Thursday, July 9, 2015

Conversion as Trauma; or, How to Not Despise the Weak

(The Conversion of Saint Mary Magdalene, Juan Correa)

I don’t see many films in theaters these days. The gluttonous sequel-making and overindulgence of digital effects makes mainstream films tiresome, and the arthouse film scene is so deeply in bed with worldly progressivism that one feels ashamed to even glance at its movie posters. However, I have been long enamored with the Pixar studio, believing them to be capable of some truly great all-ages artistry when their parent company Disney isn’t demanding another movie with talking automobiles.

After taking the little lady to a showing of their recent release Inside Out, I reflected upon their traditionally-minded yet inventive way of portraying the interior life of a child. Pulling equally from ancient mind palaces and modern psychology, there was an especially affecting sequence of ongoing mental and emotional disintegration within the young mind after a traumatic event. The colorful “islands of personality” that the child had developed and maintained over the years suddenly stop dead, and they begin to crumble into a memory dump as she loses the ability to cope with the changes in her everyday life.

Since this is not a film review, I won’t delve any further into it. Suffice it to say that it caused me to consider my own experience of conversion to the Faith, and its ensuing problems. I have written already about the high attrition rate of converts and the probable responsibility borne by our apologists to that effect. But what is it about conversion that drives so many of us to apostatize within a few years of reception into the Church?

Let me suggest that untreated psychological trauma (loosely diagnosed) is one major reason. The convert may suffer more or less emotional trauma depending on many factors: his starting religion or philosophy, the reaction of his friends and family, the wisdom of his catechists, the presence of a guide leading him into the Church, his education, his emotional stability, his proclivity to cynicism, his attitude towards authority figures, his romantic entanglements, and so on.

(There is a similarly themed article recently published on The Remnant’s website concerning the trauma suffered by traditionalists under their prelates, which I only mention here for the sake of thoroughness.)

Apostate monk (source)

One can imagine a scenario in which a conversion goes fairly smoothly: raised classically Anglican, which means many outward similarities to Catholicism, as well as a healthy dose of realism about church leaders; friends and family without any hatred of the Church, and indeed fairly curious about it themselves; a local priest who handles RCIA with all seriousness of duty; a beloved college professor acting as sponsor, and as a second person the catechumen can turn to for queries; a decent education that has taught him at least basic reasoning and an appreciation for the liberal arts; zealous in character, yet self-controlled for the most part; hopeful in spite of the evils of man; a healthy relationship with his parents, teachers, and bosses; and finally a girlfriend who is open-minded towards conversion, in spite of a strong emotional attachment to the Church of England. This is more or less a best-case scenario.

On the other hand, the groundwork for a weak and very temporary conversion might go as follows: raised liberally Anglican, which has outward similarities to Catholicism, but equivocates and uses good names for bad things; friends and family who shun him at the first mention of seriously considering conversion; an RCIA program run by an ignorant layman, the priest nowhere to be found; no one leading him into the Church except radio apologists and the books of long-dead theologians; a half-baked education that had more to do with personal fulfillment than learning; habitual selfishness, immaturity, and indulgence of all sorts; given to despair and frustration at every hardship; easily scandalized by political and religious leaders; and finally a wife who swears to leave him if he becomes a papist. This may not be the worst-case scenario, but it’s not a promising one.

The first convert will retain his existing social structure, his day-to-day experience of attending Mass will be outwardly similar to Anglican worship, and his arguments with those he left behind will likely be well-natured and perhaps thrilling. He even has a few new books of the Bible to read and learn! He will probably remain emotionally whole, and suffer no unhealthy dissolution of his sense of self.

The second convert will experience far more trauma as part of the conversion process, and he will require more care and assistance after finally receiving the sacraments. The outward forms of worship will be similar, but suddenly he is required to take their meaning as sincere and literal, except when Fr. Facile undermines that with his own unbelief. His social structure has entirely vanished, and if he is not good at making new friends he will be terribly alone. His wife may have left him, and the Church is meanwhile unable to grant an annulment to assuage that wound. He had gathered all of his previously unimpressive mental and emotional powers together into a surprisingly massive act of the will to convert to the Faith, only to collapse in exhaustion inside the door of the Church... and be unceremoniously swept out of the way by the janitor to make way for the parish soccer team. It is no surprise that this convert could become an apostate.

In the Parable of the Sower, Christ describes three kinds of unspiritual people and only one kind of good Christian. The first of the faithless is the one from whom the Devil snatches away the truth before it can even take root. The second is apostate, being scandalized by troubles and tribulation. The third is fruitless, choked by avarice and worldly cares. The fourth alone remains both faithful and fruitful. The third (fruitlessly banal) and fourth (fruitful) are both present always in the Church, and are apparently the subject of the following Parable of the Cockle and Wheat. The first are like those who convert for shallow reasons and leave for equally shallow ones, or who never even seriously consider conversion. Of the second, we are told “they had no deepness of earth” and “hath not root in [themselves]” (Matt. 13), and thus they are easily scorched in the sun.

