Blog Template Theology of the Body: Why Do They Go?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why Do They Go?

It seems that for every excited, smart, young convert to the Catholic Church that I get to meet, I run into an (almost) equally passionate defector- one of those who left the Church in response to what they understood to be the personal call of Christ. Of course those who have defected from the tradition of their childhood can be found in and among denominations, but the most vocal tend to be former Catholics.

Defectors tend to be different from a lot of converts. In the first place, they tend to be older. They tend to share a common generational story about re-interpreting and re-assessing establishments in general. Whereas the convert's story usually involves years of reflection, prayer, and rather agonized considerations in the slow wooing of wisdom, the defector's (often equally heroic) story involves quick things like "flashes" of insight and "sudden" intuitions. On the whole, defectors trace their decision to leave the Catholic Church to a noble impulse: they had an experience of interior conversion and personal revival, whereby it seemed that they could find, follow, and adore Christ only outside of the Catholic Church. Interspersed are the personal nuances that shape the contours of the story: disillusionment with the Church's rigorous standards (most often in the area of sexual ethics), a strained relationship with a priest, discontent with being told what to do and how to believe, a restless ego.

Often, the stories are quite beautiful. One hears of a person suddenly waking up to the love of Jesus, or of realizing the reality of His personal presence, or finding great freedom and exhileration in self-reflective Bible study or contemporary worship styles, or of finding more authentic relationships elsewhere. And consequently, the explanation goes, the person simply had to leave. I am a naive and enthusiastic convert, granted. But I am always left with a slew of questions at these explanations of defection. Were the self-described defectors deaf, dumb and blind so long as they remained faithful to the Catholic Church? Did they not hear the daily promises of God's love in the Scriptures, or the priest's daily words, which, so much more than assuring us verbally of Christ's spiritual presence, offered Christ the God-man to the faithful bodily? Were they not able to read their Bibles and pray reflectively, as their priests and bishops and Pope were encouraging them to do? Were they not able to be the change in their own Church that God Himself was probably calling for? Did they really think that Jesus was not there in the RC? Do they really think that He is a Protestant?

One recalls Fr. Nelson's very good post on the unbearable burden of evangelicalism.

... So whenever I hear the stories of defectors who have left the Church, who encase their tales of departing from her on account of their purely personal enthusiasm for their personal love encounter with Jesus, I have a few more particular questions as well.

The first question reflects the bare facts of current data. Will evangelical defectors, with all of their good intentions, be able to speak with the unified voice of the Church against the evils in our culture, much less be able form our culture along the lines of God's will? History has shown that this is difficult to do- it tends to take the Church's polity to effect political and cultural changes.

More importantly, will evangelical defectors be able pass on their experiences to their children? Passing on a confession and a heritage of truth, on which the Holy Spirit can breathe and bring the vitality of a living faith, is one thing; passing on a purely personal encounter is another thing entirely. Current trends are showing that evangelical parents are failing to pass on their personal encounters with Jesus, because ultimately, a personal encounter cannot be passed on; a tradition (from the Latin, "to hand down") is passed on, but a personal encounter is just that- a personal encounter. Evangelical defectors are finding that in the absence of the tradition which they left behind for a personal encounter, they have nothing more to offer to their own offspring than another story of a mystical experience (though apparently modern offspring are asking for more).

I am curious and troubled about these things. What do you think? Why do many Catholics who have a legitimate experience of interior conversion to Christ then leave?