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Elena Thérèse-Rose: Making Catholicism Shareable (Especially on the Web)

“Secondly, I’d say good advice is to gain familiarity with the saints and to perhaps gain some friends among the saints because often they are the best examples.”

On March 28th, Palm Sunday, Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince was joined by Elena Thérèse-Rose for a conversation about Catholicism in 2021, with a particular emphasis on discussing her advocacy for the faith on social media, especially on Twitter. She holds a Master’s degree in the Political Economy of Europe from the London School of Economics and previously studied at the University of Leeds. Since converting to Catholicism in 2018, Elena Thérèse-Rose has contributed to various publications, where she has discussed contemporary issues facing the faith. She has also been quoted in outlets such as First Things. In this conversation, she and Erich Prince discuss advice she might offer to people newly entering the Catholic Church, secularism in Europe, and how she—and other Catholics, such as Bishop Robert Barron (of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)—use social media to share their faith.

Happy Palm Sunday, Elena. So, this is a time of year that many new converts are being welcomed to the Church. And actually one of our friends at Merion West, Kevin [Turner], who is originally from Iran, is converting to Catholicism this week. What advice do you have to these people as someone who yourself converted in the past few years?

First of all, I say congratulations to Kevin, and I wish him all the best for his reception. I also have a friend who’s being baptized this Easter, after many difficult circumstances because, due to the lockdown, it has been difficult for the Easter receptions to go ahead, but there’s been a way for her to be received. So, after Easter, I’m quite excited to attend one of those and see one new member of the London community.

In terms of advice to new converts, I have a few points that I hope could be of some use or inspiration. First of all, something that I wish I had been told—or perhaps had been emphasized to me early on—is to focus most on your own holiness and example, to begin with. Because I think there is a tendency—they call it, as a cliché, “the convert’s zeal”—where you are suddenly so passionate about the faith, rightly, and you’re going to teach others and tell everybody about it. But sometimes this can affect our own spiritual state and also quite be a negative example for other people, if we’re not continually working on our own faith. Firstly, I think it’s very important to focus, first and foremost, on growing closer to our Lord Jesus Christ and his example and, therefore, being an example to others before taking on a role or trying to teach. They typically say a few years often. I think many of the monastics often said you needed a few years before you can start teaching people. We certainly need at least a few months of quiet time with God before we start teaching. Secondly, I’d say good advice is to gain familiarity with the saints and to perhaps gain some friends among the saints because often they are the best examples.

Do you have a couple of saints that you look to in particular?

I think that varied over time; my confirmation saints are Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Rose of Lima, both for different reasons. But increasingly I’ve grown quite attached to Saint Francis de Sales because I think his advice and charity is particularly timely at the time we’re in now. I say definitely befriend the saints because we obviously don’t know here and now who is a saint, so it’s good to read about their lives. I think many of the saints actually became saints by reading about other saints. So that is often a good place to start.

And, then, to say the obvious—but it’s always worth mentioning—it’s the advice to pray because you start with forming good habits. I think I was definitely guilty of not forming good habits early on, and it made everything a bit more difficult in terms of attaining a good spiritual state. Originally, I got caught up in memorizing prayers because that was very new to me as a convert: the Catholic tendency to have lots of written prayers. I got very caught up in that and memorized them and memorized them in Latin. And then I was neglecting mental prayer. So I’d very strongly say that it’s good to really try and stick to your 15 minutes of mental prayer a day if you can. And Saint Francis de Sales actually says half an hour, and, if you’re busy, an hour because when you’re busy you need prayer more. So, forming good habits is definitely good advice.

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One big thing I say, which is timely now but, I suppose, in the Church’s history, it’s always been timely, is not to be too distracted by Church politics and not to dwell on it too much because I think this has been where we see a lot of ruin among converts, or a lot of negative examples. This refers to the debates between the conservatives and liberals; and the debates between different diocese; and those smaller debates between the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine Mass, for example—just all the different debates that are dividing people. I think generally we see how people are divided. Particularly on Twitter, we see a lot of division along those lines.

We’re going to get to Twitter soon because, for someone like me, it’s an interesting place to see someone spreading the word of God when there’s so much other stuff going on on there. But we’ll get to that in a second. So, is there anything else you wanted to kind of say to recent converts?

