On Convert Sickness

14 07 2008

I re-post here an interesting quote I found on this website. I thought it worth reproducing in full:

There’s a great essay (not available online, sadly) in the current issue of the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on G.K. Chesterton entitled “The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton.” It has a fabulous paragraph on conversion that I felt the need to reproduce in toto:

“In these books [his later Catholic non-fiction works] Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you’re new to mail.”

I will add that my own lack of enthusiasm about the goings on in the Roman Catholic Church is from what I have deemed a healthy form of anticlericalism. While I have always felt that in the end one must always go along with what the Church says because it is, well, the Church, I have not in a long time put all of my hopes and dreams in the external acts of the Church. As my former abbot once said, put your trust in Christ and in Christ alone.

There is another dimension that I think goes along with it, and it has to do with culture. Northern Europeans tend to view their world with a seamless consistency; people of a Latin disposition do not. While it is true that I was raised in this country and consider myself fully American, I do not underestimate the influence that the cultural ghetto I grew up in has on me. One can be loyal to the Church and critical at the same time. That is because in the Latin psyche the Church has always been taken for granted. In the end, it is just like the post office mentioned above.

When I was a teenager, I became a bit disillusioned with the Church since where I lived it was very liberal and inconsistent in terms of its doctrine and praxis. I would usually walk to Mass early Sunday mornings, and often I would go to the 8:00 a.m. Spanish Mass. At this Mass, there was a group of about twenty guys, most of them probably field workers straight from Mexico, who stood in the back of the church. Some received Communion, but a lot didn’t. Some after or before Mass would walk up to the sanctuary area on their knees, go up and kiss the crucifix, and some didn’t. And they were there every Sunday. I got into the habit of standing with them. I was in the church, but always standing by the door. I think that I have remained there ever since.



17 responses

19 07 2008
Sam Urfer

I’d go a step further: American Protestant culture is not healthy. Full stop.

19 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

The AnarchoCatholic posted this from an article from the New Oxford review:

If this is a fair assessment of American society, then we can ask, along with Cardinal George, whether American Catholics also hold these basically Protestant values. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII warned Catholics in the United States of the heresy of subjecting Catholicism to certain traits which were part of the spirit of American civilization. Pope Leo called this heresy nothing other than Americanism! Thus the tendency on the part of Catholics in the U.S. to accept the same cultural attitudes as their Protestant neighbors is not a new phenomenon.

Bottom line: American Protestant culture is not healthy for Catholicism. Never has been, and never will be. So converts (as well as cradle Catholics) should be well aware of this, and many already are.

19 07 2008


I’ve often wondered what the relationship was pre-Vatican II between gospel music and black Catholics. I read in a biography about Fr. Augustine Tolton (the first black priest in the US) that the slaves, and later freemen, sang spirituals and such when working in the field but the mass was in Latin as it was everywhere. It was an interesting observation and I wish it had been expounded on. This wouldn’t work today because there is a belief that anything should be in the mass if it’s good in some way (e.g. clowns, Barney, Halloween). It really is a problem and I can’t see a way out of it. More liturgical education could help, but by and large, blacks don’t really see themselves in the great chain of Western history in the same way that a lot of white do, so an appeal to liturgical tradition might not be effective anyway. Creating a definite Catholic identity (as has been discussed) would be best as it would explain why chant is preferred to gospel, at least in a liturgical setting.

19 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez


It is unfortunate that we have put ourselves in a position where any form of liturgical restoration would be deemed a mild form of cultural imperialism. It is the same in the Mexican-American community as well: the ideal of high culture music for Mass is to have a bunch of mariachis playing at a wedding. I don’t think there is an easy solution, and the hierarchy by allowing this music in the first place opened a veritable Pandora’s Box. I am not sure what to do either. How does it stop itself from becoming the liturgical Grinch that stole Gospel music?

19 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez


The title of course was not mine, and I may have romanticized things a bit, that I’ll admit. However, readers of this blog will also know that I have dissected my own tradition in such posts as this one. Cradle Catholicism + modernity just makes another monstrous form, but not necessarily a superior one. But more to come on that later.

I think you might have to read my historical analysis of ultramontanism again. I will always stand by the idea that authority and charisma does not make truth, it can only protect it.

What I am ultimately uncomfortable with is the idea that we have to jettison certain things so that people can “enter the Church” or “receive the Body and Blood of Christ more worthily”. I just don’t buy into that whole substance/accidents arguments when it comes to Catholicism. What do we get rid of and what do we keep? I’m sorry, I find a religion without a culture a vague abstraction, and not at all something that will make a deep impact on society.

