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Musings on the gift and grace of conversion

All of us are converts, for all of us are being converted. Or should be. So stop using the term “converts” as an ideological stick.

(us.fotolia.com/ ZoneCreative)

“A convert is undeniably in favour with no party; he is looked at with distrust, contempt, and aversion by all. His former friends think him a good riddance, and his new friends are cold and strange; and as to the impartial public, their very first impulse is to impute the change to some eccentricity of character, or fickleness of mind, or tender attachment, or private interest. Their utmost praise is the reluctant confession that ‘doubtless he is very sincere.'” — John Henry Newman, “Private Judgment” (British Critic, July 1841)

“The Catholic, if he makes a serious attempt to convert you, is a proseltyzer; if he displays no particular interest in your conversion he is a Machiavellian Jesuit.” — Arnold Lunn, Now I See (Sheed & Ward, 1938)

I am thankful I was born and raised a Fundamentalist.

There are several reasons for this strange gratitude. One of them is that I am able to see myself referenced as “Carl Orlson” and described as one of several converts bearing “baggage” that “has distorted their hermeneutic”; I am, according to Austen Ivereigh, writing for CRUX, one of several sorry creatures now “suffering from convert neurosis.” It is this, and not good health, which has kept me from the doctor, as I must be harboring a hidden fear the physician will stare into my soul and deliver the bad news:

“Mr. Orlson, you are neurotic—and apparently have been for over twenty years now.”

“Can it be cured, doctor? Am I beyond hope? Is there mercy enough for even me?”

“Your rigidity,” I imagine him sniffing with only slightly disguised disgust, “suggests you may be terminal—but perhaps a steady diet of ultramontanism will cure you.”

The horror. Anyhow, for several months now I have been slowly working on an editorial titled “Twenty Years a Catholic.” This is not that editorial, but it may as well be a short precursor, inspired by the growing specter of convertophobia, which has upset Michael Sean Winters and captured the imagination of Italian journalist Massimo Faggioli. The primary focus of these cries of alarm has been the young Matthew Schmitz, an editor at First Things, who has already responded, earlier today, to Ivereigh, Winters, and Faggioli, stating:

Faggioli speaks as though it were after-hours at the Catholic Church, and anyone trying to enter should be subjected to questioning. There is an ecclesial nativism in his rhetoric, as if we become one with Christ through birth and not baptism. Converts perhaps need to be checked for lice or put in quarantine. “They have not faced the same kind of scrutiny or lengthy test and evaluation” as, say, new religious orders do. They are “finding an easier welcome into a Church that they then go and criticize.”

Austen Ivereigh echoes Faggioli in Crux. He writes that “Schmitz never actually said the pope wasn’t Catholic, but his narrative … adds up to something rather like it.” To support this assertion, Ivereigh quotes Ross Douthat saying something pungent about Pope Francis—though not, strangely, claiming that the pope is not Catholic. Let me see if I have this right: I did not actually say that the pope is not Catholic, but I as good as did, because Ross Douthat (and here I admit I lose the thread) also did not say that the pope is not Catholic. It is a game of thimblerig.

Ecclesial nativism is certainly a good term for it; there is also a sort of crude tribalism, as if the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard has no bearing on today’s situation. But of course it does, as it always has, because the entire distinction between “cradle Catholics” and “converts” is mostly smoke and mirrors. It is a rather cynical, even politicized, construct for those wishing to isolate, dismiss, and even smear those who were not born into the tribe. But, as even Ivereigh notes, correctly, conversion is not a single, isolated event. As the Catechism notes, “Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal'” (par 1428).

I hope that no one who was born into a Catholic family and baptized as an infant thinks he has somehow “arrived” because of his particular origins, or because she was confirmed at the age of 17, or even because he goes to Mass every Sunday. I never thought, and never will think, that in entering the Catholic Church two decades ago, I somehow “arrived” and was set for life. On the contrary, in becoming Catholic I accepted the fact—the fact—that I must work out my salvation, by God’s grace, with fear and trembling, just as another convert, the Apostle Paul, mentioned to the first Christians at Philippi.

Again, I am thankful I was born and raised a Fundamentalist. Why? Because my journey to and into the Church (with my wonderful wife), by God’s grace, was a fairly long and occasionally trying experience. It was often difficult; it was often exciting, surprising, bewildering, joyful, frustrating, and astounding. I have never regretted it. Nor have I ever taken it for granted, as I—after may years in a Fundamentalist church and two years at an Evangelical Bible college—spent countless hours studying Catholic theology, history, philosophy, teaching, and practice. I read the Fathers, the Doctors, the mystics, the Saints, the Councils, the popes, and the theologians. (There is a reason my personal library has 15,000 or so books, most of them consisting of theology, history, Scripture, and related matter—and a bookcase dedicated to jazz.) I’ve taught a weekly Bible study at my parish since 2000 because I love Scripture and learning more about God’s word; I teach classes in the Archdiocese of Portland because I want to share what little I’ve learned with others; I am blessed to work for Ignatius Press, an apostolate that has earned a deserved reputation for orthodoxy, fidelity, and quality.

