Converts vs. ‘Cradle Catholics’

Most of you know that Catholicism Pure author’s are a mix of what we now call ‘cradle’ Catholic’s and ‘converts’. Personally I dislike the distinction – in a universal Roman Catholic Church we are surely universally Roman Catholic are we not? It remains however that some converts are influenced by the faith they have converted from – if indeed they had a faith. Is this an asset or a liability?

With the influx to the Church precipitated by the Ordinariate these questions, whilst not commonly publicly aired, are certainly aired in private, particularly in the case of the ‘anglican patrimony’ the Ordinariate is charged to preserve.

I offer no answers to these questions, but the following article from the Wall Street Journal challenges we who are Roman Catholic from birth to examine our own prejudices – if indeed we have any!


Do converts to the faith make better evangelists than “cradle Catholics”? Pope Benedict XVI seems to think so. Christians since childhood should “ask forgiveness,” the pope told a group of his former theological students recently, “because we bring so little of the light of [Christ’s] face to others, and emanate so feebly the certainty that he is, he is present and he is the great and complete reality that we are all awaiting.”

But are Catholics “by birth”—or any believers raised in a religious tradition—indeed less-convincing witnesses, or less motivated, than are converts? Do they have a greater responsibility to live up to the tenets of the faith since they have known Christ from their earliest years? And are they a bigger disappointment to the Mother Church—and the world—when they come up short?

Benedict himself would certainly qualify as a “cradle Catholic.” Joseph Ratzinger was born at home, early on the morning of Holy Saturday in April 1927, into the all-encompassing Catholic culture of small-town Bavaria. Within a few hours of his birth, the infant’s mother bundled him up and trudged through an early spring snow to have him baptized at the village parish—the first step on a long but in some ways commonplace life of faith, at least in that day and age.

“I am a perfectly ordinary Christian,” he once said of himself, with characteristic modesty. Yet it’s hard to argue that Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope, has been anything less than enthusiastic in preaching the gospel. He entered the seminary while still an adolescent and rose from priest to cardinal to pope.

But is that enough? Over the past 2,000 years, two narratives have competed in the Christian imagination: the ideal of the child raised in a Christian home, growing steadily in faith and virtue, and that of the repentant soul whose clamorous conversion leads heaven to rejoice more than over 99 of the righteous.


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The conversion of St. Paul is the defining template—the onetime persecutor of the faith struck blind until he comes to see the light, and going on to become the greatest evangelist of all, the so-called second founder of Christianity. Then there’s the pagan-turned-believer Augustine, whose memoir of conversion becomes the inspiration for countless other converts.

The conversion narrative has obvious dramatic appeal, and sociologists of religion have not been immune to the influence of anecdote over data. William James famously distinguished between the “once born” (those raised in a faith) and the “twice born,” and he had a clear preference for the latter.

Yet conversion is a double-edged sword. The zeal of newfound faith can be little more than a superficial emotionalism that makes for great theater—especially in today’s reality-television culture—but does not endure. Or zeal can tip into fanaticism, as we have seen all too often, undermining a faith (and its public image) by overreaching.

Conversions can also be routine, and Americans today are switching religions so often that the coin of conversion may have become devalued. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Americans who have switched faiths or joined a faith are only slightly more religious in belief and behavior than those who remained in the faith of their childhood. For example, while 62% of nonconverts say religion is very important to them, the number only rises to 69% among converts. Half of converts (51%) attend worship services at least once a week, compared with 44% of nonconverts. And so on.

Other recent studies show that, contrary to popular belief, sudden conversions like St. Paul’s represent only a small portion of all religious transformations, and that the “crockpot” model of a steadily developed spiritual insight is more common and may be more effective in building up a stable religious community than the “microwave” version of rebirth.

“Sudden conversion might be good for morale and motivation, but the emotional instability and lack of knowledge of the sudden convert endangers the continuity of a group,” Alan F. Segal wrote in his study, “Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee.” “Building a stable community necessarily involves a strong educational program. Even persons who themselves were sudden converts often attempt to socialize their children via gradual conversion processes.”

The truth is, as the sociologist of religion Peter Berger has long noted, that religion today is a choice, and we are all converts to one degree or another, choosing among a variety of religious experiences rather than having them given to us, as in days of old. Whether converts do that better than “cradle Catholics”—or whether, as is often the case, that is a distinction without a difference—both categories of believers are bound by the same vocation. Both are as responsible for the success or failure of the church’s witness.

