High-Profile Converts Pay a Price for Joining Church

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Every convert to the Catholic Church brings with them a unique and personal story of an adventure in faith. And like all adventures, joining the Church involves taking some risks — most often risking the disfavor of loved ones who disapprove of the convert's decision to become a Catholic.

When people in public life convert to Catholicism, the risk is played out on a larger scale. Their decision is often publicly scrutinized and their motives questioned. Some have lost their jobs and their status in the community.

And yet, the Church has witnessed a spate of high-profile conversions in recent years: Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Duchess of Kent, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade), Frances Shand Kydd (the mother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales), and Dick Thompson (prosecutor in the Kevorkian assisted-suicide cases), just to name a few. These public people, and many others besides, have been willing to endure public rancor in order to seek the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church.

“There is no question that [a convert] in the public limelight stands to lose public sentiment,” according to Patrick Madrid, editor-in-chief of Envoy magazine and the editor of Surprised by Truth, a book of accounts of conversion experiences. “They comeunder a lot more scrutiny, and often people will offer unflattering hunches as to why the person became Catholic.”

Madrid cited the example of Dr. Tom Howard, a celebrated evangelical thinker and English Professor at Gordon College (affiliated with Gordon-Cromwell Presbyterian seminary) near Boston, who converted to Anglicanism, and later to Catholicism.

“The move immediately cost him his job and his social circle,” Madrid explained.

“I take a lot of personal courage and encouragement from these converts, because I see in them a heroic willingness to follow Christ wherever he leads, and that's a lesson that all of us need to learn,” Madrid said. “I think that the immediate value in seeing the testimony of a convert coming into the Church is that it reminds me that I, too, am an apostle. I am called to lay down my life in whatever form that might take, and that I, like they, have an obligation to follow Christ even when it's difficult or when people jeer at me for doing so.”

Britain's Duchess of Kent left the Anglican Church and became a Catholic in 1994. At the time of her conversion, there was a lot of speculation about it in the press, and so Anglican and Catholic leaders in Britain held a news conference in which they said they thought her conversion might help to bring both Churches “closer together.”

But had the Duchess been a direct heir to the throne, the spin might not have been so positive. A British law written in the early 18th century bars anyone in line for the throne from “communion with the … Church of Rome” or from marrying a Catholic. The Duke of Kent, her husband of seven years, is 18th in line for the throne, but the law will not apply in this case since she was an Anglican at the time of their marriage.

Not every story is so dramatic, but when a high profile person makes public any part of their search for the truth, even before that search leads them to the Church, it is often an occasion for criticism.

Such was the case for Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an ob-gyn who is a leader in the pro-life movement. In the early 1970s, Nathanson chaired a group that lobbied for legalizing abortion, and later directed an abortion clinic. He renounced the abortion industry and his role in it in Aborting America, a book he co-wrote with Richard Ostling in 1979. Nathanson became a Catholic in 1995.

“When I first started talking about it [becoming a Catholic], there were a lot of raised eyebrows and public discussion,” Nathanson recalled. “But when I finally became a Catholic, it had been such a long, gradual incline for me that reaching the peak was an almost indiscernible experience.”

“Publicly, I had identified with the Church in matters political and moral for a long time,” Nathanson said. “People had gotten used to my talking about it. I had the advantage of time.”

Nathanson wrote about his conversion experience in his book, Hand of God.

“Basically, it was a matter of seeking unattainable forgiveness, and finding that it was attainable, through spiritual means,” Nathanson explained.

He said that he thinks many people now are entering the Church in search of a “moral compass.”

“In this upside-down world where good is bad and black is white — it's an Orwellian world, really — people are desperate for a moral compass. And there it is in the Church,” Nathanson said.

“Converting is like suddenly coming into this magnificent inheritance or legacy. Cradle Catholics to me are like people with old money — they can't fully appreciate it,” Nathanson observed.

Dick Thompson is another new Catholic whose principles led him to the Church, and might have cost him his job. He spent four years as a prosecutor, eight of those as the elected prosecutor of Oakland County, Mich.

“My office prosecuted Jack Kevorkian for all those assisted suicides, despite the tremendous public support [60% to 70%] for what he was doing,” Thompson said. “We lost those cases, mainly because the juries were reflecting public opinion.”

Thompson also lost his bid for reelection in 1996.

“My election became a referendum on enforcing the common law on assisted suicide,” Thompson commented. “There was a lot of support for the law being changed, but as a prosecutor, I felt it was my duty to support the law.”

“As I was involved in the issue of assisted suicide, I was led to the Church,” Thompson said. He became a Catholic in March.

In the midst of what he calls a “firestorm of controversy” about the issue of assisted suicide, Thompson started doing more than just legal research. He started reading theology, the writings of some of the saints, and the encyclicals of John Paul II, especially Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).

“In [Evangelium Vitae], the Holy Father specifically discussed euthanasia, abortion, and assisted suicide. He said that public officials, as a matter of conscience, could not substitute what the public thinks for what was right. I was not going to sacrifice those issues just to get elected,” Thompson explained.

Thompson is currently trying to establish a public interest law firm, and spends a lot of his time speaking and consulting on the issue of assisted suicide, which will be put before Michigan voters this fall.

“There is a great concern that a lot of Catholics are not supporting the Church on this issue,” he said.

In spite of the professional sacrifices, Thompson feels that his adventure was well worth the risk. “I am happier since I joined the Church,” he said. “I feel at peace.”

Molly Mulqueen writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.