Georgetown: Conversions Down

We’re not hitting our numbers.

That’s the gist of the latest report from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Numbers of non-infant entries into the Catholic Church have nosedived from a high of 172,581 in 2000 to 111,918 in 2010.

Interestingly, there’s no obvious correlation between the decline and the clerical sex abuse scandal. The year 2002, when the Boston Globe first reported on abusive priests and indulgent superiors, actually saw a slight increase over the previous year. The big dip — from 150,007 in 2005 to 111,918 in 2007 — occurred long after the scandal had become common knowledge.

Naturally, this raises the question of what we’re doing wrong, or more helpfully, what could we be doing better. Speaking as a recent convert with a sales and marketing background, I feel as though I ought to come up with an answer, but I’ve got nothing. The problem is, CARA doesn’t tell us who these non-infant entrants are, where they came from, or what motivated them. The absence of that data works like an invitation for everyone to ride his favorite hobby horse — “People want a Latin Mass!” “No, idiot, they want the bishops to take a stronger antiwar stance!” Et cetera, et cetera.

What I can do is offer a few observations from the two RCIA classes I was involved in — the first as a candidate, the second as a sponsor. A few caveats are in order, though. First, the parish where these classes were conducted has an historic connection to a university. (The church and offices stand right across the street from campus.) For that reason, most of the converts came from the middle and upper-middle classes. Most were either students or alumni; many were studying for higher degrees. In the class where I served as a sponsor, there was one African American girl who came from a lower-income background and had no connection to the university. Nobody had any idea how she’d gotten there, but we all doted on her.

With that in mind, here goes nothing:

Many People Enter the Church for Non-Ideological Reasons

All told, I can think of two people — out of, perhaps, 30 — who entered the Church because they had convinced themselves intellectually of her eternal truths. One came from a very strict fundamentalist family and could recite Scripture like a shopping list. Another had grew up Episcopalian, and was working for some social-services agency. Both had read and studied their way across the Tiber, and could ably explain and defend all the positions that distinguished the Catholic Church from their native faith traditions. (The Baptist could, in fact, talk the hind legs off a dray mule.)

The Hook’s in Hymen’s Altar…

I may well be selling the ideologues short a few people. Nevertheless, I maintain they formed a minority. Many more people, it seemed, were planning to marry a Catholic. Interestingly, most of these people were women. What that means I don’t know — do Catholic men (or their parents) make greater demands in the way of conformity than Catholic women (or their parents)? Or are non-Catholic men simply better at resisting calls to conversion?

Not every Catholic husband-to-be was equally supportive of his intended’s conversion. One classmate reported that her fiance, a severely lapsed Catholic from Ireland, had gasped, “Jaysus! What t’ feck d’ye want to do t’at for?” upon learning of her candidacy. I heard she did get him to attend Mass, at least a few times, though whether and where his mind might have wandered during the liturgy I can’t guess.

…And in the Reaper’s Scythe…

Probably the most poignant story was that of a family of three — a woman, her daughter and her boyfriend — who entered the Church over two consecutive Easters. The woman, suffering from a serious pulmonary disorder, took much of her oxygen through a tube, and was not expected to live much longer. She wanted to die a Catholic, and with some help from a priest who’d been a close friend, persuaded her boyfriend and daughter to convert along with her. From what I understand, the boyfriend’s son later joined the RCIA program.

…And in Brick Walls and Moments of Grace…

Now we come to me. I decided to become Catholic when I realized I’d never be rich — or, more exactly, when I realized I’d spend my life micromanaged in some corporate cube farm or other. My reward for such constriction of body and spirit would amount to Getting By…barely. Compared to the sacrifice, the reward seemed awfully scanty. To resort to a cliché, I wanted something more.

What made me seek that something in the Church was a strange combination of events. First, I found a collection of fun, laid-back Catholic friends online — this after I’d cut ties with my grad school friends, who had all gone on to much better things, and when my work mates were too tormented, or too tormenting, to make tolerable company. Second, I lost my job. Third, I got mugged. It was with a sense that all my bridges had been burned for me that, following an inexplicable impulse, I found my way to Mass one Sunday morning.

In some respects, Chip, the candidate I sponsored, had a similar story. After an unhealthy relationship had ended in fireworks, he’d woken up to find a rosary on his doorstep. With no idea who had left it there, he took it as a sign. Since then, I’ve learned that Catholics from certain organizations make a practice of leaving rosaries on strangers’ doorsteps in the hope of triggering just such conversions. Point to them.

Based on those scraps of data, it’s impossible to tease out all the implications for the development of an effective evangelization strategy. But I can see two:

1. Don’t keep kids in an airtight Catholic bubble. Let ‘em mingle. If your son, or somewhat less commonly, your daughter, comes home with a non-Catholic, the Church stands more to gain than to lose. If your kids are attending Ave Maria University, let ‘em visit Daytona Beach for Spring Break.

2. Offer hope and meaning. Pope Benedict has popularized the notion of affirmative orthodoy, which is fine. However, bear in mind that most people are not ideologues; for them, orthodoxy is neither here nor there. What they will recognize is a generally affirmative tone.

That last point should raise some objections. Many believe that a conversion is worth nothing unless the convert in question evolves into a cross between Polycarp and Bill Donahue — a tireless defender of the Church, her hierarchy and her teachings against all challengers, particularly when the teachings relate to sex. Though I won’t dispute that notion, I can’t believe, as many people seem to, that proper catechesis will serve as an assembly line for such creatures. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but he may prefer ginger ale.

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