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17 Responses to Converts vs. ‘Cradle Catholics’

  1. Anne Archer says:

    Quite frankly, we older Catholics (I’m 72) were not in anyway encouraged to evangelize. We were to live out our faith and that was to be our witness. We were very scriptural in the mode of St. Peter who said speak when asked; also St. Francis with his use words if necessary. Although we knew a whole lot of Scripture many Catholics didn’t realize they did. We had been saturated in the Scriptures through Mass but didn’t always recognize that. Many school children went to daily Mass and received even more of the Scriptures. We had Bible History – but it wasn’t in chapter and verse such as the Protestants learned it.

    I would say an outstanding characteristic of Catholicisim was tolerance. Granted there were pockets of intolerance but tended to be more cultural than Catholic and certainly the tradition of our faith was toward tolerance. We were the church of sinners not saints.

    I love the converts – the Scott Hahns, etc. and they have brought us a great deal. The Bible is a wonderful book but sometimes I think it is possible to almost come away with the idea of “sola scriptura” even though they reject it themselves. They do come to appreciate the joy of our Catholic devotions – the rosary, novenas, etc. but are not so vocal about that. I have yet to hear a talk on the depth of those devotions and how they expanded the Catholic understanding of the Scriptures for the illiterate and such as they meditated on the the life of Christ in those devotions and had their understanding illuminated through the Holy Spirit of the reality of the life of Jesus and His holy mother..


  2. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Personal anecedote proves little or nothing; so here’s mine. My father was a convert and a better Catholic IMO, than many I knew around him and certainly a more accepting Catholic than I will ever be. He would side with Teresa against me, probably!

    At a guess, I’d say the convert may be the ‘better’ Catholic – whatever ‘better’ means, because the convert has actually had to think about what he/she is doing, where the ‘cradle’ Catholic is conditioned from childhood, as I was. For many, not all Cathos, the lack of reflection/analysis/criticism isn’t good, and the culture of passive acceptance of authority has led to the woes that the Church finds itself in, I’d say. In some countries this has led to an accommodation with unsavoury regimes, and a resistance to progressive ideas, such as Liberation Theology. It continues to feed the hostility to women in key areas in the church, which in turn is partly the product of old fashioned male domination which has been around for a long time and is most clearly visible in Islam. Before I am hung, drawn and quartered, I am not comparing Catholic attitudes to women as equally unacceptable as those of Islam.

    Anyway these are some generalisations with all their faults. I’m with the converts.

    PS It’s nice to see so many more chucking their hats in the ring and posting on the forum.


  3. teresa says:

    Mr. Whippy, thanks for your very interesting post, and I also wish to see more people participating in the discussion here on our blog. We do need to hear different opinions.
    As far as converts are concerned, I think the author has a point: converts can be overtly zealot. And his mention of these converts who jump frequently from community to community is also factual. Many converts want to select a community according to their taste, and never find really a spiritual home.

    Speaking from my experience as a convert of seven years, I would say that I as a convert, don’t have the socialisation of a cradle catholic, I’ve read about Catholicism, participated in the Sunday Service and Prayers, I learned to sing the hymn, learned many things about the history of the Church. But there are some things which a convert will never learn. It is like speaking a foreign language, you can be almost perfect in it but you are still, not a native speaker. A foreign student of language even knows often more about the grammar of the language than native speakers, but he doesn’t speak it like a native speaker. I know my analogy is somewhat lame, but I hope it does reveal one aspect of the problem we converts are struggling with.


  4. Srdc says:

    The article left out an interesting group of Catholics known as reverts. We are cradle Catholics, who go through the motions, without understanding anything. As we gain our independence, we don’t see the point in what on the surface, just comes across as organized religion.

    I was one of those people, who tried to run as far away from the church as possible. The more I ran, it was like the more the faith would come alive to me through different people, events etc.

    There were times when I spent negotiating with God, that only if he would leave me alone etc.

    I finally realized that God was in love with me, not because of who I was, but because of what I could do with his grace.


  5. JabbaPapa says:

    Very good point about the reverts, srdc.

    When I was preparing for my own baptism, the group that would meet during these preparations included three types — those of us preparing for baptism ; those preparing for confirmation as adults because it had somehow simply not been done during their adolescence ; those already baptised, but returning to the Church (for whom the confirmation was religiously equivalent to a baptism, except for the specific blessings that baptism provides for all).

    As for the contents of the article, I find that it presents far too much of an opposition.

    There’s very little difference in a normal parish between the converts and the cradle Catholics ; the main difference is between the regular attendees of the Mass and the others, no matter at what age people have been baptised or confirmed.

    There’s far more of a difference between the baptised and the catechumens.

    The adult baptised receive a certain amount of attention during the Lent, Easter and Pentecost of the year of their baptism.

