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Us Versus Them: Part Four of Theologian Converts

In light of the discussions Meg and Charlie have been having about Paul Griffiths’ lecture at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting (in which a side question has indeed been what it means that Griffiths is a convert), in this segment of my convert series, I want to think more about the presence of an “us” versus “them” in a convert/cradle divide.

One of the “us” versus “them” questions people ask about converts is to suggest that there is a ideological shift, perhaps along generational lines; today’s teens and young adults are rebelling against the overly liberal (hippie?) ideologies of their parents in favor of conservative religious forms and norms, and so they convert (or revert).  This is the context in which some Catholic scholars have worried (perhaps in the context of a job search) about Catholic converts ruining the church, because converts do not seem to be aware of the fights that have taken place in and around Vatican II.  What is it, they ask, with these converts coming back in droves to things that seem passé: things like the Latin mass, Eucharistic adoration, and the church’s teachings against contraception?  Converts seem not to be safe because they were often not trained by good “liberal” Catholics, and instead seem to have glommed on to the weirdest of old Catholic practices.

In his book Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome, Patrick Allitt argues that there was indeed a pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II split among converts.    Late nineteenth and early twentieth century converts, explains Allitt, had the aim of dragging “recalcitrant Catholics into the realm of the respectable, while trying to shift the zone of respectable ideas in the society at large, in order that Catholic truth and respectable ideas might coincide more fully.” (15).  Hence, the likes of Graham Greene, GK Chesterton, Avery Dulles, Thomas Merton, and Evelyn Waugh all become mainstays in Catholic literature and culture, and who find a purpose in converting others and arguing against excessive, worldly culture.  Yet increasingly, suggests Allitt, converts lost influence because of secularism.  Conversion before Vatican II represents an attempt to convert the world against modernism but later Catholics were less likely to oppose “the spirit of the age.” (Allitt, 309)  Thus Marshall “McLuhan was disappointed to find the fires of the Catholic faith smoldering rather than burning bright.  U.S. and Canadian Catholics seemed to him self-satisfied conformists rather than zealous challengers of a decadent society.” (Allitt 313)  In a post-Vatican II world, Allitt suggests that converts are nearly as influential as earlier ones but their world view is so vastly different that their story cannot be told in the same way.  Nor, says Allitt, is the church so actively engaged and vested in courting converts as it was before Vatican II.


Another story can be told about Catholic converts, though, that relates to the question of subcultures.  In 2002, journalist Colleen Carroll wrote a book called The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, about a generational shift that she was seeing in numbers of young adults who were converting to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in which she finds exactly what an older generation fears: people who are attracted to the Tridentine Latin Mass and Eucharistic adoration, among other things.  She suggests that the people who convert do tend to map on to so-called “conservative” aspects of religion, are often supporters of the church’s teachings against birth control and make up the bulk of a crowd at a Tridentine Latin Mass or Byzantine Rite Mass.

Like Allitt, Carroll sees something of a generational shift, for causes of peoples’ conversions include dissatisfaction with relativist culture, a desire for deeper and “more authentic expression[s] of spirituality” (Carroll 17), a desire to worship God more intentionally (Carroll 43).  Carroll’s focus contrasts to an era of Catholic subculture where Catholicism survives because people are born into that culture, and stick with it because that’s what they know.  William Portier makes this case for cradle Catholics as well in “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics” but he goes further to suggest that the church today requires evangelical Catholics (whether born Catholic or converted), those who desire to worship God more fully and follow the dictates of the Pope, to be witnesses to lackluster churches.  A common story among Catholics who converted in the 1950s and 1960s is that they converted because they were about to marry Catholics, and so the Catholic culture was able to maintain and perpetuate itself.  The loss of Catholic subculture and the rise of relativism in many forms means that many people quite simply don’t care what religion their spouse practices.  Marriage to a Catholic is still a reason people convert, but there are many many others who convert out of those deeper longings and desire for norms that Carroll writes about.

Here is a point where Stanley Hauerwas’ theology lends itself toward conversions among his students, for Hauerwas speaks favorably of this kind of Catholic subculture.  For example, he writes, “ When Catholics came to the United States, they were told, ‘This country is based on the neutral principle of the separation of church and state.’ Catholics said, ‘That principle doesn’t sound neutral to us.’ So they built their own schools…. Catholics thought of themselves as Catholics.  They had no concept of what it meant to be individuals.  In fact, they believed that one couldn’t be free if one wasn’t ultimately loyal to the church.  Without a sense of legitimate authority, Catholics believed that one would simply serve one’s own conscience, which would be a terrible thing if that conscience hadn’t been well formed.” (“Christianity: It’s Not a Religion: It’s an Adventure”, in Hauerwas Reader, 523).  The Catholic subculture, on this account, was able to help morally form people in a way that no longer exists.  In fact, some converts have often been accused of seeking a church that is not there, idolizing something that does not exist.  For example, perhaps they glorify the idea of a subculture while not having to exist in a subculture.

