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!
By DAVID GIBSON
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.
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.