Reasons for Conversion

In the year 300, by some estimates, Christianity had roughly 6.3 million adherents, a little over ten percent of the Roman Empire’s population. By 350 those numbers shot up to 33.8 million and over 55 percent of the empire’s inhabitants. What might explain such a dramatic rise? The conversion of the emperor to Christianity undoubtedly was a factor. And throughout the early middle ages, one of the major strategies of evangelists or missionaries is to win the monarch as the way to saving the nation.

By the twentieth century, however, reasons for conversion take a dramatically different form. Monarchs are largely ornamental. Societies become secular and pluralistic. And so another set of reasons for considering Christianity emerges. In a review by Stratford Caldecott of a book on the string of English writers who converted to Roman Catholicism over the course of the twentieth century, the author observes how that momentum decreased after Vatican 2:

. . . through the reforms and changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, the Church “began to move way from the Italianate paradigm into which the converts had been received.” In many places, the Church appeared to be seeking an accommodation with modernity that undermined the appeal of conversion. “As Roman Catholics exploited ensuing new opportunities and began to enter the post-war middle class and to assume prestigious social and political positions, their previously homogeneous subculture fragmented. With it crumbled the assumption that being a Roman Catholic automatically made one distinct from, and opposed to, dominant British principles and structures.” Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s), but writers such as G. K. Chesterton and even Dr. Dawson came soon to be regarded as marginal even among Catholics—representatives of a subculture that had had its day.

Peter Berger weighs in on the subject of evangelism, in this case Rome’s “New Evangelism” and adds that in a period when religion is less important to social life, the tendency of churches will be to appeal to converts as part of their rejection of secularism:

Highly secularized Western Europe, the Italy of Communione e Liberazione and the Bavaria that was the home of Pope Benedict, Poland under a regime of militant atheism, which Pope John Paul resisted and eventually helped demolish, and Latin America, the locale of John Paul’s address, a continent where the main challenge to the Catholic Church has not come from secularization but from the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism. Despite the big differences between the three cases, what they have in common is the loss of Catholic hegemony. Curiously, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States have also mobilized against “secularism”, which, in the most religious Western country, is a numerically small sectarian movement seeking to use the federal courts to banish religion from the public sphere. And of course “secularism” is blamed by religious conservatives of all sorts for the post-1960s changes in sexual behavior of which they disapprove.

Also curiously, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as the defender of traditional values against the alleged degeneracy of modern morals. Not only has the Moscow Patriarchate found an ally in this campaign in the Putin administration, but has sought better relations with the Vatican on the same basis. In 2009 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow established warm relations with Benedict XVI.

But Berger thinks that pitting faith against secularism is a false dichotomy and argues for a way to evangelize that is remarkably congenial with 2k because it springs from a recognition that people don’t spend all their days thinking like they do when the assemble on the Lord’s Day:

Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.

I would say that this situation realizes more fully what “faith” actually is. Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

It follows that religious institutions, even if they don’t like this, become de facto voluntary associations. This creates anxiety, and a nostalgia for certainty. It also provides a market for fundamentalist movements (not all religious), who promise absolute certainty. An important factor in the pluralistic situation is the presence of a secular discourse, which necessarily dominates in a number of modern institutions (notably those based on science and technology, on the market economy, on bureaucracy). This is where secularization theory was not completely wrong; it just exaggerated the hegemony of the secular discourse.

Aside from explaining Jason and the Callers, Berger recognizes (or at least permits the recognition) that faith in Jesus Christ is one thing but not everything. Contrary to w-wists where everything is either for or against Christ (or the French Revolution), 2k understands that faith is one part of a person’s life. It is the most important and it has clear implications for some aspects of natural life (sex, marriage, procreation). But Christianity is not a totalizing with which to one-up Richard Dawkins or Rachel Maddow.

23 thoughts on “Reasons for Conversion

  1. Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s)

    The collapse of the Church of England gives Catholicism a smaller pool to draw converts from. Indeed,

    Roman Catholics have overtaken Anglicans as the country’s dominant religious group. More people attend Mass every Sunday than worship with the Church of England, figures seen by The Sunday Telegraph show.


