A slight majority (52 percent) of Catholics helped to elect a president whose policy proposals (among other things) are in exact opposition to the message of Pope Francis. That could make the next four years interesting in terms of the relationship among the U.S. Catholic Church, the Vatican, and the administration of Donald Trump—for whose candidacy “the Catholic question” loomed a little larger than it did for Hillary Clinton’s, even with the pre-election WikiLeaks dump of the Podesta emails. That members of Clinton’s team had used words like “backward” and “medieval” to describe the Catholic Church sparked indignation among church officials like Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, outgoing USCCB President Joseph Kurtz, and others. Some saw it as evidence of deep hostility toward Catholicism. But as numerous commenters soon explained—from E. J. Dionne Jr. to Michael Hollerich (writing at Commonweal) and even to Ross Douthat—the emails were actually reflective of the fiercer intra-Catholic debate going on for some years now. What could have been more significant from a political perspective is that Clinton never visited the Vatican or met with Pope Benedict XVI in her four years as secretary of state, as Robert Mickens noted in his latest Letter from Rome. She was the first holder of that office to snub the Holy See in more than forty years, dating to the tenure of William Rogers in the first Nixon administration. That might have suggested a potential “Catholic problem” for her administration, with the Podesta emails being used to “confirm” some otherwise unproven antipathy on the part of Democrats.
Anyway, that’s all moot now. What’s still worth considering, however, is how the response to the Podesta emails was perhaps more reflective of a different Catholic spring movement—the one made up of those who converted from the Protestant tradition over the last three decades or so.
Their impact is undeniable, from the pews to theological academia to the political and popular culture. But it’s a topic the church finds difficult to talk about publicly, for a few reasons. It defies post-Vatican II ecumenical etiquette (the Catholic Church accepts converts from other churches, but does not encourage conversions); it’s associated in part with the polarization within U.S. Catholicism (a presumed gap between conservative converts and progressive cradle Catholics); and it would suggest that nuanced, multifaceted intellectual and spiritual concepts could be simplified and enlisted in the service of this or that ecclesial narrative.
There’s probably no way to create a single “profile” of the converts who have helped reshape Catholicism in the United States since the midway point of John Paul II’s pontificate. The phenomenon is different from the “cultural conversions” to Catholicism in China, for example, or the “orientalism” of many European Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century (which even if it “orientalized” their Catholicism did not lead to a wave of conversions to Orthodox Christianity). But it has some parallels with the conservative resurgence among American evangelicals since the 1970s and ’80s and with the politically driven neo-traditionalism in the Orthodox Church.
So in this sense it might a good time to talk about this phenomenon, especially if we take seriously the issue of polarization in the church in light of Trump’s election.
Also, there’s a distinct Pope Francis issue here. What is the relationship between the progressives’ desire for a “Catholic spring,” the converts’ “Catholic spring,” and Francis’s pontificate? Of the many issues affecting the relationship between Pope Francis and American Catholicism, the subject of these converts is particularly difficult to address, no less because many of the high-profile converts came to the church of Wojtyla and Ratzinger. But I suspect there are converts to Francis’s Catholicism whom we do not see yet. Should we count among these “converts” those who had left the church and have now come back?
Francis’s theology and spirituality seem more an expression of cradle Catholicism and much more suited to confronting a secularized world; for converts, Benedict XVI’s intellectual and theological sophistication and his ecclesiology of “creative minorities” was more appealing. Additionally, Francis comes from a church where such conversions, and the phenomenon of a changing church, were marginal, as in Europe. Nor does Francis have the “language” for connecting with these converts in the way they may wish. But Francis’s ecumenism does speak to non-Catholics, as well as to different Catholic identities in the church. It is also an intra-Catholic ecumenism, as we saw last week in Sweden, where the ecumenical partners in dialogue were not only Lutherans, but also Catholics of a militant minority of neo-Catholics who often cannot quite see where Francis’s pontificate is going. This call to conversion may sound unfamiliar to those who became Catholic during the pontificates of Francis’s predecessors.