What is interesting, though, is to compare Carroll’s stories of converts (admittedly much lesser known people) with Allitt’s converts.  Both books depict central themes of people converting in the face of dissatisfaction with a relativist world and with modern strands of thought that ultimately are not compelling.  That should call into question whether we can tell coherent stories of conversion in relation either to subcultures or to Vatican II as an explanatory factor, which is not to say that either has not been an important facet of Catholic experience in the past few decades.  Yet perhaps the concern with convert voices today is more accurately depicted as a concern with patterns of thought dating back many more centuries: disquiet with over-rationalizing things, concern with modernity, the intertwining of capitalist and democratic concerns with an encroachment of an industrial revolution and a technological age.

To take concern with modernity as a case in point: a common narrative told about the Catholic social encyclical tradition, Vatican I and the rise of neo-Thomism is that those are distinct responses to a variety of modern questions about what it means to be an individual, what it means to be rational, and how political, technical, and economic structures can or should reflect those, vis a vis the Church. Yet a common narrative told about Vatican II and its aftermath, particularly with its emphasis on aggiornamento and “signs of the times” is that it, too, is a response to modernity, though it is a later modernity. This is in addition to the questions both Allitt and Carrol raise about modernity in relation to their respective groups of converts. While the specifics of the questions in the 19th century compared to the 20th are surely contextually distinctive, I suspect that in the relatively short time frame of the period called modernity, we are still wrestling with how to deal with these questions.  It may well be the case that just as a history of the Nicaean Creed is told over several centuries, so too someday will the history of the Church in modernity.

Perhaps too, that simple point suggests we also cannot see the story as cradle Vatican II Catholics against the more conservative convert upstarts.  We end up, each of us, being called upon to deal with and answer questions that are likely to keep hounding us for a while. There is clear disagreement over the answers to those questions, but it is not at all clear to me that those disagreements always or even mostly shake out along convert/cradle lines, but rather in relation to a person’s assessment of liberalism and modernity as they relate to being a follower of Christ.

This assessment often dovetails with how bishops and magisterial teaching reflect liberalism and modern concerns, of course, which is to say that on my view at least, Church teachings on the whole reflect skepticism about liberal modern projects. What this means is that if one of the reasons a convert has become Catholic hinges on that person’s answers to the liberal/modern questions, that person will appear to be wholesale (perhaps even unreflectively to a liberal cradle Catholic?) acquiescing to magisterial authority and presuming that as a starting point. But this question about authority will need to be the focus of a future part.



  1. Jana, thanks for these posts on converts. I am just now catching up on them. You can add me to the list of theologian converts. Your posts and many of the comments seem to suggest that most of these converts are former evangelical Protestants, or at least more conservative members of leftward-moving denominations, like the Episcopalians. But my experience is quite different. I was a very “liberal” Methodist, and even for a time affiliated with the Unitarian Universalists, and my “conversion” had very little to do with an escape to a more “conservative” church. I would need to think through a bit more what exactly it DID mean though!

    I also appreciated your distinction between the pre-Vatican II converts and post-Vatican II converts, since that had also come to mind for me when reading your first post. In a sense I relate more to the pre-Vatican II converts, who tend to come from secular or liberal Protestant backgrounds, although I relate to the concerns of the post-Vatican II converts. However, you are missing one very important pre-Vatican II convert, Dorothy Day. Despite my theological and political disagreements with Day, I can especially relate to her conversion. Unlike the other converts you mention, her concern was definitely not to make Catholicism more respectable. Her concern was seeking something more than what her earlier, secular life had to offer, which I think explains her continuing appeal even after Vatican II, to Catholics concerned with not giving in so easily to the “spirit of the age,” as you said.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Matt. I am surprised, really! – by your thinking that my posts presume mostly evangelical Protestants, since my own upbringing was from very liberal Methodism, and that’s very much where I’m writing from, though I am also bringing in, on occasion, what I have read from convert literature. My list, in my first post, can and should be read very very broadly – different people would read those in different ways. As someone who grew up in liberal Methodism, for example, women’s ordination really was something I had to think through and figure out how to relate to in relation to Catholicism – but that would be a different kind of thought process than it would be for someone whose church never ordained women but who might, for example, be disturbed by the idea that there are Catholics who advocate for women’s ordination. Gay marriage and ordination is another one that hits me differently – especially since many of the priests I met when I first considered becoming Catholic are gay, but gay ordination was a hugely hot button issue in the UMC at the time in a way that it wasn’t – at least then – for Catholics. Indeed, on that point, Catholics seemed far more open than much of the UMC.

    So I’d love to get a better sense from you about what seems evangelical Protestant about the story as I’m telling it –

    Allitt doesn’t particularly focus on Day which is why I didn’t allude to her here. I do, however, see her fitting into Allitt’s trajectories in the sense that she, like the others, offers a critique of what modern life had wrought – at least, that’s how I would narrate her seeking something more. That said, I think it is the case that she was not trying to make a rational case for Catholicism in the same way as the others. Indeed, I think that one of the things Allitt misses that Carroll doesn’t so much is that intellectual life in relation to Catholicism is only part of the story – and that more affective aspects, such as the Eucharist and retreats and spiritual focus are as much part of it, if not more – but then, Allitt’s historical account is precisely about the intellectual life of these converts, so I shouldn’t fault him too much.

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