Why this Protestant evangelical became Catholic (part 2)

Saints Peter and Paul Church is a Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, directly across from Washington Square.
Saints Peter and Paul Church is a Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, directly across from Washington Square. | Getty Images

Editor’s note: This two-part series explores why some evangelicals have chosen to convert to other branches of Christianity, namely Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Read part 1 here.

The first time Jon Schweppe remembers palpably experiencing the manifest presence of God was at a Roman Catholic mass, in what proved to be an unusual yet ultimately irresistible divine encounter.

For the 32-year-old Midwesterner turned D.C.-area policy director for the American Principles Project, faith was something that his family always took seriously, particularly as his father was a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His dad was a theologically orthodox minister in an otherwise liberal mainline denomination.

He called his upbringing in this particular faith "a liturgical tradition with really good hymns," in an interview with The Christian Post as part of a two-part series about former evangelical Protestants who, instead of leaving faith behind, as some have done, have traveled down a more ancient road. 

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In what he described as a rebellious stage, he stopped going to church when he was 16 and 17, and went on to attend a left-wing college that was affiliated with the ELCA. But he still retained much of his faith-informed values, and when he finished college, he felt the pull from God to start reengaging his faith and spiritual life.

"I was never an atheist, but at worst a lazy deist, someone who might now unironically express 'I don't know about organized religion,'" he said, chuckling, given that he is now a devoted Roman Catholic.

Theologically speaking, evangelicals typically object to the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church that through which its official doctrine comes, and insist on Sola Scriptura — that Scripture alone is sufficient.

Given the legacy of Martin Luther — a German reformer who famously posted his 95 theses on the church door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517 — evangelicals largely continue to reject any kind of works-based salvation, insisting as Luther did that humans are justified solely by God's grace by faith in Jesus. Evangelicals also tend to spurn praying to saints, considering it unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Statistically, the Roman Catholic Church, like many traditions, has declined in attendance and membership nationwide in recent years, according to reputable polling data. 

Not long after moving to the D.C. area, Schweppe started attending a variety of evangelical churches and going with friends to services. For about a year, he dated a Pentecostal woman and went to church with her, an experience he enjoyed because people there seemed to take their faith seriously. Yet, for some reason, even as he valued what he was learning in his renewed desire to deepen his faith, he attributed much of the evangelical take on Christianity to a "right-brained experientialism" with its emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus, heavily dependent on feeling God.

"I struggled with that, I really did. It's something I'm still working on. And so, because of that, I felt like I was going through the motions a little bit," Schweppe explained.

He started meeting more Catholics in Washington, especially after working for a Catholic congressman who was elected to the House in 2010. This politician had 10 children.

"If you'd asked me, Catholicism was something I had never considered very much. I'd studied it a little bit and would have told you that it was similar to Lutheranism, which in liturgy it is," he said.

But the Roman church does indeed have its distinctives, and the tradition provided answers to a lot of the questions he had, particularly quandaries about what it means to be human and flourishing in life. The beauty of the church also helped him along his journey.

"The first time that I feel like I felt God was in mass, even though I'd been attending various evangelical churches for a few years."

His wife of four years is a cradle Catholic, and they now have "two, going on three, kids."

The presence of God at mass

The first time Schweppe went to mass by himself, he remembers being "taken up" by the liturgy in the lead-up to the Eucharist, particularly the Last Supper dialogue, where Jesus takes bread and wine and explains to the Apostles that they are to do this in remembrance of Him.

"It was really powerful to me, and of course, in the Catholic tradition, [the bread and wine] are not representative, we're not saying it's symbolic, but that the priest is ... God's empowering Him to cause that [eucharistic] miracle to happen," he said.

Catholic doctrine holds that during the communion, the consecrated bread and wine become Christ's actual body and blood (transubstantiation).

Though unable to take communion at the time, he walked out of that mass, thinking to himself, "Wow, that was quite something."

From that point forward, his desire to participate in that sacrament only increased as he felt drawn to it.

He was confirmed on Easter Sunday in 2016 and was able to partake in the Eucharist for the first time and described it as an "incredible experience."

An intellectual journey

One area of significant questions that led Schweppe to Catholicism was the Theology of the Body, a series of lectures by Pope Saint John Paul II delivered in the 1980s in which he responded to the ravages of the sexual revolution with a sophisticated set of teachings on the nature of the human person and the glory of human sexuality set forth in the Bible.

