by Michelle Arnold
Gospel for September 11, 2022
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? (Luke 15:4).
Converts have been on my mind in recent weeks. When actor Shia LaBeouf revealed in a recent interview with Bishop Robert Barron that his research into his role as Padre Pio in an upcoming film had inspired him to become Catholic, the news exploded across Catholic social media. Traditionalist Catholics were thrilled because LeBeouf shared his fascination with the Tridentine Latin Mass, a form of the Mass that Pope Francis has recently been scaling back permission for priests to offer.
The question must be asked though. Did any of these pundits really care about Shia LeBeouf? Or were they just excited that a celebrity’s embrace of their beliefs seemed to validate them and their own beliefs? In one particularly tedious victory lap, Traditionalist writer Christopher Ferrara wrote as a preface to his commentary on the LeBeouf–Barron interview:
“Delve into the origin and history of the traditionalist ‘movement,’ however, and you will learn what the movement is at its core: simply and only an embrace of truth, goodness and beauty in the religion whose Founder is the very source of the transcendentals. You will find that traditionalism is nothing other than an embrace of what is instantly apparent to a mind unimpaired by pride and thus ready to receive the transcendent when suitably presented. Quite simply, traditionalism is an acceptance of what is obvious in religion to the open mind.”
In other words, LeBeouf supposedly did nothing more than “open his mind” and anyone who doesn’t go forth and do likewise is prideful, ignorant, and closed-minded. To the extent that Ferrara considers the personal challenges LeBeouf has faced in recent years, they are treated as stepping stones to the barque of Peter. Never mind that some of those challenges—such as a lawsuit by a former girlfriend that’s slated to go to trial next year—will play an ongoing part in LaBeouf’s life, potentially derailing his spiritual honeymoon. Concern for LeBeouf’s personal well-being is beside the point.
What happens when a convert falls from grace? What happens when the seed that sprouted on rocky ground but isn’t rooted deeply and appears to die? Do all of these people who cheered so loudly for the return of a “lost sheep” to the fold do anything to help the fallen-away convert? Or do they mutter about how they figured this would happen all along while continuing to exploit the convert’s “Catholic period” in hopes of hunting for new converts?
Well, that’s something I can answer from personal experience.
Let’s be clear up front. I’m still Catholic and have no plans on leaving the Church. But in the two years since I left Catholic Answers, where I served as a staff apologist for nearly twenty years, I’ve become something of a pariah in conservative Catholic circles. People who used to claim that I “know everything about Catholicism” (no exaggeration) now tell each other that they knew I was problematic all along. One lovely gentleman I’d never heard of before I saw his comment declared that I have “zero life skills” outside my former profession and said I was a “failed apologist.”
Where he got the idea I was a “failed apologist,” I have no idea.
Why did I become a pariah? So far as I can tell, there have been two reasons. I spent the summer of 2020, after being laid off from Catholic Answers and therefore free to be as political as I pleased, critiquing Donald Trump and telling Catholics they could vote for Democrats. And I spent the latter half of that year talking about my struggles with faith.
What? A professional Catholic apologist who spent the second half of her tenure with an apologetics apostolate struggling against doubt and disbelief? Obviously, that must mean I’d utterly failed as an apologist. Right?
Unless you happen to still be a professional Catholic apologist, still on staff at Catholic Answers, with a new book to sell about how you’ve been arguing with yourself over your doubts about the faith. It’s okay to struggle with the faith when you turn it into saleable product.
Okay, Michelle, you’re still bitter. But what did you mean about how converts’ “Catholic period” is exploited, even when the fallen convert is cast aside?
I’ve been watching with bemusement over the past couple of years as the essays I wrote as a staff apologist were purged from Catholic Answers’ web site, while the ideas I wrote about have been turned into new essays by other writers. At first I thought it was a coincidence when some of the saints I wrote about got new treatments. After all, the lives of say, St. Valentine and St. Maria Goretti, can be inspiration for many writers. Then other topics started to recur. Still, I reminded myself that I’m not the only person with something to say about how conversion can be painful.
Nonetheless, the other day I blinked when I saw that the apostolate’s pro-life guru re-created a response to a science-fiction novelist’s thought experiment of a few years ago, in which the writer asked pro-lifers whether they’d save a small child or a canister of embryos from a fire. My original response had been written not long after the writer’s Twitter thread exploded on social media, bringing claims that he’d silenced pro-lifers with an “unanswerable” argument. The essay I wrote was one of the most well-received essays I wrote for Catholic Answers and plugged a necessary hole in the apostolate’s resources.
I was no longer necessary, my struggles no longer mattered. But a response to that argument evidently was needed as resource for inquirers who might find that thought experiment on the Internet and wonder if the creator of the thought experiment had proven pro-lifers to be wrong.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus asked his listeners, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
The answer, of course, is no one. No shepherd with one hundred sheep takes off and chases after one lost sheep, leaving the rest of the flock behind to be eaten by wolves. The prudent course for the businessman–shepherd is to write off his loss and take more precautions against wandering sheep.
The Good Shepherd, by contrast, doesn’t count his potential losses and privilege them over the welfare of the one lost sheep. He doesn’t shrug, figure that at least the fleece he prudently sheared and stored away for later sale should offset the cost of the sheep, and go back to taking care of the Good Sheep who don’t give him any trouble.
The point of Jesus’ parable is that every single human person matters to God for his or her own sake. Not as divine validation. Not for their value in bringing others to God. Not for the value of what little they might have to offer. The Good Shepherd chases after the lost sheep because he loves that sheep unconditionally, for its own sake.
Those who have ears ought to hear.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.