The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – a great idea for every religion, even for Catholics

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“.

6 thoughts on “The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – a great idea for every religion, even for Catholics

  1. What you are describing is a doctrine of regenerate membership, i.e. credo-baptism. That people are not born into the faith but rather convert it. The Catholic church’s counter argument is that children were guaranteed an education at their baptism by their parents.

    infant baptism -> promise to be educated
    adult baptism <- has been educated through RCIA

    But the real catch is joining the community. A child of people already in a community gets in from his/her parents. An adult needs to join and be accepted by the community. Same as a country club.

  2. CD-Host, it cannot be maintained that a guarantee produces the intended outcome without fail. Why does the Catholic Church assume that it does? And even supposing that the parents do provide the promised education, how does the Church know it’s the “right” education? That views contrary to official doctrine, or even heresies, haven’t been taught?

    The larger issue I wanted to point out, however, is the one of “informed consent.” Is the child’s autonomy being respected by inculcating her with Catholic doctrine from the get-go? It’s implicit in the RCIA, so why not for children too?

  3. I went through RCIA several years back and enjoyed it very much. In my group, there were several life-long Catholics who sat in, so the discussions were quite lively. What I loved was that I could ask whatever question I had and got an answer, and could pursue that answer if I found it deficient. No one ever pressured me (I am not the pressurable type). Maybe I was just lucky (I’ve argued with priests since, but even that is a freedom of sorts).

    BTW, you commented on one of the posts on my blog, and I responded with questions. Then I found your blog. Did you spend time in Russia or just read about Russian history?

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by. In answer to your questions, I studied Russian history and have been to the country several times. My graduate degree is in Russian studies.

      I saw your reply and was in the midst of a reply, but a fire alarm in my building cut that short. Expect to hear from me today, however. 🙂

      1. I was asking about your Russian experience because I myself was born and raised in an Eastern European country during the Soviet era. When did you visit Russia and which parts of it did you frequent?

  4. I’ve visited Russia multiple times, primarily the western part. I’ve also been to Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The latter country was particularly charming.

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