“Converting” to Catholicism (Is Impossible for Christians)

There has been some coverage in English-speaking Christian circles about Ulf Ekman. The pastor of a Swedish megachurch and a leading figure among the quarter-million Swedes (2-3% of the population) who are members of “free churches”, Ekman announced his decision to join the Catholic Church last week.

It is a radical decision for an eminent figure in a Protestant church to become Catholic. Ekman is giving up a position of church leadership, the only profession he has ever known, and perhaps even a livelihood. Considerations of prestige and profession surely hold a lot of Protestants back from joining the global church run by celibate men.

But let’s get this straight. No Christian has ever converted to Catholicism. They may say they have. They may think they have. But they would be wrong.

However radical a decision Ekman’s is, it irks me nonetheless to read, “Ekman converted to Catholicism”. Sure, it’s not like he’s an American who stopped going to a Baptist church and started going to a Presbyterian one. But it’s not like he converted from Christianity to Islam, either. Conversion means metanoia, turning away from one’s old life — “to repent” as Christ commands. What exactly has Ekman turned away from?

Ulf Ekman’s conversion to Christianity happened long ago, in the 1970s. At some point in the past several years, he may have had a few (relatively minor) intellectual insights that changed his understanding of that conversion. Perhaps he came to think that being a Christian meant being part of a historical reality — the Church — that Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 quite literally meant must be unified. Perhaps he came to think — now that nobody’s getting burned at the stake — this command in Scripture bound him to a Church governed by the unworthy, imperfect, and even theologically misguided.

“Ekman converted to Catholicism” is the common usage. Protestant scholars sympathetic with Catholic teachings and tradition may feel compelled — like Dale Coulter’s exposition of the Wesleyan perspective in First Things — to offer the reasons they are not Catholic. The Wesleyan perspective involves a certain theological reasoning. Protestantism is native to print culture and was in many ways a product of the universities, but usually (and never with the corrective help of Kierkegaard) does not confuse intellectual agreement with conversion. That is typically a Catholic theological error (but never with the corrective help of Newman).

Ekman will join the Church, but he won’t convert to Catholicism.

Christians may become Catholic by an intellectual insight. This insight apprehends that all Christians are Catholic, although many are in imperfect communion with the Church. (There are only Protestants in the nominalist sense.) Self-identifying Catholics are forced to play a rigged language game where “Catholic” paradoxically denotes a particular denomination. This may seem like a mere technicality, but it makes it very difficult for those within and without the Church to understand the full meaning of what the “Church” signifies (or should) for Catholics.

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2 responses to ““Converting” to Catholicism (Is Impossible for Christians)

  1. That’s a great point. My fiance plans on “converting” to Catholicism after being raised Baptist, but I think we both feel that he’s not really converting to anything. He’s just had some changes in theological understanding, and now he’s where he should be. Even I, who have a hard time believing in much of anything, feel like the Catholic Church is the best place to be. I think the explanation of the church as not simply a denomination is the best way to describe it. Great post!

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