The zeal of converts


Many of the critics of Pope Francis in his more liberal positions are converts to Catholicism, a fact that liberal Catholics are throwing in their face.

The gist goes something like this:  You converted to Catholicism so now you think you’re more Catholic than the pope.  You still think like a Protestant.  Or like a Fundamentalist.   Because you are a convert, you don’t really understand Catholicism, which is organic, fluid, ever-developing, etc.

Now those who convert to a particular church or ideology do so because they believe in it.  Of course converts will tend to be conservatives.  As C. S. Lewis has observed, hardly anyone converts to the liberal forms of Christianity.  Why should they?  Theological liberals, on the other hand, tend to be “lifers” who think their church body should be changed.

I know this this true in my case, convert to Lutheranism that I am.  It drives me to distraction when I come across “Lutherans” who want to eliminate from our church body elements that were the very things that made me want to join it (e.g., doing away with the liturgy; downplaying doctrinal distinctives to be more like evangelicals or mainline Protestants).  The people who want to make changes are typically life-long members who are tired of their traditions and want to try something new.  They don’t know what it’s like on the outside.  Or why authentic Lutheranism can be so attractive to someone coming from the mainline denominations or from generic evangelicalism.

One question I have to liberals in my tradition is, if you don’t like our church’s positions–on, say, women’s ordination, gay marriage, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc.–why don’t you go elsewhere?  Why don’t you “convert” to one of the many liberal denominations that you agree with?  Why do you want to change this one?  The answer is usually something on the order of, “This is my church!  I was born in this church!  My ancestors have been members of this church for generations!”  This gives them a sense of ownership.  And, I’m sure, a sense of annoyance at us newcomers.

At any rate, converts tend to be especially zealous for their new identity.  This will be true also of Calvinists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and even of non-religious affiliations, such as conservatism.  Evangelicals, of course, all have experienced a conversion from non-belief to Christianity, which explains their zealousness.  Church membership, though, is not such a big deal for most evangelicals, who often go from one evangelical denomination or non-denomination to another.  I am referring here not to Christian conversion but to “conversions” from one Christian tradition to another.

Catholic converts probably have it harder, though, than others.  Many people convert to Catholicism because they have read Chesterton, Newman, and Neuhaus (all converts, by the way).  They think in terms of the medieval synthesis; they love the idea of a universal church that doesn’t change; they yearn for the majesty of the Mass.  Then, once they go through instruction, they find themselves in a parish with a priest who favors liberation theology, feminist nuns, and an informal folk-mass that is sappier than the services they were fleeing from.  So of course they become Catholic traditionalists, searching for Latin masses and becoming frustrated with much of contemporary American Catholicism.

I do, however, see a potential problem in churches consisting mostly of converts.   More than one-third of Americans belong to a religion other than the one they were born into.  (Most of that, I suspect, has to do with the denominational fluidity of evangelicalism, mentioned above.)  But there can be a danger a consumerist approach to church membership, selecting a church because you “like it” or because it conforms with your beliefs.  As opposed to being a part of a church that has formed you spiritually for your whole life.

My wife and I are converts to Lutheranism, but I am thankful that our children have had the benefit of “being born into the church.”  They have had the benefit of baptism, Lutheran schools, confirmation, and weekly worship.  Now that they are adults, they are still faithful Lutherans, for which we are eternally grateful.  (I realize that it doesn’t always work out that way.  I have had students who doubt their denominational identity and even their Christianity because they think they only believe because of their upbringing, as if God didn’t use the vocations of the family to bring children to Himself.)

I hope that our children and their congregations will appreciate converts when they find them.  Converts who genuinely appreciate their theological tradition can help “lifers” to do the same.


Photo:  John Ragai, adult confirmations, Flickr, Creative Commons License


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