Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Victor White on Converts

I wonder if there's a good book to read about converts to the Catholic faith. I don't mean a book of conversion stories, or a book about particular converts, but a book about conversion in general, in our time.

Consider the vocabulary of conversion. Sometimes a refined sense of "convert" is used for those who come from outside Christianity, while people baptized outside the Church are not said to convert but to be received into full communion. Sometimes people are said to become Catholic, to convert to Catholicism, to join or enter the Church, and so on. Each expression has a different ring to it.

I recently read two texts about conversion. One turned out to be by someone who left the Church for Orthodoxy: he claimed that nothing upsets and baffles zealous converts like the lack of ecclesial enthusiasm in people who grew up Catholic; and that nothing tires intelligent Catholics-from-infancy like the hey-look-what-I-found excitement of those same converts. These observations hold not just for energetic converts, though, but for anybody excited by faith--how could the believers be so tepid, and how could the new guy be so presumptuous?

The more interesting passage is from the English Dominican (convert) Victor White (1902-1960), quoted in the newly published Jung-White correspondence. White writes:

"The trouble for so many of us converts-in-adolescence is something awfully difficult for you cradle Catholics to understand! The trouble is that, one fine day, we find that we did  (unconsciously) pose when we became RCs. It is more a matter of culture, of our picture-of-the world, than of religion! We revolted from the whole "protestant-materialist" world and values in which we were brought up: probably threw out the baby with the bath-water. For that we substituted a beautiful, romantic "Ages of Faith" medieval world--perhaps helped by Chesterbelloc, Gill, Pepler etc. The Church was central in that pretty picture; and after playing with High Anglicanism of course we became Catholics.... Perhaps we had never had much to do with the "real" Church of the average Catholic, and we never did feel much at home in it. We found "home" in the rather exceptional Catholicism of Blackfriars, Oxford...."

White is grim, and wrote at one point at least that his faith was no longer that of Catholics--though he got over this and persevered. Still, he's got a point: there is a difference between Catholicism and the Catholic Church and faith. Even the word, Catholicism(e), is modern, a reformations-era term of identity.  (Coined, as somebody says, around the same time modern Catholic missionaries gave India's religions the name Hinduism.) 

And, for all this--so what? Is it OK to have a blog of notes and asides? Pretty boring, I guess, for other people. But maybe useful to me. Sorry to disappoint the avid millions who check this page.

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