THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND CONVERSION
BY G. K. CHESTERTON
Nihil Obstat: Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D.
Imprimatur: Patrick Cardinal Hayes
+Archbishop, New York.
New York, September 16, 1926.
Copyright, 1926 by MacMillan Company
It is with diffidence that anyone born into the Faith can approach
the tremendous subject of Conversion. Indeed, it is easier for one
still quite unacquainted with the Faith to approach that subject
than it is for one who has had the advantage of the Faith from
childhood. There is at once a sort of impertinence in approaching
an experience other than one's own (necessarily more imperfectly
grasped), and an ignorance of the matter. Those born into the Faith
very often go through an experience of their own parallel to, and in
some way resembling, that experience whereby original strangers
to the Faith come to see it and to accept it. Those born into the
Faith often, I say, go through an experience of scepticism in youth,
as the years proceed, and it is still a common phenomenon (though
not so often to be observed as it was a lifetime ago) for men of the
Catholic culture, acquainted with the Church from childhood, to
leave it in early manhood and never to return. But it is nowadays a
still more frequent phenomenon--and it is to this that I allude--for
those to whom scepticism so strongly appealed in youth to
discover, by an experience of men and of reality in all its varied
forms, that the transcendental truths they had been taught in
childhood have the highest claims upon their matured reason.
This experience of the born Catholic may, I repeat, be called in a
certain sense a phenomenon of conversion. But it differs from
conversion properly so called, which rather signifies the gradual
discovery and acceptance of the Catholic Church by men and
women who began life with no conception of its existence: for
whom it had been during their formative years no more than a
name, perhaps despised, and certainly corresponding to no known
Such men and women converts are perhaps the chief factors in the
increasing vigor of the Catholic Church in our time. The
admiration which the born Catholic feels for their action is exactly
consonant to that which the Church in its earlier days showed to
the martyrs. For the word "martyr" means "witness." The
phenomenon of conversion apparent in every class, affecting
every type of character, is the great modern witness to the truth of
the claim of the Faith; to the fact that the Faith is reality, and that
in it alone is the repose of reality to be found.
In proportion as men know less and less of the subject, in that
proportion do they conceive that the entrants into the City of God
are of one type, and in that proportion do they attempt some
simple definition of the mind which ultimately accepts
Catholicism. They will call it a desire for security; or an attraction
of the senses such as is exercised by music or by verse. Or they
will ascribe it to that particular sort of weakness (present in many
minds) whereby they are easily dominated and changed in mood
by the action of another.
A very little experience of typical converts in our time makes
nonsense of such theories. Men and women enter by every
conceivable gate, after every, conceivable process of slow
intellectual examination, of shock, of vision, of moral trial and
even of merely intellectual process. They enter through the action
of expanded experience. Some obtain this through travel, some
through a reading of history beyond their fellows, some through
personal accidents of life. And not only are the avenues of
approach to the Faith infinite in number (though all converging; as
must be so, since truth is one and error infinitely divided), but the
individual types in whom the process of conversion may be
observed differ in every conceivable fashion. When you have
predicated of one what emotion or what reasoning process brought
him into the fold, and you attempt to apply your predicate exactly
to another, you will find a misfit. The cynic enters, and so does the
sentimentalist; and the fool enters and so does the wise man; the
perpetual questioner and doubter and the man too easily accepting
immediate authority--they each enter after his kind. You come
across an entry into the Catholic Church undoubtedly due to the
spectacle, admiration and imitation of some great character
observed. Next day you come across an entry into the Catholic
Church out of complete loneliness, and you are astonished to find
the convert still ignorant of the great mass of the Catholic effect
on character. And yet again, immediately after, you will find a
totally different third type, the man who enters not from
loneliness, nor from the effect of another mind, but who comes in
out of contempt for the insufficiency or the evil by which he has
The Church is the natural home of the Human Spirit.
The truth is that if you seek for an explanation of the phenomenon
of conversion under any system which bases that phenomenon on
illusion, you arrive at no answer to your question. If you imagine
conversion to proceed from this or that or the other erroneous or
particular limited and insufficient cause, you will soon discover it
to be inexplicable.
There is only one explanation of the phenomenon--a phenomenon
always present, but particularly arresting to the educated man
outside the Catholic Church in the English-speaking countries--
there is only one explanation which will account for the
multiplicity of such entries and for the infinitely varied quality of
the minds attracted by the great change; and that explanation is
that the Catholic Church is reality. If a distant mountain may be
mistaken for a cloud by many, but is recognised for a stable part
of the world (its outline fixed and its quality permanent) by every
sort of observer, and among these especially by men famous for
their interest in the debate, for their acuteness of vision and for
their earlier doubts, the overwhelming presumption is that the
thing seen is a piece of objective reality. Fifty men on shipboard
strain their eyes for land. Five, then ten, then twenty, make the
land-fall and recognise it and establish it for their fellows. To the
remainder, who see it not or who think it a bank of fog, there is
replied the detail of the outline, the character of the points
recognised, and that by the most varied and therefore convergent
and convincing witnesses--by some who do not desire that land
should be there at all, by some who dread its approach, as well as
those who are glad to find it, by some who have long most
ridiculed the idea that it was land at all--and it is in this
convergence of witnesses that we have one out of the innumerable
proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion reposes.
I. INTRODUCTORY: A NEW RELIGION
II. THE OBVIOUS BLUNDERS
III. THE REAL OBSTACLES
IV. THE WORLD INSIDE OUT
V. THE EXCEPTION PROVES THE RULE
VI. A NOTE ON PRESENT PROSPECTS
posted on 01/29/2012 12:33:24 PM PST
To: nickcarraway; NYer; ELS; Pyro7480; livius; ArrogantBustard; Catholicguy; RobbyS; marshmallow; ...
A Chesterton Ping from 1926!
posted on 01/29/2012 12:37:38 PM PST
("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
To: Salvation; Tzar; word_warrior_bob; risen_feenix; EnglishCon; Bill W was a conservative; verga; ...
Freep-mail me to get on or off my pro-life and Catholic List:
Add me / Remove me
Please ping me to note-worthy Pro-Life or Catholic threads, or other threads of general interest.
posted on 01/29/2012 12:44:42 PM PST
the Apostle of Common Sense (or was that CS Lewis?)
Gotta love the people who brought Chesterton and Churchill...and Lewis, and Clapton, and the Stones, and Traffic and Pink Floyd and...
God save the Queen!
And Catholics when they stand up together and sing "Faith of our Fathers" may realise almost with amusement that they might well be singing "Faith of our Children."
That's a good line.
posted on 01/29/2012 1:30:50 PM PST
posted on 01/29/2012 4:14:24 PM PST
(We kneel to no prince but the Prince of Peace)
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