It is a certain fact that for every person who enters the Catholic Church at this point, four leave. We are obviously doing something wrong, and that is why I post things like this.

Besides, I thought in posts such as this and this I was passing on how to be Catholic. I am sorry if you caught one of my more “negative” posts. But I think there are issues in this post that people need to discuss.

And I am happy for converts. My best friend is convert. So welcome to the Church! Remember to pray to the Virgin often. My favorite is the Litany of the Virgin Mary.

19 07 2008

“One can be loyal to the Church and critical at the same time. That is because in the Latin psyche the Church has always been taken for granted. In the end, it is just like the post office mentioned above.”

Serge is right. This has been covered before elsewhere. And elsewhere it has been suggested by those born into the cradle of Catholicism that those who enter as converts may not ever fully grasp what it means to be Catholic by, for a lack of better term, naturally. Natural like those Mexican field workers that Arturo so beautifully describes. Natural in a way that creates a legitimate cultural fabric that isn’t self-conscious…it just is.

And in return some converts say that they still grasp at just being Catholic, without a deep, hidden dialogue that seeks to justify his or her Catholic action to a running internal criticism…A dialogue that often leads to apologetics.

As true as this criticism of Chesterton might be, it still cuts deep among converts struggling to be Catholic, for reasons found in this post. Perhaps the Latin psyche takes the church for granted. Perhaps that creates an internal disposition to just be Catholic without worrying about being Catholic. But for converts like me, who come from a place that could doubt whether a true church could ever materially exist outside of the sentimental aspirations of Christ’s mystical collection of scattered believers, finding the Chair of Peter is an oasis in wasteland that cradle Catholics seldom have inhabited. A wasteland that destroys legitimate faith.

So, sometimes that means we love Peter as much as we love the function of the Chair. And if you come from an anti-clerical aesthetic, that might rub you the wrong way. And you would be right, the born again conversion stories of EWTN are in a Protestant dialectic. But that is because our national consciousness is patterned after the Protestant narrative of the few that leave behind the many to create something more noble and true…whether that’s a church or a constitution.

It may not lead to more Mexican peasants praying the Litany to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But its lead many Protestant and many cultureless American Catholics to either enter the church or receive the Body and Blood of Christ more worthily. And I am okay with that.

You can look down your nose at our foolish celebration of our Catholic mediocrity, our tepid form of triumphalism. Or maybe you can teach us, instead, to pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart– how to just be Catholic. But you are going to have to move away from the door and come deeper into our white-washed suburbia.

And you might want to leave off the word sickness, and just stick with convert, or even better, fellow Catholic.

19 07 2008

One of the primary problems with trying to establish/reestablish a Catholic culture is that we’re dealing with a society in which many people have experienced some degree of traditional Catholicism and have rejected it. We’re not talking about the first century or modern day sub-saharian Africa where the Church is really providing a revolutionary message, but a post-Christian society in which most people have some knowledge of Christianity and have decided that they don’t like it. It’s more of an attitude of “been there, done that.” Plenty of Americans still remember the ethnic Catholic ghettos of the past, but don’t seem terribly interested in recapturing that environment. New Catholic immigrants seem to have their own distinct subcultures, but how long will it last before assimilation kicks in?

Although the Church “baptized” some of the more benign pagan practices of antiquity, that really won’t work in America where the predominant religious culture is essentially Calvinist. In practice, what ends up happening is the absorption of Protestant iconoclasm as represented in parish buildings that resemble communist-era prisons. For example, the predominantly black parishes that I’ve been to use gospel music from the Protestant churches. Unlike “folk masses,” which even the liturgical liberals have to admit is pretty fake, gospel music actually does have a long history and are usually pretty orthodox in terms of theology. In all of talks about the “reform of the reform” or broadening the use of the Latin Mass that I have been privy to there has never been a discussion about what to do about parishes that have grown accustomed to “inculturated masses.” Based on my own personal experience, I’m positive if you told the parishioners of such parishes that they had to switch from gospel to chant there would be cries of racism or cultural insensitivity.

18 07 2008
The young fogey

Another good one that may turn up in my blog soon.

Indeed Catholicism simply IS.

This has come up before: for all the truth it teaches and other good it does the EWTN brand of born-again conservative Roman Catholicism does seem artificial and Protestant.

