Converts and Cradles

I was talking with a friend the other day. He’s a fellow convert who (as is common with us) was wondering why on earth Catholics who don’t believe much of what the Church teaches stay . He was greatly puzzled about the tendency of many life-long Catholics to remain quite proudly Catholic despite the fact that much of what the Church insists we must believe is something they flatly reject in favor or whatever the latest Oprahism is on the tube. Equally puzzling, both during this pontificate and the last one, is the common tendency of many Catholics–usually cradle Catholics–to say all sorts of rubbish about the teaching of the Pope (he’s “reactionary” doncha know), yet to go on treating him as a beloved figure. For many converts, it’s a weird and disorienting experience.

I think, after a lot of pondering, that much of the disconnect comes from the fact that converts tend to take very seriously the experience of the Faith in its dimension as a Body of Doctrine . When you become a Catholic as an adult, you are required to give full and honest assent, before God Almighty Himself, to the proposition: “I believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims is revealed by God.” Evangelical converts, in particular, feel the weight of that proposition and, as a general rule, make very sure they can say it in good conscience before they are received into the Church. If you cannot say it in good conscience then (we strongly believe) to claim to be Catholic is to lie to God.

There is no parallel moment of crisis for cradle Catholics. Instead, the principal experience of the Church for cradle Catholics is as Family . Oh sure, there are those little rituals we do now and then, when we are asked if we realio-trulio believe the Creed and so forth. But that’s just one of those things the family does–like flag salutes. The main thing, however, is that we are family. And in a family, you disagree with the Old Man, but you’d never dream of saying you weren’t family anymore.

It seems to me that both of these experiences of Church are true to a degree. Those who experience the Church as Body of Doctrine have their strong and weak points. On the one hand, they take very seriously what the Church actually teaches and are willing to learn from the Church and when she makes us uncomfortable. On the other hand, there can sometimes be a troubling zeal to purge the Church of the Doctrinally Impure. Similarly, “Church as Family” folk will often go to the mat to make room for the catholicity of the Church. On the down side, they often do not have a clue what the Church teaches because “Catholic” is more like an ethnicity for them than a revelation from God that is meant change our lives.

And revelation is the key here, for both parties. Ultimately the Catholic faith is about a living relationship with God the Father, through our Lord Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of the Church which is both Mother and Teacher. Too often we want to avoid that uncomfortable encounter by replacing God with mere doctrine or familial feeling. All creatures which take the place of God are idols. But ordered toward the praise of God and the glory of his saints, all creatures—including right doctrine and the familial feeling—are sacraments by which God gives his life to us and to the world.

Mark Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • asquared

    There is a moment of adult assent to the Faith, during the rite of Confirmation with the profession of faith, which for most Catholics happens during the teen years, after a period of study focused on that Creed. Adult Catholics are also called to renew their baptismal promises every Easter, and when they baptize their own children. Trouble is many of them don’t realize what they are saying. If all sacramental catechesis followed the RCIA models, as Church documents call for, this would change.

  • This reminds me of the parable of the weeds and wheat, sometimes the weed we thought was not wheat, converts, and becomes the best of wheat. God’s time is not our time, we can only give good assistance to all we meet. We can only plant the seed, God must bring it to maturity.

    Every wheat field will have weeds, lets let God take care of them. We can be his eyes and ears, by praying for them, this how we are family.

  • LarryW2LJ

    Mark,

    Great article! As a cradle Catholic, I am often impressed (and sometimes even a little envious, I admit it) with the zeal for the Faith that many friends of mine who are converts have. I wish more cradle Catholics would be so enthusiastic.

    As a teen, even though my parents were very devout, I was somewhat lukewarm to the Faith, also. I was busy with “teenager things” and was more worried about them; that I was about my Faith which I grew up in and was “comfortable” with. Sagely, my parents made sure that my sister and I kept going to weekly Mass. It was something we did on autopilot.

    Then as I became older (later teens) I would sit in the pew and something in the homily would cause me to have an “Aha!” moment. Every now and then, listening to the old and familiar stories and sermons became new as I would have occasional epiphanies – “Wow, this is really is relevant and true – in MY life!”. Maybe not a crisis moment; but it had the same effect on me.

