Skirting the Tiber: When Catholics Convert to Evangelicalism


So we hear a lot about disaffected mainline Protestants and wandering evangelicals swimming the Tiber or crossing the Bosphorus or (rarely, at least in terms of headlines) paddling the Elbe. And we’re also familiar with ex-Catholics, recovering Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and whatever Garry Wills is.

But here’s a story about Catholics leaving the church to become—evangelicals!

The data shows that disagreement over specific doctrines is not the main reason Catholics become Protestants. We also have lots of survey data showing that many Catholics who stay disagree with specific church teachings. Despite what theologians and bishops think, doctrine is not that important either to those who become Protestant or to those who stay Catholic.

People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.

Nor are the people becoming Protestants lazy or lax Christians. In fact, they attend worship services at a higher rate than those who remain Catholic. While 42 percent of Catholics who stay attend services weekly, 63 percent of Catholics who become Protestants go to church every week. That is a 21 percentage-point difference.

What role have the sex-abuse scandals played?

Some of the common explanations of why people leave do not pan out in the data. For example, only 21 percent of those becoming Protestant mention the sex abuse scandal as a reason for leaving. Only 3 percent say they left because they became separated or divorced.

In the words of that great theologian Mr. Spock: “Fascinating.”

If you believed liberals, most Catholics who leave the church would be joining mainline churches, like the Episcopal church. In fact, almost two-thirds of former Catholics who join a Protestant church join an evangelical church. Catholics who become evangelicals and Catholics who join mainline churches are two very distinct groups. We need to take a closer look at why each leaves the church.

You do that. Wake me when it’s over.

I do wonder how stable these conversions will prove, if “worship style” is really what they’re about. If what is meant is a more “personal” relationship to God in Christ, you know, there may be a deeper spiritual and even theological motivation at work. They may be hungry for serious, sustained, expositional preaching. They may even be longing for some Law/Gospel dust-up, even if they’re not immediately conscious of it.

But if it’s the praise bands and the youth groups that’s attracting them, I give these new marriages about as long as most Hollywood match-ups.

Will the fresh pope stem the tide of this Exodus to the promised land? Or will his chumminess with evangelicals work against him, making the grass seem greener on the other side of the confessional divide?

When will we see a Protestant counterpart to The Journey Home? Maybe call it Moving Out:


5 thoughts on “Skirting the Tiber: When Catholics Convert to Evangelicalism

  1. Catholics who leave Rome to join evangelical churches haven’t gone too far.

    Both pretty much have the same theology. ‘A lot of God and a little bit of me.’ Only usually it turns out to be the other way around.

    The only thing missing in evangelicalism is the candles and vestments. Same tired, old, self-ascendancy projects.


  2. That is an interesting article. If I am remembering right the author (Reese) is an editor removed by Ben XVI, so he has an axe. He’d like a whole lot more Tiber to Canterbury to support the typical doctrinal changes. But he seems to be honest admitting that doctrine is only marginally involved here. His prescriptions are fascinating: 1) better biblical based preaching, 2) a laity who care about and know their bible with one of the strongest statements I’ve seen (“If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian.”) and 3) priority given to under 24.

    The first two to me are 1-3 commandment issues, or church of Laodicea territory. (The Lutheran church often falls here I’m convinced.) The third has a couple of interpretations. One is the “praise bands and youth groups” pandering. But there is a deeper biblical angle, the more mature serve the less mature. If the service is pandering it isn’t real service. It is just a desperate “like us” begging. But there is a sincere service that evangelicals are often engaged in. They do a good job of producing teachers not in need of spiritual milk (Heb 5:12).

    There is also a deep question in regards to emotion and reason. Evangelicals are a straight up emotion first group. So much so that getting around to reason might never happen. Catholics (and Lutherans) are a reason first extreme. In one place where modern psychology seems to affirm Christian Anthropology, reason is the slave of the passions. A group that acknowledges that first might have some truth in it. More than I’d like to admit.


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  4. This is just my anecdotal observation from a geographical area that was formerly more heavily Catholic and Lutheran than it used to be. But, I think that a lot of conversions from one branch of Christianity to another have a lot to do with a weak, probably cultural, commitment to the original religion. Growing up in Wisconsin, I knew a lot of young people who were Catholic or Lutheran, because, well, their families ALWAYS had been that way, and no one had ever given much thought to any alternative. Frankly, this was true of a lot of things people had done for generations before the 1960s. But during the 1960s, questioning why we do anything and everything became fashionable. People who had given little thought to their religion had difficulty articulating any reason to follow it, and in an era in which doing “your own thing” became the standard of conduct, inability to articulate a reason for doing or believing something became a firm foundation for not doing or believing it.

    So, a lot of people stopped going to church. But into this spiritual void entered, among other things, evangelicals. And some who had fallen away from the religion of their ancestors were converted to this new (to them) version of Christianity. People started sentences with, “I used to be a Lutheran (or Catholic), but now that I have become a Christian, I…”

    And converts are always, on average, more zealous than non-converts to any religion. So, if I had to give a succinct reason why some former Catholics have been converted to evangelicalism, I guess I would say that “evangelical” denominations, with their emphasis on decision making, were better prepared for the cultural revolution of the 1960s, as well as for the highly individualistic fallout thereof that remains with us today.


    1. Culture is definitely A factor, but evangelicalism is VERY good at the great do-over, the second chance, the makeover. Sometimes this overlaps with the Gospel. Sometimes this is mistaken for the Gospel. But crisis is key. And yes, the 1960s were the crisis years.


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