My conversion to Roman Catholicism and why I left

Before I talk about myself, I think it would be helpful if I present a key difference between Roman Catholicism and those who believe in scripture alone (Sola Scriptura). Here is Keith Mathieson:

“A person who believes that the Roman Catholic Magisterium has special divine authority naturally looks at evidence for the claims of Rome in a much different way than a person who does not believe that the Roman Catholic Magisterium has divine authority. If a person firmly believes that the Roman Magisterium is infallible (i.e. incapable of error) under certain conditions; in short, if that is his basic theological axiom, then by definition he cannot at the same time believe that there is any real evidence of error. This is the reason that for faithful Roman Catholics, the very possibility of there being evidence contradicting the claims of the Roman Church is non-existent. Any alleged evidence of error offered by Protestants or others must be explainable in some other way.”

“Those who do not begin with the basic theological axiom of Roman Catholicism see abundant evidence against the claims of Rome in Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the documented events of church history. This evidence prevents them from believing that the Roman Catholic Magisterium has divine authority. For those who adopt the basic theological axiom of Roman Catholicism, all of this “alleged” evidence essentially ceases to exist. From the perspective of the non-Roman Catholic, the Roman Catholic is doing something comparable to reading a red-letter Bible with red tinted glasses. If he sets aside the glasses, he can see all the words printed in red. If he puts the glasses on, all the words printed in red disappear from his sight. From the Roman Catholic perspective, it is non-Roman Catholics who are reading the evidence with a distorted lens.”

During my second year at the University of Cape Town, I was baptised into the Catholic Church at the age of 19.  Within a few months, I was the University Catholic Society’s (Kolbe House) committee member for spiritual activities. I attended Mass most days of the week. Part of my duties was to help the chaplain prepare for Mass. I often served at Mass as well.

Why was I attracted to Roman Catholicism? There are so many captivating reasons:

1.       I was studying philosophy. I was also interested in religion. What a great delight to discover that   Roman Catholicism – contrary to Protestantism did not only embrace philosophy – especially Greek philosophy – but made it the foundation of its theology. Thomas Aquinas, the great “Doctor,” in his Summa Theologica, builds much of Catholic doctrine on Aristotle. For example, he explains “transubstantiation” (where the bread changes into the actual flesh and blood of Christ in communion) in terms of Aristotle’s concepts of  “accidents” (the colour, the taste of the wafer and of the wine) and “substance” (the flesh and blood of Christ). Although, the senses can only detect the “accidents,”  the communicant is really – claims the dogma – eating the flesh and blood of the living Christ who is sitting at the right hand of the Father:

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Hebrews 1:3; see Psalm 110:1)

In my French and philosophy courses, I studied many Catholic philosophers, especially the French ones; Etienne Gilson, Jean Guitton, and Jacques Maritain come to mind. There was G K Chesterton. There was Professor Martin Versfeld, my professor of philosophy, who was a Catholic. He was a great influence. Later in my life, I realized that many Catholic philosophers were greatly influenced by Eastern Philosophy. Lately, I have become acquainted with the Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft. In his book “Ecumenical Jihad” against “moral decay”, he says that Catholicism is one among many valid religions. His ideas on tolerance and truth are very attractive to some if not many Catholics. No Papal anathemas in Kreeft.

2.  There were the great “Doctors” and “Fathers” of the Church such as St Augustine and St Anselm. As my mother always used to say – in Yiddish – about a place she admired: “The greatest doctors go there (In Yiddish, “Die greste Dokteirim geit dottern”).

3.       The great saints. Who is not impressed by St Francis, giving up his rich life for rags and the poor. And so many others who turned their back on the world to become a servant to mankind.

4.       The mystics. Catholicism was not only intellectually impressive to me, it also appealed to the “deeper” spiritual side. Not only could you theologise and philosophise about God, you could also become “one” with Him. I read the mystics. The two outstanding ones are St John of Cross and St Teresa of Avila.

The mystical kind of spirituality is very popular today among all kinds of religions and non-religions. Those who get tired of the “world” yearn for an experiential connection to God. But, this yearning downplays the place of faith and Scripture. It exalts “transcendental” experiences that propel the person out of the mundane into a higher “spiritual” plane. But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer. If any practice – be it prayer, or some other contemplative practice – does not square with the Bible, it is not of God. For this reason, mystical meditation and “centering” (Richard Foster, Abbot Thomas Keating) is more a flight of fancy than Biblical Christianity. Biblical spirituality involves the study and meditation upon the literal truth of the Scripture; mystical spirituality, in contrast, looks for a “deeper meaning”, where scripture is regarded as allegorical rather than literal (the normal meaning of grammar, meaning and context, where history does not become allegory).

“Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16).

“Jesus the Son God is our High Priest. Our boldness of access is not a state we produce in ourselves by meditation or effort. No, the living, loving High Priest, who is able to sympathise and gives grace for timely help, He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him. Jesus, found and felt within our heart by faith, is our boldness. As the Son, whose house we are, He will dwell within us, and by His Spirit’s working, Himself be our boldness and our entrance to the Father. Let us, therefore, draw near with boldness!” (Andrew Murray, “The Holiest of All,” Oliphants, 1960, p. 174).

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we read:

“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The Church invites us to invoke the Holy Spirit as the interior Teacher of Christian prayer” (CCC 2681).

It is not the (Catholic) Church who invites us (Christians), but Christ. He invites us (who is His body, the “church”)  through his Word (the scriptures) to invoke the Holy Spirit to dwell in us in a deeper way.  “He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him” (Murray above).

Here is a response I received from a Catholic with regard to my argument that if prayer (for example, what I described as “transcendental” prayer) does not  square with the biblical kind of prayer, then this non-biblical kind of prayer is not talking to God, the God of the Bible.

My respondent says: “How can you say that …But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer…’ Your narrow minded, prescriptive view of the world is really sad. The sadness is that you really believe the nonsense you sprout. God is infinite – to limit him to one narrow written tradition, and to damn all other prayer is arrogance which is breath taking.”

Yes, I do limit valid prayer to one “narrow written tradition.” That is the difference between many Catholics, for example, Thomas Merton (whom I wrote about here) and Carlo Carretto (whom I wrote about here).

In Newsweek, Sept 2005, appeared a feature article  “Spirituality in America.” It said: “Americans are looking for personal, ecstatic experiences of God.” The article went on to describe the Catholic use of Buddhist’s teachings. For example, Father Thomas Keating, the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, noticed how attracted Roman Catholics were to the Eastern religious practices As a Trappist monk, meditation was second nature to the Abbot. Americans, like everybody else, is looking for transcendental prayer, transcendental meditation (TM), which could, it seems, also stand for “Trappist Meditation.”

5.       The contemplative life. Here again, people left the world to pray for the world and to be closer to God. “The act of contemplation, imperfect as it needs be, is of all human acts one of the most sublime, one of those which render the greatest honor to God, bring the greatest good to the soul, and enable it most efficaciously to become a means of salvation and manifold blessing to others.” (NewAdvent).

In the last decade, contemplation as a fruitful pursuit is gaining in popularity. A popular modern author on this topic is Richard Foster. He says:

“The apostle Paul withdrew for thirteen years from the time of his conversion until he began his ministry at Antioch. He probably spent three years in the desert and then approximately ten years in his
home town of Tarsus. During that time he no doubt experienced a lot of solitude. This was followed by a period of very intense activity as Paul carried out his mission to the Gentiles. Paul needed both solitude and activity, and so do we. (Richard Foster, “Solitude” in Practical Christianity. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 305.”

As far as I gather from the Apostle Paul’s life, he did very little withdrawing, but was continually in the thick of people. Having said that, it is true that “time spent in quiet prostration of soul before the Lord is most invigorating. . . . Quietude, which some men cannot abide, because it reveals their inner poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty designs to walk. . . . Priceless as the gift of utterance may be, the practice of silence in some aspects far excels it” (Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to students”).

The Bible advocates time for solitary devotion, prayer and adoration of God, but not the kind of sustained and continuous withdrawal from “life”.
Why does the Bible not contain any pattern of isolation? Let me answer by shooting off a mouthful of questions?

How do you learn to love if no one else is around to love? How do you learn humility on your lonesome ownsome? How can you be good, kind and gentle, patient on your own. Do you want  to be holy (sanctified)? Go and tell someone something he doesn’t want to hear. And it would be nice if it was a Bible verse.

6.       Penance and sacrifice. You could “mortify the flesh,” deny yourself and come closer to the sufferings of Christ and of others.

Penance and sacrifice are biblical doctrines, but what I reject is the notion that the works of penance and sacrifice are more than the fruit of faith, where faith alone, Protestants believe, is what justifies/saves.