    As concerns doctrine, the same variations in interest and knowledge of it are to be found in converts and cradle Catholics ; teresa makes a far better point than the article does, IMO, when she speaks of a “foreign language”. The analogy isn’t an exact one, but it well describes a certain state of mind that an adult baptised can have during the Mass and in other parts of the life of the Church….


  6. JabbaPapa says:

    By the way, before the catechumenate was done away with (before being reinstituted by Vatican II), there was a fairly widespread abuse of it that existed — people would enter the catechumenate as children or young adults, and then deliberately forestall their baptisms ; live whichever life style they wanted to, whilst remaining within the Church as catechumens ; and then upon reaching old age, or contracting a deadly disease or so on, only then would they be baptised, to receive the full forgiveness of their sins that it provides, and without ever needing to go to confession for them.

    At least we can be grateful that doing away with the catechumenate also did away with this rather objectionable abuse of it…


  7. Toadspittle says:


    Sdrc describes hereself as a ‘revert.’

    Unfortunate designation, thinks Toad.

    Too close to ‘invert,’ or ‘pervert,’ for comfort.
    And we’ve got enough of them to be going on with already, have we not?.

    So, new name please!


  8. Srdc says:


    It’s the word everybody uses. Perhaps you could come up with a better one.


  9. kathleen says:

    I know exactly what Teresa means.
    My father was a cradle Catholic but my mother was a convert from Anglicanism when she was only shortly out of school. Although she always says it was the best thing she ever did in her life – apart from marrying my father! – she also lacked those little Catholic devotions when she was bringing us up. Immediately after her conversion she grew to have a great love for the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin, but even now she finds saying the rosary “difficult”. Things like saying grace before meals, lighting candles to Our Lady or the saints for loved ones, making novenas, bowing the head at the holy name of Jesus etc., were all things I and my siblings learnt more from our father than our mother….. although she went along with it all with great joy.

    There have been so many wonderful well-known converts to the Catholic Church (and millions more unknown ones) who have brought so much learning, enthusiasm and passion with them, that where indeed would we be without them? Too many of us cradle Catholics are lukewarm and sadly unaware of the treasure we possess.

    EWTN’s “The Journey Home” (what a lovely title!) has some fascinating and amazing stories of conversion to Catholicism….. or of those returning home.


  10. Toadspittle says:


    ‘Revert’ is the word everyone uses, Sdrc tells Toad.

    “Perhaps you can come up with a better one?” she asks.

    Well. no Sdrc, ‘revert, ‘ sums it up very nicely for Toad.

    It’s not his problem.


  11. Toadspittle says:

    Kathleen, is as usual, right on the money.

    Toad was a ‘Cradle Catholic’ and is inclined to think that while many ‘Converts’ come to their senses and embrace Catholicism, many ‘Cradle Catholics’ come to their senses and reject it.

    Or, as Tweedledum, (or was it Dee – so hard to tell!) so wisely said, “Contrariwise!”

    Win a few – lose a few, really.


  12. Srdc says:

    Wall Eyed,

    To be fair, I struggled with the same things you did. I think the older you get the harder it becomes to change. But, I made it a point to learn as much as I could, and realized I was wrong on many issues.


  13. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Thanks Sr.

    Contrarily, the older I get the easier it becomes to change because I have less received ideas than when younger. I have been fooled too often. But I do take your point, and it’s a very good one. And I admit I am also wrong on many issues, as Jabba cruelly and hurtfully points out, ad nauseam. But he knows the rules you see, and so he must be right. But he has his place in the pecking order…

    Don’t worry about Toad spraying spittle over you – that’s what toads do – comes with the croak.


  14. annem040359 says:

    Have been away a bit from this blog, but this year I have been going through the experience as a “cradle Catholic” because I go each week to a weekly prayer group and the group is doing a weekly conferance for nine weeks on the Holy Spirit I have been going through the start of a a love and apprication for my Christian Roman Catholic faith, including getting more into the Bible.


  15. Srdc says:

    Hi Anne,

    Is this the Life in the Spirit Seminar?


  16. JabbaPapa says:

    But I do take your point, and it’s a very good one. And I admit I am also wrong on many issues, as Jabba cruelly and hurtfully points out, ad nauseam.

    I’m honestly sorry if my bluntness can occasionally offend, and as to my assurance concerning certain rather precise questions, it is a product of the unusual nature of my conversion, and cannot really be done away with nor disguised if I’m to honestly express the contents of my Faith.

    There is no intention to hurt you in any case, and you have my deep and honest apologies if I may have done so inadvertently.


  17. annem040359 says:

    Hi Srdc:

    Yes, it is the “Life In the Holy Spirit Seminar” or LISS.


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