  2. Fascinating, Captain. Catholicism has also outstripped the Reformed faith in Switzerland, although both have lost “converts” to “none of the above.”

    Religion by denomination (% population older than 15)
    1970 2000 2012
    Roman Catholic 46.7 42.3 38.2
    Swiss Reformed 48.8 33.9 26.9
    Unaffiliated 1.2 11.4 21.4
    Other Christian 2.0 4.3 5.7


  3. Darryl,

    “It is the most important and it has clear implications for some aspects of natural life (sex, marriage, procreation). But Christianity is not a totalizing with which to one-up Richard Dawkins or Rachel Maddow. ”

    What in the heck is this “natural life” but a time to choose to live in the Spirit, behaving morally and with faith….or choosing the opposite. Darryl, this is our probationary life.
    If Christianity is speaking to the spirit of the age, like the New Aethism it is telling the world that this way of thinking is wrong. What does telling the truth about reality have to do with “one-upping”.
    And, if Christianity joins hands to combat secularism, which is a threat since people aren’t thinking much about the afterlife and are putting their faith in science and social engineering, I’m not going to complain. The Catholic Church isn’t threatened by pluralism or secularism, in the same way that the color red isn’t threatened that changing the word will mean that the color will now change because you gave it a new name. It(She) will just continue to correct error and heal the soul’s of all those who are being dupped by lies and falling into materialism, pragmatism, nihilism, and all other
    -isms that are contrary to Christ and his gospel while they journey this transitory life.


  4. Susan, so you’re saying that Protestantism is Christianity (“if Christianity joins hands to combat secularism . . .”). But if Protestantism is Christianity why convert? If Protestantism is Christianity why talk about so many of its deficiencies?

    And oh by the way, why is it that with all the order and authority in Roman Catholicism, Roman Catholics are less in harmony with their apostolically derived bishops than Protestants are with their pastors?

    You can blame Protestants for the mess in your communion only so long.

    However, on other issues, Catholics expressed either ambivalent or liberal views. Of note, Catholics were split on the ideal size of the government; 47 percent of Catholics wanted a smaller government, while 48 percent wanted more government services.

    But the biggest departure from the conservative politics perhaps comes on the issue of same-sex marriage. About half (52 percent) of Catholics said same-sex marriage should be legal, and 67 percent of Catholics said the Democratic Party was doing a good job of representing their views on the issue, with most dissenters saying the party was too conservative.

    For the first time, Pew Research asked respondents whether vendors providing wedding-related services should be required to offer services to same-sex couples. While 49 percent of all respondents said they should be required to do so, 57 percent of Catholics said it should be required. When asked if homosexual behavior was sinful, 49 percent of Catholics said no while 44 percent said yes. Conversely, among white evangelicals, the pillar of the American conservatism, 82 percent said homosexual behavior was sinful.


  5. Thought I’d add this frm Veritatis Splendor.

    . The attempt to set freedom in opposition to truth, and indeed to separate them radically, is the consequence, manifestation and consummation of another more serious and destructive dichotomy, that which separates faith from morality.

    This separation represents one of the most acute pastoral concerns of the Church amid today’s growing secularism, wherein many, indeed too many, people think and live “as if God did not exist”. We are speaking of a mentality which affects, often in a profound, extensive and all-embracing way, even the attitudes and behaviour of Christians, whose faith is weakened and loses its character as a new and original criterion for thinking and acting in personal, family and social life. In a widely dechristianized culture, the criteria employed by believers themselves in making judgments and decisions often appear extraneous or even contrary to those of the Gospel.

    It is urgent then that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture. As the Apostle Paul admonishes us: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:8-11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4-8).

    It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters.

    89. Faith also possesses a moral content. It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment; it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God’s commandments. As Saint John writes, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth… And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says ‘ I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 1:5-6; 2:3-6).

    Through the moral life, faith becomes “confession”, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness. “You are the light of the world”, said Jesus; “a city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16). These works are above all those of charity (cf. Mt 25:31-46) and of the authentic freedom which is manifested and lived in the gift of self, even to the total gift of self, like that of Jesus, who on the Cross “loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Christ’s witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children”, Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus, “and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1-2).


