Should converts set themselves up as teachers? Newman’s answer

“A convert comes to learn.”

Image: John Henry Cardinal Newman, (public domain image)

Editors’ note

The supernatural origin of the Catholic religion is proved by miracles. And one of the great miracles that testifies to the truth of our faith is the rapid establishment of the Church in far-flung parts of the world, within a short time after its establishment on the day of Pentecost. This is known as a “moral miracle.”

The rapid spread of the faith is attested to by the Acts of the Apostles and by the Pauline and Catholic Epistles. By 107 AD St Ignatius of Antioch could state that the bishops of the Church were found “through the vast, wide earth”.[1] In his writings St Irenaeus (125-202 AD) mentions churches in Germany, Spain, Gaul, the Middle East and Africa. His contemporary St Justin Martyr (100-164AD) wrote:

 “There is not a single race of men [then known], whether of Greeks or Barbarians, or whatever else they may be called, nomads living in wagons, homeless vagrants or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and thanksgiving are not offered to the Father and Creator of all through the name of the crucified Jesus.”

And Tertullian boasted:

“We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you – cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the camp itself, tribes, companies, the palace, senate, forum – we have left you nothing, but the temples of your gods.” 

This rapid spread of the Catholic faith took place by conversion. The Catholic faith is a religion of conversion, and the goal of the Church is bring every man, woman and child into her fold. The Church has a divinely mandated mission to make converts, and she is constituted by conversion. This is seen quite clearly in the presence of adult forms in the rite of baptism, even after the date at which most baptisms were of infants. The rite of baptism for infants does not avoid those texts that are proper to adults, rather it has has the godfather make the responses on the child’s behalf. And every Catholic, even those baptised within moments of their birth, is a convert from the death of sin, to life in Christ.

The Catholic Church is therefore a body of converts, which desires more and more converts, until the whole world has been converted.

Yet, this does not mean that it is wise for every Catholic to speak out on every issue immediately after their conversion. There is a process of development and maturing in the faith. In his first letter to the Corinthians St Paul speaks of those to whom he gave “milk to drink” for they “were not able as yet” to consume “solid food”. (1 Cor 3:2) And in the letter to the Hebrews he enunciates a similar idea:

“You should, after all this time, have been teachers yourselves, and instead of that you need to be taught; taught even the first principles on which the oracles of God are based. You have gone back to needing milk, instead of solid food.” (Heb 5:12)

Of course, these are not references to “converts” per se – the vast majority of his audience were “converts” – but they indicate the need for all of us to exercise humility and not attempt to teach others, when we ourselves are still in need of learning the first principles of the faith. 

In another passage the Apostle is more specific and speaks directly of recent converts. A bishop, he teaches, “must not be a new convert, or he may be carried away by vanity, and incur Satan’s doom.” (1 Timothy 3:6). 

Why are we drawing attention to these passages now?

Over the past few months, we have become increasingly aware of vocal YouTubers who are using their platforms to promote their own views in a way which is often aggressive and uncharitable. Lack of charity is, ironically, a charge that they frequently level at their new-found opponents.

Many of the fellow Catholics whom they criticise – or simply dismiss as “Radical Traditionalists” – are men and women who have suffered for decades for the integrity of Catholic doctrine and worship. On the other hand, many of these critics are recent converts, or even reverts who have entered, abandoned and returned to the Church all in adulthood, with some having only recently sought to return to her embrace.

While not doubting the sincerity of their search for truth, we must question whether they are in a position to condemn or criticise others. 

In light of this, we would like to share a passage from the most famous convert of the nineteenth century – John Henry Newman. In this section of his Letter to Pusey, written twenty years after his own reception into the Church, he explains how a convert should act on and after his reception into the Church, and how his contribution to the Church might change and develop as time goes on.

Most of all Newman emphasises that we come to the Church to be taught, and not to teach; and that we ought to conform ourselves to the tradition of the Church as we receive it. 

We consider that there are valuable lessons for all of us to learn from this text, whether we are converts or were baptised as infants.

NB. Paragraph breaks have been added and some references to contemporary controversies have been edited out to aid reading.

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Advice to Converts 

An extract from The Letter to Pusey (UK here) by John Henry Newman

[A] convert comes to learn, and not to pick and choose. He comes in simplicity and confidence, and it does not occur to him to weigh and measure every proceeding, every practice which he meets with among those whom he has joined. 

