Whether it's liturgy or social mockery, Catholicism is a difficult thing to join
Taylor Marshall, chancellor of a Catholic liberal arts college in Texas, a convert and a former Episcopalian priest, writes a stimulating blog called “Canterbury Tales.” Recently he included on his website a thought-provoking article: “10 reasons why it’s hard to become Catholic.” They are worth reproducing because they have the ring of truth about them and because the situation is not so different over here.
First, he puts “Theological submission”. It is very hard to submit to the idea of objective truth when subjective truth rules the day. Every truth is now relative; what I believe is just as valid as what you believe and so on. Secondly he puts “Priests”. By this he does not mean the submission of celibacy; simply that in general, Catholic priests are not as chummy as their Protestant counterparts. “They are more distant” he suggests, because they are “stretched out more thinly” and are consequently busier; but if they are busier on God’s business, “that’s a much better use of time than drinking expensive coffee with me.”
Marshall’s next heading is “Liturgy”. This is a subject that causes heartache among converts over here: the dire Catholic hymns they have to face after their beautiful Anglican ones. Marshall and his family, not surprisingly, attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. He comments, “Sometimes, potential converts walk into a not-so-wonderful liturgy with broken rubrics and oddities.”
The next obstacle comes under the heading “Dealing with marriage, divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion.” This list almost speaks for itself. Changing a “lifestyle” is hard, he acknowledges; “These things should be addressed with caution and compassion. If you’re a potential convert, pray for and seek out a good priest with whom you can speak confidentially.” He adds, from his own experience, that “the healing [from] a good confession is about 100 times more powerful than any of the shame or fear associated with past problems.”
The next problem concerns a smaller group of converts – ministers from other churches who stand to lose out financially by conversion, through loss of pensions, salaries and so on. “It goes without saying that most ministers take a major pay cut when they become Catholic. Their family income goes down. They usually start having more kids.” These hardships hit converts here too. The Church tries to solve it by giving married members of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham salaried positions as chaplains, but I think the financial sacrifices are probably still a big hurdle for many in this particular category.
“Vocational confusion” is the next heading – again addressing those who convert from ministerial positions in their own churches. It is hard to accept that your own priesthood is considered invalid. Taylor Marshall comments on his own earlier vocation, “I wasn’t a priest long. But I heard confessions, anointed the dying etc. What was I doing? What was God doing?” He doesn’t suggest reading JH Newman, who would offer some enlightenment here.
His next heading, “Non-Catholic ridicule and estrangement” cuts across the board. Marshall admits that “Family and friends do not understand” and that he has never been “more greatly attacked” for anything else in his life. He has heard of converts cut out of an inheritance because of their conversion. So have I; it must be a painful experience – not because of the inheritance per se but because of what it signifies about the break in family bonds and affections.
The author also includes in his list a sad reality: “Catholic ridicule and estrangement.” He writes that some cradle Catholics are suspicious of former Protestants and their ways of expressing their new-found faith; other, less zealous Catholics (there are quite a lot of these about), “see zealous converts as a threat.” Marshall is amusing on the subject of RCIA (the Rite for Christian Initiation of Adults) classes, his next hurdle, suggesting that they are often led by liberal Catholics who are suspicious of orthodoxy. He mentions knowing many converts who were in the odd position of having to “defend the Catholic faith while taking RCIA”.
He concludes with “Pride.” By this he means all the cultural obstacles to faith. “At one point in life I felt that I was too good for all those people who respected the Infant of Prague.” Ordinary Catholics can also feel this when talking to liberal, “cool” Catholics who look startled when you mention Lourdes or Fatima.
As I said, the list is thought-provoking. It reminds us how much grace is needed for conversion – and how humbled cradle Catholics should be at the sacrifices made by their new friends in the faith.