Thousands of "Cradle Catholics" regularly leave the Church each year for a different faith, or for no faith at all. The reasons are many, often unique to each person. What is not so often reported on is the fact that 100-200,000 adults convert to the Catholic Church every year. David Paul Deavel of St. Paul, the associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor of Gilbert Magazine the Journal of the American Chesterton Society, had this article published in the Pioneer Press the other day.
The reason is unclear, but the Pioneer Press has seemingly become a forum for Catholics who have either left the church or who remain despite not believing what the church teaches.
Several weeks ago it was a Minneapolis writer recounting how he finally left the church and, it seems, the Christian God behind. Then, in the midst of a commentary on Romney's candidacy, Jim Ragsdale told us how he left the church and has only slowly, and without much trust, been approaching it again. Finally, last Sunday it was journalist Mark Bowden detailing how Pope Benedict's new encyclical letter on Christian hope was meaningful to him: Bowden is too skeptical for faith but can't give up on hope. Weaving in between were letters from disaffected Catholics outraged the incoming archbishop of St. Paul holds Catholic teaching on sexuality.
If you only knew about the church from these pieces, you might conclude that though the church has a strange emotional hold on people raised as Catholics, its claims to truth are simply unbelievable once one reaches adulthood.
I stand as a counterexample. And I'm not the only one.
Though a lot of people leave the church intent on making it a one-way trip, the great story of the last two decades has been the number of people entering the Catholic Church in the U.S. not in infancy but in adulthood. Most estimates say anywhere from 125,000 to 200,000 adults have been received every year since at least 1990. The numbers are difficult to figure exactly since parishes often count only those brought into the church at Easter through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
Many people are received into the Church at other times of the year, and RCIA numbers often include adults who never formally left the church but have come back to prepare for confirmation. Whatever the exact numbers, we know there are more than 2 million converts over two decades, a number that would be even more dramatic if the Catholic Church didn't already number close to 70 million in the U.S.
More striking than the numbers are the types of people entering. Many adults entering the church are public figures or non-Catholic clergy - and often intellectuals. The last couple of decades have seen philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Mortimer Adler, novelists Annie Dillard and Robert Clark, journalist Robert Novak, politicians Jeb Bush and Sam Brownback, among others. On the clergy side, the 10-year-old Ohio-based Coming Home Network, which helps non-Catholic ministers and academics considering Catholicism, numbers 565 clergy contacts who have entered the church, with 538 still "on the journey."
Often these clergy converts are quite prominent. Last year Francis Beckwith of Baylor stunned evangelicals by returning to the church he had left as a teen. He was then president of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year four bishops of the Episcopal Church have resigned to enter the Catholic Church.
What is true nationally is true locally. Mark Croteau, RCIA director at the Cathedral of St. Paul, has 35 people this year, a group he calls a "true cross-section of society" and a "veritable United Nations." My parish, Nativity of our Lord in St. Paul, has had large groups in RCIA for a number of years. Randy Mueller, director of the program, tells me the last five years have seen an average of 18 adults per year enter the church through RCIA alone. They include housewives, businesspeople, college students, PhDs in math and chemistry, and many others. One was a Lutheran minister for 30 years.
What strikes me in talking to so many of them is that no matter how they found their way to the Catholic Church, what they discovered was precisely how reasonable its claims are. Approaching the church as adults, they found that its answers to questions were trustworthy, and its unpopular positions often prophetic, even the difficult ones about sexuality.
The recent essayists and letter writers are certainly one side of the story. I'm glad they still think and write about ultimate issues with the church in mind. But they, and Pioneer Press readers, might benefit from hearing other stories as well. There are Catholics who didn't grow up and grow tired of the church. They found it as adults and found its claims both reasonable and compelling.