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Conversion Story: From Atheist to Catholic

Image-Insight/John-Tozer

R.J. Stove - published on 10/11/14

Several side-effects, so to speak, of becoming a Catholic were completely unpredictable. One was the way it forced me to abandon, in practice, long-held political beliefs. During the 1990s, much of whatever earning power I possessed derived from my editorial, authorial and research work for a political think-tank. Happily, my discovery of active financial corruption on the think-tank’s part (a discovery facilitated by front-page newspaper revelations of this corruption’s extent) eased the pain of separation from that working milieu, which regarded Catholicism only with disgust.

What part did prayer have in my journey? "Precious little." Extreme difficulty in prayer, above all in mental prayer, seems very common among converts. (Waugh undeniably found it so, and lamented as much to Arnold Lunn.) Intercessory prayer for anything but the most urgent of life’s necessities still alarms me, in part because of the opportunities it gives to the most swinish self-indulgence ("gimme gimme gimme"), and in part because my memory is so bad that simply learning the most basic prayers of our church—the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity, the Memorare, the Confiteor, and so on ranks with the hardest intellectual work I have ever been required to do.

I am staggered by those Catholics who saw in my "dry soul" (Waugh’s apt words) any seed of potential faith, however tiny. That any Catholic would ever agree to be my godparent astonished me at the time of my baptism, and it continues to astonish me now.

For as long as I can remember, the Catholic Church’s liturgical music has moved me and been indispensable to me. I grew up with a certain shallow knowledge of Palestrina, for instance, though the inadequacy of this knowledge is embarrassing in retrospect and should have been embarrassing at the time. But Catholic visual art has not been thus indispensable: principally because I dread the sort of campy Catholic whose entire religion is merely a sort of aesthetic mud-bath. Were music my main concern, I would — in homage to the legacy of Bach and his precursors — have become, not a Catholic, but a Lutheran. So I cannot honestly say that art or music played an important role in my religious destination.

Like most converts, I suppose, I naively assumed that the difference made by becoming a full communicating Catholic would be spectacular. Instead, I found myself in the position of one who, while he has only recently acquired a passport, has enjoyed permanent residence for years.

I wish I had ample faith and innate confidence, as those Schoenstatt nuns did (and still do). Failing those, I wish I had greater courage. The adjective Belloc used about his own religious outlook — desiccate — perfectly describes my own. Confession continues to be a torture to me, however necessary it has been for my soul.

Anti-Catholics often accuse Catholicism of throttling intellectual life. I have not found it so. It is true that Catholics’ intellectual life is not meant to extend to writing pornographic novels or devising a shooting script for a Britney Spears video; but then, for the life of me I fail to see any real deprivation attached to these prohibitions. I side, instead, with Flannery O’Connor, who once observed: "The Catholic Church has saved me a couple of thousand years in learning how to write." Certainly the Catholic Church has saved me a couple of thousand years in learning how to think.

Because many, if not most, atheists remain convinced that Catholic converts spend their whole waking lives in a state of mouth-foaming fury against Protestantism, I can only report that I behold with admiration the efforts of several Australian Protestants in the pro-life movement. Such heroic individuals put me totally to shame. But I behold with stupefaction the sheer spinelessness of those Australian Catholics who still assume that a Catholic’s sole job should consist of driveling sycophancy towards those (and more especially those newspaper pundits) who howl for our blood.

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