L.T. understands what I like about Orthodoxy. Filter out the anti-Westernism (like EWTNism found more among jerk converts who’ve brought in their Protestant prejudices than in ethnic parishes – if you want to keep away from the jerks learn Greek or Russian and go to one of those churches and not a convert emporium), bring in RC moral theology (the gold standard IMO) to examine your conscience and make a good sacramental confession (an importation not unknown in Russian church history), and go back to being old-school on contraception (the classic Orthodox approach, which agrees with the rest of historic Christendom’s ban: with all those fast days a devout couple doesn’t need artificial birth control) and it works!

Whether Orthodoxy’s really possible among Westerners, not to be confused with überfromm jerk converts’ caricature (like the SSPX sort of parodies by reduction the real traditional Western version of Catholicism), is worth a discussion in itself. Of course a faith whose dogma is universal is for everyone but it’s still awfully difficult to plant in hostile alien lands.

Orthodoxy took a big hit under Communism but unlike the autodestruction of Roman Catholicism you saw in the West it wasn’t an internal collapse of the church (no, the magisterium didn’t fail – that’s not what I mean) but an alien ideology imported from the West that was used to nearly demolish the church. The Orthodox sensus fidelium rejected the Soviet-rigged ‘Living Church’ attempt to liberalise the church in Russia.

18 07 2008

In response to Arturo:
It’s becoming more apparent that one really should look to the “small people” for spiritual inspiration, rather than the higher up folks. Earlier this year, an elderly woman who went to the parish I previously attended died. The parish in question is predominantly black, so the mass is based in gospel music. The deceased was a white lady who had moved to the neighborhood when it was white about 70 years ago and never left, even when the area changed and got rather unsavory (it’s actually being gentrified somewhat by black hipsters and Muslims now). She went to daily mass, even when she got hit by a car a few years back and had to walk to the parish using a walker. If she had complaints about the change from a Latin mass to a gospel mass, it was never enough to leave the parish. After I read the obituary in the paper about her, I realized that this was the kind of person that’s the backbone of the Church. If only we could all have her kind of devotion.

In response to L.T.:

This is probably a topic for another thread, but I’ve wondered how healthy the Orthodox churches really are. Even without a Vatican II and all its traditions intact, Orthodoxy does not seem to have faired well in the former Soviet bloc. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t really see Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians or Serbs rushing back to Orthodoxy after 50-80 years of state-sponsored atheism. Communism just seems to have sucked those countries dry. Orthodoxy also seems to have had more invested in the “throne and altar” concept than Catholicism, particularly in Russia. Since czarism is also discredited, Orthodoxy is kind of left without a leg to stand on. If we take communism to be distilled version of modernism, I don’t think that many religions could stand up that.

18 07 2008

Thanks, Arturo, for articulating some bothersome thoughts I’ve had as a Catholic convert with a deep attraction to the thick-textured, non-abstract, non-dialectical, unapologetically “ethnic” type of Apostolic Christianity that is still preserved and cherished by the Orthodox. Inculturating America? I hope not. The strange thing about American or modern Western Catholicism is that it seems more in need of inculturating itself to its Mediterranean roots than to its respective modern home countries which have all embraced a soulless globalism. We live in a day it seems when what we call “culture” is decidedly anti-cultural. How do you inculturate that? And the early church did not invent a Catholic culture; they inhabited worlds that were never that self-conscious about culture to begin with.

I also agree with how much Catholicism has come to be defined by whatever the Pope/Vatican says or whatever this or that document says, detached from flesh. There doesn’t seem to be much Catholic intuition left that isn’t modeled on some secularist mode of thinking or feeling. There doesn’t seem to be much left of a Catholicism that stands on its own sensus fidelium, not as some “deposit” of theological arguments, but a fullness of faith, a phronema. That’s not to say I don’t love my Pope, just that I think we need to be more Catholic etsi Papa non daretur, as if the Pope didn’t exist. I think Benedict would prefer to shepherd a flock that had an intuitive grasp and feel of the Shepherd’s voice, not one that’s constantly trying to get him to look happy cozying up to the flock’s latest pied pipers or one that’s constantly playing word games with his every utterance.

16 07 2008

“But maybe I’m wrong about the monarch and the deity – we have one as both, and it is the $$, hallowed be his/her name!)”