So, to read that I am named as someone with a “neurosis”—and thus, as Ivereigh insists, have lost sight of reality—is both annoying and rather humorous. But I also understand that those who are unable to make theological arguments are going to resort to silly psychologizing and condescending shrillness. Very well. By their fruits and all of that. On a more important level, I think Faggioli, in his musings about ecclesiology, also misses or even misrepresents matters. Speaking just for myself, ecclesiology was a key aspect of my decision to become Catholic; reading Lumen Gentium was transformative; grasping the inner dynamic of the Church as communio was a gift. Anyone who has read my book Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? or the more recent collection (which I co-edited and contributed to) Called To Be the Children of God will recognize, I trust, that I’ve put some time and thought into my understanding of ecclesiology.

When it became known to friends and family, years ago, that we would soon be Catholic, there was a range of reactions. Many were quite negative, of course. A few friends severed all ties immediately. One family member asked, in anger, “Why would you join a church that tells you what you have to think?” My dear mother begged me to take a year and do nothing but read the Bible in Koine Greek (I had to remind her that I had already done so in my second year of Bible college). Several friends asked why I would worship Mary, or even worship the pope (a question that becomes more humorous by the day). Fundamentalism takes many forms, even if some Catholics don’t understand what it is or isn’t. And it is always characterized by the creation of stereotypes and the promotion of simplistic, fearful narratives at the service of ideological pursuits.

There is, as Paul told the Galatians, “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is, I think it safe to say, “neither convert nor cradle Catholic” when matters are seen in the correct light. Yet, it is also true that all of us are converts, for all of us are being converted. Or should be. For my part, I seek Christ; I seek to be converted to Christ, to be healed, to be made whole. Every day.

About Carl E. Olson 1038 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

17 Comments

  1. There is another strange category: the “revert.” The Catholic “catechized” during the Vatican II era most likely became an agnostic. At my Christian Brother’s High School, virtually EVERY classmate I had followed this path. I myself was devoutly lapsed. Fortunately, I discovered later that EVERY impression I had of the Catholic Church, and everything I had been taught as “truth” turned out to be a lie. I discovered the true Catholic Faith 25 years after being baptized as an infant. There are hundreds of thousands of Catholics like me in America alone.

    • Yes, I know of one who said that at 25 years old, he learned more from a 3rd grade catechism from the used book store than he did in 12 years of Catholic education.

    • I reverted 7 months ago just this year, after initially seeking faith and truth in a Non-denominational modern Christian church. I had been baptized, but was confirmed at 16 while indulging in homosexuality as though it was no sin at all. That led me down a nasty path. I’m now considering that my confirmation was not valid due to my autistic, aloof, sinful and agnostic position I had at the time of confirmation and shall consider re-confirming if that is necessary.

  2. The ones psychologizing are in great need of psychology themselves. Pope Francis’s sycophantic followers appear to be cracking under the strain. All of this is so very strange. First, Spadaro and Figueroa launch their weird attack, claiming that Protestants and Catholics in America are – for shame – working together, hand in hand. They take this as a sign that they are secretly collaborating with Trump to establish a theocracy to enslave all mankind. Now, this weird attack on Catholic converts. We now have Bizarro World Vatican, where everything is inside out. These people appear to be at their wits end. Next thing you know, they will be announcing that Catholics need to read all of L Ron Hubbards books to remain in a state of grace.

    • They don’t believe in Sanctifying grace. that’s how they can talk about communion in AL as if it’s just a question of discipline, or how they can speak so highly of Luther and of common understanding of justification.

  3. I only identify with serious Catholic people.

    Our “current” pope has endorsed a world famous theologian, Cdl. Kasper.

    Kasper is NOT a serious Catholic.

    Kasper denies the miracles of Jesus showing his power over nature and life and death (Jesus the Christ, 2011, pp 90-91).

    Kasper denies the theology of the great Council of Nicea, and the apostolic witness of St. James, who gave his life for the Lord. (Kasper, God in History, 1967).

    I take Pope John Paul II seriously, and I take Pope Benedict XVI seriously, because they take the Catholic faith seriously. For the same reason I take JP2 and B16 seriously, I do not take Pope F seriously, because he does not take the Catholic faith seriously.

    I identify with serious Catholic people who BELIEVE in the Gospel, the apostles, and the great councils, whether they are cradle Catholics, converts or reverts.

    And I do NOT trust people who write theology books to teach our children and seminarians to DISBELIEVE our faith. And I do not trust or appreciate Popes and Cardinals and Bishops and laity and journalists who promote such DISBELIEVING “theologians.”

    Pope F has my prayers for his conversion of heart, and a happy end to his failed papacy.

  4. Nice job Carl. I was amazed at the ignorance and condescension of Invereigh’s article. The rag should have been embarrassed to publish it. What is the point of attacking converts at a point when we need all the friends we can garner?
    Anyway, nice response from one neurotic to another.

    • Well I am a revert who can thank converts who wrote their stories. People like, you know, Steven Ray, Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi, Ross Moss etcetera. It’s pathetic to say it but until I started listening to Evangelical radio preachers like Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, Hank Hannegraph and others I never encountered anyone who was passionately pursuing God. Their enthusiasm fueled mine and my cold dead faith was ignited by the Holy Spirit using these people to reach me.
      So Evangelicals helped me “find” Jesus, Evangelical converts helped me “find” the Church I left.

