Father Dwight Longenecker brought with him, to the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, the novelty of being a married Roman Catholic priest. He was among the Anglicans who converted to Catholicism and received a special dispensation from Pope John Paul II to remain priests while married. For an audience of Catholics, that biographical point was probably the most catchy of his talk. (Full video below.)
His most resonant point, however, was that a conversion won by tricks, gimmicks, or pressure is “a false conversion.” Bookish as I am, I thought of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Marble Faun, and a scene in which a New England puritan unburdens herself of knowledge of a local crime in Rome to a Roman Catholic priest. The priest attempts to leverage his new knowledge to win her conversion to ensure his silence under the seal of the confessional.
The scene betrays a bit of the Nineteenth Century New England Protestant’s sense of European Catholicism, but it illustrates Longenecker’s point: A conversion exchanged for some overt material benefit is not authentic. That is, it isn’t undertaken as part of the individual’s relationship with God, but as a contingent worldly transaction.
At their worst, such variations of evangelization can be, more than anything, statements of vanity that victimize their targets. Longenecker told of his experience in Great Britain as a young evangelical, when he found himself handing out tracts for a stern-jawed Scottish minister who street-preached the gospel as the pubs let out. With his wife (“built like a dumpster,” according to Longenecker) marching the street wearing a sandwich board beseeching guilty repentance, the minister proclaimed the Gospel… and dodged the bottles that the working class men threw across the street at him.
Fr. Longenecker called this approach to evangelization a species of “victimization.” In goading rowdy, drunk young men to bombard him with bottles and insults, the preacher makes of himself a martyr while transforming those he ostensibly seeks to save into persecutors rather than mere debauchers.
There’s something similar to the evils of pornography in this, too. The lust of the viewer is sinful, but the greater sin is arguably the objectification of those who arouse him. Quoting René Girard, Longenecker spoke of the “dark side of religion” that defines our holiness in contrast to the “enemy outside our walls.” They are the “enemy” not because that is the position to which they’ve fallen (which ought to inspire sympathy), but because the righteous need them to be the enemy for contrast against the good.
That isn’t to say that people do not exist who position themselves as enemies of the Church. Indeed, part of what made some conservatives “jittery” about Pope Francis, early on, was his statement that proselytization is “solemn nonsense,” as if he were some freewheeling liberal unwilling to articulate the ways in which his beliefs are more correct, even better, than others. Avoiding the victimization of one’s persecutors does not require an implication that they might have a point.
Rather, Fr. Longenecker suggested that the pope is overtly displaying six qualities that make Catholicism attractive, with attraction being the route to true conversion:
- Happiness: Christians should exhibit joy, especially when times are bad. He cited Saint Thomas More’s joking with the executioner as he climbed the stairs to his decapitation.
- Holiness: Christians should be “individuals whose lives have been transformed” to a higher level, who are fully human and fully comfortable in their humanity.
- Community: “Union with” each other can draw others toward that security. In Ancient Rome, he said, Christians drew attention to themselves for their “pushing back” against the culture of the time, not only declining to kill their own unwanted children, but striving to rescue those whom pagans had abandoned. (That’s particularly poignant, today.)
- Compassion: As an outward-facing form of community, perhaps, Christians should see those outside of their groups as part of their human family. Welcoming those who are not welcomed by the larger society is intuitively the right thing to do and bespeaks an attractive confidence.
- Preaching: This entails not an attack on others’ beliefs, but a willingness (again, with confidence) to meet people where they are.
- Signs and wonders: It’s been noted how frequently Pope Francis speaks of the devil and supernatural evil. This, Longenecker affirmed (based in part on the popularity of his blog posts about exorcism), is what people expect from those who profess to place priority on the supernatural aspects of existence.
The fifth point brings Fr. Longenecker’s talk into the theme that I traced throughout the presentations of the conference. He pointed specifically to the pope’s latest encyclical, in which (he thinks) Francis utilizes a topic of broad interest (climate change) as a common language to help unbelievers to comprehend the Gospel message.
Father Robert Barron makes a similar point, arguing that we should see the pope’s rhetoric attacking capitalism as “prophetic speech.” To some extent, such speech is hyperbolic, but the point isn’t to demagogue or to overwhelm reason with emotion. (Like proselytization, that would be, as Longenecker put it, “false pretenses.”) The point is to put a lesson in terms that the listener will understand more readily than abstract explanation.
Therein lies the danger. Climate change and anti-capitalism are not hip topics of universal interest to the world’s population; they’re the shibboleths of a global elite. If Francis’s objective is to convert them, and those whom they’ve duped, by drawing their attention to the reflection of Christ in their areas of concern, then the faithful of all political stripes should pray for his success.
The risk is that, in ceding the validity of the progressives’ beliefs and conclusions on these matters, even if it were purely for rhetorical purposes (which I don’t think it is), Pope Francis validates them. In a sense, the rhetorical ploy is a gimmick that could yield an inauthentic conversion. The progressive may not move on from socialism to a true Christianity; instead, she might conform her image of Christ to her political creed.
Perhaps for some of the reasons I articulated in response to John Carr’s Portsmouth Institute speech, Fr. Barron offers the context of Catholicism’s longstanding suspicion of socialism. He writes: “Economies in the radically socialist or communist mode have proven to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, brutally oppressive.” Socialism tends to objectify and then victimize the vulnerable in the society. The focus quickly shifts from the poor and the worker (if it ever really was there) to the power of those whose professed intention is to help them. The socialist is seeking conversions not for the glory of God, but for the glory of the socialist, and the “capitalists” are the enemies outside the walls from whom the poor need protection.
If, then, Pope Francis’s implicit validation of the global elite’s dogma does not awaken them from their materialism, but encourages them in their crusade against political enemies, then material conditions will worsen the world over. God’s grace will not be lessened by that turn of events — indeed, many hear the message of the Gospel most clearly in the salvation that it offers in the midst of suffering — but it may very well be an obstacle for the Church to have been perceived as part of the “community” that brought such an outcome about.