Those who fall away from the Catholic Church typically fall into two classes: the (1) lapsed, who simply stop practicing their Faith in any institutional way, and (2) reverts, who return to the practice of some (usually Protestant) non-Catholic form of Christianity. (I realize I'm using the term 'revert' in an unconventional way here.)
I do not doubt that many who have allowed the practice of their faith to lapse have done so because they have lost their faith. But in my experience, the most common reason why confirmed Catholics drift away is because they have allowed some aspect of their practical life to become compromised. They may be cohabiting outside of marriage, remarried outside of the Church, practicing homosexuals, involved in recreational drugs, or simply indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle they know is incompatible with the Faith.
The situation with those who revert, however, is less transparent and perhaps even more troubling. These are almost without exception individuals of impeccable character for whom questions of "faith and morals" are of basic importance. When they become Catholics, they do not do so without expending serious effort in endeavoring to understand Catholic teaching, particularly since there is typically a personal cost and social stigma associated with the move they are making, at least in their erstwhile communities of faith.
In my own experience, I have had the privilege of serving as mentor or sponsor to some twenty Catholic converts over the past ten or twelve years. Of this number, three have lapsed, including the only two of the group who were baptized Catholics but never catechized or confirmed. Of the total number, three have reverted to Protestant forms of Christianity -- one, studying to become a Protestant pastor, the other two resettled in evangelical congregations.
So what is it that happens to Protestant reverts? While every individual's story is unique, I think some generalizations are fairly safe. These are generally souls who come from backgrounds already well-rooted in evangelical Christianity, in a life of Bible reading, prayer, and personal relationship with God. When these souls discover the truth about the Catholic Church, they fall in love with her. They are thrilled when they finally come, at least on some level, to apprehend the Catholic vision of the Church and to see and and understand her glory -- "ever ancient, ever new." They love the Church that spans the ages, the Church of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI. They love the moral courage of the Church, which stands like an adamantine bulwark against the evils of abortion, pornography, and relativism. They love the magnificent beauty of her ancient European cathedrals, her basilicas, her paintings and sculptures, her Gregorian chant and polyphony (readily accessible in any music store). They love her theology, which they encounter in the writings of great doctors and theologians of the Church. They love her incarnational vision of life, which they encounter in the writings of numerous Catholic novelists.
But then they join a local Catholic parish ...
The process usually begins with a desert experience called RCIA (Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults) -- a series of meetings and classes in which they are treated more like preschoolers than intelligent adults, spoon fed pathological doses of hand-holding and introspection, and treated to ample quantities of shared feelings. If they survive that, they're welcomed into an Amchurch parish, whose music is Haugan and Haas, whose homilies are psychology tips from Dr. Phil, whose art and architecture is a combination of bog Bauhaus and degenerate Art Deco, and whose members never read traditional Catholic authors but whose discussion groups can't stop talking about Richard Rohr, Thomas Groome, Anthony Tambasco, Sr. Joan Chittister, Andrew Sullivan, and John Dominic Crossan.
It would be easy enough to say their conversion to the Catholic Faith was never authentic, or that their understanding was incomplete. Lord knows there was ample collective agonizing, introspection and speculation over that question when Rod Dreher defected to Eastern Orthodoxy. But as that undertaking made plain, the issues are neither simple nor always clear (see my post, "Apostasy (αποστασία)," Musings, December 16, 2006).
Just today I received yet another email from a former student, a mature Protestant, who wishes to take more of my classes and has asked about starting RCIA classes at my church. I know I should be happy, and I suppose (trusting God) I am. Yet I cannot help feeling a bit of the ambivalence Malcolm Muggeridge's Canadian-born daughter-in-law, Anne Roche Muggeridge, expressed when, distraught over the disastrous aftermath of Vatican II, she wrote about converts she knew:
I must confess that some of us, to our shame, earnestly tried to delay them, on the grounds of the growing disorder in the Catholic Church. They forced their way past us anyway, thank God; though the priest I brought them to for instruction and I could not resist saying, when they had their first shocking confrontation with revolutionary priests and nuns over their children's education: "Well, you can't say we didn't warn you!" The point is, these converts remind one of what one asks of the Church of God, as the old baptism question went; the answer being, "Faith!" (The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church [1986; Rev. ed., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990])Don't worry. I never remain depressed for long. But my present state of mind is not far from that in which I offered the rant late last year, "Welcome aboard the shipwreck: what converts don't know," (December 13, 2006). I worry whether, one day, one of these students who gets fired up and converts to Catholicism will want to take me to court and sue me -- or the Church, for that matter -- for dishonesty in advertising.