  6. Susan, but this was written by a bishop who was part of a council of bishops that wanted to accommodate the modern world (Vatican 2). Whom are you going to trust?


  7. Darryl,

    Protestants protest the institution that they believe is The Whore of Babylon, whereas Catholics ask you to come home to the fullness of truth where you can have all that is publically yours. There is nothing contradictory in admitting that there are aspects of reality that we argue about, yet many things that we can both point to, saying, “There, that is true!”. But since we cannot both be right concerning those things with which we disagree, we are divided on those issues and stand our ground until conviced otherwise. That’s why dialogue is so important.


  8. Susan, but there is something contradictory about anathematizing Protestantism 500 years ago but now seeing that we’re not so bad.

    You still haven’t come to terms with the historical divide in Roman Catholicism that came with Vatican 2. You’re quoting JPII only proves the point. He was on the side of accommodating the modern world — here’s a hint, that modern world was secular. And part of what writers like Chesterton and Waugh found attractive about Rome was that it was not secular. All of a sudden the non-secular church wants to accommodate the secular? What’s up with that?


  9. Darryl,

    Every younger(20’s & 30’s) and older( 60’s & 70’s)Catholic I know bemoans the lack of aesthetics in some, not all, buldings after Vatican II, but every older cradle Catholic that I know, who survived Vatican II, is still faithful to the Magisterium. What besides aethetics, did the congregents and clergy have to allow in, or give up? Can you give me a list?
    Speaking of aesthetics…..did you see what the Diocese of OC did to the “Crystal Cathedral”? The Catholics that I know don’t like the plans.


  10. Only prot-catholicks write off the Vat II generation, Francis embraces them and wants to implement what’s been left undone. Bend the knee to your Papi, Susan. My father is an older cradle RC, he thinks Benedict is a rich, autocratic, kraut who’s lived a charmed life. He’s also the only RC I know who’s read the catechism. He says it’s too long and T.A. is unnecessarily complicated. He says it’s not that tough to figure. He also thinks eeevangelicals are all about ‘feel good’ religion and indulging their emotions. Also, I asked, he doesn’t know you guys either. Says you sound like a bunch of protestants.


  11. D. G. Hart
    Posted September 30, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
    vd, t, I guess this means you’ll be queueing up for the Mass this week.

    Calvinism: The Real History. Losing out to Catholicism even in its home Switzerland.

    Sorry that stings, D. I’m just watching the wheels go round and round. Every post you post sends me to looking up the facts. On your left, Presbyterianism goes gay; on your right, Mark Driscoll goes rogue.

    I know you’re a holdout for the One True [Reformed] Faith and believe it or not, I respect you and your sect much more than the aforementioned girlymen and macho-psychos.

    That’s why the Elect riff is so cool and self-fulfilling. Is Heaven near-empty and Hell near-full? As an interested observer I’m trying to get the math.


  12. Susan, perhaps you heard that the Extraordinary Synod is going to talk about marriage. Perhaps you heard that Pope Francis married 20 couples, some of whom were living together or divorced. Perhaps you heard that Donald Wuerl is about to be demoted or that Pope Francis appears to agree with Cardinal Kasper’s call for reform of marriage. Or perhaps you heard that Pope Francis was angry about Cardinal Mueller’s book defending marriage. (Or did you hear about the new archbishop of Chicago?)

    Loyal to the magisterium? Do you even know what your magisterium is doing? (You know, one advantage of being RC is that you have many more outlets for knowing what your church is doing. What blogs or websites cover the HQ of the OPC?)

    At some point, Susan, you can’t act like we’re not noticing the gap between all of your new found joy and what’s really going on. If you can’t trust the bishops on marriage, how about purgatory?

    John Paul II was a forceful and charismatic 60-year-old, and his 1980 synod came in the wake of a determined program to crack down on dissent, put an end to open debate on thorny pastoral and theological issues, and to ensure that the world’s bishops were in lockstep with directives issued by the Holy See.