To finish up on that point, when you do get caught up in Church discussions and debates—whether they are political ones or whether they are theological ones—it’s just good to always remember charity above all else. Because when we do that, it’s good for ourselves, and it’s also good for the other person because nobody is going to be won over to what you believe by anger. I think there’s too much anger in the Church, and I think that, as a convert in particular, it’s a good place to start: to have that foundation of always judging other people’s beliefs and opinions with charity and remembering the Church is like a bouquet. Referring back to Saint Francis de Sales again, he described the Church as being a very diverse and beautiful bouquet of flowers. And it would be a shame if every flower was the same because they’re all different, and they all add something to the bouquet. So it’s good to remember that everybody will have a different perspective and a different role, and, therefore, that can help the Church be in harmony more when we help one another along to heaven.

I think a lot of people would also encourage that advice to be extended in secular political debates, as well. But it’s good to be putting that forward in terms of this religious context. Moving on a little bit, in preparing for our conversation, I read some of the things you’ve written, and my understanding is that prior to your conversion to Catholicism, you’d written some pieces indicating some libertarian-leaning economic views.

How has your faith impacted your views on economic policy? Are there any Catholic social teachings of note? For example, I’m a student kind of politically of a Catholic Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who you might be familiar with. And a lot of his political views were based on the Catholic idea of subsidiarity and problems being solved as close to [the problem] as possible. So I’m wondering if there are any Catholic social teachings that have either contributed to, or supplanted, some of these libertarian-leaning economic views you’d been articulating prior to your conversion.

Subsidiarity is a good place to start. Certainly, I would say I was definitely influenced by that. When I was converting, it was also the time that I was completing my Masters in the Political Economy of Europe, and that revolved a lot around the European Union. So I was also studying the principle of subsidiarity within EU law.

But reading that more and more, I was quite attracted to this idea of subsidiarity and the nuances—and distinguishing it from federalism because I think people often conflate the two. But it’s also coming to know that in EU law…it’s known to be more of a concept in name only; that’s the accusation that is often [put forward] against it. Learning that—I was a bit of Euro-skeptic at the time—along with learning the Church teaching on subsidiarity was quite a helpful combination. But you’re right to say that I was definitely more libertarian-leaning initially. So I focused more on increasing GDP in general and having more of this idea of a Protestant work ethic and this capitalist spirit being very compatible with Christianity. And I think that was shaken quite a lot by the Catholic framework.

So I would say my view was definitely revolutionized in a way because, suddenly, there is a whole wealth of teaching—and not only a wealth of teaching about economics and politics but also one single body that can represent the soul in the body-soul union model. One body that can guide politics towards the common good, using the wealth of all the teachings in the past under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that’s very new for a Protestant to encounter. Suddenly, my whole worldview, in a way, was not necessarily wholly overturned but complemented.

It’s interesting you mention the EU because one of the other pieces that I read in preparation for our chat is “A Treaty Without Rome,” and I’ll quote you a line from it that was of interest to me. You wrote, quoting one scholar, “With their control over the project (and this imparted grace) thus lost, Christian Democrats were forced simply to adapt by tackling what was now displacing their input: unrestrained capital and a newly sacramental, zealous liberalism.” So we’re seeing a lot of critics emerge of some of the principles undergirding a lot of the economic systems in the West and the degree to which they may or may not be compatible with certain religious or social priorities. Do you want to talk a little bit about that piece?

I’ll start by citing the particular line you’re referring to, which was written by Thomas Pink, an integralist professor in London who has written about the concessions of Jacques Maritain and the Christian democratic movement. And he wrote that when that particular ideology detaches the body of the state from the soul provided by the Church, it limits the transmission not only of sanctifying, but of healing grace as well, and it diminishes that civilizing influence. My interest is in this civilizing influence that has been lost by the rejection or, at least, the lukewarm reaction to the grace offered by the Church’s political teaching and nature. So I say that Christian democracy started out very well, and it started with very good intentions. And a lot of the good we have in the EU was due to the early Christian Democrats and many of the very good Thomistic principles they carried into the project

But I would say that we are quite clearly lacking a very strong foundation of those, and it’s been eroded by its enemies. Because once you don’t have the body’s body-soul union model, the traditional leonine understanding of the Church and state, then you have suddenly a lot of confusion about how Christianity should fit into political economy. You also have a lot of pluralism—so a lot of other ideologies that are suddenly on the same pedestal. There’s no one above anything else. So, how things are decided is suddenly by whoever has the most conviction, which, as you referred to in your question, is often capital in a sense of new money; that’s often where conviction comes from. And, secondly—perhaps worse than that—is other ideologies, those displaced this vacuum that was left. Ultimately, I’m quite interested in this idea that “There’s no such thing as neutrality,” and that has been quite the unfortunate understanding of many Christians, who could have offered something more courageous and compelling.

As opposed to Christianity is just one value as good as any other that we could possibly put forth?

Definitely. We know that in the EU Constitution, in the early 2000s, Christianity wasn’t mentioned at all, and this is very much due to this pluralistic model.

And then people sometimes perhaps take for granted the fact that some of the bounties currently being enjoyed today are from the seeds planted a long time ago, coming from this Christian perspective?

Yes. And, as you’re probably well aware, Tom Holland’s book Dominion I think summarizes this very well.

So, where do you see this most manifesting: in declining marriage rates in certain parts of Europe, in maybe an undue fixation on economic growth at the expense of community, where do you see this most manifesting either in Britain or on the continent?

I think it starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person, and that misunderstanding growing more and more. This is reflected in marriage; in what people’s understanding of marriage is; in the family; and, therefore, in happiness even.

We see these declining rates of happiness; I think [our writer] Henry George did a column a year or two ago about the United Kingdom appointing a minister of loneliness. Is this something you’ve followed?

I can definitely believe that; it is definitely a big problem—and in terms of how we view the elderly as well, and the disabled, and the unborn; we are returning to a very pagan view of these things. Without the influence and the reference to Christianity, we’re returning to viewing everything in a very functional, very utilitarian way.

Then, on the other hand, you have countries that are seeking this more explicitly Christian understanding and referring back to Christianity more. The obvious example is Hungary’s advocacy of natalist policies and an adoption of them.

Is there a country or two in Europe that you think is doing a particularly good job of rediscovering its Christian roots?

I’m definitely optimistic about [Poland and Hungary]. I think what they’re doing does bear a lot of hope. We’ve obviously yet to see whether it will be weakened or challenged, and we can’t take it for granted, but I think I have a lot of hope for those.

On the other side of that is Scandinavia. So, Scandinavia is the part of Europe that is most often cited as an example of secularism. Is more of the world going to become like Scandinavia, or do you have confidence that more of Europe is going to become like Poland?

You’re right. I think the Nordics set a good example—or a foreshadowing—of what will happen to the rest of Europe if they don’t refer back to Christianity. An example, again thinking about how Christianity revolutionized the pagan world, is Bishop Saint Henry of Uppsala, who was sent by King Eric to convert Finland. As the story goes, he was murdered by a Finn. The murderer was eventually revered by pagans who later rejected Christianity, and you can see that in certain times when paganism is flourishing more in Finland, the murderer of Bishop Saint Henry becomes more of a cult figure to idolize; it’s quite strange. But I think this represents how the country will resort back to paganism, and one big example of where we see this is, again, the treatment of the disabled and “the imperfect,” so to speak, according to this kind of nihilistic logic. For example, in Denmark, with the screening of down syndrome children, 95% of people who find their child to have down syndrome choose to abort the child.

I think the answer to this has to be a very courageous defense of the faith. It cannot be this complacent attitude that happened in Northern Nordics, where churches were complacent and Christians were complacent. They didn’t see a need to present the Christian vision of politics that was different from the liberal vision of politics. And this is what will happen, so I think this has to be a lesson.

Is there something about the type of Christianity, the Protestantism of Northern Europe, that might be more conducive to secularism than, say, the Catholicism of Southern and parts of Eastern Europe?

Yes, I would say the Protestantism or the Lutheranism of Northern Europe is definitely more hand in hand with the world, with the world’s liberalism in a sense. In Sweden, for example, they had similar anti-Catholic laws to England up until very late, and the emancipation took place at a similar time in the mid 20th century, and the dioceses were only really restored quite late.

