“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.