That's a GREAT question! This article is in response to Matthew Schultz' article which asks the same question. His article (which I will interject my responses to below) can be found at: https://medium.com/@MatthewSchultz/why-stay-protestant-435b5e1006a0 (you have to join medium.com to read there, but I have his whole article here in my response).
Schultz is a Protestant who has (so far) remained one. I am a former Protestant who is now a Catholic, so let's see if I can answer his question(s) and objection(s).
Why Stay Protestant?
Over the years, I’ve had several Catholic friends and converts ask why I ultimately didn’t convert to their denomination. During my first two years of college, I spent a significant amount of time with Catholics, including at the (then?) US Opus Dei headquarters in NYC. I attended these gatherings with a good friend, who eventually decided to convert from Evangelicalism. I came close to converting, but ultimately decided against it. This has surprised some Catholics. I suspect this is because the standard narrative is that Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are crossing the Tiber in great droves.
Statistically, the narrative isn’t quite so neat: in recent years, Catholicism has lost millions of adherents, most of these converting to a kind of nonreligious spiritualism/secularism or to Protestantism, while millions more Protestants remain Protestant. For every one person who converts to Catholicism, about six leave leave the church.
Still, the notion that Catholicism is attracting large numbers of Protestant converts, with no movement in the other direction, can create the impression that there is something irresistible about Catholicism to anyone who studies it. My reasons for remaining Protestant haven’t changed a great deal, although they have become more refined, especially since seminary. I would like to share some of them here.
I, for one Catholic, am not surprised by the numbers Schultz refers to (without references, I might add). I would also point out WHY you STAY or LEAVE should not be based upon a numbers game - you STAY or LEAVE because you've found and/or are seeking the ultimate TRUTH.
Whenever I read Catholic apologists, I’m fascinated by the near-total absence of robust exegetical arguments. Most attempts to turn the discussion to Biblical passages result in either a denial that my “private interpretation” is reliable — thus shutting down an exegetical debate before it begins — or lay interpretations shared, as far as I can tell, by virtually no Biblical scholars who study these passages.
Again, Schultz leans on a numbers game - just because HE can't find very many biblical scholars who study these passages. He says "virtually no..." which implies he has found SOME. I would posit that if you find even ONE which proclaims the TRUTH - you have found enough. Don't play numbers games with the TRUTH, especially where your eternal soul, and that of others, weighs in the balance. I would venture to guess here too that Schultz may not be considering Catholic biblical scholars as scholars - but hard to tell, he doesn't give us any specific examples to deal with here. In short, that which Schultz is complaining about Catholic apologists - he's doing here! No substance, nothing we can answer to - just vague comments.
On the first measure — that I cannot interpret the Bible, so any defense of Protestantism I offer is just my own, unreliable judgment — epistemological objections to interpreting the New Testament strike me as self-defeating. God asks us to interpret him every time he communicates with us. How can we understand him if we don’t engage in interpretation? Or how does someone come to understand that their “private” interpretations are wrong unless they first interpret the speech that tells them so?
I really have no problem with this level of private interpretation - yes - ALL words, written or oral, require some level of decoding/interpretation. I have had this argument used on me by Protestant apologists stating private interpretation is necessary. The real point here is that while every word we hear or read has some level of decoding/interpretation by the brain - fundamentally we do not need to re-interpret statements like "the door is red," but there is some interpretation behind, "I am the Door" (John 10:9) since we know that Jesus is not like a door which is red with a knob and hinges, He still is the point of entry into Heaven. While Jesus doesn't have the appearance of a door, He literally IS the Door (some translate this as "gate") to Heaven - and that is the point of the context of that passage. In reality, the argument of "unless you first interpret the speech" is just a diversionary tactic to get one into a side discussion of interpretation rather than the contextual meaning of the text.
Since I don’t have a problem with issuing “private judgment,” here are some exegetical reasons I remain Protestant. Off the top of my head:
1. Broadly Protestant notions of justification are clearly taught by the Bible.
"Broadly" speaking, one can find the Arian notions taught in the Bible too.
