Converts, Commentators, and Communion

"Austen Ivereigh" sounds like a great name for a snarky character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, but in reality he's just a journalist. Seven years ago he and Jack Valero (a writer for The Guardian and a member of Opus Dei) founded a media group called Catholic Voices, which seeks to provide knowledgeable representatives for media interviews regarding topics of interest to Catholics. Recently Ivereigh has come under fire from a few Catholics in this country, including Robert George and Ed Peters, among others, for some remarks he made in Crux regarding certain high-profile American Catholic writers who have been critical of Pope Francis, namely Ross Douthat, Daniel Hitchens, Carl Olson, Edward Pentin, R. R. Reno, Matthew Schmit, and John-Henry Westen.

Robert George was referring to Ivereigh when he Tweeted:
Some inside Catholic baseball now. Question: What is more ridiculous than a Catholic writer launching a crusade against Catholic-Evangelical cooperation? Answer: Cradle Catholics waging a war against converts to the faith.
He followed this up a day later with:
A little more inside Catholic baseball. My colleague RJ Snell and I are doing a book about intellectuals (whether or not they are professors or professional scholars) who are converts to the Catholic faith. (We have in mind, people who are still living, not deceased figures such as John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Elizabeth Anscombe, Jacques Maritain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Richard John Neuhaus, and Jean Bethke Elshtain.) If there are living Catholic converts whose lives, intellectual work, and witness you find especially interesting and noteworthy, please let me know. You can post a comment in reply to this message or PM me. Thanks.
And Ed Peters took issue with Ivereigh's use of the word "convert" to describe the seven writers:
According to the (US) National Statutes for the Catechumenate(November, 1986) no. 2 (my emphasis), “the term ‘convert’ should be reserved strictly for those converted from unbelief to Christian belief and never used of those baptized Christians who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.” Number 3 reiterates that this “holds true even … [for] baptized Catholic Christians … whose Christian initiation has not been completed by confirmation and Eucharist” (Westen) and [for] “baptized Christians who have been members of another Church or ecclesial community and seek to be received into the full Communion of the Catholic Church” (the other six authors).
This is an interesting argument. It reminds me of the times I've tried to correct people who use a singular verb form with the word "data": you can point out all you like that the use is incorrect, but it will have little effect on actual practice. This is because, in spite of what many prescriptivists might like to believe, meaning is use. The simple fact of the matter is that everyone in the world, with the possible exception of the authors of the National Statutes for the Catechumenate and Ed Peters (who is, after all, a lawyer; but so is Robert George who, apparently, uses the word the way the rest of us do), when speaking of Catholicism in particular, uses the word "convert" to mean "someone who became a Roman Catholic as a matter of intentional choice from having been something--anything--other than Roman Catholic". Are they correct to do so? Well, not according to the authors of the National Statutes or, apparently, Ed Peters, but do we know what they mean when they use the word? If someone says "I'm a convert to Catholicism" do we always think to ourselves that they were necessarily, i.e., by definition, unbelievers previously, or do we sometimes wonder whether they "converted" from, say, Episcopalianism, or Lutheranism?

The National Statutes are, clearly, giving a technical meaning for the term "convert" and, hence, the word has become, at least within Catholic administrative circles, a technical term. Outside of those circles, however, there is little we can do about the way people use the word, and it's not clear to me that this is a bad thing. For one thing, it seems useful to have some term or other to describe the person who is not a "cradle Catholic". (I wonder whether the authors of the National Statutes have a technical definition for that, too? Is one a "cradle Catholic" if and only if one was once placed in a cradle and was also a Catholic at the time?) Why is "convert" not a good candidate for that use? I suppose the thought is supposed to be that it incorrectly lumps together the unwashed heathen and the merely heretical and schismatic. I'm not unsympathetic to the worry that this is not "ecumenical" enough--one certainly does not want to suggest that non-Catholic Christians are not, in some real sense, Christians at all, in the way that some used to interpret the whole extra ecclesiam nulla salus thing. We sometimes speak of "lapsed Catholics"; should we now speak, not of "converts", but of "lapsed Presbyterians"?

I suspect that a better reason to be annoyed by Ivereigh's essay is his characterization of the converts as suffering from what he calls "convert neurosis". Peters rightly castigates him for this, as I think any reasonable person would, but at the heart of this clearly non-technical use of the word "neurosis" lies Ivereigh's rejection of some of the very real worries expressed by these writers regarding certain key issues in the Catholic Church, primarily but not exclusively the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. As it happens, the one thing that seems to be common to these seven writers in particular, is their concern over the way in which Amoris Laetitia has been interpreted in some quarters, and it is probably no accident that Ivereigh himself interprets it very differently than these seven writers. He is not immune from such tactics as referring to his opponents not only as neurotics, but as "youthful" and "frozen at some point prior to the [Second Vatican] Council". More insidiously, his description of the Church as "missionary", clearly engaged in "spreading the Gospel", bringing "new things" under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, while true enough taken in the abstract, is clearly intended as a contrast with the attitude he finds among his opponents. This sort of rhetorical maneuver--trying to make an opponent seem worse not by attacking him directly but by describing in a positive way something else with which you wish to contrast him--can sometimes backfire. In the present case it makes Ivereigh come off sounding like he is attacking straw men: none of the writers would disagree with his characterization of the Church or its Magisterium. What they are distressed about is not the ecclesiology defended by Ivereigh but by the way in which Amoris Laetitia has been used by some to take that ecclesiology in a direction in which it simply cannot go.

Do some critics of Amoris Laetitia go too far in suggesting that Pope Francis acted deliberately in wording it in such a way as to invite such interpretations? This is a charge that Ivereigh lays at the feet of Douthat in particular, whom Ivereigh criticizes for characterizing Pope Francis as the "chief plotter" in a plan to admit to Holy Communion those divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriage has not been declared null. While there's no denying that Douthat used that expression, a careful reading of his whole essay shows how unfair is Ivereigh's characterization of it. Sadly, the demonization of one's opponents is not something all that unusual in our current cultural climate, but engaging in armchair speculation about their mental state seems to be going a bit too far. It would be better, as well as more respectable and consistent with Christian virtue, to assess the actual arguments of those who read Amoris Laetitia in disparate ways and evaluate them on their merits as arguments rather than on one's a priori assumptions about the sort of mental state that might lead to one interpretation as opposed to the other.

Regardless of how one happens to read Amoris Laetitia, both sides seem to agree on one thing: the Church cannot change substantive teachings. Even those who say that substantive teachings have to be understood in light of the development of doctrine agree that the substance itself of a teaching cannot be changed. This is important because the substance that is involved in this particular dispute is the requirement that those who present themselves for reception of Holy Communion be free from mortal sin taken together with the doctrine that marriage is a permanent and indissoluble bond. Neither side disputes either one of these points.

At this point a rascal might like to invoke "meaning is use" and claim that some people simply use the expression "mortal sin" in a different way than some other people. Here, if anywhere, however, is the place to invoke prescriptivism. If one does not happen to use the expression "mortal sin" in the way in which the Catholic Church uses it, then one need not join the "Catholic Church Language Game". One may remain an unconverted heathen or an unlapsed Presbyterian or whatever else one happens to not have come into the Church from, and the dispute will no longer be relevant.

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