I think there's an element of divine irony or divine justice. High IQ confers a completive advantage, but that's offset by the fact that it can also be a snare or a source of self-deception. The temptation to flex his ingenuity plays to his intellectual pride. Coming up with clever, erudite defenses of Roman Catholicism is an opportunity to indulge in self-flattering showmanship. I hasten to add that it's by no means confined to Catholicism. There's a special kind of folly that bright guys are prey to. Their strength is their weakness. 

Someone might object that there's a certain tension between #4 and #'s 2-3. However, I think all these motivations are observable. People can be inconsistent. Psychology isn't logicality. Moreover, as I said at the outset, a convert doesn't have to check all four boxes. 


  1. This might overlap with #1, but perhaps another reason is because Catholicism seems to offer a sense of mystery. It's not merely "me and my Bible". There's a certain intellectual intrigue to Catholicism. Like a mystery religion with initiates, rituals, and so on. One puzzle after another to solve or unlock as one plumbs its supposed depths and hidden meanings and the like. The sorts of thing Umberto Eco wrote about in Il nome della rosa or Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code may come into play as well.

    This may likewise be an attraction to Eastern Orthodoxy which is even less familiar or more exotic than Catholicism to Western eyes.

  2. Very insightful Steve. I would add, however, that there is a disingenuousness about Roman apologetics, especially in its appeal to antiquity. But this disingenuousness is rarely investigated beyond proof-texting of some church fathers.

    Everyone wants to "believe the right thing". The further along I go, however, the more I realize that the church of the 4th century in Rome (which became the Roman Catholic Church) was a huge deviation from the first century New Testament churches. "To be deep in history" really is to see all of the things that changed from the first century to the fourth century. By the fourth century, however, Rome and its empire were sort of baked in and encrusted into the middle ages of Europe, and in that way it gives the impression of having always been that way.

    1. Good points John. RC's continually make the claim that their church was founded by Christ. Its not until we look at the details that this claim is patently false.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. For me it was the first 3 reason - and the fact that Rome assures (because of its roots in antiquity) that it was the church that Christ formed. That is a very strong lure to a Christian who has not investigated the matter. Other Protestant churches may claim the same, but Rome's ancient roots gives it the prima facie edge - and a not so insignificant edge as the assurance of being in the right church is very, very alluring.

    Also, dont forget Rome's scope of operation - Rome has its presence, in almost equal measure, throughout the world - which again makes Catholics believe that this is truly the "universal" church.

  5. I'll add a reason. The existential freakout and the need for intellectual certainty. You mean I have to sift through competing claims and do the hard work of digging into the Bible for myself?

    It's almost, to those that fall for this, that the wish for certainty magically produces the truth of Rome.

    God wouldn't leave us without something to help us figure everything out therefore Rome. (Why not Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses is as good a guess as mine?)

    Same logic atheists like Darwin used. My theological premise is that God wouldn't have created a world like this or allow for pain etc, therefore Darwninism. Well, just like the microbiology trumps Darwinism so does history and Scripture, regardless of how you feel about it.

    1. The notion that a Magisterium provides an intellectual shortcut may be the most popular motivation for evangelical conversion to Rome, although I suspect that's less of a factor for supersmart converts who don't think they need to take intellectually shortcuts because they're just so gosh darn brilliant!

  6. I read a RC website which listed 10 top reasons to be RC but none of them were theological.

    It listed history, mystery, sacramental practice, leadership, and global presence as I recall. Nothing was mentioned about union with Christ.

  7. John Henry Newman said "To know history is to cease to be Protestant".

    This argument seems to be a double edged sword. We would say to know history is to know the church of Rome is like a run away train.

  8. I think converts to Catholicism from Protestantism is largely due to the authoritative claims that Catholicism makes for itself. If Protestants are honest with themselves they will ask that question, "what if it's true?". Is it worth eternity for making a wrong judgment?

    When you're a lay person dealing with these issues, sometimes it gets quite frustrating to discern what is truth and what is not. The common claim, "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant" is very compelling. Church History is quite complicated and when you read things like Ignatius or Iraneaus.. it can at first seem like it's supporting doctrines like the Real Presence or the authority of the Bishops with Apostolic Succession.

    Further readings and further digging into the context can potentially explain those interpretations away (Such as Tim Kauffman's assessment of these fathers on his blog). The problem comes when you're trying to figure out which one is actually the truth. Another big problem is there is a lack of Protestants who are truly knowledgeable on this subject. Most give false caricatures to Catholicism without really interacting with the best of Catholic Apologetics.

    The group of guys on this blog are the exception, yet little is done outside of this blog from what I have seen. The "Jack Chick" of apologetics against Catholicism is what's typically alive and well. For a lot of former Catholics this is enough for them to be done with Catholicism and never give it another thought. Yet there's still a big need for Protestants, especially Pastors to interact and study Church History, especially the Ante-Nicean period, and to deal with the hard issues that Catholic Apologists raise.

    I believe most Catholic Apologists can easily sway Protestants because from a Protestant point of view they are completely blindsided. Most Baptists, for example, think Catholicism can easily be argued away. For example, they'll say something like, "Catholics believe in works and the Bible teaches grace...therefore Catholicism is wrong." That and few other things seem to be the extent.. yet if a Catholic Apologist would explain the rationale and the Semi-Palagianism "proof-texts" and quote early Fathers it would cause a Baptist to stumble a bit.

    Again, I think if they read any Catholic Apologist book by Sungenis or Keating they wouldn't know what to do of it. So very few have truly interacted with the arguments presented (again this blog is the exception)... so I believe because of the things that Steve mentioned on here, plus the things I presented is what can cause someone to convert or revert to Catholicism.

    Fortunately for me, I continue to deal with the tough questions Catholicism raises and try to understand as deep as possible. When one doctrine is unraveled the whole thing does come crashing down. The advantage of being a Protestant.. is that if one thing is wrong it doesn't discredit the whole thing because we do not claim infallibility on all doctrines that we believe. We are ever reforming.

  9. I believe it was James White who coined the phrase "infallible fuzzies" to refer to the warm, comforting feeling that Roman Catholics experience, because they know that the hard questions have already been answered for them. Smart people recognize that they are not infallible, and smart people know that other smart people have differing viewpoints and interpretations. The RC apologists take advantage of these uncertainties, with the result being that their authority claims deceive even the very smart and well-educated.