The story of the workers in the vineyard is a powerful parable, and one especially apposite in these times when Pope Francis is trying to build on St John Paul’s efforts to draw back into the Church’s flock those stray sheep and lambs the Pope is tasked with tending and feeding.
‘Cradle Catholics’ and those who’ve long been faithful face a real danger of succumbing to the temptations of the constant labourers and judging those who have come or returned late to the Church, or of exasperatedly asking whether the same rewards we hope for could have been ours if we had lived our lives differently, as though we’d rather have done so.
Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that the parable was highlighted in the journal First Things last week in an article entitled ‘In defence of converts’. The article, by the English Catholic theologian Prof. Stephen Bullivant, one of the more balanced and brilliant observers of the modern British Church, takes issues with recent comments he felt were criticisms of converts as converts.
Sparking this was a remark by the American Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters, who, after watching a televised debate between papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and the young convert and First Things literary editor Matthew Schmitz, observed, “I am so tired of converts telling us that the Pope is not Catholic”.
This view, Prof. Bullivant noted, had been shared online by the US-based Italian theologian and Church historian Massimo Faggioli, who earlier this year expressed concerns about convert influences on the reception of Vatican II. Prof. Faggioli tweeted in May that, “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 who know nothing of the history of Vatican II and therefore have a quite idiosyncratically view of Vatican II”, adding that this view is marked by the conflation of conversion with political ideologies and with distinctly Western worldviews.
Pointing out that his wife is a convert, he added that this wasn’t a generalisation but did need considering, returning to the issue weeks later to observe that the problem is not one of cradle Catholics and converts, but a broader one of being “casual/ignorant/arrogant about some basic historical facts of Catholicism”.
In fairness, it’s hard to see that these comments were intended as criticisms of converts in themselves – if they’re anything like me their shelves groan with well-thumbed tomes by converts – but as criticisms of the fact that a startlingly high proportion of the most vociferous online aspersions cast on Pope Francis’ Catholicism come from converts.
“Stephen, we love converts,” said Dr Ivereigh, whose own wife is also a convert, continuing, “but some of them joined a Church imagined to be the antithesis of the Church of England rather than the one founded by Christ.”
This in some ways gets to the heart of the problem, since conversion is less a matter of whether we like what the Church – with the Pope as its visible point of unity – teaches than it is one of whether we accept that it has the authority to teach what it does.
In the English-speaking world the vast majority of converts to Catholicism come from other Christian denominations, though we should be careful about our terminology in this respect, not least as those who become Catholic after being members of other Christian denominations are not converts in the strictest sense, baptism being always into the Catholic Church.
Further, even when we use the term ‘convert’ loosely it seems rather tricky to talk of “the vast majority of them”; in England and Wales, for instance, as Prof. Bullivant has shown, 92.3% of Catholics are ‘cradle Catholics’, with 6.4% of Catholics having come from other Christian denominations – most are former Anglicans – and just 1.3% being converts by the purest definition.
Few of us are without baggage, and so it’s natural that converts to Catholicism carry with them their experiences in other Christian groups – the great G.K. Chesterton, for instance, was always grateful for how his Anglican decades fed and formed his Catholicism, while at another extreme, the author Philip Pullman has described himself as “a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist”.
These last few decades have been tumultuous ones for the Church of England, as they have for North America’s so-called ‘mainline’ Protestant Churches, so it should hardly surprise us that those who have left such denominations and even those who’ve lived in cultures heavily influenced by them should be marked by the experience and even display signs of a kind of ‘convert neurosis’, where they fear the Church they’ve joined or in some cases have always been part of will succumb to the same tumult.
Little surprise then, perhaps, that one-time Anglican clergy should write articles with titles like ‘The lesson of Anglicanism: liberalism will tear you apart’, as though the barque of Peter is a ship that can capsize, or that other former Anglicans will tell of how they were drawn to the Church because it taught truths that they believed and that they felt their own communion was in danger of forgetting.
The same tropes seem to crop up time and again in the writings of those English Catholics, for instance, who would challenge the Holy Father’s orthodoxy: Ss Thomas More and John Fisher, Blessed John Henry Newman on the Arians and on conscience, the 1930 Lambeth conference, and a few other examples that make for a fine story, but that constitute a troublingly narrow and localised historical vein, one that seems somehow blind to the extraordinary breadth and texture of Church history.
There’s no sense in such tales, for instance, of an awareness of how a fifth of those at the Council of Trent believed the rules on marriage instituted then were contrary to Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.
Also apparently absent is a knowledge of how – as the future Pope Benedict XVI observed in the 1990s – denial of Communion to the divorced-and-remarried was not rigorously enforced throughout the early Church, with Pope St Leo the Great being one Church Father who sought pastoral solutions for rare borderline cases. Indeed, the then Cardinal Ratzinger observed that in the case of questionable annulment judgments, Catholics might be able to judge in conscience for themselves whether they should approach Communion.
It can take many years to absorb such a breadth of history, and neither converts nor cradle Catholics should be faulted for lacking such extensive knowledge. Where the problem arises, however, is when criticism of the Pope is filtered not through such a profoundly Catholic optic but through a jaundiced ex-Anglican prism.
Convert voices critical of the Pope and Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation on marriage and the family, seem at times omnipresent across the English and American Catholic media, and certainly seem disproportionate to their numbers.
Lest cradle Catholics be tempted towards frustration about this, however, we might reflect that if critical convert voices are disproportionately present in the Catholic media, this may simply reflect how convert voices are disproportionately present across the Catholic media in general.
Converts often have the courage to speak out where cradle Catholics are inclined to keep their heads down, after all, and play a key role in reminding Catholics of the riches and reason that lie at the heart of the Faith. We could do with more of them.