Over at the National Catholic Reporter blog, Michael Sean Winters is pointing readers to a recent Al-Jazeera clip discussing Pope Francis’s record as a reformer. The clip itself I’ve yet to watch; it’s Winters’s gloss on it that I wish to discuss: “I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic. ”
The convert in question is, I presume, First Things literary editor Matthew Schmitz. Of the two pundits featured in the clip, Schmitz is, I believe, the only convert. (The other is British Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh. We had a very nice chat at a wedding once, but I didn’t think to ask.) Schmitz also regularly contributes to Europe’s finest Catholic magazine, The Catholic Herald—which, let’s face it, probably also implies that he’s an all-round good egg. What really interests me, though, is Winters’s slight against converts.
He is by no means alone in casting such aspersions. Massimo Faggioli, a US-based theologian and Church historian, retweeted Winters’s remark and added, “I am so tired too.” Earlier this year, Faggioli had tweeted, somewhat gnomically: “One could teach an entire course on fact that in top US universities the course on Vatican II is taught by recent converts to Catholicism.”
Nor is such sniffiness towards converts an exclusively American phenomenon. The day after Anglicanorum Coetibus was issued, providing personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering into communion with the Catholic Church, I recall a Jesuit friend remarking: “Yes, but they’re the wrong sort of Anglicans.” One wonders, of course, who the “right” ones would be.
According to the “regulars” commenting on my own forays in blogging, chief among my own failings is my being a Johnny-come-lately “neo-Catholic.” (Though to be fair, I did once teach a course on Vatican II at a top UK university, after having been Catholic for only two years. So I guess it’s a fair cop.)
Maybe I’m being preciously oversensitive here. Lord knows, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nevertheless, I do find such condescension strange in an avowedly missionary religion. A Church whose very raison d’être is to “go and make disciples of all nations” should, one might imagine, be a little gladder to have them. Not least since, as a group, converts tend to be more knowledgeable, more committed, more active, and more generous than cradle Catholics in general.
Don’t get me wrong, we “baby Catholics” give our older siblings plenty to criticize. What else would you expect in a faith proclaiming “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10)? But the sneering at converts, qua converts, is a bit much. I have a great many faults and failings as a Catholic (and indeed as a human being); but having become a Catholic, however poor a one I might be, is surely one of the few points in my favor.
Furthermore, at the risk, in my arriviste enthusiasm and naïveté, of sounding a little gauche . . . I seem to recall from my catechumenal days that Jesus himself had something to say on the matter.
Stephen Bullivant is professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, London, and directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.