The Care and Feeding of the Adult Convert

Certainly none of us was handed a sheet listing the Church's most controversial teachings and asked to check the boxes next to the ones we found objectionable. It was assumed that the conscience is best given room to grow. This assumption may be the correct one. Swept up in the glorious newness of all I was experiencing, I might well have handed my sheet back unchecked; only when the glow began wearing off did my critical faculties roar back to life. I don't think I was alone here. Even on those occasions when we were asked open-ended questions—invited, in other words, to participate in what the Church calls "faith-sharing"—I saw people struggling to come up with pleasing answers. We might not have been ideological animals, but we were certainly social animals.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. Traditionally, the Church has observed a generous admissions policy. The staff of my RCIA program regarded us as commonsensically as priests once regarded the children in their confirmation classes. They knew perfectly well that a certain percentage would fall away, at least to the point of limiting their Mass attendance to Christmas and Holy Week, but admitted them to the sacraments and hoped for the best. Thanks to this inclusiveness, we can take perverse pride in knowing that even Adolf Hitler, at 13 already a proper little brat, was briefly a fully functioning member of the Mystical Body of Christ.

But the world's changed since then. There's no longer any cultural imperative to be a Catholic, or even to go through the motions. The West is now mission territory. For those reasons, there's talk of raising the bar. Not long ago, a blogger asked, "What if each of us was to get a fallen-away Catholic friend or relative back into the Church?" This person did not sound like a crank; he sounded like a sign of the times. If training urban evangelists will soon number among the goals of adult catechesis, the program will have to change radically from what I went through. I have to wonder, in what direction?

If you want to squeeze particular results out of social animals, there's an obvious way to do it: tighten the social pressures. Various ecclesial movements have adopted this high-intensity approach, and it's worked largely to their advantage. For years, Regnum Christi defended itself against its detractors by pointing to the fact that it—in marked contrast to the Western Church as a whole—was growing. Yet there's always a human cost; many people have complained about abuse that was not sexual but emotional—to give it a name, bullying. Whether or not there was any malicious intent, whether or not the behavior met some objective standard, the fact remains, people felt, subjectively, that their wills were being bent.

I would hate to see this sort of thing creep closer to the norm. When I hear people expressing impatience with catechesis, I find it difficult to see how it won't. I mean this, then, to be a kind of plea for understanding on behalf of adult converts. If the Church's numbers do, in fact, start to rebound, there will be many more of us, each with his own quirky reasons for being here and his own set of mixed feelings. We may breathe new life into the Church, but perhaps not quite the kind of new life a lot of folks expect. We're human clay, after all.

If you believe in God, you'll give Him a chance to work on us.

9/4/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Catholic
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  • Max Lindenman
    About Max Lindenman
    Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon.