I recently attended a theological conference where, at several points, those of us in attendance made note of how many converts to Catholicism there were present among us. Indeed, at one of the after dinner wine-and-cheese sessions (where the really serious theological discussion gets going), we counted that 13 of 15 people in the room were converts. By converts, we meant a broad term: those of us who had grown up not Catholic and now found ourselves as baptized, confirmed and Eucharized Catholics. For some, that meant adult baptism and the whole rest of the RCIA process, but for most of us, it meant that we had grown up as some version of Protestant and were now in full communion with Rome.
I have long joked that someday I would like to write a book about the effects Catholic converts have on contemporary theology. I have wondered whether and how our various Protestant backgrounds account for our various theological enterprises as Catholics. For example, if predestination was a seriously troubling theme as a Protestant, does it remain so post-conversion, only in Catholic guise? And if so, what does that guise look like? I have wondered about how much of a conversation gap exists between cradle Catholics and Catholic converts, the extent to which we believe we speak about the same things but do not. I have wanted to know how not having grown up with Catholic identity in particular ways (for example, the ways even my post-Vatican II cohort went to confession on Saturdays, or prayed the rosary as a family, or abstained from certain foods during Lent) affects my theological reflections.
Maybe some day I will figure out how to write such a book.
In the meantime, I want to write an occasional series of reflections on Catholic converts on this blog.
It’s not an openly discussed subject most of the time – more murmurings behind the scenes. Yet I suggest that currently Catholic “converts” are generally suspect in relation to many “cradle Catholics”. The presence of “converts” has a way of polarizing theological conversation into “us” versus “them”, dividing “real Catholics” from those who presumably aren’t real (and of course, who counts as a “real” Catholic is also a matter of debate). I have heard people complain that converts do not really understand Catholic theology because they bring Protestant habits with them about reading scripture, about discussing topics like God and that good old faith versus works debate; I have been privy to a few academic searches where people have discussed whether a convert would really be a good fit for a department; I have heard converts denounced as people who ruin the church because they are “more conservative” than the “real” Catholics. More positively, cradle Catholics have lamented that they didn’t get to make a “choice” like converts do, that they don’t know the scriptures as well as converts do, that they’re not as fired up about the faith, and perhaps most importantly, didn’t have a choice to make about their relationship with authority.
“Us” versus “them”. We name those dichotomies in other ways, too. It seems that more and more, lately, we seem polarized between the so-called “cafeteria Catholics” and the ones who are “more Catholic than the Pope”, between the “liberals” and conservatives”, between the ones who on some views shouldn’t even bother to call themselves Catholic and the ones who are supposedly “Catholic enough”. Abortion, homosexuality, and recent questions about what it means to be a capitalist and Catholic, in relation to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation all have been ways to polarize Catholics along specific lines, meaning – we tend to see ourselves as polarized on moral grounds.
If we were to name names, would divisions show up along convert/non-convert grounds? I suspect that at least for some issues, they would.
The “us” versus “them” raises serious questions for moral theologians in all areas: questions about identity in Christ, virtue and natural law, and social questions relating to how to deal truthfully with the social issues that so divide Catholics. So, when I focus here on Catholic converts and the problems “they” bring, I am also thinking more broadly of the “us” versus “them” tension that threatens to further divide Catholics from each other, because I think the questions about converts and the politics/election questions Catholics raised relate to each other. I think that how we relate to each other as convert/cradle may provide some inklings for how we might more deeply expose divisions that ought not to exist in Christ’s body.
What I want to do in this brief weekly series is discuss three “us” versus “them” questions that I think converts raise for Catholic theology. The first two questions I discuss are about Catholic identity and how that shapes moral questions; the third question is about decision making. I will conclude with a post naming some thoughts on the larger “us” versus “them” dichotomy.
For more on this, tune in next week. Until then, I want to pose a question my fellow bloggers and all our readers: what’s your thought on how Catholic converts influence contemporary Catholic theology?