Catholic 101: In praise of Catholic converts

Recently, there has been a flood of articles about the snobbery that cradle Catholics seem to exhibit towards those who were not born in the faith. Many good arguments have been put forward, including that it takes a lot of effort to be accepted in the Church so that’s a testament to their faith, and how many great saints were converts and contributed to the development of the Church in many ways. As much as any argument referencing the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is a winner with me, the reality is that the Church itself is a Church of converts, and I don’t just mean St Paul’s dramatic conversion on the way to Damascus.

Maybe being a revert gives me the perspective of a convert, but there is a reason why Protestant denominations put a lot of emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Whatever your background, there will come a day when you take the conscious decision to say “Yes” to God, and give your life over to Him. Without such decision, which can be  reflected in as little as being more intentional about the words of the Creed which you know by heart and repeat every week, being born and raised in a Catholic family means little. It just makes you somewhat more likely to do it than someone who never experienced Christian life.

I was listening to an old episode of the Thriving in the Trenches podcast, and the topic at some point was a family of revert and convert looking for a painting of the Divine Mercy that wasn’t creepy, and how they went about expressing their Catholic identity in the way their house looks. As someone who plans to buy cute prints of Bible verses (but still hasn’t done it…) and whose bookshelf is the only giveaway of which particular denomination she belongs to (although I also have a copy of the ESV Bible in the Protestant canon), that conversation struck me. One of my favourite things about converts is that they bring their past with them, and I find that it enriches the Church (it’s not news that I really love the Ordinariate and the fact they have their own liturgy).

And there was a family wanting to assimilate to what is a traditional way of looking Catholic instead (I am aware that icons for many are a way to life their thoughts to heavenly things). They were exactly the kind of person the people who seem so concerned with Catholicity that they look down on converts should be praising, while I, baptised and raised Catholic I’m not, because I really like what Vatican II has done to open the Church beyond its being cliquey.

So, really, the prejudice makes no sense. It might be anecdotal, but most converts seem to go to great lengths to out-traddy the traddies. Maybe it’s genuine being on fire with the faith and nothing more, but they learn about all things that mark the Church from all other options (especially if they converted from a Christian denomination). This reminds me of the Harry Potter series and the attitude of Pure-Blood Wizards towards Muggles. You have those snobbing the inferior group, even those of muggle origin that are wizards, and those for whom their wizardry is a birth right that allows them to be welcoming of the different because it doesn’t threat their sense of identity.

Matthew Schmitz suggested that this kind of snobby cradle Catholics feel like a man moved into their house and started competing for the affection of their mother, calling for converts’ forgiveness of such understandable jealousy. It’s a point I believe fair, but the behaviour still rings of being cliquey. If we truly believe in the Catholic (= universal) and Apostolic (= go out and make converts of all nations) Church, we know there is enough affection to go around. Another commentator made the point that this prejudice is the attitude of the older brother of the Prodigal Son, and I couldn’t agree more.

All my concerns with this prejudice against converts boils down to one main thing: it turns being a Catholic into the legalism of the Pharisees. It makes it about externalities, and forgets that God brought these people to the Church at a specific point of their lives for a reason. As someone invested in ecumenical work I value their backgrounds and the way it shapes their experience of the new faith: Jesus prayed that the church be one, and so it’s mandatory that we understand our differences and how to heal them. Some people seem to be running scared of anything that threatens the way the faith looks to them, whether it’s converts keeping a charismatic approach threatening the silent Mass loved by the EF aficionados, or the appreciation of high Catholic liturgy when cradle Catholics are attached to their modernisation.

There are, of course, many converts in the blogosphere who are quite insufferable, but they too are God’s creation and often, behind the judgemental and holier-than-thou attitudes they have a lot of valid points to make. They often understand things we take for granted on a level of deeper experience because of the journey they have been on and many cradle Catholics haven’t.

It’s about time we accepted that there is no one way to be Catholic. What makes you one isn’t the style of worship, the devotions you perform, or what your house looks like. It’s not even about blood. It’s the absolute faith in the dogmas of the Church that Jesus instituted. Anyone who has satisfied their parish priest of this requirement and was baptised is the right sort of Catholic, full stop.

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  1. The ironic thing about people debating whether a cradle Catholic or a convert Catholic is more Catholic is the reality that God loves everyone and only wants us to know his love. He wants us to understand our need for a savior and therefore be saved and give our life over to Him. God does not prefer Catholics over Lutherans or Lutherans over Catholics, it is only us humans who think we should or could quantify or qualify God’s acceptance of us in His kingdom. God rejoices whether we give ourselves to him when we are 5 or the day before we die. He is not judging who is a better Catholic. The only people doing that are Catholics, which means they are missing the point of being a Christian.

    1. “It is only us humans who think we should or could quantify or qualify God’s acceptance of us in His kingdom” that’s very true. I mean, we know from Matthew 7:21 that not everyone who will call the Lord Master will be known to Him, if there’s a sobering thought about our denominational quarrels this is it. Sadly, I know a lot of non-Catholics doing the same. It takes a lot of humility to admit that at the end of the day we’ll know the goat from the sheep when the Lord does the sorting on judgement day, and then all our striving for the purest doctrine and who has the right interpretation of the Bible may or may not prove to have been a useful exercise!

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