What Happens When an Evangelical Protestant Falls in Love With the Catholic Church?

Faithful show a banner reading "We have loved you so much. Thanks!" prior to start of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's squar
Faithful show a banner reading "We have loved you so much. Thanks!" prior to start of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI is blessing the faithful from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square for the first time since announcing his resignation, cheered by an emotional crowd of tens of thousands of well-wishers from around the world. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

It's time I come clean. I'm an evangelical with a secret. A covert "real me" peaks from the shadows and longs to leap into the sunlight. World events compel me to throw caution to the wind and blare my confession: I'm a wanna-be Catholic.

There. I feel better.

Many are issuing calls for reforms as the cardinals convene. I have my own wish list rooted in the usual historic Protestant complaints, but the announcement compels me to dwell on what I admire. There is much to appreciate.

First, the Roman curia's politics are delightfully confusing. Many go slack-jawed in their efforts to cram the mitered eminences into modern partisan categories. They don't fit. Witness Pope John Paul II: He swung left in decrying America's decadence, right on abortion, left when the U.S. invaded Iraq, right in his opposition to liberation theology, left on climate change and left on the death penalty. The political "experts" perched before the cameras and "analyzed" his "inner motives." Was the pontiff moody? Mercurial? Intellectually unbalanced? What's his game and to which constituency was he appealing and how would this play in Peoria?

Believe it or not, most Catholic leaders are not mugging for the cameras. They're doing their level best to preserve a 2,000-year tradition that defies modern pigeonholes. Only a fraction of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live in America, so they'd be mining data from the global south if they were market-driven leaders; but, more to the point, they know their Church survived persecution, the Arian heresy, Docetism, Donatism, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Black Death, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, Fascism and Communism. They lionize sacrificial martyrs, not question-dodging candidates. Right-wing death squads murdered Latin American priests, nuns and bishops; left-wing Eastern European despots threw them into prisons -- and they remember who got the last laugh at Stalin's question: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

For all their huge flaws (covering up priestly pedophilia will rank high on their scandal list), most cardinals and bishops view their Deity as their commanding constituency. Their Church has outlasted civilizations and empires -- and the mighty USA is a smart-aleck toddler smoking a cigar. Don't take it personally, Peoria. We love you and we pray for you, but your finite wishes pale when compared with an infinite Being's.

Let the analysts stretch their horizons: Catholic political thought, developed over the eons -- long before Adam Smith was a dream in his mother's eye -- centers on the sanctity of life. Both American political parties subscribe to self-interested Deistic Capitalism: Human beings are economic units, expendable cogs, vehicles by which impersonal corporate entities accumulate profits. The Church doesn't walk in step with either party because it is following the beat of a different, more ancient drummer.

My second reason involves that vast tradition. Listen to informed Catholics and you'll hear references to luminaries like Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Clare, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avilla, John of the Cross and many others. The Catholic Church, like Eastern Orthodoxy, embraces the full body of Christian thought. The Bible is paramount, of course -- especially in the wake of Vatican II -- but the Church sees how our forebears interpreted and applied those Scriptures through the millennia. It's all there, ready and available, offered within the broad but firm parameters of our ancient creeds. Plow through that teaching. Use it. We need not reinvent the wheel every generation, nor should we break out in hives when C.S. Lewis speculates that the story of Adam and Eve was an ancient myth portraying a genuine truth. Lewis, another wanna-be Catholic, was deliberating within creedal parameters.

Third, there's the contemplative tradition, which brings us into intimacy with God. Ultimately, Christianity is not a "belief system" or a mere set of morals. They're there, but they flow from a divine-human encounter. I've learned much from Pentecostal and charismatic Protestants, but I find Catholic charismatics more thoughtful precisely because they've been nurtured in contemplative teaching. They relish quietness and meditation -- and they maintain their relations with non-charismatics when they belong to the same parish. There's less church shopping.

But my fourth reason is more subtle and yet most important. I once was praying in a Catholic sanctuary (I took the open door as an invitation); I walked its perimeter, a little jaundiced as I viewed the statues and votive candles. Then it struck me: I was in "The Church" -- the Mother Church, the church from which the others were birthed. The Protestant Reformation was necessary; dear old Mom essentially admitted that in Vatican II, but she stayed within those parameters while her children wandered far in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Some European theologians sliced off huge portions of the New Testament and remolded Jesus into a professor teaching a class on the Rhine. I prayed for her then and there. I haven't stopped. I can't shake the feeling that evangelicals such as I must join hands with Catholics if we are to be avenues of genuine spiritual renewal.

There is still enough "protest" in me to remain a Protestant. I'd chafe under Catholicism's top-heavy, exclusively male celibate hierarchy. Some of Martin Luther's original objections remain, and I wonder if the hierarchy grasps the depths of the pedophilia scandal. I am, indeed, an ecumenical evangelical. I may as well dwell in my camp, knowing that its closets hold their own skeletons. We have much to learn from our mother even as she prepares herself for a new pope. I wish her well.