Conversion: How far does it go?

St. Paul’s dramatic story of conversion makes conversion sound instantaneous and all encompassing. Strangely, some cradle Catholics also have a skewed sense of conversion as something that only happens to others. Perhaps cradle Catholics have, despite all appearances, already arrived?

Arrival is a very misleading notion in the context of conversion. Excluding rare cases like St. Paul, we all start on a road of conversion – cradle Catholics included. As some theologians have argued, on the natural level, we’re all bound by natural law to seek the true religion, embrace it when found, and conform our lives to its principles and precepts. There is the whole of conversion in a nutshell.

Supernaturally, there is God’s grace. It starts and sustains the process that “is not to be reduced to outward forms or to vague intentions, but engages and transforms one’s entire existence beginning from the center of the person, from the conscience.” (Pope Francis) And through this experience, the pope continues, we “remind ourselves that we are creatures, simply put, that we are not God.” But we need God.

Then there is the Church: “It is [the Church’s] duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.” (Vatican II) So among other things, the Church confronts people with the truth of nature and the truth of Christ.

Now, we can analyze some of the bizarre things that Catholics get up to in the conversion department. First, there is the classic case of the Catholics who “pray on their knees on Sundays and prey on their neighbors the rest of the week.”

They have converted but only to the point of converting some of their time to participating in the Eucharist. As far as other things go, however, perhaps they underpay their workers, or demand too much overtime, or charge too much rent. Further conversion means that they have to learn to follow the principles of Catholic social justice, shedding parts of current culture and the practices of their social class. Perhaps they have to leave these groups completely in order to fulfill their conversions.

Secondly, a common commitment in the West: I convert up to the point that my political party permits. I have decided that the party is more authoritative than my religion. This is, to speak frankly, a resurgence of the pagan notion of the divinity of the state. So if, in power, the party funds abortion then I go along with that. It funds harvesting baby organs, so I go along with that too. And so on. Never mind conversion as taking on the mind of the Church; the party is the new repository of truth.

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In the United States, many Catholics seem to exhibit something that I can only call self-loathing. They claim to be Catholic, yet support a party that actively undermines the Church. They are “devout” Catholics active in a party that contradicts every Church teaching. Here is the problem: if Church teaching is being held to be untrue, then what is the individual’s act of faith, crucial to conversion? Real faith has content based on revelation. Denying the content means no faith, at least as the Catholic community understands it.

Another unwelcome consequence is that, because Christian anthropology is true, it is the unsurpassable worldview that is optimum for everyone. This puts the party under God. This is where the act of conversion goes, leading to the converted individual shouldering the mission of the Church to the world.

Yet notwithstanding these things, dioceses hire staff with the same contrarian attitude. Religious orders are in the same boat. The majority of their members vote this way too. Catholic colleges and parishes do the same. Why do Catholic individuals and dioceses and institutions hobble themselves like this?

The problem is that, under U.S. law, there is no taking back parts of the act of voting, taking back what is one’s blanket support (by vote) even for deadly policies. Despite this decisive public act, many individuals claim to be pro-life. But this claim does not direct the activity of the nation. So it is just wishful thinking, empty of real commitment.

The spiritual conversion process starts when one decides whom one will serve. We recently read at Mass that God even had to reprimand King David, at that point at the very peak of his power: “You have looked down on me.” (II Samuel 12:10) This was monumental. The anointed King, David had gotten his priorities horribly wrong and committed heinous crimes as a result. Through these crimes, he had presumed to look down on God. Apparently, the king was supposed to defer to the morality required by God – and not vice versa.

The process of conversion has vast consequences both for individuals cooperating with grace and for communities that flourish to the degree the individual converts believe.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Conversion anyone?

 

*Image: The Conversion of St. Paul by Luca Giordano, 1690 [Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy, France]

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.