    I am happy to say that now, in my 50s, with a wife and two children, I am more active in my parish than ever; and my Catholicism is more important to me than ever, and becomes more so every day. And I owe this to my parents and God, of course. Their faithful nudging kept me going in the right direction. The “seed” that was planted during my Baptism took hold quite strongly; and for that I am forever grateful.

  • Tarheel

    Wonderful article. And as a convert myself I see too, many of the things Mr. Shea mentions. Okay I will try not to get up on my favorite “soap box” on this issue but, I truly feel that we all (converts and cradle) suffer from weak catechesis. I teach CCD to 6th graders at my parish and have done so for 9 years now. And all too often after confirmation (done in the 8th grade in this diocese) you no longer see those children at Mass any more. And unfortunately I also see some of my fellow catechists teach the sacraments and catechism almost devoid of any enthusiasm. Our passion for the faith and all the blessings we receive from Christ through his true church, must “show through” in our everyday lives and when those of us that teach, be very obvious when we teach.

    Faith and religion is not a boring subject. But it can be when we teach it or live it that way.

  • markfour

    “There is no parallel moment of crisis for cradle Catholics.”

    Sorry Mark, nearly every orthodox cradle Catholic raised during the past 50 years has experienced a moment or two of crisis. If I had grown up under bishops who weren’t feckless, seen a sister who went into a convent become a rabid, feminist wiccan, had confessors say the sinful wasn’t and I really didn’t need to be there, endured twenty-seven years of ambiguity from a papacy the cult of converts hailed as the greatest…. if … if that and so much more that was wrong had really been right (as it is becoming) …. then a cradle Catholic wouldn’t have to endure moments of crisis.

    As it is, our moments of crisis that have been far worse. We have been left with no place else to go whereas you could retreat (or so you may have presumed in the early stages).

    We are held accountable for our entire lives; you can start anew and don’t have to explain the behavior of any family members. We are the waking wounded. Many of us lack confidence. And that explains why we gravitate to celebrity converts who show more knowledge of the Faith than our priests do

  • markfour

    “There is no parallel moment of crisis for cradle Catholics.”

    Sorry Mark, nearly every orthodox cradle Catholic raised during the past 50 years has experienced a moment or two of crisis. If I had grown up under bishops who weren’t feckless, NOT seen a sister who went into a convent become a rabid, feminist wiccan, NOT had confessors say the sinful wasn’t and that I really didn’t need to be there, NOT endured twenty-seven years of ambiguity surrounding a papacy the cult of converts hailed as the greatest…. if.. … if that and so much more that was wrong had really been right (as it is becoming under Benedict) …. then a cradle Catholic wouldn’t have had to endure moments of crisis.

    As it is, our moments of crisis have been far worse. The territory was uncharted. We were told that repudiating tradition was a test of our loyalty. We have been left with no place else to go whereas you could retreat (or so you may have presumed in the early stages).

    We are held accountable for our entire lives and for our Family of cradle Catholics; you can start anew and don’t have to explain the behavior of any family members inside or outside of the Church. We are the walking wounded. Many of us lack confidence. And that explains why we gravitate to celebrity converts who show more knowledge of the Faith than our priests do. Not appreciating the “family aspect” also explains why sedevacantist chapels have many former Evangelicals among their members;

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  • lelnet

    Cradle Catholics have the same option of retreat as converts and would-be converts…apostasy. Free will is with us always, and we always have the option to not believe, to not be in communion with the Church. All humans have the same choice to make, regardless of what religious tradition (if any) they grew up in, and we retain that choice until the moment we die.

    Of course, as a Catholic, I think choosing apostasy is the _wrong_ choice, as I’m sure you do too. But it’s no less an option for cradle Catholics than it is for converts…and also no more of one.

    You’ve always had the option of leaving, as is proven by the massive numbers who grew up in the Church and are no longer members, and the equally massive numbers who are members only on paper and in survey statistics. You chose, correctly, not to do so, but rather to remain faithful to God’s Church even in spite of your evident resentments about some of the temporal choices made by that Church’s leaders here on Earth.

    I think you give yourself too little credit for that choice when you say that you didn’t have the same option a convert has.

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