He comes to Catholicism as to a living system, with a living teaching, and not to a mere collection of decrees and canons, which by themselves are of course but the framework, not the body and substance of the Church. And this is a truth which concerns, which binds, those also who never knew any other religion, not only the convert. By the Catholic system, I mean that rule of life, and those practices of devotion, for which we shall look in vain in the Creed of Pope Pius. 

The convert comes, not only to believe the Church, but also to trust and obey her priests, and to conform himself in charity to her people. It would never do for him to resolve that he never would say a Hail Mary, never avail himself of an indulgence, never kiss a crucifix, never accept the Lent dispensations, never mention a venial sin in confession. All this would not only be unreal, but would be dangerous, too, as arguing a wrong state of mind, which could not look to receive the divine blessing. 

Moreover, he comes to the ceremonial, and the moral theology, and the ecclesiastical regulations, which he finds on the spot where his lot is cast. 

And again, as regards matters of politics, of education, of general expedience, of taste, he does not criticize or controvert. And thus surrendering himself to the influences of his new religion, and not risking the loss of revealed truth altogether by attempting by a private rule to discriminate every moment its substance from its accidents, he is gradually so indoctrinated in Catholicism, as at length to have a right to speak as well as to hear. 

Also in course of time a new generation rises round him; and there is no reason why he should not know as much, and decide questions with as true an instinct, as those who perhaps number fewer years of life than he numbers Easter communions. He has mastered the fact and the nature of the differences of theologian from theologian, school from school, nation from nation, era from era. 

He knows that there is much of what may be called fashion in opinions and practices, according to the circumstances of time and place, according to current politics, the character of the Pope of the day, or the chief Prelates of a particular country;—and that fashions change. His experience tells him, that sometimes what is denounced in one place as a great offence, or preached up as a first principle, has in another nation been immemorially regarded in just a contrary sense, or has made no sensation at all, one way or the other, when brought before public opinion; and that loud talkers are apt to carry all before them in the Church, as elsewhere, while quiet and conscientious persons commonly have to give way. 

He perceives that, in matters which happen to be in debate, ecclesiastical authority watches the state of opinion and the direction and course of controversy, and decides accordingly; so that in certain cases to keep back his own judgment on a point, is to be disloyal to his superiors.

So far generally; now in particular as to myself. After twenty years of Catholic life, I feel no delicacy in giving my opinion on any point when there is a call for me,—and the only reason why I have not done so sooner or more often than I have, is that there has been no call… Certainly, in many instances in which theologian differs from theologian and country from country, I have a definite judgment of my own; I can say so without offence to any one, for the very reason that from the nature of the case it is impossible to agree with all of them. […]

And in this line of conduct I am but availing myself of the teaching which I fell in with on becoming a Catholic; and it is a pleasure to me to think that what I hold now, and would transmit after me if I could, is only what I received then. […]

Though I am a convert, then, I think I have a right to speak out; and that the more because other converts have spoken for a long time, while I have not spoken; and with still more reason may I speak without offence in the case of your present criticisms of us. 

[Newman continues with discussion of two converts whose writings Pusey has used to criticise Catholics in general. Newman asserts that their writings are not representative of English Catholics. He then continues as below.]

The plain fact is this,—they came to the Church, and have thereby saved their souls; but they are in no sense spokesmen for English Catholics, and they must not stand in the place of those who have a real title to such an office. The chief authors of the passing generation, some of them still alive, others gone to their reward, are Cardinal Wiseman, Dr. Ullathorne, Dr. Lingard, Mr. Tierney, Dr. Oliver, Dr. Rock, Dr. Waterworth, Dr. Husenbeth, and Mr. Flanagan…

[In other words, the ordinary bishops and clergy of the Catholic Church are the most reliable witnesses to Catholic doctrine and practice, not recent lay converts. NB. at this time secular priests were not called “Father”, hence the use of Dr. and Mr.]

I cannot, then, without remonstrance, allow you to identify the doctrine of [the converts under discussion] with the present spirit or the prospective creed of Catholics; or to assume, as you do, that, because they are thorough-going and relentless in their statements, therefore they are the harbingers of a new age, when to show a deference to Antiquity will be thought little else than a mistake. For myself, hopeless as you consider it, I am not ashamed still to take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge.


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[1] The quotations from the Fathers in this section are taken from Mgr Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Vol. 1(5th edition, 1961), pp203-05. (UK: here)

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