Why People Still Convert To Catholicism Despite Abuse Scandals

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My fellow Catholics are dying to know, so I won’t keep them in suspense: Alligator is OK to eat on Fridays this Lent.

According to the Catholic News Agency, a devout Louisianan got the gustatory go-ahead from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who say gators’ watery habitat and cold-blooded biology make them sufficiently fish-like to consume on meatless Fridays. Non-Catholics may wonder how a 10-foot, four-legged, fin-less creature merits a piscine pass, or why anybody would fret over this topic in the first place. But those of us who make it to Mass every weekend are accustomed to such Jesuitical nuance; it’s part of the church’s profound, if at times exasperating, intellectual tradition, polished over millennia.

Our clergy aren’t the only ones who practice such razor-fine reasoning. The ability of lay Catholics to make measured distinctions, in a healthy way, explains something more surprising than reptilian repasts — the mob of people preparing to join a religion battered by a relentless pedophile catastrophe.

If converts bring with them the ability to distinguish between the lords of the church and the church, they’ll be following the Catholic tradition of rigorous intellectual discernment.

Each Easter, Catholic churches welcome converts to the faith. This year in greater Boston, more than 540 will receive sacramental admission, a number so large that two separate ceremonies were required at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross recently for rites preceding formal entry. The number nationally is 150,000, according to Cardinal Sean O’Malley. These conversions won't arrest the slide in weekly Mass attendance underway for decades, of course. But they come nearly a dozen years after the abuse scandal erupted here in Boston, and amid still-breaking revelations:

In January, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony lost his remaining duties after disclosures he shielded abusive priests in the 1980s.

Earlier this month, British Archbishop Keith O’Brien resigned while denying accusations of “inappropriate” contact with four priests.


Mahony and others, including Ireland’s Sean Brady, are hearing calls to recuse themselves from the upcoming papal election for protecting abusers.

How to account for hundreds of greater Bostonians, and tens of thousands of people across the country, stampeding into a church so scandal-riven that even conservative Catholics call for a crackdown on abuse-concealing bishops?

In 2002, with horrific abuse revelations raining down on the Archdiocese of Boston, I interviewed several converts — including a sexual abuse investigator — for The Boston Globe. That year, like this, saw hundreds join the church in the archdiocese at the epicenter of the scandal. A cradle Catholic horrified like everyone by the crime of child abuse and the obscenity of the cover-up, I wanted to know: Why were so many joining this church — my church — when you’d think they’d shun it?

The answer then suggests the hope now for Catholics. In this famously hierarchical church, the leadership didn’t define Catholicism for those converts. Instead, Catholic ideals and community, manifested in the warm welcome the newcomers got from good priests and laypeople when they inquired about the faith, meant more to them than the failings, however monstrous, of abusers and their enablers.

One male convert, who’d been raised in a different faith, had thought Catholicism’s social conservatism and doctrines like the Immaculate Conception “a little nutty.” Then an intellectually gifted friend became Catholic, firing his curiosity. He learned the church gave Catholics room to exercise their individual consciences, even to harbor doubts about the faith (which, after all, is faith, not scientifically proven knowledge).

After 2,000 years of showcasing the best and worst of humanity, the church is accustomed to the idea that its spiritual harvest contains both wheat and chaff.

Most interesting was that abuse investigator, a social worker who attended a Catholic funeral and was riveted by its ritualism. His study led him to a Newton parish, whose Jesuit pastor invited him to tell a little about himself. The social worker confessed he was consumed with guilt over the breakup of his marriage. “It’s a very lonely experience,” he told me later. He recalled the pastor comforting him, telling him that however much he might loathe himself and think others did likewise, God still loved him. After bumpy but ultimately reassuring reflection and study, he converted. As for the abuse scandal, the social worker drew on his experience probing sex assaults in nursing homes: “There are people in good nursing homes who do bad things. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad nursing home.”

Some might dismiss this as rationalizing heinous crimes. But after 2,000 years of showcasing the best and worst of humanity, the church — and I mean the people in the pews as much as their leaders — is accustomed to the idea that its spiritual harvest contains both wheat and chaff. Accepting that you must distinguish between them while living with both, I suspect, fuels this year’s conversions as it did those in 2002.

None of this minimizes the suffering of abuse survivors. Some had their lives ruined; others inevitably and justly left the church that betrayed them forever. If this were a better world, some archbishops would be sporting orange jumpsuits. But if this year’s new Catholics bring with them the ability to distinguish between the lords of the church and the church, they'll be following the Catholic tradition of rigorous intellectual discernment. That would allow them to respectfully but confidently question dogma that, handed down by fallible and at times sinful human leaders, may be fallible too. In that case, the church will have much to celebrate this Easter.

Editor’s note: Rich Barlow wrote The Boston Globe's religion column for six years.


This program aired on February 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.