Surprising Catholic Converts

The most influential figures in the history of Catholicism have been converts. I think we can agree that Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and the Emperor Constantine are all pretty important guys, but not one of them was born into the church. In the UK likewise some of the most prominent Catholics started their spiritual journey elsewhere—Cardinal Newman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene for instance. Recently we have seen a certain T. Blair cross over to Rome, and he may even have given the Pope some friendly advice, helpful chap that he is.  But there are many lower profile cases of conversion, and that list has some surprising names on it….

Take Marshall McLuhan, for instance. Once upon a time he was a prominent public intellectual famous for his maxim “the medium is the message” which, today, is about all anybody can remember about him. He converted while at Cambridge in 1937. Catholicism, he said  “…confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” That freedom led him to make statements such as this:  “everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about the conditions and strain of modern industrial society is not only Protestant in origin, but it is their boast(!) to have originated it.”

Indeed. McLuhan is hardly the only significant contemporary thinker to convert however. The French anthropological philosopher Rene Girard had spent 26 years as an agnostic before turning towards the church in 1959, after which he elaborated upon his theory of mimetic desire and wrote a string of influential books with excellent titles such as Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

But if the philosopher seeks a deeper understanding of life via Catholicism, then what do the naughty boys of politics and finance hope for? Forgiveness no doubt, and redemption- but really you’d have to ask them. Newt Gingrich was unquestionably a very cheeky chap, three times married, and the first ever speaker of the House of Representatives to be reprimanded on an ethics charge. Originally Lutheran he segued into the Southern Baptists before embracing Catholicism in 2009- apparently inspired by the “happiness and peacefulness” he saw in Benedixt XVI when he visited the USA that year.

The world of the arts is chock-a-block with converts. There’s Hemingway of course, but who knew that the horror writer Dean R. Koontz was a Catholic? Or that Dave Brubeck, the man behind the legendary jazz track “Take 5” converted in 1980 after writing music for the church? The biggest surprise here however is that the Danish shock- schlock-auteur Lars Von Trier is a convert. It is certainly difficult to see many traces of Catholicism in his formally interesting films which are nevertheless filled with pointless transgression. Still, he claims he prays- that’s when he’s not ironically sympathizing with Hitler of course. Is he merely out to provoke the ultra secular Danes? Well, that’s not for man to judge.

Perhaps the most interesting group of converts is the cluster of cowboys, gunslingers and outlaws who were rushing to take communion before they died in the days of the Old West. It seems like it was all the rage to lead a life of outrageous license and then apologize for it just as the great darkness was closing in…

The most famous of these converts was Buffalo Bill Cody. Not actually a terribly bad guy, he was more of a showman, unless you were a buffalo in which case you were in serious trouble. Between 1867 and 1868 Cody allegedly killed 4280 bison to feed the Kansas Pacific Railroad, thus contributing to the destruction of the herds that had supported Indian civilization for centuries.  After touring the world with his western shows he was baptized into the church the day before his death in 1917.

Now Doc Holliday on the other hand was a gambler, gunfighter and occasional dentist, who participated in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Legend has it that after a goodly stint of killing he struck up a friendship with a priest named Father Downey and converted shortly before expiring of TB at the age of 36 in 1887. As for the gunfighter William P. Longley, he was a thoroughly bad egg. He wasn’t even a gunfighter really since most of the people he killed were unarmed; rather he was a murderer and a bit of a racist. He found redemption shortly before his execution at the age of 26.

Indians were converting too in those days. Legend has it that Sitting Bull embraced Rome but it must be said that other sources indicate that his fondness for bigamy proved to be a formidable obstacle to conversion. However Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man made famous in the book John Neihardt definitely did convert.

In fact, even fake cowboys were turning to Rome. John Wayne, a serial romancer of Catholic women, who exclusively married Catholic women, apparently decided that he should join the Church in his latter days, and today one of his grandsons Matthew Munoz is a priest. Gary Cooper, another silver screen cowboy converted in the 1950s, which apparently put an end to his philandering ways.

In a short article such as this we can only hope to skim the surface of surprising Catholic converts. Before taking my leave however I’d like to address a few apocryphal cases, such as the alleged conversion of Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II. In fact, he also claims to be Christ and to have foreseen the end of the world, so it’s a dubious case. The same goes for the Italian Marxist windbag Antonio Gramsci, alleged to have converted on his deathbed, though his acolytes deny it furiously. Perhaps, to annoy them, we should pretend that it is true. 

From The Catholic Herald, November 2012

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