Writing in Commonweal, Massimo Faggioli complains that the Catholic Church in America is dominated by converts—including me. Faggioli is a liberal Catholic, and he appears to be distressed that, as a rule, vocal converts are not. We are loud, he complains, and we retain the gross manners of our previous communions. Perhaps our children will merit full participation in Catholic debate, but those of us who are new to the faith should lower our voices so that old Catholics can speak.
He particularly regrets that some converts have expressed displeasure with actions of the Pope. He goes as far as to say that I am guilty of “accusing the current pope of not being Catholic.” Or rather, he once did so. This statement has since been corrected by the editors of Commonweal, who are not generally sympathetic to my work, but who are honest enough to acknowledge that I have not done this.
Faggioli speaks as though it were after-hours at the Catholic Church, and anyone trying to enter should be subjected to questioning. There is an ecclesial nativism in his rhetoric, as if we become one with Christ through birth and not baptism. Converts perhaps need to be checked for lice or put in quarantine. “They have not faced the same kind of scrutiny or lengthy test and evaluation” as, say, new religious orders do. They are “finding an easier welcome into a Church that they then go and criticize.”
Austen Ivereigh echoes Faggioli in Crux. He writes that “Schmitz never actually said the pope wasn’t Catholic, but his narrative … adds up to something rather like it.” To support this assertion, Ivereigh quotes Ross Douthat saying something pungent about Pope Francis—though not, strangely, claiming that the pope is not Catholic. Let me see if I have this right: I did not actually say that the pope is not Catholic, but I as good as did, because Ross Douthat (and here I admit I lose the thread) also did not say that the pope is not Catholic. It is a game of thimblerig.
Ivereigh has some kind words for converts. He says that the Church “exists to spread the Gospel, and some of those it touches will want to become Catholic, and that’s wonderful.” These people “are special, and bring great gifts.” In sum, “We love converts.” This love would seem to require a great act of charity, however. Ivereigh diagnoses these special people with “convert neurosis.” They exhibit a “pathological or extreme reaction to something that simply doesn’t correspond to reality.” They are fresh off the boat, and “their baggage has distorted their hermeneutic.”
Both Faggioli and Ivereigh are keen to downplay the doctrinal disagreements that currently split the Church. Faggioli applies a more sociological lens, Ivereigh a more psychological one, to explain away disagreement as stemming from something other than a difference in principle. These tactics are typical of the current pontificate, in which formal doctrinal condemnations and definitions have been set aside in favor of psychologizing the opposition. The cardinals who submitted the dubia have not been answered; they have been accused of some defect of mind or character. If the Church is a field hospital, it would seem to have a large and active psychiatric ward.
Behind all this stands the conceit of a divide—perhaps growing—between cradle Catholics and converts. Any reading of Catholic history shows the fallacy of emphasizing this opposition, and a reading of American Catholic history shows it in a special way. In 1632, the second Lord Baltimore, “convert son of a convert father” in the words of one chronicler, received the charter for the colony named Maryland in honor of Our Lady. Only a third of the original colonists were Catholic, but through the labors of two priests, almost all the original Protestant settlers were in time added to their number. Those English converts merely followed where thousands of indigenous Americans (we have no good record of how many, though their number is counted in heaven) had led, asking for baptism after meeting the “Black Robes.” Think of Kateri Tekakwitha or Elizabeth Ann Seton, Rose Hawthorne or Prince Gallitzin. Conversion is the American Catholic tradition.
But that tradition was foreign to the waves of Catholic ethnics who began entering America in the nineteenth century. They are the ones who gave us the American “cradle Catholic,” a creature in whom belief and blood almost combine. In its day, this tribal Catholicism imparted an identity strong and subtle enough to deflect nativist mobs and polite prejudice. Just as the early converts built the Church that welcomed the Catholic ethnics, the Catholic ethnics built the Church that welcomes the converts of today.
Tribal Catholicism has not in every case succeeded. James Blaine might be called a cradle Catholic. He was born to a Catholic mother and a father who would later convert, and he seems to have been baptized in the Church. Nonetheless, in hope of winning the presidency (the most extreme version of the very American need to please), he put forth the “Blaine amendment,” a law that still shackles the Church in this country.
Some time between the wedding of Princess Grace and the election of JFK, Catholic cradles began to produce many more James Blaines. This probably had something to do with memories of prejudice and the desire to conform, an impulse felt not just by individual Catholics but by the Church as a whole. In those years, thousands—my father among them—left the Church. Others who shared their dissatisfaction stayed within it, hoping to save the Church by secularizing it.
When I entered the Church, I felt that I was receiving an inheritance that had been unjustly denied me. It was as if I had entered an ancestral house so grand that possession of it could never be complete. There would always be more closed-off corridors, hidden gardens, and forgotten chambers where things dear to my forebears gathered dust. Though I might visit these rooms and even restore them, I would only ever live in the new wing prepared for me.
Looking back now, I am surprised that I felt this way. Protestant worshippers at churches with names like Faith Community, Westerly Road, and Capitol Hill Baptist had always been welcoming to me. Catholics are comparatively guarded—almost possessive—about their faith, and they have never embraced me so fully. Even their churches are less cozy. Despite fifty years of Catholic effort, it is still the Protestants who know how to give worship a domestic warmth and simplicity.
Yet Catholicism gave me a home that Protestantism could not. Though I knew well as a Protestant that my inheritance was in Christ, it was only in Catholicism that I found my native land. Unlike low-church Protestants, Catholics are fool enough to think that their visible church corresponds to the invisible one. They suppose that they can bring Christ into this world directly through the Mass and indirectly through pilgrimage and shrine, fast and feast. Catholics cannot help but make this world reflect, however dimly, our heavenly home.
Catholicism proclaims the Incarnation by bodying forth grace in this world. It adopts us into a little family led by Mother and Father. It is this wonderful aspect of the faith that inclines cradle Catholics to snobbery toward converts. For those raised in the faith, the Church is a real enough home that they can feel disdain for interlopers. No one minds if another man assents to the same abstract principles that he does; but if that man moves into his house and competes for the affection of his mother, he is likely to become jealous. Contempt for vulgar new arrivals is not exactly saintly, but it seems inevitable in a Church that not only welcomes sinners but also asks them to play host.
Of course, something more than mere suspicion of strangers is going on in the Church today; there are deep disputes that can only be solved on their own terms. But to the extent that we really do have a battle between cradle Catholics and converts, I hope the latter are forgiving of the former. Prejudice toward newcomers is a small price to pay for a Church that is a home.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.