The modern Magisterium is clearly begun in biblical teachings. Clearly bishops are mentioned in many places in the New Testament and clearly St. Peter was left to "Feed My sheep" (a command repeated three times by Jesus in John 21:15-17) and at the first Church Council at Jerusalem, which was hosted by St. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, the decisive word was given by St. Peter (Simon) in Acts 15:14ff. We also see that when St. Paul had a question, he went back to the other Apostles, and again this Council at Jerusalem is a prime example of that.2. Pauline church government is authoritarian in some respects but is a distant cousin to the modern Magisterium.
Pope Francis' views on the death penalty represent his own, personal opinions as a theologian but are not the official teaching of the Catholic Church. This is not really a very good reason to not become a Catholic.3. NT (and OT) ethics support the implementation of the death penalty in ways that are alien to (Pope) Francis’s ethical statements and implications.
There are many in Traditional Catholic movements which share this sentiment. However, the fundamental teaching in Catholicism remains unchanged, so again, not a very good reason for not becoming a Catholic.4. Contra the post-Vatican II ethos, Christ and Paul are utterly unsympathetic to salvation for those who refuse to submit directly and openly to Christ and his Gospel.
Oh? Jesus expressly states His desire that His Body (the Church) be one body, one fold under one shepherd. John 10:16, John 11:52, John 17:21-23, 1 Cor. 12:12, Rom. 12:5, 1 Cor. 10:17, Eph. 2:16, Eph. 4:4, Eph. 4:13, Col. 3:14-15, and Gal 3:28 to name many of the Bible verses which teach we are to be one. We also have the creeds of early Christendom, still professed in all Catholic Churches AND in many Protestant churches as well where the "Four Marks of the Catholic Church" are confessed - three of which do not apply to Protestantism at all! Those Four Marks are: "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Protestantism is not one, it is fractured into literally thousands of sects and denominations; it is not catholic, which relates to the one, for it is not universal; it is not apostolic for there is no direct apostolic link/succession, at least not a valid one, for any Protestant sect. You're left with "holy," and I've heard good arguments against that as well - but for the sake of this posting, let's grant "holy." So, while still professing these Four Marks, at best they can claim one of them.5. Biblical unity is defined by adherence to core doctrine. Organizational fealty is never primary in the NT’s exposition of authority and unity.
But again, no examples! I posit that the "core beliefs" of Catholicism have not changed. So, without examples not much more can be said here.6. Related: when I read the church fathers, I don’t think many of them would recognize some of the core beliefs of modern Catholicism.
I think there are creative, (probably) internally consistent ways for Catholics to overcome these exegetical concerns and remain faithful Catholics.I haven't yet really seen any "exegetical concerns!"
Maybe reading Cardinal Newman allows converts some measure of intellectual peace when comparing the first three centuries of the early church’s views on, say, ecumenicism and what is taught by the modern Magisterium. Development is a powerful notion that can erase apparent or actual contradictions. But as a Protestant, I see no reason to appeal to something like Newman’s sense of doctrinal development, and so what is claimed as development really looks, from the outside, like a set of socially and politically conditioned deviations and contradictions from the earlier deposit of faith.I have to wonder, when Schultz states he sees no reason, "as a Protestant" to appeal to something like Newman's sense of doctrinal development, is that because he, "as a Protestant" just accepts the doctrinal development of the first 1500 years of the Church prior to the uprising of Protestantism in the 16th century? Here again, no examples.
Perhaps my greatest reasons for staying Protestant are practical. The refrain of lay Catholic apologists is that Protestants must submit to the Magisterium. Yet if the primary lens of theological inquiry is authority, why is so much of the heavy lifting done by Catholic laypersons? In the time I spent considering conversion to Catholicism, every single apologetics book, essay or article recommended to me was written by a lay Catholic. Why aren’t the bishops engaged in apologetics? Aren’t they the authoritative teachers within Catholicism? If so, why would I trust the exegetical, theological, and philosophical arguments put forth by lay Catholics who have no direct oversight or approval of bishops? To trust these arguments would be to trade one set of private interpretations for another.Might I suggest: Archbishop Fulton Sheen? How about Bishop Barron? The fact of the matter is we are ALL called to answer for the hope which is within us (1 Peter 3:15) this is not something reserved to bishops, but indeed, bishops are engaged in apologetics too.
