On Converting for the Wrong Reasons

Blair and Benedict (Reuters)

The last few weeks have seen the ranks of the #NeverTrump crowd dwindling somewhat as several once-staunch opponents of The Donald have concluded that, despite their myriad objections to Trump’s positions and personality, he would still be preferable to Hilary Clinton as president. Now, the dominance of the two-party system in the United States has resulted in many a voter casting his ballot less in support of one candidate than in opposition to another candidate over our nation’s electoral history—this would be nothing new. The difference, and the interest, lies in the apologia that some of these Trump converts make for their position: we are told by a number of new Trumpers that a President Trump is certain to be more friendly to traditional Republican interests, that his antics are only intended to rile up a key portion of the electorate to sweep him into the White House, and that post-inauguration we can trust him to appoint originalist Supreme Court justices, deal effectively with Congress, and charmingly engage our foreign allies. “He can change!” they plead.

Take radio host Hugh Hewitt. After pushing for changes to convention rules to thwart Trump’s nomination, Hewitt recently made an about-face and wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post backing Trump against Hilary Clinton—not because he supports Mr. Trump’s positions, mind you, but because “the prospect of another President Clinton, especially a Clinton who is so mired in scandal, compromised on national security and is the author of so many foreign-policy meltdowns, has a way of concentrating the mind.” While voicing his support for Trump as the only viable choice to prevent Secretary Clinton from being elected, Hewitt also signals what he expects, or would like, Trump to do going forward in his campaign: “Trump’s task now is clear: It’s time to abandon his off-the-cuff remarks, disengage from his battles with the media and methodically prosecute the case that throughout her career, [Hillary] Clinton has consistently displayed a disqualifying lack of judgment. He needs to develop this argument, detail it and drive it home.”

Any priest worth his collar would respond to an affianced person making such a plea about their intended by encouraging them to think carefully about their situation and seriously consider whether this was a proper match for them. A marriage that begins with the requirement that one party eventually change and the expectation that they will is not starting out on the best footing. (And here we mean significant changes—not so much “stop leaving your dirty socks in the living room” as “stop abusing alcohol and get a job.”) Choosing a marriage partner is a much more momentous and lasting choice than selecting a candidate to support in a given election, but the comparison holds in the crucial aspect: when we choose someone while hoping they’ll change, then what is it that we’re choosing?

My point here is not to focus on Trump himself, but to use the situation his presumptive nomination has created as an analogy for a certain type of convert to the Catholic faith. (The analogy limps, as all analogies do, but let’s take it as far as it can go.) I take as my exemplar former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving office in 2007. Mr. Blair’s wife and children were already Catholics, and he frequently attended Mass, so the news was not particularly surprising to many. Blair said of his conversion, “As time went on, I had been going to Mass for a long time … it’s difficult to find the right words. I felt this was right for me. There was something, not just about the doctrine of the Church, but of the universal nature of the Catholic Church.”

However, not long after being received into the Church, Mr. Blair began to openly criticize the Church for its teachings on several aspects of sexual morality. An article in Newsweek informed us that “Though a devout believer, he stands in opposition to his pope on issues like abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and the rights of gay people to adopt children and form civil unions. ‘I guess there’s probably not many people of any religious faith who fully agree with every aspect of the teaching of the leaders of their faith,’ he says.” In an interview, Blair said, “Actually, we need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith,” attributing the Church’s consistent teaching on these matters to a mere “generation gap.”

Is not such an attitude puzzling, event troubling? Just how did Mr. Blair feel “at home” in the Church if he considers it bigoted, benighted, and befuddled, like a grandparent who “was just raised that way”? The Church considers its teachings to be an integral whole, one inseparable from the other and all interwoven with one another. Does Mr. Blair accept that the Church is divinely guided in its teachings on the divinity of Christ and the grace of the sacraments but not in certain areas of morality? How could that be? The answer may come in that Mr. Blair is by trade a politician; I fear he, like too many others, views the teachings of the Church as though they were the planks of a political party platform—how often are they called “positions” in the media?—to be debated or negotiated at will.

To be clear, not every person who struggles with an aspect of Church teaching falls under this criticism. It is one thing to approach the Church and say, “I would like to enter the Church, but the Church’s teaching on X, Y, and Z is very different from the way I am used to thinking; I am still working that out, but I trust Our Lord when he said that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth, and I will be docile and listen.” It is another thing to say, “I would like to enter the Church, but the Church is in error on X, Y, and Z, and I trust that the Church will bow to the spirit of the times, and I will be vocal and intractable.” The former shows humility; the latter, stubbornness at best, arrogance at worst.

To return to our earlier analogy: if you think Donald Trump would make a good president, by all means, follow your judgments and support him. But why would you support him then demand he change, in such fundamental ways? He is unlikely to suddenly transform into some cross between Pericles and Benjamin Disraeli. This is to support a candidate not for what he is, but for what he might be, or what you wish he were—the very phenomenon many saw surrounding Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. If you think the Catholic Church teaches the fullness of truth and possesses the fullness of the means of grace by which men can be saved, by all means, follow your judgments and enter the Church. But would you enter the Church then demand radical change? The Church is unlikely to suddenly morph into some version of the United Nations with occasional ritual practices.

The Catholic faith presents the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s personal fulfillment of His promises to humanity. It teaches us how to live lives of goodness and holiness in accord with our God-given natures, to love God and neighbor with the love of Christ. This is the saving message the Church proposes to the world. If it is accepted in its entirety, it is the start of a lifelong journey toward ever-deeper friendship with God. If it is carved up and taken piecemeal, it will not satisfy, but will become a mere accoutrement to your daily activities—something you do, and not who you are (as my wife has wisely put it). And such accessories are all too easily shunted off when they no longer fit our tastes.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

Nicholas Senz

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Nicholas Senz is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, a managing editor at Catholic Stand, and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, Two Old Books.

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