Canon 24.  If anyone says that justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. (Council of Trent sixth session, celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547, Decree concerning Justification)

7.       Sacraments and rituals. The sacraments are the vehicles of God’s grace. The more you partake of them, the more the grace you receive. That is why I went to Mass and took communion daily at university. The greatest source of grace is eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ.

The “sacrifice of the mass” is not biblical. According to Roman Catholicism, Christ was not sacrificed once for all, but is, in the Mass, sacrificed constantly.

The term “constant” is from Pope John Paul II. In his teaching of the sacrifice of the Mass, Pope John Paul II writes:

. . . the Church is the instrument of man’s salvation. It both contains and continually (my italics) draws upon the mystery of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Through the shedding of His own blood, Jesus Christ constantly (my italics) “enters into God’s sanctuary thus obtaining eternal redemption” (cf. Heb 9:12). (Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Knopf, 1995, p. 139). The underlined section is the Pope’s rendition of Hebrews 9:12).

The Pope’s “constantly enters” resonates with the Council of Trent’s declaration that the Mass is not merely a “re-enactment”, but a real propitiatory sacrifice, which is repeated at every consecration of the wafer and the wine.2 (For further discussion see(The Constant Thirst and Constant Sacrifice of Jesus Christ: The Charism of Mother Teresa).

8.       Confession. If I committed a sin – a mortal sin – I confessed it to the Priest, did a penance and thus was reconciled to God. I wasn’t sure which sins were mortal or not (I don’t think many Catholics are sure), so I confessed them all.

9.       Then there was the unsurpassed European culture: music, literature and art, and architecture.  I saw the Sistine Chapel before they cleaned up the paintings. It was still magnificent. There is also Gregorian chant and Mozart’s requiem, and many other fine works of music and art.. Here is Carl Trueman’s impression of his first visit to St Peter’s Basilica and one major reason why evangelicals “cross the Tiber.”

I am not particularly impressed by size or age; but St. Peter’s is on a different scale. As I turned the corner and came to the square, the colonnades seemed to be sweeping out to greet me like giant arms about to embrace the world, an intentional vision of Catholic aspirations, I am sure; and as I walked into the building itself. I was cowed into complete and awesome silence. The only other experience I have had that came remotely close was my first trip to New York when I stepped down from the coach and looked up-and up and up and up
-at buildings that seemed almost to disappear into the sky. I felt small. And I felt even
more so as I entered the great basilica at the heart of Vatican City. The scale of the place, the paintings, the beauty, the statues, the faces of popes gazing at me, the good, the bad, but not (at least as portrayed by the artists) particularly ugly. The overwhelming power of the place pulled me in different directions. It was both terrifying and attractive. I suddenly realized why so many American evangelicals are attracted to the institution: it has everything American evangelicalism lacks-history, beauty, self-conscious identity, and, quite frankly, class. I also realized that such a vast organization simply does not need anybody else.” (Carl Trueman, “Where monkeys fear to tread.”)

10.  l not only had two Holy Fathers (God and the Pope), I also had a Mother, Mary. I went to Lourdes during my studies in France.

11.  The unity. Catholics all believed the same things. I have since learnt that this is not so at all.

12.  The Catholic Church is built on the rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. This is not true. The Rock Jesus is talking about is Himself – the foundation stone.

13.  The Pope was infallible. The doctrines of faith and morals were infallible. As long as I obeyed the rules of the Catholic Church, I would be assured of salvation. Convince someone that the Pope is infallible, and he’ll believe anything: purgatory, the treasury of merit, Jesus suffers every time we sin, the immaculate conception of Mary, and on and on.

What does the Reformation have to compete with that? The scriptures. How can the scriptures compete with:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
there’s dancing, laughter & good red wine;
at least I have always found it so,
Benedicamus Domino!
Hilaire Belloc

There was of course GK Chesterton, who has been a great influence on many of us who “crossed the Tiber.” Not in my wildest could I have imagined that I would give all this  “Orthodoxy” up – for a solo book – 66 “books,” actually – Sola Scriptura. Late in life, I’ve come to understand that Roman Catholicism is a travesty of Christianity. Jesus teaches that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6″44). This is why no matter how much I talk about what made me see the light – for example, such things as my study of scripture and the history and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church – ultimately, the only reason why someone comes to the Christ is because God raised the person from the dead:

I was dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that was at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom I once lived, carrying out the desires of the body  and the mind, and  was by nature a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved me, even when I was dead in my sins, made me alive together with Christ— by grace I have been saved— and raised me up with him and seated me with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward me in Christ Jesus. For by grace I have been saved through faith. And this is not my own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that I can’t boast. For I am his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that I should walk in them (adapted from Ephesians 2:1-10).

