An Interesting Criticism of Catholic Converts

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.

3 Comments

  1. “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.”

    Too true. It is a danger, and we are all (not just converts) tempted to prefer one extreme over another (such as strict liturgy over love of our brothers and sisters in Christ, or “love” of neighbor to the point where we don’t even care about liturgical abuses), ignoring Christian moderation and balance. This is one thing about the actual Catholic Church that took part in proving it’s divine origin to me. It maintains balance, generally making all extremists angry, never sacrificing one God given truth for another, i.e. focusing on saved by faith through grace to the exclusion of our own cooperative role in salvation.

    Overall, I see Tucker’s point. I’ve gotten hits on my blog for “why do catholic converts suck”. Us converts need to be careful not to rage too much against heresy before we even have our own footing in faith, and focus on living our faith rather than shoving it down people’s throats like my evangelical roots would have me do. Like you, though, I dislike the annoyed generalizing rants against any group, including Catholic converts. It does nothing to solve the problem, it only increases animosity.

    I confess to being so struck by the fact that everything has meaning that I get very excited. My blog is the outlet for my excitement. Hopefully it doesn’t annoy people too much. My hope is that if people are curious, they can read what I’ve written and easily find the understanding that has been so hard for me to work for.

  2. “My blog is the outlet for my excitement. Hopefully it doesn’t annoy people too much. “

    That’s how I feel about this blog, for sure. Before I blogged here, I talked everyone’s ear off – I just couldn’t help it, there’s so much great stuff about the Faith!

  3. Joe,

    I’m reading through some of your older posts, and came along this one.

    I am a convert, and a relatively recent one (just under 3 years.) I am sure I have made some mistakes along the way.

    Just 8 months after converting, I was working in a chancery as a director of the diocesan family life office. It isn’t something I would recommend for most converts. By God’s grace, a regular dose of humility, and monthly spiritual direction with a priest, I think I avoided most of the big flubs. I had worked for 10 years prior on the staff of a large protestant church, which helped quite a bit. For me my conversion was more for the security of the magisterium, and to escape the relativistic plurality of interpretations that inevitably arise out of Sola Scriptura.

    Because I didn’t assume that everyone would agree with me, or even that everyone should, it made my transition easier. I had other friends that converted in Seminary, and having never worked on a church staff, began working in a chancery. Their outcome was much different than my own.

    Even so, I have avoided public apologetics for 3 years (just as the Apostle Paul did) until I could become more immersed in the traditions of the Church. I am constantly on guard against saying something that is not doctrinally correct. I do my best to integrate those truths I learned as a protestant without allowing the heterodoxy I learned as a protestant to seep in. I echo the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “If I should say anything that is not in conformity with what is held by the Holy Roman Catholic Church, it will be through ignorance and not through malice.”

    Yes, I can quote scriptures with the best of them, but I am keenly aware of my inability to quote Councils or Fathers or Canon law. I greatly appreciate your blog here; it has helped me grow as a Catholic these past 3 years.

    Keep up the good writing.

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