The ultimate American Idol…

16 07 2008
The Scylding

It bears reminding that talk about an American / Canadian culture or cultural tradition is a bit premature. If we take the example of Western Europe, what is today known as French / Italian / Spanish culture took a very, very long time to form – wave after wave of conqueror, settlers etc. – pre-
Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Visigoth, Ostrogoth, Moor, Frankish, Viking etc etc. On this continent, we are still wearing our baby booties. Plus, the variability of immigrant is even wider than those lands experienced. British culture is primarily a mix of Celtic/Angle/Saxon/Danish/Norman influences, with some Pictish, East-Indian and Carribean influences. Take that, bring it to North America, and start multiplying the influences. Plus, we have no dominant clergical influence here either – no unifying pope or patriarch, and (for you Americans at least), no monarch either. It is a wonder we don’t split into a hundered pieces! (But maybe I’m wrong about the monarch and the deity – we have one as both, and it is the $$, hallowed be his/her name!)

15 07 2008
Sam Urfer

I agree completely with what you say in your last paragraph, Arturo. As it is written, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the children of men, in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146:3) Faith in the Pope is misplaced, as there is only one name in Heaven and Earth with the power to save. For myself (here I go again, bringing things back to how I found the Church…), the little things in life were far more important in my conversion than apologetics articles explaining the nature of the doctrine of Justification. I have one single entry on my blog talking about the role apologetics had in reconciling me to the Church, and am not likely to talk more about it in the future. Apologetics are very important, but ultimately they are kind of boring. The experience of actual life is far more important, and interesting.

As to the culture of the Church: it is perhaps heartening to note that the first century Christians did not start out with a Catholic culture, it had to be formed. It is up to us in the here and now to work towards an aesthetic revival.

15 07 2008

For both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, enculturation in the United States is inevitable, and quite necessary. However, in the process, North American culture itself will be, and is, changed, and that also inevitably, whether on a large or a small scale. In the past, the various waves of immigration, primarily from Roman Catholic countries and secondarily from Orthodox lands, have illustrated this. The current Latino wave is causing the same dynamic. Latinos will become (North) Americanized and North America will become more Hispanic, even as it has already absorbed previous influences.

Perhaps a concrete example will help: prior to the influx of significant numbers of Jews, the normal workweek in North America was six days, Monday through Saturday. As Jewish observance of the Sabbath became a factor, the normal workweek was shortened to five days, and everyone benefited. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that I look forward to a greater Islamic presence in the United States, since the Muslim “sabbath” is Friday. Perhaps then, a four day workweek will become the norm.

15 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I think I should nuance a bit what I wrote yesterday. First of all, I think the author cited is obviously writing in a somewhat cyncial tone. I don’t necessarily share that. Of course, there are cradle Catholics who have even more enthusiasm for Sts. Francis and Thomas than even Chesterton did, and I recommend in particular Chesterton’s book on the Angelic Doctor.

That being said, the quote struck me the way that it did due to a few issues that I have been contemplating lately. The first is that of the relationship between Christianity and culture. I have been prone to say in the past that real Eastern Orthodoxy is impossible outside of the realms of Russian, Greek, or other traditional cultures. The assumption behind this is that Catholicism somehow is. I am beginning to re-think that assumption. Whether the Catholicism has been in Italy, Spain, Bavaria, Poland, or anywhere else, it has always been incarnate in some culture. The difference is that in Catholicism, we have (or at least used to have) “romanitas”: the idea that what is done in Rome is the standard by which all else is judged. “Romanitas”, however, does not create the Faith on the ground except for clerics living in the Vatican; it merely governs it.

Once you come to the United States, a country formed by immigration, this cultural identity becomes less and less defined. Early last century, the Catholic Church was just as divided ethnically in ways that contemporary Orthodox jurisdictions are divided. As I cited in a recent post, it was the Irish who had most of the ecclesiastical power. With the decline of the Catholic ghetto, all of those groups were thrown into the vortex of suburbia, and in many ways, the culture died there.

Why such figures as Chesterton and Newman are important is precisely because they had to become Catholic within a cultural void. Catholics in their world of modern England were foreigners, misfits, and quasi-degenerates. They thus had to somehow create a Catholic identity without a community that they identified with. They had to learn to become Catholics by the book and could not take the institution of the Church for granted. That is why the rhetoric behind what they say can be a bit individualistic at times, especially with Newman. The crucial story becomes how HE found the true Church, how HE came to believe, etc. In most circumstances, entering into the Catholic Church in the past would come with the entering of a specific set of cycles of feasts and fasts, cultural mores, taboos, and codes. It was in a way becoming something more than just Catholic: you were, in a sense, “going native”, just as one almost always has to “go native” when becoming Eastern Orthodox. Ecclesial identity then is conceived of in more communal terms rather than as a “personal decision”.

