Pope John Paul II’s call to engage in “the new evangelization” is a commission to preach the message of the gospel in fresh ways, not just to those who have never heard it but to those who have become used to hearing it—such as churchgoing Catholics. I propose that the Holy Father is seeking to turn all Catholics into converts. Before cradle Catholics take offense, let me explain.
The recent influx of converts into the Church has had a marvelous effect of renewing the body of Christ, most would agree. But why should this be the case? What makes converts different from the average, lifelong Catholic? If we can answer that question, perhaps we can spread this contagion of conversion so that every Catholic—cradle or otherwise—can become a spiritual convert. Since we are all in need of ongoing conversion, who would oppose such a goal?
Being a “revert” gives me a slight advantage when it comes to examining the workings of conversion, because a revert is truly a convert. The distinction is a matter of history, not heart. Consider that most converts were already Christians. Why, then, do we call them converts? What are they converted to?
They are converted to belief in the Catholic Church as the Church Christ founded, the depository of the fullness of truth, the font of life and grace. Read any number of conversion stories and you’ll find this discovery of the Church to be the central reason for becoming Catholic.
Their conversions come from becoming convinced that the teaching voice of the Church “is the voice of Christ himself” (Frank Sheed, Map of Life, 76). Just as they “know that they know” that Jesus is the Son of God—he is who he says he is—so too, they now “know that they know” that the Catholic Church is who she says she is: the Bride of Christ, divinely founded, divinely guarded, the budding forth of the kingdom of God on earth (cf. Lumen Gentium 5).
You can imagine, then, their confusion and dismay upon entering the Church and encountering lifelong Catholics who seem not to believe in the Catholic Church. The new arrivals can’t help but wonder: “Don’t these cradle Catholics know what they have? They gladly embrace the standards of the world, think Mass is boring (if they even go), and argue against Church teaching. Sometimes they contend the Church has no right to teach at all, no right to tell them what to do. Don’t they know what the Church is?”
I would say that many don’t even know they don’t know what the Church is. When I grew up in it, I didn’t. I’m sure I would have been offended if someone had told me I didn’t understand the real nature of the Church to which I belonged. All those who are similarly uninformed have helped to create what has been termed a crisis of fidelity. If we are not adequately acquainted with the Bride—much less in love with her—how will we ever be faithful?
Certainly there are lifelong Catholics who do know and appreciate their faith. Thank God for them. But why is this faithful remnant relatively few in number? Why have so many Catholics missed the truth about their Church? And what can be done to help all Catholics become “converts” who believe unwaveringly in the Catholic Church?
First, we must acknowledge that conversion, since it is primarily an act of God, is often mysterious. We don’t know why he gives one person a dramatic encounter and not another. We do know is he is perfectly just and infinitely merciful, and without fail he gives each person the grace “to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), including the grace to know the truth about his Church.
So, why have so many Catholics failed to respond to this grace? Converts and reverts have a lot to teach us on this score. Their stories are more than interesting instances of God’s unique action in individual lives. Rather, they trace a pattern, a pattern through which the Holy Spirit is seeking to instruct the whole Church.
From reverts we learn what prevented them from appreciating the treasures of the Church. Noting the hindrances, we can work to overcome them. Promoting the faith-fostering dispositions and doctrines will help us cultivate “converts” in love with Christ and his Church.
There are two common obstacles to conversion that many reverts encountered as young Catholics and are still present in the Church: I call them vertical blindness and practical Protestantism.
Vertical blindness underlies the popular notion that authentic Catholicism and dissent are compatible—that it’s okay to be Catholic and not believe in the Catholic Church. Vertical blindness is not a new affliction. It caused the Pharisees to miss their Messiah and Lord even as he stood directly in front of them. When they looked at Jesus they saw only a man. Because he was obviously human, they assumed he could not also be divine. Despite being given many signs of his divinity, they refused to acknowledge him as the Son of God (cf. John 12:37). When he forgave sins, they accused him of far exceeding his rights or powers as a mere human being (cf. Mark 2).
Today there are quite a few Catholics whose sight is darkened when it comes to the divine constitution of the Church. We may hear them complain that the Church has no authority to forgive sins. Their manner of speech reveals their blindness to Jesus’ active presence in the sacraments: “Why should I confess to a man?”
