Monday, November 12, 2012

The Converts to Catholicism You Didn't Know About

The Conversion of St Paul
[Update: I've published a follow-up post, More Converts You Didn't Know About]

Yes, people do choose to join the Catholic Church.

Both my wife and I joined the Catholic Church as adults (see My Faith Story). The website Why I'm Catholic has a great (and growing) collection of stories of people who joined the Church. There are so many great stories. Obviously, there's the stories of people like Paul, Augustine, AmbroseEmperor Constantine, John Cardinal Newman, Dorothy Day, Alasdair MacIntyre, Edith Stein, and G.E.M. Anscombe, Francis Beckwith (who was president of the Evangelical Theological Society when he converted), Scott Hahn, and Richard Neuhaus.

There's also the bisexual atheist blogger who just became Catholic this last summer, the former evangelical/emergent church co-author of the book Jesus for President who found his way back to the Church via Catholic Social Teaching, the pro-life leaders Lila Rose, Abby Johnson, Bernard Nathanson, and Bryan Kemper, the Wheaton College Bible professor who crossed the Tiber a year and a half ago (just a few years after a philosophy professor there did the same thing), and the steady stream of disaffected Anglicans joining the Catholic Church. Even former speaker of the house and recent presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (who produced a great documentary on John Paul II) and former prime minister of the U.K. Tony Blair have jumped aboard.

Oscar Wilde
Below are four stories of people who joined the Catholic Church as adults who I think many people probably don't know about (at least I was surprised to learn about their stories!). One was a convicted homosexual playwright who converted on his death-bed, another was an ex-Marxist who authored the "eco-Bible", the third was a drafter of the U.N's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the last one was the founder of a whole new academic discipline.

Death-bed conversion of a homosexual playwright: Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
A contributor to the aestheticism movement and best known for his play The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde is also a well-known example of a famous person convicted under laws in the 19th century that punished homosexual acts. What is not as well-known, however, is that he joined the Catholic Church literally on his death-bed. Though born into an Anglican family, his interest in the Church started as a young man. A meeting with Pope Pius IX left a big impact on him, and he read the writings the Cardinal Newman, another great convert to the faith. At the age of twenty four, he actually was set join the Catholic Church, but decided against it at the last minute.

A quarter of a century later, after serving his prison sentence, he unsuccessfully tried to go on a six-month Jesuit retreat. He later developed cerebral meningitis. With his health deteriorating, a friend called for a priest. The priest conditionally baptized him (Wilde had a vague memory of being baptized as a child) and gave him Last Rites. He died the next day.

E. F. Schumacher
The liberal environmentalist nobody knew was Catholic: E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977)
Schumacher was a protégé of John Maynard Keynes as a young man and had an accomplished career as an economist. For much of his adult life, he was an avowed Marxist atheist. But a visit to Burma in the early 1950s and seeing how Buddhism shaped the economic life of the country got him to start rethinking his atheism. Upon returning to England, he decided to look into the Christian tradition and read the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross, and the lives of other saints. He also read modern Catholic thinkers Rene Guenon, Etienne Gilson, G. K. Chesterton (another convert), and Jacques Maritain (another convert, see below). A friend eventually persuaded him to read the papal social teaching encyclicals. A friend of his relates how he responded:
He replied, 'No, no, I'm sure that the Popes are very holy men living in their ivory tower in the Vatican but they don't know a thing about the conduct of practical affairs... But this friend... insisted that he should read the social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno above all... He did so and was absolutely staggered. He said, 'here were these celibates living in an ivory tower... why can they talk a great deal of sense when everyone else talks nonsense'... (source)
Pope Paul VI's encyclical reaffirming the Church's stance against the use of contraception Humanae Vitae came out as he was getting closer to wanting to join the Church. Though many criticized the teaching, Schumacher was in full support: "If the Pope had written anything else, I would have lost all faith in the papacy." (source) For his wife and daughter, who had also been considering Catholicism, Humanae Vitae was the final assurance that the Catholic Church was the right place to be. After years of being intellectually convinced of Catholicism, he was eventually received into the Church.

Jacques Maritain
Two years later, he published the book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. Touted by TIME magazine as the "eco-Bible", the best-seller simply explained in non-theological language the ideas of Catholic social teaching. When he died four years later a celebrity among liberal environmentalists, most still didn't know he was Catholic. His daughter has related that, as word got out, many were "astounded" and "thought it was a real let-down, a betrayal." (Read more about his conversion here.)

