I happened to read recently that Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, converted to Catholicism. What particularly intrigued me was that the twice-divorced, former Baptist apparently had to undergo a lengthy and time-consuming process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), like every other convert new to the faith. While many Christian denominations just require some sort of confessional statement for membership, if that, it seems to me the Catholic’s initiation process is the most honest. One should be told upfront what you’re committing yourself to, as opposed to portions of it doled out piecemeal after you’re a member. As one Catholic site justified it:
RCIA is the Church’s way of forming new disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s the normative way the Catholic Church welcomes its newest members, but even more important than membership in the Catholic Church is discipleship in Christ Jesus. Through a gradual, complete and comprehensive training in the Christian way of life (Rite, no. 75), the unbaptized come to know Jesus Christ through the Catholic Christian community and they learn to live as Jesus’ disciples. Then, as disciples, they continue the mission of Jesus Christ in the world today.
While Catholicism is admittedly somewhat unique in containing centuries of theology and ritual to bone up on, the logic of its approach to new members is hardly disputable, not just for itself, but for almost every other denomination or religion. The common term for this approach is “informed consent” – a widely-recognized and practiced ethic, one often enshrined in law. We are justifiably wary of those who fail to adopt it since more often than not they’re hiding information which would sway us away from their appeals. Informed consent is considered grantable only by adults, since only they have the life experiences and knowledge to carefully weigh a profound and potentially life-altering decision – well, most of them anyway!
Theologically sound from the inside, ethically sound from the outside, the RCIA represents what every religious initiation process for prospective members should be like. It’s thus a shock that Catholic Church doesn’t require it of all new members. If the RCIA is so important, then why does the Catholic Church admit into its fold children as young as seven in a simple ceremony? Why not wait until they’re adults, put them through some kind of version of the RCIA, then admit them?
My guess is that doing so would shrink Catholic numbers, which are already declining, as the requirement to adhere to a central doctrine would be made explicit. Currently, the vast body of Catholicism contains a cacophony of voices at odds with each other. Declaring vast swathes of those voices as questionably- or non-Catholic, as an RCIA program for all Catholics would effectively do, would just encourage schism.
So why not the opposite approach, make membership as easy to obtain for outsiders as it is for those born into the faith? Probably because of the same reason as before: it would just encourage schism. The last thing the Church needs is an even wider diversity of viewpoints. The RCIA is in effect re-education, or perhaps moderate brainwashing, albeit voluntary. Its goal is to achieve what a lifetime of indoctrination does: produce quiescent Catholics. The Church knows it can obtain them if it can get a hold of them young, thus, the far lighter membership requirements for children.
But this is pure conjecture, one with which Catholics would no doubt disagree. Yet, I cannot find an official Catholic reason for the difference, though the logic of RCIA would seem to demand it apply to all new members, not just outsider adults. Perhaps it’s just another “mystery“.