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I was initially perplexed by the recent dust-up over converts in the Catholic commentariat. It seemed an entirely Anglo-American battle, with no parallel in Italy. Yet upon examination, I have found that the opposite is true.

It began when Michael Sean Winters, a journalist at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, responded to a televised debate between Austen Ivereigh of Crux and Matthew Schmitz of First Things, with a remark directed at the latter: “I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic.” Schmitz had said nothing to that effect. But Ivereigh quickly echoed Winters’s sentiment, identifying Schmitz and others with a broader “convert problem” in the Church, and accusing American converts who criticize the pope of “suffering from convert neurosis.”

What, one might ask, is “convert neurosis”? Ivereigh explains: “A neurosis is a pathological or extreme reaction to something that simply doesn’t correspond to reality.” Converts who long for clarity, constancy, and confidence in Church teaching such as existed before the Second Vatican Council are merely “projecting” onto the Church a fixity that it never possessed; converts who criticize Pope Francis for his equivocations on matters of grave concern are renouncing humility for prideful self-assertion. Ivereigh quotes someone saying that many recent converts “seem to have converted mainly because the Church teaches things that coincide with their ideological vision.”

What prevents us from reversing this flimsy allegation? Perhaps Ivereigh’s generation of liberal cradle Catholics—the “flowers of the sacristy,” conditioned from a young age to be obedient to Church authorities—lack the independence of mind to assess this pontificate objectively. Formerly a spokesman for Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, Ivereigh has always lived in the shadow of the Church, culturally and professionally.

And perhaps we need to think about the term “conversion.” I am just a poor Christian, without degrees in theology. But listening to the Church and her saints, I seem to understand that we are all converts—indeed, that we should repent and convert every day. Or is the call to permanent conversion only an elegant verbal exercise?

The Church would be nothing without converts—Paul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Loyola, to name just three—and Ivereigh himself is one of their number. For a certain period of his life, Ivereigh admits, he was a “lapsed Catholic.” If he considers himself a Catholic again today, he must have undergone a conversion, or a re-conversion, in the interim.

This whole controversy, which is rather surreal, might have been just a summer storm. But to understand it, and see whether it might have a deeper meaning, we must place it in the context of the current pontificate.

Ivereigh’s article, which not only offers critique but lists the names of the reprobates, is not the first of its kind. Ever since debate over Amoris Laetitia exploded, there have been repeated inquiries by news outlets in sympathy with the pope to provide the full names of his opponents, pointing out journalists by name. This may be an attempt to delegitimize dissent, to make clear to the laity who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It is a phenomenon—absolutely new, in my own experience as a Vaticanist—that reduces Vatican politics to personal relationships. From the moment I took a critical line on some of the current pope’s positions and statements, relationships with some of my colleagues ceased.

There is a previously unknown atmosphere of impatience in Rome. It is embodied in a spoils system that applies only to those within the Vatican who are not aligned with the Church’s “new course.” It is possible to view the United States and its episcopate—too traditional, according to the partisans of Pope Francis—as being under attack. The article by Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, on conservative American Catholics and evangelicals, drew the battlelines.

And there is the Vatican blacklist against the elevation of any American bishops or cardinals deemed insufficiently progressive. Isolate these undesirables, and never accept their tips for episcopal appointments, is the policy. If you don’t believe that such a thing exists, just wait and see how many “traditional” priests become bishops in America in the coming months, and which bishops receive cardinals’ berettas.

Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.

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