The suicidal scientist who found hope in the Church and went on to help draft the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)
As a young man, he went to the University of Paris to study the natural sciences. There, he met his future wife, Raïssa, a Russian Jewish immigrant. Before marrying, however, he and Raïssa became convinced that scientism could not answer existential questions about life. In 1901, in light of this disillusionment, they made a pact to commit suicide together if they could not discover some deeper meaning to life within a year. Fortunately, a friend recommended they attend the lectures of Henri Bergson. Bergson's critique of scientism convinced them of the reality of objective absolutes. Through the influence of Léon Bloy, they converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1906. Maritain became an famous Catholic philosopher, who's natural law arguments were influential in his participation in the drafting of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Marshall McLuhan
The Virgin Mary told him the Medium is the Message: Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
If you haven't heard of Marshall McLuhan, you may have heard his great one-liner, "the medium is the message". He was a prolific writer and is considered a founding father of the new discipline media ecology (the Media Ecology Association's annual conference last year celebrated what would have been his 100th birthday). Research for his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge led him to the Church Fathers, whom he read to study their kinds of argumentation. The writings of G.K. Chesterton were influential, and he eventually joined the Catholic Church.

He was a daily Mass goer, and apparently claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow provided him direct intellectual guidance. A collection of his writings on religion has been posthumously published as The Medium and the Light (fascinating read), in which he argues, among other things, that the microphone is what killed the Latin Mass. Apparently, many in the field still don't know that he was Catholic and aren't aware of his writings on religion. A friend of mine presented a paper on McLuhan's religious beliefs at a conference recently and told me that the first thing the moderator said following his presentation was: "...I knew he was religious...but I...didn't know it was that bad."


  1. Thanks for this. A whole lot of folks I never knew!

  2. "The Virgin Mary told him the Medium is the Message." I've never heard this very specific claim about my fellow Canadian though I read a number of books by and about him. Would be interesting to have the source on that.

    Always loved his work and long before I was Catholic. Interesting just how many Catholics I was reading and in many cased not knowing they were Catholic or not fully understanding the impact the Catholic faith played on their work. In a way I was always meant to be Catholic and happily now I am.

    1. It's mentioned in the book The Medium and the Light, which is a collection of McLuhan's religious writings. Very interesting read.

    2. Yes. I have seen something about his Marian claim many years ago. I may try to get hold of The Medium and the Light.

    3. "Interesting just how many Catholics I was reading and in many cases not knowing they were Catholic or not fully understanding the impact the Catholic faith played on their work."

      Interesting how their work played on you. :-)

  3. I understand John Wayne became a Catholic late in life, if not on his deathbead (I cannot remember the story). I believe his third wife was Mexican, and a devout Catholic. Their grandson is a priest today.

    Susan from Akron

  4. Thank you for making this 'compendium'. I guess you may want to add those converts who have told their stories on the air at EWTN with Grodi's 'The Journey Home'. As a cradle Catholic, stories like this only inspire me, and make me give thanks to CHRiST endlessly for callimg me early on in life.

    By the way, you might not notice it but the triangle above your head (which is part of the house in the background) tells something of the Catholic Marriage: it is the only love triangle that works: God, wife, and man.

  5. Add to this list; Larry Kudlow ,Dick Morris(political pollster/fox analyst), Bob Hope, Jane Wyman

  6. I had been a Los Angeles Police Officer in the 1970's and often had the privilege of working the USC football games at the LA Coliseum. My assignment often included monitoring the celebrity parking area just outside the Coliseum. A tall, grandfatherly type individual could often be seen hugging the local children who came from poor, stuggling families. The man also made himself available to anyone who wished to talk, shake his hand, or pose in a photograph with him.

    That man, John Wayne, demonstrated Christ's love for all who met him.

  7. The Church appears to be under persecution again in America as it has been in so many places in the world. For many of us that believe we are aware of very real threats to the Church in America and indeed to the America which was founded on Judeo Christian religion and the philosphies fromo Greec.

    Your article about the converts to the Way the Truth and The Life are heart-warnubg in the current sea of darkness.

    Keep up the good work!!!

  8. Welcome home Brantly and Krista and your children. As a cradle, I didn't think I would be spending Friday evening reading your blog. I am always inspired by our saints and converts. There is absolutely nothing that compares in our secular world to that of the Holy Trinity and the Seven Sacraments established by Jesus Christ. Sweet! Interesting enough, E.F. Shumacher made a similar comment that was made by a writer in Rome during the persecution of Christians and before the fall of Rome, that among many things, the destruction of human life causes the downfall of a society.)

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  10. glencoeNovember 17, 2012 8:25 AM
    A neighbour of ours living in Wellesley,MA was a patient at the Massachusettes General Hospital at the same time John Wayne was being treated for his heart and cancer and was in the adjoining room. Our neighbour's bed had been wheeled out onto the common balcony and when Wayne was to be wheeled out he spotted the staff bringing the other bed in. He quickly told them to leave the other guy's bed there and they soon became good friends and got together each day for long chats. Wayne told him to come out and visit him anytime he wanted and not to worry about anything as he would be his guest. Unfortunately both died before they ever got together again.John Wayne really was a "big guy" in many ways.

  11. As a revert to the Catholic faith, I love reading/hearing about other converts. When a person is opened to receiving the "Truth," it will lead you home to the Catholic church!

  12. You forgot Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

  13. If you want to read and find more about your favorite catholic celebrities the list at Ranker is a great one to start with. I wasn’t even aware of the fact that so many celebrities around us are catholic.