The EWTN-style Catholicism of the “Journey Home” is thus a new and odd creature indeed, and perhaps the result of the identity crisis of Catholicism as it manifests itself in the developed world. It is a form of American acculturation; the Catholic version of the “altar call” where one gets up in front of the congregation to say how the Catholic Church has become YOUR PERSONAL Zion and home. I don’t think such a thing could exist in France or Spain, but then again, the Church is dying in those places. The challenge, however, becomes how does one go from this to forming a Catholic culture and is that even necessary.

The other side of the two-edged sword is precisely the inverse growth of Vatican power and influence in relationship to the actual influence of the Church in society, addressing a bit Leah’s comment. In the past, people often had no idea who the reigning Pope was, and it mattered little anyway. Catholicism in those days was on “auto-pilot”, and people believed what they believed because people had always believed it. With the French Revolution and its aftermath, the Church has become less and less relavent to our daily lives, while the Papacy has become increasingly larger in Catholic consciousness. In this way, one can see how people are less formed by the culture of Catholicism and see Catholicism less as a way of life and in turn see it more in terms of allegiance to the Papacy and an abstract set of doctrines (apotheosized in the category “Magisterium”). This becomes even more the case in an age of tempestuous reforms unleased by the Second Vatiucan Council: people know what it is to be a Catholic because the Pope tells them so, even if in many ways it is different than what it was a generation or two before. My contention has always been that such ideas are untenable in the long run since if a religion is not “spontaneous” in the sense that people do it without being told, then it can be argued that it only exists on paper.

The last aspect of that I want to discuss briefly is a very personal one, and it is why and how I think that the Holy Ghost dwells in the Church. Only the sacraments function ex opere operato (by function of the work worked) and nothing else. Everything else, including the Magisterium, only works through a lot of blood, sweat, tears, setbacks, and less than edifying machinations. God’s presence in the world is mainly through sanctity, and sanctity is not regulated precisely nor is it legislated. I personally see God in the altars that old women keep in their house, in the Mexican man walking on his knees towards the crucifix, and the person on the street giving out alms. I don’t know how the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, since I know that Our Lord also said that that He did not know if He would find Faith on earth when He returns. But I know that when I see those things I mentioned, the gates of Hell at least are not prevailing against THAT. I have found that the best way to keep my Faith is to put it in these little things.

15 07 2008
Sam Urfer

This is a good and interesting analysis of how converts tend to act, though I think it misses some points. For myself, coming from a radical Protestant tradition, it wasn’t just a matter of finding out that the post office delivers the mail. It was being convinced that the postal system wasn’t a plot by the New World Order to control the minds of the populous through undetectable spores released into the air by moistened stamps. The relief and joy following such a revelation is amazing.

After the realization that the Pope is not the Antichrist, and is in fact the legitimate heir of Peter, the will to criticize weakens. However, self-reflection is absolutely necessary for us as individuals, and this applies to the Church as a body. It is good to be able to reflect on the Church as an imperfect human institution consisting of fallible human beings saved by the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. The Church and it’s leaders are not above criticism, and never shall be this side of Paradise.

And yet it remains that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has authority on Earth. I have faith that the Holy Spirit guides the Church on the right path through all failures and mistakes, and that the gates of Hell shall not overcome her. Having come to this belief from abject hatred of the Church, I feel it very strongly.

15 07 2008

I think you’re referring to a certain type of Western convert, rather than converts in general. I think that the sub-saharian African who converts to Catholicism (often at the risk of life and limb) has more pressing uses of his or her time that arguing what the significance of the brand of shoe the pope wears or whatever it is Catholics on the internet talk about these days. The entire notion of laypeople actively thinking about the everyday activities doings of the pope or any other high-ranking prelate is very recent. Prior to the 19th century, I don’t think the pope figured very much into the thoughts of the average Catholic. For them, the Church was their local parish and whatever devotions were attached to it. They probably knew that the pope existed, but didn’t know what he looked like, sounded like, or how he affected their everyday life. It’s only been since Pius IX and the rise of ultramontanism that the idea of the pope as a “Christian superman” seemed to catch on. Based on my personal experience, even most traditionalists don’t really seem to know much about the popes prior to Pius IX (and if asked who their favorite pope is will mention all the ones between Pius IX and Pius XII). I think that the Mexican laborers sitting in the back of some ultra-liberal parish in California probably have more faith than my over-educated self in my FSSP parish.

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