As the Pharisees failed to recognize God in Jesus Christ, a significant number of Catholics fail to recognize Jesus in the Church. Many have yet to apprehend what was so plain to Joan of Arc: “About Jesus Christ and the Church I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (Acts of the Trial of Joan of Arc; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 795). The union of Christ with his Bride is so profound that when Saul persecuted the Church, our Lord asked: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). To those who disregard the teachings of the Church today, might not Jesus ask: “Why do you disregard me?”
The vertically blind do not see God acting authoritatively through the Church’s hierarchy, a hierarchy instituted by Christ with the choosing of the apostles and perpetuated through their successors. But if Christ has not given his guidance and authority to the Church, then nothing is sure. We cannot be sure of the canon of Scripture, the validity of baptism, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or anything else.
Focused perpetually upon the horizontal dimension of the Church, the vertically blind overlook the supernatural dimension, the life of heaven permeating earth, the triune God-with-us. The Church becomes simply a human institution primarily concerned with pleasing the people who comprise it. Forget that Paul wrote, “If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). In this “horizontal Church” everyone has rights—the right to be ordained, the right to tamper with the liturgy, the right to decide moral questions—everyone, that is, but the Lord God. We are at the center rather than God. Irreverence, mortal sin, and sacrilege are tolerated so long as people feel good about themselves. People-pleasing is equated with love, even as Love himself is offended at every turn.
When this lack of vision is due to a lack of knowledge, it is curable. Some are confused about how Christ can guide a Church populated by errant human beings. They are not as familiar with the God who “writes straight with crooked lines” as they are with the crooked lines—those faulty human beings who claim to be his writing instruments.
Others choose to not believe. It can be quite convenient to reduce everything to a human level, keeping the Word of God vague and remote, for when the voice of God is clear, we are accountable. In the fog of personal opinion, we are “free” to go our own way. We are also more apt to fall into a pit.
Viewing the Church as simply another human organization with religious aims is contrary to authentic Catholicism. In reality, it is a form of anti-Catholicism. The stories of converts highlight the contrast. For it is precisely the unique nature of the Catholic Church dawning upon their interior sight that galvanized the faith of so many converts. To deny this divine difference is to bypass the very heart of Catholicism.
Dissent and Catholicism cannot peacefully coexist. Mix the two and the result is practical Protestantism.
A practical atheist claims to believe in God but lives like an unbeliever; a practical Protestant professes to be Catholic but practices his religion like a Protestant.
Remember that the essence of being converted to Catholicism is recognizing the teaching voice of the Church as the teaching voice of Christ. Everything else will follow. But suppose we do not? Whose voice do we substitute for the voice of the Church? Who speaks for Christ?
Protestants claim it is “Scripture alone,” but this assertion does not get to the heart of the matter. To derive Scripture’s meaning, one must interpret it. And each individual must decide for himself which interpretation to accept. In the end, Protestantism comes down to a private judgment: what I think the Bible says. Ultimately, there is no authoritative voice that one can be sure echoes the voice of Christ.
When a Catholic fails to accept the authority of the Church to teach in the name of Christ, he has in effect adopted the underlying rule of Protestantism as his divining rod: his own personal judgment. Rather than humbly accepting the truth—that deposit of faith entrusted to the Church—he makes himself the judge over truth: “I’ll accept this, but I won’t accept that.”
How can we know if practical Protestantism is blocking someone’s conversion to belief in the Church? He may say, “I don’t see anything wrong with artificial contraception.” Or, “I don’t understand why the Church says it’s a sin to miss Mass on Sunday. What’s the big deal?” Or, “I don’t think the documents of Vatican II are valid.”
He is actually saying: “If I don’t see it, understand it, agree with it—if it does not correspond with my personal views—then I don’t have to accept or obey the Church’s teaching.”
You’ll notice that this affliction of practical Protestantism can swing either left or right. It makes itself evident whenever we think we know better than the Church. If we reject the teachings of an ecumenical council, if we refuse “religious submission of mind and will” (LG 25) to the Church’s magisterium—even its ordinary magisterium—or if we insist on remaining “loyal” to an alleged apparition after the Church has ruled that it is not worthy of belief, we have stepped outside the realm of Catholicism into practical Protestantism. For we are not merely rejecting a particular teaching of the Church; we are denying the Church’s divine prerogative to teach and govern authoritatively—that is, with the authority of Christ.
Even if we claim to be “more Catholic than the pope,” we have revealed that we have yet to be converted to a real understanding of what the Church is and what it means to be Catholic. We are forgetting that “the Church”—and not our idea of what Catholicism ought to be—is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Highlighting this conflict between practical Protestantism and authentic Catholicism points out the need for Catholics to experience a deeper conversion to the Church. And this need must be acknowledged, because an individual will not seek to become Catholic at heart if he thinks he already is.
