22 October 2014

Converts and Reverts: Floundering towards a Catholic Taxonomy

'It is a curious thing, do you know,' says Stephen Dedalus' friend Cranly to Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 'how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.'
I've been thinking about this in recent weeks, following discussions with friends where the subject of Catholic 'reverts' -- those who'd been raised Catholic, but left the Church, only to return as adults -- has come up.
I don't mean cradle Catholics who just turned their back for a few months, or lapsed for a little bit, or doubted. The latter, especially, is pretty normal: as Pope Benedict said back in the day, believers never really are free from doubt, and it's that doubt that saves them from complete self-satisfaction; as Flannery O'Connor puts it, 'Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea.' For plenty of us, though, that doubt has implications that can lead us, perhaps combined with laziness or misery, away from the Church, at least for a while.
No, I mean Catholics who've lapsed or who've determinedly rejected the Church for significant periods of their lives, baptised Catholics who've abandoned ship and spent years away from it, living apart for a period that can't be dismissed as a passing phase, a mere whim, only to come back to it, whether following a sudden change or slowly, painfully, inch by reluctant inch.
Does it make sense, as has been ventured in recent conversations, to think of these reverts as more akin to converts than to cradle Catholics? Or are they a separate breed altogether?
Friends have said they're best thought of as closer to converts than cradle Catholics. I'm not so sure. Some weeks ago, when researching an Aleteia piece, I was advised by a priest friend that it was especially important for vocations directors to visit secondary schools in order to help build a 'culture of discernment', by planting seeds that may come to fruition later. There's more than one important point there, I think, and one of them is that the blossoms and fruits of our adult lives may well spring from seeds planted much earlier: the faith of reverts may have very deep roots.
One of the more interesting -- if sometimes far from persuasive -- books I've read on Catholic culture is Andrew Greeley's The Catholic Imagination. He talks at great length of how our religious cultures shape our minds, something which may horrify the more ardent secularists among us, but only if they are, as George Weigel puts it, 'the most ghettoized people of all [...] who don't know they grew up in a particular time and place and culture, and who think they can get to universal truths outside of particular realities and commitments.'
Religious culture, if Greeley is right, can saturate our minds, such that even artists who've left the Faith -- one might think of Joyce, Anthony Burgess, Umberto Eco, Don DeLillo, Frank Capra, Martin Scorcese, P.T. Anderson -- still 'feel' Catholic in some sense when you read them or watch their films. Growing up Catholic isn't indoctrination -- massive lapsation rates are proof of that -- but it is inculturation, and something of their Catholic upbringing stays with Catholics as they grow and lapse. When reverts return to the Church they bring that back with them.
Reverts have something important in common with converts, of course, in that both groups practice and believe largely because of conscious adult decisions and have probably had a lot of catching up to do. They differ too, though, because reverts tend to have loads of mental furniture that converts lack; it's inevitable, really, given sacramental preparation, innumerable Masses, childhood prayers, local churches as focal points of childhood, and the sacramental small change of Catholic family life.
And that leaves aside the realities of grace brought about through having been baptised and even confirmed in childhood, not to mention having received communion and absolution a fair few times! It makes sense to dismiss the importance of this if you don't believe in sacramental realities, of course -- if it's a symbol, then to Hell with it, as O'Connor famously said of the Eucharist --  but what if you do?
Taxonomy is a tricky game, and I haven't even gotten here into whether there tend to be cultural, philosophical, theological, or imaginative differences between converts from other Christian traditions, other religions, or atheisms. As it stands, though, I'm really far from convinced that reverts are more like converts than cradle Catholics. It seems, to be blunt, that reverts actually are cradle Catholics, albeit ones who've followed a strange path in life.
I say strange. I don't mean unusual. The other day, I heard of how research on Maynooth seminarians found that 42% of those surveyed identified with the statement 'I fell away from the Catholic faith at some point in my life but later returned to it'.
It looks like there are are fair few of us around.

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