April 13, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Some illustrious converts to Catholicism

John F. FinkLet me add my welcome to all the new converts who became Catholics on Holy Saturday. Converts to our faith have been among the most illustrious members of the Church, beginning with the conversion of St. Paul from a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to the Church’s greatest missionary.

Many of our saints were converts. Surely the most prominent was St. Augustine, who detailed his conversion in his great book Confessions, the first spiritual autobiography. It was a conversion for which his mother Monica prayed for years.

One of our American saints, Elizabeth Ann Seton, was a convert, as was one of the four Americans who have been beatified—the Native American Kateri Tekakwitha. The recently canonized Edith Stein was a convert.

There have, of course, been converts throughout the centuries, but there were a number of prominent converts from Anglicanism during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

A list of such converts must start with John Henry Newman, who had been convinced that Anglicanism was the middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism until he began writing his book On the Development of Doctrine. His study of the Church Fathers convinced him to become a Catholic. His Apologia pro Vita Sua is a masterpiece of autobiography second only to Augustine’s Confessions.

G. K. Chesterton was perhaps the best writer of the 20th century, certainly the first half of that century. He wrote about everything, including religion. He converted to Catholicism in 1922 when he was 48. Surprisingly, one of his greatest books, Orthodoxy, was written before his conversion, as was his series of mysteries starring Father Brown. His masterpiece was The Everlasting Man.

But Chesterton wasn’t the only English literary figure to convert to Catholicism. Others included Hilaire Belloc, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Malcolm Muggeridge and Dorothy Sayers. And I’m sure that this is an incomplete list.

A literary figure who is not on that list is C. S. Lewis because he did not convert to Catholicism. Most experts on Lewis believe, however, that he would be a Catholic if he were alive today. He was converted from atheism to Christianity from his reading of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

The United States, too, can claim some literary converts, although some might be known for more than just their literary talents. This list would include Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Percy Walker.

A book by Paul Elie called The Life You Save Might Be Your Own is about those three plus Flannery O’Connor, who is not a convert. Merton, Day and Walker all converted to Catholicism as a result of their reading. Claire Booth Luce, converted by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, was another literary figure.

Three of the most prominent Catholic converts today are Cardinal Avery Dulles, Father Richard John Neuhaus and Scott Hahn. Neuhaus is a former Lutheran minister, and Hahn is a former Presbyterian minister.

I’m sure I’ve neglected to include numerous other prominent converts, both past and present. †

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