I. Tucker’s Arguments Against Converts.
Jeffrey Tucker at BeliefNet complains about the behavior of Catholic converts. It’s interesting, because he is a Catholic convert. He rightly notes that we Catholics love our converts and make a big deal of them, but he thinks that left unchecked, this can be damaging. Tucker claims that our convert-mania is dangerous because:
- it can make cradle Catholics seem lukewarm, when they’re really just settled down. A convert has the zeal of a person falling in love, while a cradle Catholic enjoys the sort of peaceful love associated with those celebrating their 50th anniversary together. It’s a different sort of relationship, and Tucker worries that converts are spiritually proud and look down their noses at cradle Catholics.
- He generally thinks that they’re over the top: zeal for God and His Church, though; I take his point, but disagree. I’m really ok with Catholics having crucifixes “in every room in the house (including the bathrooms!),” whether they’re cradle or converts.
- “They constantly show off their ability to quote the Bible—a leftover from their Protestant upbringing—and turn their noses up at Catholics who can’t do likewise (which means most Catholics.”
- His major argument is that converts “should be like newborn infants guilelessly drinking sweet milk from God. Newborn infants. That’s the message. Remember the old adage that children should speak only when spoken to? You don’t have to take it literally, but it’s good cautionary advice.” In other words, shut up and don’t tell us what to do until you know more of what you’re talking about.
I’m in total agreement with him on bits, completely disagree on other bits, and dislike his overall tone. The tone of his piece is annoyance, and I’m not positive he’s even trying to build up the Body of Christ. Still, I’m interested in his argument a lot because, although I grew up cradle Catholic, I wasn’t really exposed to the Faith – never believed as the Church the believed – until at least college. So in some ways, I think I exhibit traits characteristic of both groups (for better or, often, for worse). The things he describes are almost all spot-on, it’s just a question of whether they’re good or bad. Take this, for example:
And oh, do converts know better than you how to practice the faith! They ostentatiously strike their breasts thrice at the Confiteor. One convert, I’m told, informs friends that it is “theologically wrong” to bless oneself with holy water on the way out of the church, in contrast to the way in, which is fine. Who cares?
I’m one who strikes his breast firmly at the Confiteor, something I never did at all growing up. But I don’t think that it’s an ostentatious or proud display. I’m saying that I have sinned through my most grevious fault. I’m striking my breast, because (a) the Missal says to, even if most Americans ignore it; (b) it’s a physical reminder of your sins: it’s much harder to mumble along when you’re actually striking your breast midway through. Finally, it’s Biblical, and it’s the humble man, not the proud one, doing this in Luke 18:13, and striking our breast as we confess to God how wretched we are in our sins is hardly prideful. As someone who didn’t use to do it, and now does it, I’m glad I made the switch. Obviously, it’s easy to go from “I’m glad I made the switch,” to “other people could benefit from this,” to “everyone should make the switch,” to “those who haven’t made the switch are more sinful than me, a humble sinner.” But that’s true for almost any change a person can make, particularly spiritually. It’s easy to go from humbled at (and by) the Grace of God to being puffed up that you’ve got the Grace of God.
As for holy water on the way out of Mass, holy water removes venial sins by the same waters which are used in Baptism. We cross ourselves and basically re-present our Baptism as a remedy for sins. “Yes, I’ve commit these small(er) sins, but look, I am Baptized!” It’s a theologically profound statement. Taking the Eucharist equally absolves us from venial sins, so unless you’ve sinned between taking the Eucharist and exiting Mass, there’s no reason to bless yourself on the way out. The person pointing this out is explaining to cradle Catholics why they do what they do. They know: “holy water = time to cross myself,” but (speaking as a cradle Catholic who didn’t know this until pretty recently), they don’t necessarily “get it” beyond that.
Jeffrey Tucker asks, “Who cares?” But the answer is obvious: converts – people who discover that the seemingly insignificant action has a deep meaning, and who thinks that other people should want to know about that, too. I’m far more comfortable with the zeal new Catholics have, like a little kid telling you how evaporation works, because they found out what was going on for the first time, than I am with Tucker’s annoyed apathy.
II. Why I suggest this piece.
All of that said, I think if you wade through Tucker’s complaints, there’s something useful which can come out. One of his most important arguments is that “no liturgy is good enough for a convert. ” There’s a lot of truth for this – for anyone who falls in love with what the Church believes, and then sees what a lot of the American churches are doing every Sunday. Done right, this is a zeal for orthodoxy that hates heresy. Done wrong, it’s a recipe for sedevacantism: you love what you imagine the Vatican, or the Catholic Faith, to be so much you eventually drift away from the real life Vatican and real life Catholic Faith. [Obviously, the Vatican isn’t interchangable with the Catholic Faith, but often these two trends go hand in hand]. Gerry Matatics and Scott Hahn are old friends, and were really influential in each other’s conversion from Calvinism. Hahn has a healthy zeal for orthodoxy, while Matatics has become a sedevacantist. It’s always been like this, at least back to the days of Tertullian, who drifted away from the Church he was so fervent in defending. Or going back even further, St. Paul (himself a convert), warned in his rules regarding bishop in 1 Timothy 3:6, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.”
In part, this is because a zeal for the Faith of the Church can quickly devolve into a zeal for your own preferences on worship style and (especially) disciplinary enforcement. And in part, it’s because recent converts are often treated like newborn babies: loved and doted on constantly by those they come in contact with. This, I think, is a very good thing, but I take (what I think is) Tucker’s point that it’s easy for really-loved children in the Faith to turn out spoiled without prudence and the Spirit. Distinguishing between doctrine and discipline, between your views and the Church, these are important things, and I agree with Tucker that these distinctions need to be cultivated to avoid spiritual pride. But I still would prefer someone will strong views on both doctrine and discipline then someone who says “Who cares?” to both.