Certainly, the Nordics have lacked a strong Catholic, otherworldly vision. I’m optimistic as well about their purification; the Catholic population is growing in Finland, even if it is relying on a lot of immigration, and I think it definitely supports that famous quotation about all heresies having quite a short lifespan. Lutheranism is obviously on the decline across all of the Nordics and not many people identify with it anymore, but Catholicism is quite robust and quite strong and also somewhat pure, where it exists. So I think there is hope and there is potential, even for the Nordics to have a structure.

For the last question, you’re obviously very active on Twitter, and you’re not alone; there are some other Catholic public figures, Bishop Barron and others, who are very active on social media. As I alluded to earlier, Elena, I think some casual users of Twitter might be a little surprised to find out there’s something called, for lack of a better term, Catholic Twitter. How does someone like you cut through all the noise on Twitter, firstly to just keep a nice community with fellow Catholics and, then secondly, perhaps to reach potential converts or share your faith with other people on there who aren’t yet part of this Catholic Twitter? 

Catholic Twitter was also very—

Is that a real term?

It’s definitely a term.

I must’ve heard it somewhere, and it’s been percolating in the back of my head. So it’s a real thing: “Catholic Twitter.”

I would say so. I was certainly also overwhelmed when I stumbled upon it because I’m definitely just a new, small part of it.

Catholic Twitter can be a very good place, a haven for a lot of people who perhaps in the world don’t have any Catholic community they can rely on. I’m a case of it myself, here in England in a very Anglican area and also in Finland where the Catholic population is quite small. An online community is very helpful. I try and keep it quite positive and try and see more good in it, in terms of that community you can foster with other Catholics and in terms of how we can resonate or reach out to potential converters or to people who have no exposure to Catholicism online. I start by saying that I, myself, was attracted to Catholicism by seeing Catholics live it out and express Catholic teachings online.

If you’re a non-Catholic, there might be something that you think about Catholicism that is probably wrong. You have either some bitterness towards something that has happened in the Catholic Church; or the media representation of the Catholic Church is not good; or you just have a theological misunderstanding about Catholicism. And so I think, as Catholics, the best thing we can do is just to live out the faith in a very positive way. So it’s best to present to people that you’re in genuine practice of the faith. And, if God is working in that person’s life (and if His grace is with them), then there might be a cooperation with that grace suddenly, through their curiosity.

Also, it’s good to remember, something that I’ve always tried to remember since I read Saint John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” that the divine light is very painful. We have the stages of the spiritual life—purgative, illuminative, and unitive—and most people, when you start out at the very basic purgative stages, we are all offended by the divine light. So the best we can really do as Catholics online is to help reflect God, through holiness and good example, so in that sense, we’re like the moon sort of reflecting God. Then, in the sense of being stars and that kind of light, we would guide people towards Christ.

I will say that, at times, we are going to hold unpopular positions that people don’t like, but it’s about maintaining and preserving those positions and accepting that not everyone’s going to react well to them. But in terms of ourselves, it’s about behaving charitably, which is rare in the world, and not provoking anger.

A priest I know, Father Tran, gives these very impassioned sermons. To your point of saying things that maybe are unpopular, he’s the only priest whom I’ve ever known who really speaks his mind from up there and doesn’t seem to care what people say, and people storm out of sermons. I remember one time I came up to him, and I said, “Father Tran, you’re really telling the hard truths up there.” And he said, “People think they should come to church to feel good. I think they need to come to church to be purified of the sin in the world.” Is there anything else you’d like to say to close on?

First of all, thank you for having me on; it’s been a nice discussion. I just want to summarize some last points—about engaging in politics. [Although] I’ve said to try and avoid politics, we do have to engage in politics as well, and it can be a duty of love of neighbor. I think it is an area that we can express and be witness to charity, and practicing love of neighbor is not common in the world. It isn’t just instruction; I’d say it also can be a duty of love.

If one is Catholic and has these deeply-held convictions (and there are various political issues that are affecting them or challenging them, whether that’s life or other things), it seems like you would probably have to get involved, right? Otherwise, it would be quietism or something.

Definitely. It’s a work of mercy to correct.

Elena, thank you for chatting with me.

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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