Saturday, May 2, 2009

Triumphal Conversions

Triumphalism is a human weakness even in the context of Christian Faith. It is too easy to gloat when something seems to give glaring confirmation that a particular facet of the Faith has been vindicated by a situation or decision in the conflict between good and bad (but how often do we think through the process that defines those terms?).

Sometimes we can sound triumphal when it is not intended — at least consciously. In my last post I tacitly admitted that I believe what Catholics do in worship is “right” (and made what should be the obvious point: why else would I have become Catholic?). That does not mean all such expressions are to be taken polemically, but the reality remains that differing Christian traditions can be quite sensitive to what appears to be either an attack on or a justification for their way of understanding and doing “church.’

I have thought of this in the context of conversion. The Easter Vigil — when converts typically enter the Church — is relatively fresh. I’ve also been reminded recently of a certain type of Protestant Fundamentalism that delights in any occurrence of a Catholic getting "saved” and leaving the Church (which can be declared with a very triumphal gloat).

The reality is that examples can be easily found of people who go both ways on this “conversion” route. Some who are “cradle Catholics” find the reality of Jesus in a personal way outside of Catholicism. Some who have been Evangelical Christians find a fullness of Christian Faith in Catholicism (which grows out of a “personal commitment to Jesus” that has defined their faith for years).

In the August/September 2008 issue of First Things (pp70–71) the late Richard John Neuhaus reported an observation by a young man in Catholic ministries at an Ivy League university: “the big difference is that [evangelical ministries] aim at the weakest Catholics while we aim the strongest evangelicals.” Neuhaus goes on to elucidate the claim “that evangelicals who are more theologically versed and religiously committed are more open to Catholicism, while Catholics who become evangelicals were, for whatever reason, alienated from Christianity.” Then he puts it bluntly: “religiously serious evangelicals are more likely to become Catholic, while religiously lapsed Catholics are more likely to become evangelicals.” A case of the former would be the “reversion” of Francis Beckwith, the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, to the Catholic Church in 2007.

Catholics who do not know Jesus are not good representations of Catholic theology. That they tell a certain truth about Catholicism — that the Church has lost something in its catechetical process — can hardly be denied; Catholicism could benefit from Evangelicalism’s gift of initiating personal faith.

Yet it remains true that Protestants who are deeply committed to Jesus fall short of the fullness of the Church. That may sound triumphal to non-Catholics, but it is not my intent (nor was it Pope Benedict’s when he affirmed the statement from Lumen Gentium, that “This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church....”). And so Richard John Neuhaus made his case for saying “the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”

When I hear of a “Catholic” who has been “saved” in a Baptist context I hope the person truly has found Jesus, and that the spark of life will grow into a vibrant and mature faith. And maybe, if the human negative programming is not too deep nor lasts too long, that person may grow to recognize a fullness that the Catholic Church does offer, and so may return.

Conversion is a life-long process. Christians are called to be formed into the fullness of Christ. The particular steps — even opposing “ecclesial directions” which can be marshaled by either “side”— can be good things as long as they are part of Jesus drawing His people to Himself. It is the human side of conversion — as is the triumphalism with which it is too often proclaimed.

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