(From the Hortus Deliciarum)

A good deal of trauma is self-inflicted, and St. Thomas tells us that scandal is a two-way street of the scandalous and the scandalized. Scandal is given, but it need not be received. The weak receive and internalize scandal, however good willed they may otherwise be. For the rest of us, Christ commands “that you despise not one of these little ones” who are susceptible to scandal (Matt. 18), and Paul adjures us to “bear ye one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6). How easy it is for yes-men apologists to despise and dismiss the worries of the scandalized! How much does this dismissal add to their inner torment, a torment which they begin to think can only be ended by cutting themselves off from the Church?

I once visited a small village in the south of Ireland, where I stayed with a family in their cottage and discussed the problems of religion with the man of the house, an irate Irishman, into the wee hours of the night. He had left the Church a few years before, the final straw being a dismissive priest who waved off this man’s Bible-thumping with, “I’m not in the business of converting Protestants.” The logical errors of this apostate’s fall were not hard to perceive, but the true cause was a broken heart. He had been betrayed by the Church he once loved, and he finally tried to hurt her back by shaking the dust off his feet. If my visit to the village parish was any indication, the priest’s only response would have been to take another swig of whiskey.

While not every cradle Catholic is capable of empathizing with the emotional burden of conversion, it is still necessary to account for weakness and show the convert how to grow strong in the Faith. Much of it simply has to do with learning endurance and patience in the face of scandal and adversity. Understanding often comes in time with longsuffering. The mere admission of bad ecclesiastical leadership goes a long way, as well, since the convert may feel that he is having a break with reality when others pretend it is not happening. An accurate knowledge of the Church’s liturgical traditions is useful, although it can open other avenues of scandal if done flippantly. A true ordering of magisterial and doctoral teachings in their proper places could be essential. Even the passions might need to be properly ordered—for we live in a muck of disordered passions and psychological disturbance—in order for spiritual progress to continue.

If the Church is a hospital and not a museum (as the apologists keep telling us), let the Church act like it. We mustn’t keep ignoring the trauma patients sitting in the waiting room. If they don’t receive any medical assistance, they will wander out to look for help elsewhere.

(Wanderer in the Storm, Carl Julius von Leypold)


  1. Reasons to Believe in Jesus

    Reasons to believe Jesus is alive in a new life with God can be found in quotes from two prominent atheists and a biology textbook.

    Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, New York: Washington Square Press, p. 784)

    Among the traditional candidates for comprehensive understanding of the relation of mind to the physical world, I believe the weight of evidence favors some from of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism. (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, location 69 of 1831)

    And certain properties of the human brain distinguish our species from all other animals. The human brain is, after all, the only known collection of matter that tries to understand itself. To most biologists, the brain and the mind are one and the same; understand how the brain is organized and how it works, and we’ll understand such mindful functions as abstract thought and feelings. Some philosophers are less comfortable with this mechanistic view of mind, finding Descartes’ concept of a mind-body duality more attractive. (Neil Campbell, Biology, 4th edition, p. 776 )

    Sartre speaks of the "passion of man," not the passion of Christians. He is acknowledging that all religions east and west believe there is a transcendental reality and that perfect fulfillment comes from being united with this reality after we die. He then defines this passion with a reference to Christian doctrine which means he is acknowledging the historical reasons for believing in Jesus. He does not deny God exists. He is only saying the concept of God is contradictory. He then admits that since life ends in the grave, it has no meaning.

    From the title of the book, you can see that Nagel understands that humans are embodied sprits and that the humans soul is spiritual. He says, however, that dualism and idealism are "traditional" alternatives to materialism. Dualism and idealism are just bright ideas from Descartes and Berkeley. The traditional alternative to materialism is monism. According to Thomas Aquinas unity is the transcendental property of being. Campbell does not even grasp the concept of monism. The only theories he grasps are dualism and materialism.

    If all atheists were like Sartre, it would be an obstacle to faith. An important reason to believe in Jesus is that practically all atheists are like Nagel and Campbell, not like Sartre.

    by David Roemer


  2. This is an excellent piece. One of the problems with the decline of Catholic culture and the West is that converts, when they perceive the current state of affairs are amiss, are unable to transition from seeing the Church as a set of ideas with which they happen to agree to seeing the Church as a family requiring fidelity. Once the ideas become vulnerable, there is the temptation to bolt at the first realistic convenience, as I have seen happen a few times.

    Pray for converts after conversion!

  3. I often wonder if conversion is as costly for the individual nowadays as it was one society wasn't so atomized; perhaps the "cost" cannot be quantified and the question is meaningless.

    I was quite fortunate upon my return to the Church 8 years ago. I returned after what might be called a period of great psychological upheaval. I hardly knew anything that the Church taught, yet there was always something within me pressing me onward, nudging me to go look for what was true (at the time I was attending a Jesuit university centre and what they taught just rubbed me the wrong way in spite of me hardly knowing anything of Catholic doctrine). I was graced with meeting along the way good people who pointed me in the right direction. Some of them I have never seen again, but I still pray for them as "benefactors". The first couple of years were not without their crises due to the current situation of the Church, but thank God He provided the means to see beyond that.