      There’s a special place in my heart for all these dastardly Truth seeking believing Catholic converts. I’d share a catacomb with and of them!

  5. Well, kudos to you, my friend. Surely, I suffer from the same disease. My first experience of the “cold and strange” was also my first conscious conversation with a Catholic. I remember when, at the age of 16, I presented myself at the door of the rectory and asked to speak to “a father”. The parish secretary (or more precisely, the secretary’s nose, for all 6″ she opened the door of this very suburban, sedate parish rectory) informed me there were no “fathers” available. Fortunately, the burning Presence who had called me out of the darkness was not so easily put off. That was 40 years ago.

  6. Thank you for a great, heartfelt piece that resonated with someone who will admit to having subscribed to the now defunct Moody Monthly (Fr. Spadaro, please proceed to Wikipedia!)

    The moment I read the line “spiritual discernment,” I knew Ivereigh — or was it Faggioli? — would proceed to write in relatively indecipherable signals and opaque phrase letting him throw punches in a haze. One reason converts rule the Catholic blogosphere is they communicate in honest prose that makes sense, not postmodern gibberish (along the same lines a TIME columnist long ago observed that though you might not agree with evangelicals, they are almost the only ones who actually take theology seriously). Catholic converts don’t come off as pained Republicans (per Damon Linker’s slam ) so much as those who just honestly care about theology and moral living, as opposed to only the heady topics of politics social justice, and playing church. Frank Sheed saw the same fact in his forgotten ‘Is It The Same Church?’ Career Catholics too often were just bored with God!

    And anyone who thinks converts have it easy needs to get real. And go read an essay, now nearly 20 years old but as relevant than ever: “Becoming Catholic: Making it Hard,” by Ferrara and published in FT.

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/01/002-becoming-catholic-making-it-hard

    I know for myself, the single reason I have remained in the Church because I believe it is true, not because of any triumphalism or comfort or club membership.

    CRUX… thank goodness KOC and John Allen continue to operate such a vital source of… Well, maybe known else will call it “fake news,” but it certainly is hard these days to see if as an ally in the cause of Truth when it offers a soft perch for those who essentially dissenting writers. The pope may not judge, but I will… Ivereigh is essentially a European Catholic Harry Reid. Who also happens to quite loud about being ‘devout.’

  7. Personally my experience of convert is quite different than what Cardinal Newman refer to in the hotly controversial issue of conversion to Catholicism in Protestant England. Many converts are strong friends and have no shame, qualms, sense of persecution. In fact they frequently refer to their conversions as a blessed event and call themselves converts when we first met. Convert have contributed greatly to the Church in the past and especially at present, more o than many so called cradle Catholics like myself. I’ve always as others consider the word convert a badge of honor.

  8. The problem with converts is that they willfully embrace what the Church teaches and are on fire with the faith. They understand that Catholicism is a creed, not a birthright.

    • There’s a phrase Jewish people use to describe this birthright faith:

      Just becsuse you were born in a bagel factory doesn’t mean you’re Jewish.

  9. I tend to view most of these us v them differences to be rooted not in faith but politics. Some, like Invereigh it appears … view their faith only through the liberal-leaning lens … while many converts (including moi) have learned and realized the wonders of our faith and appreciate the orthodox beauty and truth.

  10. After attending the Midwest Catholic Family Conference over this last weekend, with the GREAT speakers, vendors, and the joy of MANY families with children, an experience such as this speaks for itself. Thank you for a great article, Carl, and Thanks Be To God for all who have or are making this journey. Let us pray for all who disagree with us, with love.

  11. Beautiful job, Carl. Thank you for that. Since you and I correspond, the rest of this is for the benefit of anyone who might read it and find it remotely helpful. I’m a Jewish convert, whose sudden conversion experience in 2005 was similar to Saint Paul’s—minus the Saint part, of course, and, uh, the horse—and chronicled on CWR in April, 2013. That article came out as part of a CWR tribute to Pope Benedict XVI right at the inception of the current pontificate. In these past four years, I’ve wondered time and again what kind of lunacy or worse has infected the Church, but then I think, “Hey, who am I to judge?” As my friend and fellow “completed Jew” (his phrase), Roy Schoeman puts it, “It’s all about the sacraments.” I try to keep my eye on that, try to do a little better each day with my scroll of personal failings, and pray. I’ve found (through hard experience) that it doesn’t do me much good to focus too often on what looks to be an out-of-control clown car with two wheels hanging over the cliff edge. I mean, it’s not like I have a hand on the steering wheel. But I’m sure the Holy Spirit does, and only Our Lord knows what He’s driving at.

  12. Thank you for this excellent article, Mr. Orlson. If a person’s character can be judged by examining his enemies, then I hope to share similar acquaintances with you.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Embarrassing and Inane Article in Crux Saying Catholic Converts Suffer from Neurosis | Defenders of the Catholic Faith | Hosted by Stephen K. Ray
  2. SATVRDAY AFTERNOON CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

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