Debates over the nature and effects of conversions to Roman Catholicism in the last few decades, in the United States and the English-speaking world, can sometimes be lacking in charity. Worse is when the debates are framed according to the political persuasions or liturgical-theological orientations of those who decide to become Catholic: Not only does this establish a dynamic of exclusion within a Church that by definition is universal; it also completely obscures the variegated nature of conversion itself.
Some conversions, for instance, are political-ideological in their rejection of modernity and post-modernity. Some are driven by aesthetic and liturgical sensibilities. Some are inspired by the Church’s message of social justice. In other words, though the political-ideological, cultural, aesthetic, and social filters may be an important aspect and in some cases even defining, they should not be the first—much less the only—ones that Catholics should consider when trying to understand the path their fellow faithful take. Conversion, after all, is a matter of spiritual discernment. As I wrote in Commonweal last year, it is a multifaceted phenomenon that cannot be simplified or enlisted in the service of this or that ecclesial-political narrative.
In my exchanges with colleagues, students, and fellow lay Catholics since coming to the United States in 2008, I’ve come to see several topics of contention between “cradle Catholics” and those who convert to Catholicism: the concept of tradition; the dynamics of historical development in theology and the magisterium; and ways of “thinking with the Church.” (All of this will be the subject of another article.) But there’s another aspect that I think deserves greater attention, which is the ecclesiological one. As a scholar of the so-called new Catholic movements that have changed the Catholic laity and the Church since World War II and Vatican II, I believe we need to look at the phenomenon of conversions in the context of a Church that itself has become more movement than institution. In particular, this movement of renewal must be understood in light of other movements of renewal in Church history: the mendicant orders in the 12th and 13th centuries; the movements of “observance” in the monastic and mendicant orders in the 14th and 15th centuries; the proponents of the so-called “Catholic reform” (opposed to corruption in the Catholic Church as well as to the Protestant Reformation) beginning in the 16th century; the flourishing of religious orders in the 19th century; and the ecclesial movements generated by the Catholic laity in the mid- and second half of the 20th century.
This “convert movement” is different from previous movements in that it’s characterized by the actions of individuals acting neither in coordination with, nor from within, a visible, organized structure. It may also be related to the simultaneous collapse of Western political ideologies and the rise of what may be assumed incorrectly to be nonpolitical strains of thought like the neo-illuministic faith in technology, the neoliberal faith in the market economy, and the neoromantic faith in well-being and eros. For now, it is interesting to observe that the current “convert movement” has some elements typical of the “new ecclesial movements”: it’s produced change in the Church without the prompt of an official document or initiative of the institutional Church; it relies much more on lay Catholics than on the clergy; it is structurally “light” in terms of organization; and it is an expression of a new intellectual and spiritual charisma. In the 20th century, where a new Catholic movement was born said something about the spirit of the movement: what Spain is for Opus Dei and Rome for the Community of Sant’Egidio, the United States is for a certain kind of conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. This phenomenon—most visible in the high-profile conversions of politicians, intellectuals, and journalists but bigger than just a few individual cases—is part of what could be called the Anglo-Catholic revival or, in Richard John Neuhaus’s coinage three years before his being received into the Roman Catholic Church, “the Catholic moment.”