The dog days of August are a time to smuggle in the kind of article you’ve been meaning to write but putting off because of all the trouble it’s going to bring you. But still, I hesitate even now to write about convert neurosis, and how it conditions critiques of Pope Francis.
For one, I don’t want to be seen to be sniffy and condescending towards people who become Catholic, which is how Dr. Stephen Bullivant, writing in First Things, said he felt about a comment in Michael Sean Winters’s blogpost. “I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic,” complained the sage of the National Catholic Reporter.
Winters was reacting to a debate on Al Jazeera between Matthew Schmitz, youthful literary editor of First Things, and me, on the perennial topic of the Francis pontificate.
Schmitz, a young convert, had undergone a second conversion since 2013. At first he welcomed Francis’s election. But then came a series of realizations.
He had now come to see that Francis was building his program of reform “at the expense of children orphaned by the culture of divorce left by the 1960s,” attempting to restore a “discredited version of Catholicism,” and who “builds his popularity by shucking off traditions and formulas of the office” of pope. Oh and introducing the antinomian, Protestant notion that truth and mercy are counter to the law.
(Incidentally, ‘antinomian’ is not a word to bandy about on Al-Jazeera, but then, I accused Schmitz of wanting to bring back the sedia gestatoria, which must have furrowed brows in Qatar.)
Now, Schmitz never actually said the pope wasn’t Catholic, but his narrative and that of many of Francis’s angry, vociferous critics adds up to something rather like it, namely, that he is, in Ross Douthat’s phrase, the “chief plotter” in a conspiracy to change the Catholic faith.
For the record: The Church is missionary, and exists to spread the Gospel, and some of those it touches will want to become Catholic, and that’s wonderful. People who have thought and prayed their way to faith are special, and bring great gifts with which they have been showered. We love converts.
Winters wasn’t being sniffy about converts either, but simply pointing out the — let’s just call it, for the time being, incongruity — of those who join the Catholic Church in a blaze of Damascene fervor later announcing noisily, after a new pope is elected, that the pope is not doing what they believe popes should do.
And if the many retweets of my retweet of Winters’s complaint is anything to go by, many share his view not just that this stance is not just incongruous, but annoying, because rather than consider the possibility that there may be something deficient in their own view of the Church and its tradition, they prefer to assume that it is the successor of St. Peter — chosen by the Holy Spirit in a conclave free from outside interference — who is lacking.
Now it is quite possible that elegant commentators such as Ross Douthat and Matthew’s boss Rusty Reno (both former Episcopalians), or, at the rougher end, writers such as Carl Orlson (ex-Protestant fundamentalist) and John Henry Westen (ex-atheist), or indeed ex-Anglicans in my own patch such as Daniel Hitchens of the Catholic Herald and Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register in Rome, are all correct in their readings.
But it is a lot more likely that their baggage has distorted their hermeneutic, and they are suffering from convert neurosis.
A neurosis is a pathological or extreme reaction to something that simply doesn’t correspond to reality. A war-scarred victim, for example, might react to a friendly cop’s question by throwing herself on the ground and covering her ears. You understand why she does it, but it’s neurotic.
I began to notice this reaction among former Anglicans during the synods of 2014-15. A friend, a Catholic priest, told me he had seen these kinds of arguments before in the Church of England, and they always ended badly; and that he hadn’t joined the Catholic Church to go through it all again. He was deeply disturbed by what he imagined was happening, fueled by Douthat’s predictions of a schism and his dark warning that the pope “may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him.”
Which was all, obviously, silly. What in fact happened, as was obvious it would to those free of neurosis, was a vigorous good-faith disagreement that resolved in a two-thirds majority vote that laid the basis for an apostolic exhortation. Amoris Laetitia did not settle forever those disagreements — when do they ever go away? — but provided a basis for the Church to move forward, still one body, while staying faithful to doctrine. That’s the difference between disagreeing under a papal magisterium, and disagreeing in the absence of one.
Then there is the neurosis of the convert escaping the shifting sands of relativism, who projects onto the Church the idea of something fixed and distant and unchangeable, frozen at some point prior to the Council. This makes them susceptible to the traditionalist Catholic horror not just of the Council’s reforms, but of the very idea of change, as if this could be avoided.
Yet the Church’s tradition has always been made up of the new things brought by the Holy Spirit revealing “new aspects of Revelation,” as Evangelii Gaudium puts it. Francis approaches the past as all popes must do, with discernment, preserving what must be protected, and removing what has become an obstacle to evangelization.
The Church has always required perpetual conversion in order to recover what has been lost — the centrality of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and closeness to the concrete lives of ordinary people. Catholics trust the pope to discern what needs to change.
Of course, you don’t need to be a convert to be critical of Francis, and plenty of converts are delighted with him (which is why Bullivant was wrong to think that Winters was getting at converts per se.) But this isn’t about liking or disliking Pope Francis. It’s about an attitude to the papacy on the part of some.
A friend in Ireland writes: “I keep seeing people who seem to have converted mainly because the Church teaches things that match their ideological outlook, whereas when I came back it was a case of doing so because I thought the Church had historical authority to teach things even if they sounded mad or were inconvenient.”
Conversion is an act of humility. It involves a renunciation of sovereignty, the idea that I know best. It involves trust — in Jesus Christ, and in His Church, and in the successor of St. Peter — even when they challenge my preconceptions.
This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything a pope says or does: Complaining about popes is nothing new, and anyway, Francis welcomes it.
But it does mean respecting the office founded by Jesus Christ, and trusting that the Holy Spirit guides its current occupant. That, surely, is a big part of why people become Catholic in the first place.