I now bring together the core differences that separates the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. Here is James White:

When I rise in the morning I don’t fear the wrath of God. Why? Because I never thought about it, because I take it for granted? No. I do not fear the wrath of God because I know what has been done in my behalf will avail before that holy God each and very day. And I don’t have to say, ‘I have to get to Jesus today. I need to go and get in the car where Jesus is and get some more grace, get a little more propitiation because you see I approached what supposed to be the sacrifice of Christ just the day before yesterday. And the priest said hoc est corpus meam, this is my body. But according to Rome I can do that 10 times, 100 times, 1000 times, 10000 times, 25000 times in my life and still die in fear. I could die in mortal sin, not avail myself of the sacramental forgiveness and still go to hell. Same sacrifice allegedly. So I have to get in the car and go and visit Jesus again because I am not perfected by his one sacrifice. I have to go stand in front of an alter christus, another Christ [a priest]. He has to sacramentally bring Christ down from heaven and render him present, body, blood, soul and divinity upon the Roman altar, and this is how I am to somehow improve my relationship with God.

The reason, continues White, why I could never become a Roman catholic is because I am absolutely dependent upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect righteousness of another. I have nothing else to give. I know God is holy and if I do not have the righteousness of Jesus Christ, nothing else will avail. But you see Rome cannot give me the righteousness of Jesus Christ; it has no finished sacrifice, it has no finished work. You see the whole argument, Mr Reed and those of you who are planning of going across the Tiber river, if you’ve never read it, let me introduce it to you. The whole argument of the book of Hebrews is that the one-time finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ, perfects those for whom it is made. That is therefore is nothing to go back to. And one of the main arguments that the writer [of Hebrews] uses is that in the repetitive sacrifice of the old covenant there is a reminder of sin. You see, the high priest when he would go into the holiest place with the warm bowl of blood would see that he had been there before, that the blood was still dried upon the place of mercy, and that was a reminder that this blood of a goat, a bull is not going ever to cleanse anybody.

It was, adds White, pointing to something greater. The fact that it had to be repeated over and over again meant that it was imperfect and that is why there is only one sacrifice of Christ. It’s not re-presented so that you’re never perfected. It’s one time, singular, finished done. It is finished Jesus said. And what’s really really interesting is that when the writer to the Hebrews speaks of that repetitive sacrifice, there is a yearly anamnesis of sins, a reminder. A repetitive sacrifice, which is what you are limited to in Rome. The mass is an anamnesis of sin, because if you have to come back, you are not perfected. So all it does is remind you of the continuing presence of sin. But that word[anamnesis] is used elsewhere in the New Testament, and I’m so thankful that it is. Because that is the word that is used when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” in anamnesis of me. Christians have a new covenant, and that covenant has a single perfecting sacrifice. And so you see I don’t have a reminder of my sins; I have a reminder of my sin bearer, and that is why I have peace with God. Now if that was not taught to you in seminary or in your churches, I’m sorry. But you can’t blame your seminary or your churches because you [don’t] possess the word of God.

I could never, says White, go to Rome because Rome has nothing to offer but a treadmill of penances, sacraments, and never being able to know have you done everything that’s necessary to attain justification. In the words of the Word of God, I have justification, not because of who I am, but because of who Jesus Christ is…if these words meant something to you, you could never go there, because anyone who has actually, truly bowed the knee to Jesus Christ and understands [their] absolute dependence upon him can never give that up, can never trade that in. I pray for Mr Reed. By his own testimony, he never understood what the issues where. I hope these words will be taken the the way they were intended.  (See How green is my Tiber: James White’s impassioned plea to Jason Reed to come home from Rome).

The Reformers of the 16th Century divided true saving faith into three parts: notitia, assensus and fiducia.

Notitia comprises knowledge, such as belief in one God, in the humanity (1 John 4:3) and deity of Christ (John 8:24), His crucifixion for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3), His bodily resurrection from the dead, and some understanding of God’s grace in salvation.

Assensus is belief, a mental assent. This belief hasn’t yet penetrated the heart; it is still on the mental level – a mental assent.

Fiducia is full trust and commitment. This is faith proper; it’s the heart knowledge of Jesus’ prayer to His Father:

John 17

24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Without the regenerative life of fiducia, one is no better off than the devils, who, having enough notitia and assensus to burst, still tremble. (See further discussion here).