This is downstream of another problem. As a Protestant, I have two basic options when informing my study of the Bible. The first is consulting scholars who think the text is inspired and more or less inerrant. This comes with arguments or assumptions about the nature and quality of the Bible’s authorship: Matthew really did write Matthew, the disciples’s memory of Jesus’s teachings is entirely or almost entirely accurate, Jesus really did make accurate prophecies, he really did miracles as described, and so forth.
The other option is consulting scholars who doubt or actively disbelieve all of the above propositions. They approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion. They doubt Matthew wrote Matthew. They doubt Jesus said and taught everything ascribed to him. Many claim that Jesus’s teachings were issued as a fallible man: given perhaps as a (mostly) good man, but certainly not as a divinely inspired God-man.
When it comes to Catholicism, most or all of the NT Catholic scholars I’m aware of fall somewhere in the second camp. Why would I follow a denomination that approves of or passes over scholars within its own ranks that seem to deny or doubt the reliability and authority of the Bible on such a regular basis? Consider, for example, how the NAB and the USCCB hedge on Pauline authorship. If Paul didn’t author some of the letters purported to be his, that raises questions about their inspiration and, therefore, divine authority.
Again, no examples. I can assume Schultz refers to dissidents like "Fr." Matthew Fox, or the ultra liberals like Fr. Raymond Brown. Yes, I am aware of some fringe "Catholics" or some who still claim to be "Catholic" but when we look at what they teach and compare to what was always taught - we find these novel concepts to be lacking and even heretical at times. Like I said, I'm aware of a select few - but the majority of Catholic theologians I know of do NOT "fall somewhere in the second camp." How about some examples? Or, does Mr. Schultz refer to these two examples I have provided?
If the intellectual leaders of Catholicism have a fairly low view of Scripture, that directly undermines the lay Catholic apologists who appeal to the Bible as if it actually teaches what Jesus and Paul really said. Who am I to believe? The Catholic scholar who questions whether half the Pauline corpus was really written by Paul or the lay Catholic apologist who argues assuming traditional authorship? If I take Catholicism at face value, then I would have to believe the intellectual over the lay apologist. And that would mean there’s no reason to take the lay apologists seriously if their arguments appeal to suspect passages written by someone pretending to be Jesus or Paul.I say, stop making excuses based upon fringe "Catholic" arguments. If you want to focus on these sorts of arguments I can only say that you're looking for excuses and not seeking the TRUTH.
In my experience, lay Catholic converts and apologists aren’t even aware of these scholarly issues, even though they ultimately undermine their Biblical arguments for Catholicism.As I said, I am aware of these pseudo-arguments - and I we're really not that far apart on our opinions of them. I am a lay Catholic convert and an apologist, so Mr. Schultz cannot honestly continue to make that claim. (grin)
It would be easy for a seminarian to fault them for this. But I am less critical: virtually no one converts for purely intellectual reasons. As an outsider looking in, I think the great draw of Catholicism is social stability in an increasingly anti-religious culture. It’s certainly what attracted me — far more than any particular intellectual idea.Well, that certainly is A reason to be attracted - but there are so many other reasons! I mentioned earlier the "Four Marks of the Catholic Church," so there are four more excellent reasons. Another big one is Jesus' command in John 6:53 that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no life in us. Many of His disciples who had been following him could not handle that teaching, and they "turned and walked with Him no more" (John 6:66). Do you also have trouble with this teaching? Do you also refuse to follow the Truth because this statement is too difficult to accept? Jesus, without changing the statement in the least, without stating that was a figurative parable turns and challenges His Apostles, "Will you also leave?" (John 6:67) To which the leader of the Apostles responds, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). Certainly, on face value, this IS a hard teaching, but to those who have True Faith, we find that Jesus Christ provides the means. Later, on the night in which He was betrayed, He took bread and declared in no uncertain terms, "This IS My body" and similarly He took wine and also declared, "This IS My blood" (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; and also 1 Cor 11:23-26). This is why Catholics, and very few others, believe that the bread and wine actually become His body and blood when they are consecrated by Christ through one of His valid priests. While still maintaining the appearance of bread and wine, the substance is miraculously changed into His flesh and blood, just as He declares it to be. Historically speaking, there are many Eucharistic Miracles (several linked here) which testify to this Real Presence. I would be more than willing to discuss these further.
