This week, the Vatican announced that it would make it
easier for conservative Anglicans
and Episcopalians–those uncomfortable with women priests and
accepting gay people–to join the Roman Catholic Church.  The move surprised Anglican leaders
who, evidently, had no idea that the Vatican planned a massive sheep-stealing
campaign.  The news sparked
lively–and sometimes mean-spirited–debate in both print and online

Most stories pointed to the historic nature of the Vatican’s
action.  Evidently, not since the
Protestant Reformation has Rome invited so many of its former children to come
home.  There have been many
remarkable individual “returns” of Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church–most
notably the English theologian John Henry Newman or the American bishop Levi S.
Ives in the nineteenth century. 
But historians strain to remember a mass invitation like this one.

Reporters, however, have missed something important.  While it might be unusual for Rome to
formally invite Protestant to return to Mother Church, it is in no way odd for
Roman Catholics–especially those in Europe, North America, and Australia–to
abandon Rome for Protestant denominations.  For decades, cradle Roman Catholics have been leaving their
church in favor of finding congregations that are open to divorce, practice
birth control, support women in the ministry, and respect the dignity of gay
and lesbian people.  Indeed,
according to a 2008 Pew survey, one in ten adult Americans is an ex-Roman
Catholic–with the Roman Catholic Church showing intense decline among Anglo-
and African-American populations (Hispanic immigration is helping RC membership
hold steady). 

A Catholic News service story from 2005 noted that the
change was a “constant trickle,” saying:

Among those
changing denominations, the Roman Catholics generally say they long to breathe
the “free air” of the Anglican Communion, with Catholic priests
usually saying they plan to marry, the bishop said. The Anglicans usually say
they have had enough of the “woolly thinking” of their leadership, he
added.  “Anglicans who become
Roman Catholic generally become very conservative Roman Catholics, while Roman
Catholics who become Anglican tend to become very liberal Anglicans,” he

These observations have been backed up in a number of academic studies–including
my own work.  From 2002-2006, I
conducted a Lilly Endowment funded research project on vital mainline churches (findings may be found in Christianity for the Rest of Us) and found that successful mainline congregations had large populations of
former Roman Catholics, sometimes as many as a fifth of the members would have
once been Catholic (in two Hispanic congregations, every member was a former
Catholic). Several of the project pastors had also been Catholic.  In every case, the former Catholics
praised the intellectual and spiritual openness of the mainline church as the
major reason for switching. And the mainline congregations had accommodated many Roman Catholic faith practices–everything from centering prayer to Marian devotion–to help converts be more comfortable in the new Protestant setting.  

In western Christianity, religious switching is a way of life.  That the Vatican has just figured that
out only proves they read polls.  That’s
it.  This isn’t really news.  Churchgoers are a migrant lot–and they
are voting for their favorite theologies with their feet.  Sometimes they vote liberal (as in the
case of RC’s leaving their church) and sometimes they vote conservative (as in
the case of Protestants becoming Catholic).  But that they do it–and that their denominations engage in
sheep-stealing to boast sagging membership rolls–should surprise no one.  When liberal Anglicans join the Roman Catholic Church en masse or conservative Catholics chose to become Episcopalians….well, that would be news. 

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