Theologian Massimo Faggioli and journalist Austen Ivereigh having taken some flack recently for their articles on Catholic converts; in effect, both seemed to be saying, “Converts, please stop talking.”
(Ivereigh later apologized for his use of the metaphor “neurotic” to describe his subjects in his Crux article.)
They meant the vocal, public converts, who are usually culturally as well as theologically conservative.
Faggioli explored the irony that converts who denounce “modernity” have their place in the Church only through that modernity. Ivereigh argued the converts so opposed to Francis likely are so because “their baggage has distorted their hermeneutic.”
The Converts’ Defenders
Many converts were duly miffed. Many Catholics since birth reacted in the defense of converts. They didn’t really engage Faggioli’s and Ivereigh’s criticisms, but they did push back against their demoting converts’ contribution to the life of the Catholic Church.
As a convert — my family and I entered the Church in 2001 — I appreciated the help, but I think the two pointed to a real problem with the “public converts” almost never spoken about.
The cradle Catholic defenders insisted that converts are among the best Catholics they know, great gifts to the Church, models of devotion, and so on. They invoked the converts’ great biblical and theological knowledge. (Naively, I think, but that’s another article.)
The more theological declared that Catholic is Catholic. The Church has incorporated the convert, who now stands equal with everyone else, even those who have not missed a day of Mass since birth. Converts should not be treated as second-class citizens.
The more devotional noted that every Catholic must be a convert, must have chosen to live out his faith. We all need to be constantly converting, constantly turning ourselves to Christ.
All true, but not really to the point.
The convert enters the Church at a disadvantage, because he enters it late when he has been deeply formed by another tradition. The more religious he was, the more he has to unlearn. He may know many of the Catholic details. He may be full of book-learning. But of the real Catholic mind or imagination — the Catholic paradigm, the way Catholics see the world — he knows little. The new Catholic must work for many years to get that, and never will get it fully.
Most converts, as I wrote in The New Oxford Review, will never think and feel exactly as do cradle Catholics. They do by instinct what we will always do by analysis followed by choice.
For a long time, and perhaps a very long time, the convert will see the Catholic Thing as you see a garden through a bay window, not as you see it when you’re standing amidst the flowers. He sees its design and beauty, but doesn’t feel the sun or smell the flowers or enjoy walking barefoot on the grass. Nor does he know what it is like to get caught in the rain or stung by a bee, or to spend hours weeding. He has to spend many years outside to know what life in the garden is really like.
What the Convert Doesn’t Know
This was my experience. My family and I entered the Church at the Easter Vigil. My wife and I had felt drawn to the Church for twenty-some years and had learned a lot in that time. We were Anglicans of the sort called Anglo-Catholic. Anglo-Catholics believe themselves to hold a Catholicism cleansed of the medieval and modern “Roman” accretions. We believed ourselves more Catholic than the pope, though most of us had the sense not to say so directly.
My wife entered the Church more humbly and with less interest in theology. I thought I knew Catholicism, that I already was Catholic except for a few minor matters, and that I could slide into the Church easily. I would be instantly as fully Catholic as I had been fully Anglican.
I was wrong. After sixteen years as a Catholic, I still find myself seeing something I hadn’t seen before. I don’t mean only new facts, but different ways of seeing things I thought I knew.
What the Convert Learns
Let me give two examples of truths I only began to see after some years within the Church. I needed to grow in the Faith to the point of saying “Well, of course.”
The first is the way Catholics feel about the Mother of God as a mother. When we entered the Church, I knew I could now relate to her as a son. But I felt (as I see it now) that I had to do so like someone submitting a form by mail to a high official, noted for her benevolence but still very far away.
In the same way, I knew the arguments for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and happily said that I believe all the Church teaches. But I accepted the dogma solely on authority. It wasn’t a living belief for me. It didn’t affect how I thought about the Faith.
In both cases, I had to live the Catholic life for a long time before I could really feel the truth of these things and understand them from the inside. To feel the truth of the Immaculate Conception, for example, I had to feel how the holy makes its vessel holy, which I came to understand through the Mass.
The second example relates more closely to Faggioli’s and Ivereigh’s concerns. Converts tend not to have a sense of the Church as a living body moving through history. Our instinctive ecclesiology is more static, more a matter of settled rules to be obeyed than a life to be lived.
Converts may believe in the development of doctrine, and in fact include it as one of their reasons for converting. I did, but for a long time I didn’t see how it works.
Converts don’t trust it, because the process includes a lot of confusion and error. It requires something more like mobs arguing in bars and battling in the street than the genteel discussion around the table in an oak-paneled room they imagine.
It includes a pope who might speak ambiguously and challenge the Church to explain and defend practices thought settled in their present form, while being the Holy Father to whom submission is due.
We will tend to react to any questioning of the boundaries and feel the hard cases dangerously risky. We hold more doctrines to be settled than are actually settled, and dislike open questions.
The cradle Catholic doesn’t think twice when the boat enters stormy waters. He knows he’ll be okay. The convert tries to yell “Mayday! Mayday!” into the radio. This is especially true of those of us who came from the battles of the mainline churches, who know how easily those ships could sink.
The Tricky Part
The tricky part of this process is that some converts catch on faster than others, and some never do. Very few of us catch on so fast as, say, Ronald Knox, whom the English bishops would eventually trust to translate the Bible. Most importantly, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what deeper insights will come with more life in the Church.
So as a convert, I would say: Converts, please stop talking so much; when you do speak, speak on the narrower subjects on which you can speak with authority; and trust those who have been inside the Thing longer and look to them as teachers and models, or at least challengers — even if their names are Faggioli and Ivereigh. Even Paul went into the desert for three years after his conversion, and he was a religious genius and a saint.
David Mills is the editorial director of Ethika Politika, a columnist for Aleteia, and the former executive editor of First Things.