Richard John Neuhaus

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.”

There is a segment of converts to Catholicism that seems to have disproportionate representation and voice

But how does this particular movement differ from previous periods of renewal and revival in the 20th century? On this question, the most important book on ecclesiology and the dynamic of Church change in the last century, Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church (1950, second edition 1968), is most helpful. Congar describes how movements of renewal came to be accepted. He begins with the classic distinction made by Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber between church and sect: “The members of the church are born in the church, so that she is their mother. The sect is a voluntary community: no one is born into it; people enter through a personal decision.” Second, he examines how the charismatic element of renewal movements becomes Catholic in the sense of acceptance by the Church: “Troeltsch thinks that the Gospel impulses that give rise to sects are the same as those which produce religious orders in the Church. These orders are only an ‘ecclesification’ [a churchifying] of sectarian spirit. In the orders, the attitude of personal choice and flight from the world that creates the sect seeks expression in another way. For this reason, the church, hoping to assimilate a sect like the Waldensians, tried to convert it into religious orders.” Finally, Congar concludes that there have been changes in this “Church vs. sect” tension in the 20th century: “[I]f the revival movements of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century generally developed into sects, that is no longer the case today because of the clear revival of the idea of the Church.”  He mentions the Barthian movement, the Community of Taizè, and the Oxford Movement as examples of this positive, inclusive “ecclesification” of new movements in Western Christianity.

Now, what does this have to say about recent converts to Catholicism? Three things at least. The first is that this “convert movement” has unfolded during a period of crisis of Catholic ecclesiology, that is, in terms of the perception of the importance of ecclesiological discipline and self-discipline in the lived experience of the Church. It is a crisis that Congar saw coming in the afterword to the second edition (published immediately after the wave of students’ protests in Europe in 1968) of his book: “Everything is being called into question at the same time,” he wrote. Ecclesiology today is not a very popular subject with the average Catholic student (for them religion is much more movement and “culture” than institution and history), nor with bishops (some enthusiastic embraces of “the Benedict Option,” like Archbishop Charles Chaput’s, reveal a surprising lack of comprehension of the incompatibility between Rod Dreher’s vision of the Church and Catholic ecclesiology). Ecclesiology is still important in academic theology, but even there it is less important than it used to be, despite the success of an international network like Ecclesiological Investigations. For example, when it comes to the 20th-century Catholic classics, Congar is far less popular and known among young theologians than Rahner or von Balthasar. The controversies over the ecclesiology of converts—like those accusing the current pope of not being Catholic [[*]] and/or undermining the tradition of the Church—reflect the fact that the ecclesiology of institutional Catholicism has become more unstable.

The second thing to note is that the weaker ecclesiological discourse within the Catholic Church (one of the side-effects of its “evangelicalization” and de-institutionalization, and the focus on “biopolitical” and moral issues) has made the Church (all of us) unable, unwilling, and unprepared to understand this “convert movement” as having something in common with other ecclesial movements in the recent past, such as Opus Dei, Focolare, or Sant’Egidio. It was embraced by the institutional Church without first facing the tests of indifference or delays or rejection that many other Catholic movements experienced, at least until John Paul II was elected, when the whole perspective changed. The institutional Church has welcomed the “convert movement” without asking it to become an “official” ecclesial movement, much less a religious order or an order of consecrated lay people. This is not only because the movement did not have a global founder, leader, or visible structure, but also because of the much more positive posture of the Church of John Paul II toward movements of the Catholic Reconquista of secularized modernity. Of course, it would have been unimaginable, even absurd, for the Church to call all converts into a new religious order or a special ordinariate. These Catholics joined the Church as institutional Church (and sometimes were looking for a yet more institutional Church), but were approaching the Church as a movement; the Catholic movement of converts was not reliant on the institutional Church.

The third issue has to do with the perceptions of the Vatican II and post-Vatican II period in Catholics of varying persuasions, not just cradle or converts. One typical observation about conservative converts is that they host a nostalgia for a golden age of Catholicism, whether the Middle Ages, the Tridentine age, or Vatican I—but definitely prior to Vatican II, the ’60s, the rejection of Humanae Vitae, and all that. There may be some truth to this. But these converts also have something serious to say to those cradle Catholics who believe that the golden age of Catholicism was Vatican II and the post-Vatican II period. Today’s Church isn’t the medieval Church or the Church of the First Vatican Council. But it’s also no longer the Church of Vatican II—which theologically and institutionally presupposed that the typical, visible members of the Church were born in the church. During the last three decades or so, converts have entered a post-Vatican II Church: being born into it was no guarantee of remaining in it, and not being born into it didn’t necessitate entering a religious order or ordinariate to join it.

Over the course of its long history, the Catholic Church created safe but also closely controlled spaces for new Catholic voices that were not just joining the flock and adding to the mix, but also holding their own microphone (so to speak) with an agenda influencing the thinking and the policies of the institutional Church. The public face of what I have called here “the convert movement” (implying an analogy with other, previous movements of Catholic renewal) is a largely conservative group of converts that seems to have disproportionate representation and voice in comparison to the larger number of recent converts to Catholicism; these are the ones who seem to be finding an easier welcome into a Church that they then go and criticize. They have not faced the same kind of scrutiny or lengthy test and evaluation that groups with a visible and recognized leader and a unified culture and structure faced in the post-Vatican II Church, especially until the end of the pontificate of Paul VI (the example of Communion and Liberation in Italy is paradigmatic on this front). They have taken a space of their own because they have been able to claim it in a way that was not possible until recently. The weaknesses of Catholic ecclesiology that some converts now denounce as post-Vatican II illnesses are actually the same weaknesses that have made it easy (institutionally and theologically) for them to be accepted in the Catholic Church. The post-Vatican II Church some like to criticize is precisely the post-Vatican II Church that made their conversions so seamless. The post-Vatican II Church they don’t like may in fact be their own.

[[*]] Ed. note: A link erroneously appearing with this phrase in an earlier version of the post has been removed.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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