In terms of social desirability, Catholicism offers several important features that are often (but not always!) lacking in Protestant circles:
- a deep sense of historical continuity
- a sense of personal contribution to or cooperation with salvation
- a robust and prestigious intellectual tradition, especially when it comes to social and political theory
- intellectual and spiritual assurance that troubling theological issues will ultimately be resolved by God-approved authorities
- spiritual and theological comity with the world’s second largest denomination (Eastern Orthodoxy)
- a strong, aesthetically pleasing liturgy
- a faith that spans most major culture groups
- opportunities to regularly and confidentially confess personal sinFurthermore, in the American context, any form of Protestantism that takes the Bible “literally,” is basically despised. In all the important circles, there is enormous social pressure to hide one’s identity as a bigoted, backwards, intellectually inferior, uneducated, and politically conservative Evangelical Protestant.If you’re a Protestant who attends a church that lacks unity, gives almost no opportunity for confession, and is devoid of intellectual and artistic communities, yet you still believe in God and are looking for a unified force to push back against the secular world that doesn’t have “Evangelical” cultural baggage, you will find Catholicism very attractive.
I think it’s true that you can find the above features in many non-Catholic, even non-Christian, communities. These aren’t intellectual clinchers; the fact that American Catholicism enjoys them more than many Protestant churches is historically conditioned. Yet social appeal isn’t undermined by intellectual persuasion. The best arguments can do is prepare someone to persevere in their current religious circumstances or give them permission to leave for something else. Movement from one to the other is an act of the will.To all this I must respond with the fact that one should NOT follow a given religious movement based upon social acceptance. If this were a good reason, NO ONE would have come to the Church in the first 300 years of her existence - or very few anyway - because Christianity was socially unacceptable and even mandated against during this period. We are even seeing a growth in this religious intolerance in modern times, not to the extreme of the Romans... yet, but it is there and growing. Again, one should not follow any given religion based solely on cultural acceptance - but one should continue to seek the Truth, the Ultimate Truth, the Whole Truth and not be satisfied with a mere portion of the Truth. I freely and openly admit that there IS truth among Protestant religions. It was through my Lutheran upbringing that I fell in love with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ - but there was something missing, there was not the fullness of the Truth in Lutheranism. When I realized this, I could not remain in a group which just came close - I had to move to where the Fullness of Truth is taught and believed.
I say all this because, as far as the social reasons to convert, I am fairly happy in the Presbyterian Church in America. I have found many of the above features in this community. That insulates me from their expressions in other religious (and non-religious) organizations.
For both intellectual and social reasons, I am comfortable remaining Protestant. The obstacles to conversion are just too great. As I used to hear in New England: “You can’t get there from here.”Well, there is truth in that statement too! "You can't get there (to the fullness of Truth) from here (the Presbyterian Church in America)" because the PCA does not have the fullness of the Truth. Yes, they have truth - in part - but not the fullness of Truth. I did not move to the Catholic Church because it was comfortable, in fact, I am the only one in my family (so far!) who has made this move (though I did have an aunt who converted for a time, but slipped back into Protestantism - and on her deathbed there was a desire expressed for her to see a priest, but her Protestant husband refused to allow that). The point is, this was not a comfortable decision for me to make. I agree with Mr. Schultz too, this decision is an act of the will and I urge him not to "settle" with what he's that found allows him to be "fairly happy," but to continue to challenge himself and seek the Fullness of the Faith, the Fullness of Truth - which can only be found in the Church which Jesus Christ Himself founded and built nearly 2000 years ago. It will not be an easy decision to make, to come out of the PCA to go to Catholicism, as I'm sure he has many friends and family there who will shun him if and when he does - but such temporal comforts are wholly outweighed by eternal grace.
I must say, I do appreciate Schutlz' candidness and even openness, and I hope this leads to a deeper discussion.
May God continue to guide you to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.