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Tempest in a Catholic teapot

What to make of those conservative converts?

(RNS) — A couple of weeks ago Michael Sean Winters, scourge of the anti-Francis right for the National Catholic Reporter, alerted his readers to a little debate on Al-Jazeera between longtime British Vaticanista Austen Ivereigh and Matthew Schmitz, the youthful literary editor of First Things.

“I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic,” wrote Winters.

Schmitz, the convert in question, did not quite go that far (though his magazine raised the question in an article a few months ago). What he did was double down on his claim (in a New York Times op-ed last year) that “Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads.”

Francis “is building his program of supposed reform not only at the expense of the church,” Schmitz said, “but also at the expense of its most vulnerable members — the children who have been orphaned by the culture of divorce and remarriage that was left to us by the 1960s and the baby boomers.”

“This is really, really ridiculous,” responded Ivereigh.

Winters’ snark provoked cries of distress from converts who disproportionately populate Anglo-American Catholicism’s conservative commentariat.

“Maybe I’m being preciously oversensitive here,” wrote English theology professor Stephen Bullivant on the First Things blog. “Nevertheless, I do find such condescension strange in an avowedly missionary religion.”

“Stop bashing converts, and accept us as we are — warts and all,” ran the head on Crux commentator the Rev. Dwight Longenecker’s response.

Meanwhile, over at Commonweal, Villanova theology prof Massimo Faggioli rose to concur with Winters, declaring, “The weaknesses of Catholic ecclesiology that some converts now denounce as post-Vatican II illnesses are actually the same weaknesses that have made it easy (institutionally and theologically) for them to be accepted in the Catholic Church.”

A couple of days ago, Ivereigh joined the fray on Crux (where he’s a contributor), accusing the other side of “convert neurosis.”

And on it goes. Connoisseurs of Catholic intellectual infighting can perhaps be forgiven for sitting down with a bag of popcorn to enjoy the show — which in this case is a vehement reprise of one we’ve seen before.

In the middle of the last century, many of the leading lights of English Catholicism were converts, including such literary luminaries as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They had their counterparts in America, including the beautiful and talented Clare Booth Luce.

As much enamored of the Latin Mass as of the Church’s truth claims, they found their loyalty “seriously tested” by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, in the words of one historian, because these “undermined much of what had first drawn them into the Roman communion.” Indeed, in 1965 Waugh became president of a new Latin Mass Society in Britain.

It’s possible to feel a bit of sympathy for such converts. Just as Waugh and company resented having a hunk of the religious tradition they embraced taken away from them, so today’s conservative converts did not sign up for the “reform of the reform” of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in order to have it supplanted by Francis’ revival of the spirit of Vatican II and his determined rejection of papal pomp.

As Schmitz put it on Al-Jazeera, “What happens when the pope builds his popularity by attacking the established ways of expressing Catholic teaching, by shucking off all the trappings of the office. Francis has increasingly removed himself from the dignities and the traditional formulas of the office, and that makes it harder for him to repel any criticism.”

“Here we are getting really close to what really bothers Matthew,” scoffed Ivereigh. “He wants the red shoes. He wants the popes to be carried on a sedia gestatoria [the ceremonial throne on which popes were carried until 1978]. He wants a church which no longer exists.”

What’s new, this time around, is the readiness of conservative converts to come right out and criticize what principally distinguishes Roman Catholicism from the rest of Christianity — the pope. You’d almost think they were still Protestants.