One of my children came home from school a few years ago and asked me a curious question. A Protestant friend of hers (we are Catholic) had been at a religious summer camp and had returned with the news that she was born again, that she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior, and that she was now certain of salvation, whatever she did. My daughter wanted to know if that was true because, if so, a lot of high school kids would be eager to be born again so that they could go right on doing what they already wanted with the best permission slip imaginable. We talked this through and agreed that this kind of "free pass to sin" interpretation probably isn't what most born-again Protestants have in mind when they have a deep conversion experience. But I thought of that girl when I read an article by Marvin Olasky recently claiming that George Bush has been born again and that God helped him stop drinking. Olasky notwithstanding, there have been indications that Bush actually doesn't consider himself born again. But since many evangelicals see Bush as one of them, let's give Olasky the benefit of the doubt. In Olasky's view, someone born again knows he cannot save himself. Therefore, Bush can own up to youthful mistakes. But "John Kerry [a Catholic], once born, has no such spiritual support, nor do most of his top admirers in the heavily secularized Democratic Party." And for Olasky that is the reason Kerry cannot admit his own youthful excesses, which took the form of exaggerations about alleged atrocities in Vietnam. I here confess that I will not vote for Kerry, partly because of the secularism Olasky rightly identifies. But as someone who shares with Kerry the fact of having been born again in baptism as a Catholic, I want to clarify a few points. First, I believe that lurking behind this formulation is an old misunderstanding between Protestants and Catholics. Catholics are not "once born." We have been born again in baptism, as have all Christians. And most of us feel a repeated conversion and rebirth of a sort in the sacrament of Confession. Here's another lesson from the children: when he was in grade school, my son did some small, typical boy thing--I even forget what now--that my wife and I told him he had to confess to the priest. I went with him and, when he came out, I explained that he should never do it again, but also that he never needed to feel bad about that particular sin again either. He almost rose off the ground.
Most Catholics have a similar, almost born-again experience quite often in sacramental confession. For Catholics, the feeling of being washed clean of sin does not occur every time you are absolved. Feeling, after all, does not reliably tell us everything that is happening. But it happens often enough to be convincing. So far as I can tell, with Protestants the born-again experience is a defining moment that only happens once. Some recent surveys show that more than 10 percent of Catholics consider themselves born again. I do not entirely know what to make of this. My wife and I used to belong to an alternative Catholic community that had charismatic or "born-again" traits of a kind. The most vibrant parts of the Catholic Church are the various sorts of renewal movements, all of them quite orthodox and loyal to the Church's teachings, both here and around the world, and animated by a greater fervor than you find in a typical Catholic parish. But applying a term like "born again," which arises mostly from an American evangelical context, to Catholics clouds the reality, even though the believers themselves may use it. No doubt, these Catholics have had some kind of significant conversion experience as adults. But a one-time adult conversion experience isn't necessary to be a serious Catholic; real Catholics of all stripes have a new life in Christ that is marked by continual redemption and conversion. Olasky may be right that Kerry has little spiritual support to draw on and therefore is unable to admit mistakes, but that has less to do with being born again than with the quality of Kerry's Catholicism. As someone who is himself a far poorer Catholic than he would like to be, I cannot judge Kerry's soul. But when I look at his voting record in the Senate, I do not find much that is Catholic there. Some liberal Catholics may argue that his votes against military spending and for social justice programs of various kinds reflect his beliefs. But with all due respect, I do not see what is particularly Catholic about any of these positions. To me they follow a familiar liberal political line with secular roots and bear no distinctive Catholic traits. In fact, quite the contrary. The Catholic Church has clear and well-developed positions on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage, and many other questions. Kerry might disagree on one or more of these issues, but for me the fact that he comes out against his Church on every one of these questions speaks volumes (yes, I know Kerry says he's against gay marriage, but I predict--and others assume--he will support it if he moves to the White House).