The Catholic world is abuzz with news that a prominent Anglican Bishop converted to Catholicism. Michael Nazir-Ali, the retired Anglican Bishop of Rochester, England, and once close to being tapped as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was received into the Catholic Church on the Feast of St. Michael (September 29). Needless to say, many Catholics were excited by the news.
However, some Catholics were upset by Nazir-Ali’s conversion, while others were perplexed.
Who’d be upset? Well, if the reports are true, it sounds like some high-ranking Vatican officials did not support Nazir-Ali’s swimming the Tiber. They considered it a “setback to ecumenism” and saw Nazir-Ali as the wrong kind of convert.
While these objections might seem outlandish and even unbelievable, they are in keeping with the growing religious indifference in the Catholic Church. Catholic ecumenism began in the 1960’s as an effort to see what unites—and divides—Catholics from Protestants and Orthodox, but it eventually morphed into a means to prevent conversions to Catholicism. Many Catholic converts have stories of priests telling them not to convert, and Pope Francis himself has shown on multiple occasions an antipathy toward conversions to Catholicism.
The conversion of someone like Nazir-Ali, who it appears actually believes in the truths of Catholicism, is truly a setback to such ecumenism, but this is a good thing in the eyes of faithful Catholics.
Other Catholics were not angry, but were genuinely perplexed by the news of Nazir-Ali’s conversion. Online many Catholics responded to this news with some version of, “How can he convert to a Church that doesn’t seek conversions, and doesn’t appear to believe in itself?” After all, the Church is in decline, and its reputation is in tatters. Why would anyone want to convert in this environment?
And note, it’s practicing Catholics saying this, not anti-Catholic Protestants. But why would Catholics, who believe the Church possesses the fullness of Truth, ever be perplexed when a person decides to embrace that Truth?
First, we should acknowledge that this attitude is at least understandable. After all, the Church is in crisis, down to its roots. We hear a constant drumbeat of bad news coming from every level of the Church, from our local parish and diocesan chancery all the way to the Vatican. Such bad news can have a cumulative effect in that we simply associate the Catholic Faith with scandal, corruption, and compromise.
It is for this reason that some Catholics criticize media outlets like Crisis Magazine, which often report on the scandal, corruption, and compromise. These Catholics, many of whom are well-meaning, argue that by focusing on the bad news, we turn people away from the Faith. Yet that is the attitude of a cultist, not a Catholic. The problems in the Church exist, and those who report on them are not their originators. Catholics are not to shy away from the truth, even when it shines a light on the darkness within the Church.
Further, I’ve heard from many Catholics, including converts, that a direct look at the Church’s scandals has helped them in their faith. When they see that other Catholics also recognize and fight against the problems in the Church, they are strengthened and encouraged, knowing they’re not alone. They seek to be part not of a cult, but a Church that confronts its problems directly and without guile.
That’s not to deny that these problems have a grave effect on the Church’s witness. After all, our Lord did warn that it would be better to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to cause someone to stumble in their faith (cf. Matthew 18:6). It can be difficult to see a reason to become Catholic today, what with Catholic leaders discouraging conversions both by their scandalous actions and their explicit words.
Yet, now is a perfect time to convert. Why do I say that? First, because every time is a perfect time to join the One True Church. Our Lord wants every single person to join His Church, and there’s no time like the present.
But it’s also a good time to convert because if you join the Church today, you join with your eyes wide open. You know there are problems, yet you come anyway. Back in the 1990’s when I converted to Catholicism, I was one of hundreds of thousands who converted every year in America. It was a time of hope and optimism, at least on the surface. Pope John Paul II was in his ascendency, prominent converts like Scott Hahn and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus were inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics, and the post-Vatican II “silly season” seemed to be on the wane.
Of course in hindsight it’s easy to see how we ignored many of the deep problems lurking under that shiny surface, with the sex abuse scandal being the most prominent. I heard a statistic, which I admittedly haven’t been able to verify, that half the Catholic converts of that era were no longer practicing Catholics by the next year’s Easter vigil. Based on my own experience, I believe it. Too many people were becoming Catholic with little understanding of the very fallen human elements within the Church.
That’s not the case today. If you become Catholic now, it’s hard not to know about our dirty laundry beforehand. You won’t be wearing rose-colored glasses, and future scandals, while they might (justifiably) anger you, won’t be a catastrophic shock to your faith as they might have been to my generation of converts.
And there’s one more reason it’s a perfect time to convert: the good to be found in the Catholic Church is infinitely greater than the bad. I mean “infinitely” literally.
That good begins with the Sacraments. In the Sacraments one receives, in a unique way, the infinite grace of God. These Sacraments do not exist in the Anglican Church, nor in any other Protestant denomination. No papal scandal, no faithless bishop, and no priestly abuse can outweigh that gift.
Further, it is in Catholicism that one can experience Christian spirituality that has been developed and refined over two millennia. This gives us the means by which we can have an intimate relationship with our divine Creator.
The Catholic Church also possesses the fullness of truth, so that we can know with certainty the right way to live (and when we fail in that attempt, the Church also gives us the way to get back on track).
And I could continue this list of the good in the Catholic Church until your browser’s infinite feed broke, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
The Catholic Church possesses infinitely beautiful treasures. Yes, these treasures often are buried under mounds of scandals, corruption, and compromise. Yet the treasures are still there for those who, like Michael Nazir-Ali, want to receive them.
Now is a great time to become Catholic.
[Photo: Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)]