    To reform-minded Catholics, his surprisingly successful effort to get all the church’s pastors singing from the same song sheet, undertaken relatively soon after the Second Vatican Council, has been devastating. Avenues for discussing and debating ways to change pastoral approaches that clearly no longer work have been tightly closed off. But this has not stemmed the widening gap that many Catholics — both priests and people — experience between themselves and the doctrinaire approach of many so-called John Paul II and Benedict XVI bishops. Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than how their own convictions differ from the hierarchy’s official teaching and policy on family life, marriage and human sexuality.

    Francis, who will soon be 78, clearly understands this. And although he professes to be a loyal “son of the church,” the Jesuit pope has decided that conversation, dialogue and, yes, even debate are healthy and necessary for the life of the community of believers. The unprecedented questionnaire on family issues that he asked the secretary general of the synod to send out at the end of last year was only the first step. Though many criticized its format and the short window of time allowed for returning responses, the exercise opened at least the possibility for all Catholics to make a contribution to the planning and agenda of a major meeting of bishops.

    Not everyone was pleased with the pope’s effort to take the pulse of the wider church, however. For example, only a few national bishops’ conferences around the world made a real attempt to canvass the views of individual Catholics. Instead, most of them seem to have relied on parish priests or heads of deaneries to complete the surveys. Such reticence would seem to belie a discomfort so many of today’s bishops have in discussing any type of change in church discipline or practice. Whether that is based on prudence or fear, it certainly stands in stark contrast to Francis’ clarion call in Evangelii Gaudium for “a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are” (25).

    In this apostolic exhortation, the pope says it is even necessary to “re-examine” various “rules or precepts” and “certain customs” when “considering a reform of the Church.” This includes a generous, open and merciful attitude toward offering people the sacraments. Quoting St. Ambrose, he writes that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” The pope emphasizes that this belief has “pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness” (47). This is not nothing! Francis says Evangelii Gaudium is a document with “programmatic significance” — read: the program of his pontificate. Yet why do so many ordained leaders in the church, those once so eager to quote the previous two popes, simply ignore or downplay its real importance?

    The surprisingly audacious apostolic exhortation and the launching of the synod questionnaire have been attempts to shake all believers, including the bishops, out of a “tomb psychology” and “spiritual ‘desertification.’ ” But there was yet another attempt to “make a mess” (or, as the pope has said before in Spanish, hacer lío). Francis tapped Cardinal Walter Kasper to give a major address at the beginning of February’s consistory, a two-day meeting of the entire College of Cardinals. The 81-year-old theologian’s talk, which he titled and later published in book form as The Gospel of the Family, proposed possible ways of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted to the sacraments. This sparked a fierce rebuttal from several conservative cardinals the next day, which has since intensified in the run-up to next week’s synod, even with the publication of several contra-Kasper books.


  13. Erik Charter
    Posted October 1, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
    Susan’s Kool-Aid is extra rose-colored today. Hi, Susan.

    That wasn’t right, man.


  14. mark mcculley
    Posted October 1, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink
    Hart and Muether

    Where Susan finds comfort in a wall to lean on, “Protestantism” needs a wall to push against.


    On the three considerations raised here, Protestant skepticism regarding the magisterium of Pope Francis remains reasonable. These matters will do little to diminish his popularity. His recent papal exhortation, Evangelii Guardium (Joy of the Gospel), is being likened to the progressive imagination of Martin Luther King Jr. But saying yes to the gospel is possible only for those who get the gospel right.


  15. The boy and I were throwing the football in the yard and heard a youth tackle football game going on next door at the high school. We went over to check it out for a few minutes. Sadly these games start at noon and run throughout the afternoon on Sundays. I was reminded of the fact that, decades prior to the masses in Central Iowa adopting tackle football for kids, there was a thriving Des Moines Parochial league (don’t know what day they played on). There are a lot of savvy, earthy Italian Catholics in Des Moines and part of their savvy was inviting talented, inner-city minority kids to play in this parochial league. From there they would scholarship them into parochial schools up through Dowling Catholic, one of the most storied high school football programs in the state.

    Yet another reminder that the prissiness of Jason, Bryan and the Callers is utterly foreign to the manly world of cradle Catholics.


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