Robust teaching on human sexuality and marriage was missing from his teenage years in his Lutheran church. Although he was philosophically conservative in his politics and believed abortion to be morally wrong, it was not connected to a faith tradition. He had a basic moral framework — having sex outside of marriage was a bad idea pragmatically, he thought, because having children is not a good idea when you have to go to college.

But the Catholic understanding of sexuality is that sex is reserved for marriage because the marriage bed is a representation of God's love for His church. As a teenager, he never would have questioned birth control and condoms but found the Catholic teaching on the subject, which forbids it, to be beautiful.

"It's the 'why,'" he said. "It's not just a 'do this' or a 'don't do this.' It explains what this is really all about."

Having that why behind the what of sexuality was helpful.

"There are aspects of the Catholic faith that I like, not needing the 'why' necessarily, such as being able to trust the Church being this institution that has survived thousands of years, that it was Christ's church built on Peter."

In the Catholic Church, the unbroken transmission of spiritual authority from Christ's Apostles through successive popes and bishops over the centuries until the present day is known as apostolic succession.

"But for young people especially, it is helpful to have the why, and some of the logic behind some of the things the Church teaches and the Theology of the Body from John Paul II was very helpful for me, and it really excited me about Catholicism."

An aha moment in his journey came when reading Catholic apologist Scott Hahn's Rome Sweet Home. Hahn, formerly a staunch Calvinist and militantly ant-Catholic who believed the Roman Church to be in grave theological error, seemed to answer every one of objections Schweppe had. Written with his wife, Hahn describes his own unexpected journey into the Catholic faith.

The witness of Catholic family life

Schweppe had never been around a family as large as the Catholic congressman he worked for who had 10 children. Being from working-class Protestant America, everyone had two or three children, and that was considered normal.

"It was incredible to me at that age, in my mid-20s, where I was getting ready to get married and wanted to have kids. I had never thought of having that many kids until I saw it," he said.

"This is amazing; this is the coolest thing," he thought.

A big part of the Catholic faith and how many Catholics experience it is this living example of it, embodied in the family. This, of course, should never replace the Bible, Schweppe said, but it was a powerful witness that drew him deeper into the faith.

"But family life in a way shows Christ's love for all of us too. So it's just this really cool experiential way to show that," he explained.

He sometimes wonders that, if he has three children, will he love the fourth one as much as the others? He has learned that not only is the answer yes, as large Catholic families have shown him, but you can have 10 and still make room for the neighborhood kids and their neighbors.

"They kind of showed me how capable the Catholic heart was for love and living life to the fullest. It was definitely a great example to me that this was the right faith tradition for me to pursue," he said.

What about Mary?

Among the most significant hang-ups for Protestants concerning Catholicism is the role of Mary. Why do Catholics pray to her, they wonder, particularly if she is not God?

What Catholics do with saints, and Mary, is ask for their intercession, Schweppe clarified.

"It's not that different than Protestants asking each other to pray for them. And that's something we all see value in. Because Christians, regardless of our specific denomination, we want people to pray for us because we know the power of prayer is real," he explained.

"So when Catholics are asking saints or Mary to intercede on our behalf, obviously, there's a little bit more seriousness there."

Thus, he never had a particularly big hang-up with Mary, though he cannot escape his Protestant background, noting that he still prays directly to the Father in the name of Jesus because that was how he was taught to pray. But reverence for Mary is warranted because she was Jesus' mother, he stressed, adding that he believes she opens up something in the faith that is more accessible to women.

He maintained that many Protestants misunderstand Catholic loyalty to Rome and how papal infallibility works. Even if he does not fully understand church teaching on a certain subject, there is a virtue in obedience.

"And so, sometimes when my earthly understanding of an issue may not line up with what the Church teaches, I will defer to the Church," he said.

As a philosophically conservative man, he admitted that sometimes Pope Francis says things that make him scratch his head. Papal infallibility is for being on the chair of St. Peter, not true in every single sense or in every encyclical, as there is plenty of human bias that contributes to it.

But participating in the Eucharist every week is what has been especially transformative, Schweppe reiterated.

"I feel more of a responsibility to God to live my life in a better way, day to day. I go to confession when I screw up. That was something that wasn't part of my faith at all before. If I screwed up, I don't know if I really apologized to God for my sins."

His first ever rite of confession in the Catholic Church was an "incredible lifting of burdens."

"All these things I regretted, significant failures from my youth and others ... to tell the priest all those things and then for him to say 'you're forgiven,' I see it as such a huge benefit to living as a Catholic."

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