“It is with diffidence that anyone born into the Faith can approach the tremendous subject of Conversion. Indeed, it is easier for one still quite unacquainted with the Faith to approach that subject than it is for one who has had the advantage of the Faith from childhood.”
So stated the prolific Hilaire Belloc in his introductory note to G.K. Chesterton’s 1927 book The Catholic Church and Conversion, which was written five years after Chesterton’s entrance into the Church. Belloc (whose mother was a convert) and Chesterton (who was Unitarian in his youth and Anglican until becoming Catholic at age 48) were so closely connected in friendship and perspective that the term “ChesterBelloc” was used to describe the two-headed pen-ship of the “cradle” Catholic and the convert.
One wonders what the two men might think of a recent spate of articles describing converts — really a specific group of mostly U.S. converts — as suffering from “convert neurosis,” given to complaining, being too talkative (and too conservative), and even being clueless about their blind embrace of an ecclesiological contradiction — or is it a contradictory ecclesiology?
Belloc, befitting his more combative personality, would likely scoff, having noted 90 years ago that “converts are perhaps the chief factors in the increasing vigor of the Catholic Church in our time.” While contemporary critics Michael Sean Winters, Massimo Faggioli, Austen Ivereigh and (to a lesser degree) David Mills see certain converts as annoying ciphers or unbalanced ideologues, Belloc thought the converts of his time gave “great modern witness to the truth of the Faith; to the fact that the Faith is reality... .”
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But Belloc returned to the last point later, emphasizing: “The phenomenon of conversion in every class, affecting every type of character, is the great modern witness to the truth of the claim of the Faith; to the fact that the Faith is reality, and that in it alone is the repose of reality to be found.” Hyperbole? Not at all.
Of Chesterton’s many remarks on conversion, two seem especially appropriate here. First: “There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.”
Every convert’s situation and journey is unique, and not all have serious roadblocks or difficulties. My wife and I, both of us former evangelical Protestants, encountered many encouraging words from Catholics as we slowly made our way to the Church more than 20 years ago. I say “encountered,” as most of those words were uttered by Catholics long gone from this world — Paul, Augustine, Aquinas and Newman come to mind immediately. But we never heard a discouraging word from a living Catholic.
In contrast, some Protestant friends and family members openly questioned our faith, motives, intellects and emotional stability; a few of them were kind enough to send packages of anti-Catholic books, tracts and tapes. There was a fair amount of psychologizing — all of it clumsy, some of it entertaining.
Alas, none of the current psychologizing by Catholics wary or critical of converts rises to the level of entertaining. But it is instructive.
Winters lambasts converts for “telling us that the Pope is not Catholic” — something none of the converts in question have done. Faggioli is critical of the lacking theology supposedly held by converts, but fails to provide examples while suggesting that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput — who is not a convert — is an accomplice. Ivereigh names seven converts (including me) as carriers of “baggage” that has “distorted their hermeneutic” and as sorry sufferers of “convert neurosis.” Ivereigh, who has since had to apologize for his infirm, insulting theory, was trying to explain certain criticisms of Pope Francis as the product of fevered imaginations still stuck in a former tradition: evangelicalism of the North American variety.
This point, in particular, interests me, and it brings us to the second remark by Chesterton: “The mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversion.” In speaking of tradition, Chesterton is not referring to sacred Tradition, but to human traditions, especially those that bequeath culture and continuity. Put another way, Catholicism must not be seen as a birthright or a culture of which we passively partake on our way to heaven; on the contrary, Catholicism is constant conversion, a path of discipleship demanding ardent care for the divine life gifted to us in baptism.
We do well to remember that we do not enter into the Body of Christ, the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15), through natural birth, but through the sacrament of baptism, which “is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit. … Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission ... ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213).
Mills, himself a convert, argues that 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.”
This is a curious argument, for at least two reasons. First, on the natural level, it apparently assumes that nothing learned or known prior to becoming Catholic is helpful for being Catholic. Clearly this is not the case, as belief in the Triune God, knowledge of Jesus Christ and study of Scripture are not just helpful in some practical way, but are truly Catholic — not just in a general sense, but in their essential quiddity. That is, belief in God culminates in the Catholic faith, just as knowledge of Christ and understanding of Scripture are fully realized in the Catholic Church, even as we readily admit we can never fully obtain perfection this side of eternal beatitude.
Secondly, and closely related, are the interior and divine relationships emphasized in many Vatican II documents. The Church, as Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) taught, is related in a real way to all men; it is a communio with relationships, ties and connections to every person.
Reflecting on the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christians, the Conciliar Fathers stated that “in all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and he prompts them to pursue this end” (LG, 15). Further, we read, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Catholic Church’s] visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (9; emphasis added).
Rather than thinking of Catholics and non-Catholics in terms of citizen or alien, native or foreign, think of them as members of a natural body (the human race) who have all been created to be members of a supernatural body (the Church), and whose deepest being and desires are for that union. All converts, of course, have individual paths, but every one of those paths involves coming into union with Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, so that we can have communion with the Father through and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Conversion, then, is a dynamic, relational reality, not a calculated, mathematical matrix. I did not have to “unlearn” the Trinity or the Incarnation; rather, as I learned more about the fullness of truth, my incomplete (and thus unbalanced) understandings of, say, Mary and the sacraments, were challenged, expanded, corrected and nurtured. And that continues, from today until my death.
The same is true for all Catholics. “Jesus calls to conversion,” states the Catechism (1427), and “Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion.” But it is not the last: "Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church…” (1428).
Mills argues, however, that the convert, whatever his learning, cannot possess “the real Catholic mind or imagination — the Catholic paradigm, the way Catholics see the world,” of which “he knows little. The new Catholic must work for many years to get that, and never will get it fully.” Never? This surpasses curious; it is strange. Actually, it is false, for the simple reason it denies the power of grace. The sincere convert (and God alone judges!) presents himself as a “living sacrifice” and desires to be “transformed by the renewal” of his mind, that he might “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Having been baptized, we “have put on Christ” — and “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Being born and raised a Catholic should be an advantage (as Belloc suggests), but in too many instances it really isn’t, as the past several decades suggest.
Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that Mills has inverted the relationship between Tradition and tradition. The Church has tremendous respect for traditions, but always at the service of divine Revelation and sacred Tradition. So, for example, am I less of a Catholic because I rarely use Latin, do not pray the Rosary and haven’t attended an Ash Wednesday service in years? Or am I more of a Catholic because I always receive Holy Communion on the tongue, participate in Divine Liturgy before an icon screen and with a priest facing liturgical east and pray the Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos? No, of course not.
To see the world as Catholics see the world means, first and foremost, to see the world through the eyes of Christ, with the mind of Christ and with the heart of Christ.
As Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Christian life is essentially marked by an encounter with Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him.” Sadly, there are lifelong Catholics who do not follow Christ; thankfully, there are Catholics, newly baptized or chrismated, who do; praise God, all of us are invited to enter “into the unity of his family, the Church” (Catechism, 1).