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Celebrity converts are exciting, but faith and fame don’t mix well

Simcha Fisher
Simcha Fisher
Simcha Fisher is the author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning and blogs daily at simchafisher.com
Shia LeBeouf who plays Padre Pio in a recent film has recently joined the Catholic Church. Photo: Christian Mantuano
Shia LeBeouf who plays Padre Pio in a recent film has recently joined the Catholic Church. Photo: Christian Mantuano

Actor Shia LeBeouf’s reception into the Catholic Church was in the news again for a while, but then it quickly receded. I don’t know if that’s just because people get tired of news much more quickly than they used to (likely), or because people have actually learned a thing or two about Catholic celebrities (highly unlikely). Either way, it’s a relief.

I don’t know much about LaBeouf. I’ve seen him in a few unimportant movies, and I heard some grumbling about how it seems awfully convenient that he found the Lord right when he was going on trial for some kind of unsavory behavior. I also saw a few photos of him right after his baptism, and he sure looked happy.

But this isn’t about him, in particular! What it’s about is this: Fame and faith do not mix. When they do, it almost never turns out well! There’s so much harm that can come of Catholics elevating a celebrity to favoured status just because they join the church: Harm to us Catholics, harm to the rest of the world, and harm to the celebrity himself.

I’m a terrible spoilsport, I know. It’s been an awfully tough decade or so to be Catholic, and it’s natural to feel encouraged when we get someone “important” on “our team.” All too often, Catholics only reach the headlines when they’ve done something awful, or finally got caught after having secretly done something awful for decades. So when the church can claim someone the world has already acknowledged as cool and attractive and appealing, it feels like a win.

Which is fine. But we have to remind ourselves sternly that it’s also a win when the hinky-looking, unpopular, wheel bearing salesman we never heard of becomes Catholic. It’s a win when the cousin you never liked very much becomes Catholic. It’s a win when a fisherman or a tentmaker or a leper is baptised, and the Gospels seem to be just as jubilant over this as they are over, say, a Centurian joining the fold.

But Simcha! you may say. It’s not the caché that matters. That’s not the reason we get excited when a celebrity gets baptised. The thing we’re really thrilled about is the influence such a person could have over their audience. Famous people get others to imitate them in all sorts of ways: How they dress, what they eat, how they raise their kids, what they do for hobbies. How could it possibly be a bad thing for a celebrity to become Catholic very publicly, and open the possibility for lots of their fans to follow?

Moreover (you may say), the Gospels actually enjoin us to be noisy about the good news, and to be ready and willing and able to speak about our faith! Why should people be barred from this good work, just because they happen to be well known?

The answer is that there is a little pitfall that comes along with being famous: You get treated like experts on all kinds of things, even if you don’t really know what you’re talking about. And when you get treated like an expert for long enough, you begin to believe it yourself, and you confidently and persuasively say things that aren’t true, or are horribly misleading.

This is going to sound mean, but this isn’t just true of celebrities. It’s true of converts in general. An amateur is an amateur, and they shouldn’t be teaching other people until they have some experience under their belts. If someone just took up tennis in the last few months, you wouldn’t go to them for expert tips on how to play tennis. A brand-new surgeon who just barely got their degree would not be at the top of anyone’s list for consultations. And the same is true for people who are amateurs in their faith. They are probably extremely enthusiastic, and extremely eager to share what they know; but that doesn’t mean they’re suddenly in a position of authority.

If any famous person asked me, I would advise getting baptised in the least public way possible, with no photographers, and no interviews about the experience for three to five years, at a bare minimum. It should be as low-key and private a thing as possible, for as long as possible. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be excited about your faith and to want to tell people about it, but the best policy would be simply to say that they’ve been baptized, that they’re very happy about it, and that they are thankful to God. And that is all—at least for now.

If the conversion is real (and I always assume it is. I make a point of never letting myself say that I can know what is really going on between someone and God), then it will still be real in a few years. We can wait in joyful hope for that day to come.

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