David Mills writes that before his reception into the Church, along with his wife, as Anglo-Catholics, “We believed ourselves more Catholic than the pope, though most of us had the sense not to say so directly.”
As a fellow convert, I can’t relate to that at all. In fact, my response was the opposite – more like, “Boy, do I have a lot to learn.”
Even though I don’t share Mill’s starting point, knowing his early struggle with pride certainly helps me to understand why he pursued an argument that at first glance – and, to be honest, final glance – seems so counter-intuitive.
In an article for Crux, Mills, an accomplished writer and editor, argues that after 16 years of practicing Catholicism, he thinks that he “should stop talking so much” and “trust those who have been inside the Thing longer and look to them as teachers.”
If Mills thinks this about himself, fine, but the problem is that he projects his new-found reluctance onto converts in general, particularly those “vocal, public converts, who are usually culturally as well as theologically conservative.”
Mills draws upon recent remarks about converts by Austen Ivereigh and Massimo Faggioli, the former citing converts’ “distorted hermeneutic,” the latter, the convert’s disdain for “modernity.”
Ivereigh describes converts as like traumatized soldiers who duck for cover at the sound of a car backfiring. Once again, as a convert, I cannot relate to this “convert neurosis” theory.
As a former Southern Baptist minister, although I attended Princeton Theological Seminary, I can’t think of any lasting trauma – except for the fact that I sing the hymns too loudly, and that can be annoying to the cradles who don’t sing at all.
While Faggioli’s article in Commonweal recognizes a diversity of starting points among converts, he identifies what he calls the “convert movement” with a “Reconquista of secularized modernity” as led by Saint John Paul II.
Fair enough. But Mills’ characterization of converts who “denounce ‘modernity’” is not the same thing at all. (Everyone knows it’s postmodernity that’s the real problem anyway!)
Another point should be made here: Converts almost always are in conflict with the cultural currents — the modernism — they faced.
For Augustine, paganism and Donatism were his modernism. Newman faced scientism, atheism, and radical skepticism; Jacques Maritain had to overcome the rejection of metaphysics; Whittaker Chambers broke with Communist ideology, as did Malcolm Muggeridge. Walker Percy dealt not only with scientism, but the growing decadence of secular culture; Elizabeth Fox-Genvese, heroically, faced down pro-abortion feminism.
Does Mills really wish these converts had spoken less? Surely not, and that’s what makes his argument somewhat silly, when it could have been convincing if delivered in more modest terms.
I did not publish my conversion memoir until nearly 20 years after entering the Church — An American Conversion: One Man’s Search for Beauty and Truth In Times of Crisis. When I first began receiving invitations to tell my conversion story, I felt a certain reluctance, precisely for the reason stated by Mills: I did not want to pretend that I had suddenly become an expert on the Catholic Church.
I remember cringing at receiving a standing ovation at a conference in California after such a speech — “A Baptist Becomes a Catholic.” I had been given this greatest of all gifts — given, not forged on my own — and I felt awkward.
Though I see the glimmer of good sense in what Mills argues, I can’t nod my head at claims such as, “The convert enters the Church at a disadvantage, because he enters it late when he has been deeply formed by another tradition.”
In my case, I read and was counseled for over ten years before I made the plunge, including dealing with a year-long annulment process.
Mills also writes: “[The convert] 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.”
In my memoir, I describe encounters with the Catholic imagination in writers such as George Bernanos, Julien Green, Flannery O’Connor, Sigrid Undset, and Walker Percy. Add to that the poetry of Dante and Hopkins; the music of Palestrina, Victoria, and Mozart; the philosophy of Aquinas, Pieper, Maritain, and Gilson; the theology of Louis Bouyer, William F. Lynch, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Surely, I learned, to some extent, how Catholics “see the world.”
Mills stresses that only through practice does a Catholic plumb the depths of teachings such as Mary, the Mother of God and the Immaculate Conception.
I found Marian doctrine to be one of the most attractive aspects of the Church’s teaching, because of how it grounded the idea of sacramentality. But have I learned more? Of course! Haven’t we all, converts and cradles alike? Are cradles to be our teachers merely because they were born to the faith and presumably know better?
There are quite a few cradles I have learned from experience just to ignore. Catholic wisdom is hardly recognized by the date on your baptismal certificate.
Mills even suggests that a convert’s knowledge of Scripture and theology is “naively” overrated, but adds, “that’s another article.” I look forward to seeing it, but just who does he have in mind?
The late Father Louis Bouyer, himself a convert from Lutheranism, told me his seminal book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, was started when he was a Lutheran but was a Catholic by the time he finished it. Is Bouyer one of those converts whose theological knowledge is overrated?
Finally, we come to Mills in the garden. In an attempt to make his argument concrete, he posits a garden with flowers — a convert does not stand amidst the garden, he says, but sees it “through a bay window.”
“He has to spend many years outside to know what life in the garden is really like,” Mills writes.
Am I mistaken in believing that I was received into the Church on the day I was confirmed at the Hawthorne Sisters’ Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta, Georgia in February, 1984? That puts me inside the garden, does it not? If not, at what point is a convert admitted?
If Mills had said “the longer a convert spends in the garden, the better he will know it,” I would immediately have agreed. But Mills does not say that, and I don’t understand why — it seems such an obvious point to me.
In any event, I hope Mills soon breaks out of his own self-imposed silence. He’s far too valuable to the Church as a convert and writer who can elucidate the mysteries of our faith.
Deal W. Hudson is publisher and editor of www.thechristianreview.com and host of a weekly radio show, “Church and Culture,” on the Ave Maria Radio Network.