Commitment to the Catholic Tradition
THE NEW CATHOLICS: CONTEMPORARY CONVERTS TELL THEIR STORIES
Edited by DAN O'NEILL Foreword by WALKER PERCY
The Crossroad Publishing Co.,
370 Lexington Ave.,
New York, NY 10017
204 pp.; $15.95, cloth; 1987.
Despite its ominous title, this book is not about dissenters, but about traditional converts. It contains 17 religious autobiographical essays, each describing a path to Rome.
The contributors come from an amazing variety of backgrounds: sedate Episcopalianism, the rock culture, Marxist-Leninism, fundamentalism, Buddhism, and the New Age movement. John Michael Talbot, the Franciscan folk singer, Cherry Boone O'Neill, Pat Boone's daughter, and Dale Vree, editor of the New Oxford Review, as well as a number of lesser-known converts relate the stories of their conversion to the Faith.
The workings of grace are always edifying, but this book also contains some common themes that bear reflection. For many of these converts (and others whom I have known personally), Episcopalianism-Anglicanism — especially as found in the writings of C.S. Lewis — has provided a halfway station to the Church.
These converts all start with a prejudice against Rome. They find themselves attracted to Catholic things, but cannot overcome their horror at supposed Roman distortions and superstitions.
They are introduced gradually to Catholic doctrines and practices by the Episcopal Church, especially its Anglo-Catholic wing. Reading C.S. Lewis awakens their desire for clear reasoning and gives them a distaste for trendiness and Modernism.
Soon they begin to notice the inconsistencies in Anglicanism, and are deeply offended by the Modernist trendiness of the Episcopal Church, even if their personal political beliefs tend to be left of center.
At last, they submit to Rome after a near deflection caused by an encounter with liberal Catholicism (Richard McBrien is mentioned specifically by one convert). They rejoice in the fullness of the truth, which fulfills all the partial truths they had previously followed.
While it is true that apart from Rome there is no stability in doctrine or practice, the decline of the mainline Protestant churches has opened the secular culture to perversion and inhumanity. Of greatest concern in the context of conversion is the current inability of the Episcopal Church to maintain its equilibrium. Its collapse is eliminating a bridge that has served many on their journey to the Church. Perhaps a form of evangelical Catholicism is needed to replace the Episcopal Church as the bridge between the heirs of the manifold sects of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.
Rome, too, benefits from the conversions recounted in this book. Because they come from non-Catholic backgrounds, these converts can see things in the Church to which many Catholics may have become blinded by familiarity.
The most fascinating story in this regard is that of Celia Wolf-Devine, a convert from a New Age sect. She had sought truth in the hermetic tradition, which has a long ancestry in anthroposophism, neo-Platonism, and the cabala. Charles Williams has captured some of this atmosphere for Christian readers.
For hermeticists, spiritual realities, angels, devils, saints, and the living God are not distant or mythological, but are powerful daily realities. Wolf-Devine (unlike most theologians) takes the traditions in the Bible and the Church about the forces at work behind the visible phenomena of the world to be literally true. Catholicism to her is a religion, not a philosophy, or a debating society, or a political party. She understands that Catholicism has closer affinities to shamanism and to the sacrifice of bulls on altars than to polite disputes in scholarly journals, in the sense that Catholicism recognizes the reality and power of the hidden world of spirits.
It is perhaps a symptom of the troubles of the Church in the 20th century that adherents of the Holy Order of MANS1 have more devotion to Mary, whose power and guidance brought Wolf-Devine into the true Church, than do many of the priests and theologians of that very Church.
1. A sect founded in 1968 which has beliefs similar to those of Anglican gnosticism but is closer to traditional Christianity than are most related cults. Only initiates know the meaning of the acronym.