So what are the dispositions of heart and life-changing truths that helped bring so many into the Church and that, if fostered, may turn cradle Catholics into converts?
Almost invariably three main dispositions are evident in converts: a sincere interest in the deep questions of life, a love for the truth, and a love for Jesus Christ. One often leads to another.
1. Deep questions. People who end up becoming Catholics are on a quest. At first they may not be aware that they are looking for God, only that they long to know what life is all about and that they are dissatisfied with the superficial answers the world offers.
2. Love for the truth. This love for truth implies a belief in the existence of truth. In contrast to relativists or materialists, potential converts are convinced that there is such a thing as spiritual truth—objective spiritual reality—and diligently seek it (cf. Heb. 11:6). Their love for truth is exhibited in a willingness to sacrifice for it. This very willingness to change their minds and their lives for the sake of truth enables them to recognize it. For “if any man’s will is to do [God’s] will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17).
3. Love for Christ. Once the lover of truth realizes that Jesus Christ is Truth (cf. John 14:6), he becomes focused on the person of Jesus. He wants to know him, love him, and serve him ever more faithfully. This leads to a love of Scripture. It is often through the frustration of trying to determine which interpretation of Scripture is correct that he realizes that something is missing in Protestantism. The thought that “God must have made a way to know” becomes both the catalyst and the prayer of his continuing search. With astonishment he learns that the way God provided for his children to know the truth is the Catholic Church.
The fact that many converts have a greater understanding of and fervor for the faith than some cradle Catholics may be due to fundamental truths they have learned in their search, truths that are not always taught to the average Catholic:
1. Objective truth. Because our culture exudes relativism, the reality of spiritual truth must be taught using both reason (what we can learn through our natural abilities) and revelation (God telling us truths that are beyond our capacity to discover). Logic shows us how reasonable it is to believe in objective truth, while Scripture and Tradition together provide the only fully reliable source of divine revelation.
2. Message of salvation. Too often Catholics have only a superficial familiarity with the essence of the gospel, including the significance of original sin, what Jesus saved us from and for, the spiritual life, and our destiny in Christ. To assume that these truths are understood is to leave many un-evangelized. Once individuals g.asp the truth of the gospel, they must be challenged to make a conscious commitment to Jesus and to enter into a personal, intimate relationship with him through prayer and the sacraments. Frequently, the proverbial cart is put before the horse. People are told to “be good” before being taught how to develop the spiritual life, which is the source of holiness. As a result, many are trying to be nice people rather than disciples of Christ.
3. Foundation of the Church. Why listen to the Church? There are many convincing reasons. An explanation of apostolic succession and an introduction to the Fathers of the Church should be required. (These are two things I never recall hearing about as a cradle Catholic.) We must also clarify how to discern the Church’s true voice and how to distinguish what cannot be changed from what can be altered as the Holy Spirit directs—in other words, distinguishing Tradition from traditions and doctrine from discipline.
4. The power of the sacraments. Once we understand the foundation of the Church, including the validity of the priesthood, we’re ready to appreciate the real spiritual power of the sacraments—that they are “Christ in action” and not empty, manmade rituals. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist should be deeply impressed. Knowing the truth about the Eucharist, who would ever leave the Church “to find Jesus”?
5. Roots and reasons. Many Catholics are sitting ducks for those who want to convert them to the tenets of a sect. Why? Because they can’t defend their beliefs. Reasons for what we believe must be taught and the resources of the Church made much more available. Catholics should be exposed regularly to the writings of the saints, good Catholic books and magazines, apologetics resources, faithful Catholic groups and movements for laity, and ongoing adult formation. Many have no idea what’s out there precisely because it is “out there” and not brought to the level of the family, parish, and school. Also needed are authentic witnesses. Faith lived is contagious.
The Dominicans tell us that greater knowledge of God leads to greater love. This is also true with regard to the Church. I guarantee that whoever loves Jesus Christ and knows what the Catholic Church really is will love the Church. If he doesn’t love the Church, either he doesn’t know what it is or he doesn’t love Jesus.
Finally, I encourage everyone to pray a simple prayer: “Lord, make my heart right toward the Catholic Church.” I prayed this prayer when I was an anti-Catholic Pentecostal. And it was answered in ways more surprising—and more wonderful—than I possibly could have imagined.