Thursday, November 15, 2012

More Converts You Didn't Know About

Douglas Hyde
My last post told you four stories of converts to Catholicism you didn't know aboutHere's a link to another great collection of convert stories that I knew about but was unable to find for my first post. And here are four more stories:

Communist turned Distributist with a sad ending: Douglas Hyde (1911-1996)
Raised a Methodist, Hyde became a Communist as a young man. For a time, he lived both as a Communist and as a Methodist preacher. In the 1940s, he worked as the news editor The Daily Worker, Britain's largest Communist publication. The book Beyond Capitalism and Socialism explains his conversion:
Assigned to "expose" the "clandestine fascists" who published [the Catholic Distibutist paper The Weekly Review], Douglas Hyde...was converted by The Weekly Review to both Catholicism and Distributism. [...] Hyde's conversion in 1948 was headline news in the daily press in Great Britain. His subsequent book, I Believed, and his nationwide speaking tour was not only a blow to the Communist advance, but gave Distributism a new lease of life. Asked at one lecture, so the story goes, what his politics were now, he held up copies of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and said, "These are my politics." (pg 9-10)
He wrote another book, Dedication and Leadership, about his experience as a Communist, revealing Communist tactics for recruiting members. Unfortunately, an obituary after his death in 1996 reported that he had become disillusioned with the Church late in life and "on his last hospital admission form he listed himself as an 'agnostic Christian'".

Hamish Fraser
Communist turned Distributist with a happy endingHamish Fraser (1913-1986)
Baptized as a child in the Church of Scotland, he became a Communist in his teen years. He was so committed, he decided not to pursue a career but be a 'professional revolutionary' instead. He worked for the Communist party in Spain and Scotland, where he helped organize Communist cells in the shipyards. He gained fame after his Communist explanation of WWII sold out in its first week after publication. One source explains how his faith in Communism was cracked:
However no sooner was it published than Fraser realised that it was blatant sophistry from beginning to end, and that if no one else had tried to explain Moscow’s arbitrary manipulation of non-Russian Communist Parties in terms of Marxist doctrine, it was simply because it was impossible to explain Moscow’s behaviour other than as a ruthless exercise of totalitarian power - Thenceforth, until 1945 when he left the Party, Fraser was a dissident Communist. ...[H]e began to ask why the Russian socialist dream had turned out to be such a nightmare, why Marxism in labour had begotten such monstrous offspring, and eventually realised that this derived in large measure from the corrupting influence of enormous power concentrated in fewer hands than ever before in history, and that this quite unprecedented concentration of power was essentially a function of the 'socialisation' of the means of production...
He came across writings on Catholic Social Teaching and saw in the Principle of Subsidiarity and the emphasis on the distribution of property and power the solution to the problem. In 1948, he joined the Church and quickly developed a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. His conversion was also a media event similar to that of Douglas Hyde (above).

Avery Cardinal Dulles
Giving a public talk in 1952, he declared: "I do not believe that prayer can convert Communists: I know that prayer can convert Communists." His 1954 book Fatal Star explained his new Catholic beliefs, as well warned Catholics of "the Communist Fifth Column within the Church", which was made up of people who "see nothing wrong in combining Mass attendance, or even frequent reception of the Sacraments, with the acceptance of Marxist social political and economic ideas." He said it was this "sector of Catholic opinion [to which] Communism seeks to harness its chariot." To combat the threat, he founded the journal Approaches in 1965 which sought to defend Catholic orthodoxy (it has since been renamed Apropos). He remained committed to the Church until his sudden death in 1986. (Read more about his story here.)

Did anyone else know that Avery Dulles converted while at Harvard?: Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008)
If you've studied any theology, you know who Avery Cardinal Dulles is. Internationally known, he was a prolific writer (700 articles and 22 books) and held teaching positions at Fordham University and Catholic University of America. He was greatly respected as a theologian and Pope Bl John Paul II made him a Cardinal in 2001, even though he was priest and not a bishop (he requested to forego episcopal consecration). He was also a signer of the 1994 ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

But he was actually raised a Presbyterian. By the time he entered Harvard University as an undergrad, he had become an agnostic. One day on an ordinary rainy day he exited a building and saw a tree that was just beginning to flower. In that moment, he realized that God existed and never again doubted his existence. His religious searching turned toward Catholicism, of which he said: "The more I examined, the more I was impressed with the consistency and sublimity of Catholic doctrine." He joined the Church a few month after graduating in 1940 and went on to Harvard Law School. There, he co-founded the St Benedict Center, which was later led by the famous/infamous Fr Feeney. (Also, random fact: Virginia's Washington Dulles Airport is named after his father.)

Evelyn Waugh
One of the best English language novels of the 20th century was all about Catholicism: Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
Raised Anglican, he lived an irreligious life as a young man, though he was interested in religion. On December 22nd 1925 Waugh wrote in his journal: "Claud and I took Audrey to supper and sat up until 7 in the morning arguing about the Roman Church". Waugh's friend Olivia Plunket-Greene joined the Church in 1925 and of whom Waugh later wrote: "She bullied me into the Church". She introduced him to Fr Martin D'Arcy who persuaded Waugh "on firm intellectual convictions but little emotion" that "the Christian revelation was genuine". He joined the Church in 1930 to the dismay of his family and many of his friends. He explained 19 years later that his conversion was based on his realization that life was "unintelligible and unendurable without God".

His life was rocky at times. Within just a few years of joining the Church, Waugh was accused of obscenity and blasphemy in his book Black Mischief by the Catholic journal The Tablet. He defended himself in an open letter to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Francis Bourne. Later in life he struggled with a drug addition and suffered from hallucinations.

Though he had written many books before, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, was his big break-out success. TIME magazine, Modern Library, and the BBC have all recognized it as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. It was also, in Waugh's mind, the first of his Catholic novels. Waugh wrote to his literary agent A. D. Peters, "I hope the last conversation with Cordelia gives the theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won't recognise it." He died suddenly on Easter Day, April 10th 1966, just after attending Mass.

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."