As the scriptures I quoted above have shown, the only way one comes to fiducia faith is through a supernatural work of God, who raises the dead to life through and in Christ. The Bible teaches that it is not necessary to have (much) notitia or assensus to receive the gift of fiducia. The Bible also teaches (as in Ephesians 2, which I quoted above) that by grace I have been saved through faith. And this grace AND this faith is not my own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works – my cooperating with God – so that I can’t boast.

The Roman Catholic Church has a radically different view of salvation and faith, which I believe is at best a distortion. For example, the “sacrifice” of the mass, the sacraments (seven of them) as the only means of grace, and on and on. But as I described above, there is so much that is captivating – like a kid let loose in a chocolate cathedral. Having said that, whether you’re a Catholic, Protestant or atheist, when you enter a Gothic Cathedral like Chartres or Notre Dame in Paris, you would be a liar – or a prig – if you said you didn’t feel a deep sense of awe at the beautiful forms of glass and stone.

The overarching stumbling block of the Roman Catholic view of salvation is decisionism. The following excerpt from the Vatican II document “The Church in the Modern World” explains what I mean:

“…Nevertheless man has been wounded by sin… When he is drawn to think about his real self he turns to those deep recesses of his being where God who probes the heart awaits him, and where he himself decides his own destiny in the sight of God”(paragraph 14).

That is what most Protestants believe as well. But not those Protestants – the Protestants faithful to the “Reformation” – who remained faithful to the original “catholic” doctrine of St Augustine’s era.

Catholicism, as with most non-Reformation Christianity, is “Arminian,” that is, the believer has the final vote in his salvation; he makes the final decision. The “Reformed Christian” position is that salvation is not man’s decision; instead salvation is an invasion of God’s grace that raises the dead to life, which then enables the raised person to willingly come to Christ; in other words he feels impelled from within (his heart) – therefore, not forced from without – to receive Christ.

William Webster, does a great job of proving that Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – contrary to Rome’s  teaching that Sola Scriptura was a fabrication of  the Protestant Reformation – was in fact the central belief of the early Church for more than six centuries. Download the series here).

Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. [45] And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word (no vain thing) for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:44-47).

Here is Charles Spurgeon preaching on the words in bold of the Deuteronomy passage above, namely:

For it is no empty word (no vain thing) for you, but your very life

“… much of the religion which is abroad in the world is a vain thing. The religion of ceremonies is vain. If a man shall trust in the gorgeous pomp of uncommanded mysteries, if he shall consider that there resides some mystic efficacy in a priest, and that by uttering certain words a blessing is infallibly received, we tell him that his religion is a vain thing. You might as well go to the Witch of Endor for grace as to a priest; and if you rely upon words, the “Abracadabra” of a magician will as certainly raise you to heaven, or rather sink you to hell, as the performances of the best ordained minister under heaven. Ceremonies in themselves are vain, futile, empty. There are but two of God’s ordaining, they are most simple, and neither of them pretend to have any efficacy in themselves. They only set forth an inward and spiritual grace, not necessarily tied to them, but only given to those who by faith perceive their teachings. All ceremonial religion, no matter how sincere, if it consist in relying upon forms and observances, is a vain thing. So with creed-religion—by which I mean not to speak against creeds, for I love “the form of sound words,” but that religion which lies in believing with the intellect a set of dogmas, without partaking of the life of God; all this is a vain thing (Charles Spurgeon’s “Religion – A Reality“).

I wrote the following reply to one of my readers who is thinking of becoming a Catholic:

Have you read/heard any of Martyn Lloyd-Jones? I haven’t found a deeper or truer teacher than him. You can download some of his podcasts at There are many more than those you see on this site. Once you’ve subscribed to the podcast, I think all the others will be available to you, such as “Christ in the heart” (3 parts). If you can get hold of his books on Romans and Ephesians, please read them. We both know that we should not neglect such a great salvation. This might hurt you and maybe you’ll give up on me, but I have to say this: Roman Catholicism is at best a dead-end. You don’t need all that stuff to experience Christ in your heart and be a faithful witness. What is dangerous in the RCC is that their doctrines such faith plus works (for salvation- Council of Trent), Mary as mediatrix, purgatory, the so-called “sacrifice” of the mass, and many more accretions contradict the Bible.

Related article:

How green is my Tiber: James White’s impassioned plea to Jason Reed to come home from Rome