Jim Tonkowich on Converting to Catholicism
Date: December 7th, 2014
After serving in the Presbyterian ministry for over two decades, our guest Jim Tonkowich, former president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, made the decision to convert to Catholicism. We follow Jim’s journey in this interview that is part personal reflection and part sociological look at the state of Christianity today.
We begin our discussion by going back to Jim’s early upbringing and learn that his family was rooted in the Russian Orthodox Church. His curiosity in religion, though, was piqued while attending boarding school in Connecticut when he purchased a Bible and began reading it. Finding this reading difficult on his own he began participating in a Bible study group and also attended a “Ski and Skeptics” program that helped him to start making sense of Christianity, much the way a the box top picture on a jigsaw puzzle helps one align the pieces. We follow him through his college career at Bates College and his further investigations into theology and philosophy. At this point in his life, he is still not a Roman Catholic.
Jim’s varied travels them take him to Gordon Cromwell Theological Seminary where he begins studying for the ministry. His own religious participation at this time involved a non-denominational Protestant congregation and participation at Park Street Congregational Church where he met both his wife and Marcus Grodi (also a Protestant who would later “make the journey home” to Catholicism). It is at this point in the interview we begin a conversation about church polity — i.e., how congregations are organized in terms of authority structure. This theme appears numerous times in our discussion and is one of the key pieces to understanding Jim’s conversion to Catholicism. Jim also reveals how he read the early Church Fathers and how that influenced his long-term thought process.
Following seminary we then move cross-country to a Presbyterian church in Silicon Valley, California. We discuss Jim’s experiences as a pastor here as well as the various challenges that ministers face in their profession. While Jim was pleased with the folks in that congregation, he talks about the professional grind and loneliness that often accompanies the pastorate. It is at this point where he brings up the issue of pastoral formation — preparing clergy for the tough road ahead — and mentions that the Catholic Church tends to excel at this task relative to its Protestant counterparts. Again, we start to see the pieces of the conversion puzzle start to fall into place. We develop a sense that Jim’s conversion wasn’t a Pauline “flash of light on the road to Damascus,” but rather a long and intellectually-engaging path.
After his ministerial stint in California, it is back to the Washington DC area where he shares a number of other stories regarding a variety of experiences, including an interesting interview he had with a few Presbyterians and the questions of whether Catholics need to be rebaptized if they move in a Protestant direction. Here we reflect a bit upon attitudes towards Catholics and how this challenged Jim’s thinking further. We also return to the question of orthodoxy and church polity at this point before finally learning more about the final pieces to his Catholic conversion that involved his son attending Thomas Aquinas College and bringing a group of friends home from California, an event that led him into the National Basilica for Mass and a great sermon “worshipping among the nations.” We further go into a wide range of topics involving connections with other intellectuals who converted Catholic (e.g., Frances Beckwith, Robby George) and a number of other interesting topics related to theology and church organization.
The podcast finishes with a few of Jim’s insights from his e-book How (Not) to Become Catholic, which is a humorous self-reflection of his journey and a variety of mistakes he and others often make when looking across the Catholic-Protestant divide. Recorded: November 7. 2014.
Jim Tonkowich’s web page (including biography another links)
How (Not) to Become Catholic, by James Tonkowich (an e-book on becoming Catholic)
The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today, by James Tonkowich.
The Coming Home Network International (mentioned in the podcast)
The Institute for Religion and Democracy (where Jim was the former president).
Called to the Ministry, by Edmund Clowney (mentioned in the podcast)
Wyoming Catholic College (mentioned in the podcast)
Tim Kelleher on the Nicene Creed.
Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers & Patristic Exegesis.
David Gallagher on Opus Dei.
William Donohue on Secular Sabotage.