Celebrity conversions inspire, challenge personal faith, experts say

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(OSV News) — Celebrities who convert to Catholicism can be an inspiration, a call to caution — and above all an occasion for personally recommitting to the faith, two evangelization experts told OSV News.

Entering the church “is a process that a lot of people go through, but (for celebrities) it’s playing out because they’re famous,” Sherry Anne Weddell, co-founder and executive director of the Colorado-based Catherine of Siena Institute, told OSV News. “So everything gets magnified more.”

Over the past several months, a number of high-profile public figures — among them, podcaster Tammy Peterson, conservative commentator Candace Owens, former porn actress Bree Solstad, actor Shia LeBoeuf and comedian Rob Schneider have publicly announced their embrace of the Catholic faith.

While such conversions are nothing new for the church (which over the centuries has welcomed everyone from the once-notorious Saul of Tarsus, later St. Paul, to royalty, philosophers, artists, intellectuals and world leaders), professing the faith in the age of hyper-fandom and social media can complicate matters, said Weddell, author of the 2012 book “Forming Intentional Disciples” and a consultant for hundreds of parishes worldwide.

The challenges of fame

Fame itself is inherently hazardous, and can lead to objectifying all-too-human beings, she said.

“We project our issues on them … instead of attending to them as an immortal human being who is — or part of whom at least is — trying to respond to the call of God,” Weddell said.

Meghan Cokeley, director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for the New Evangelization, agreed.

“I think that pastorally … the thing to be guarded against is (forgetting) that celebrities have their faults too,” she told OSV News.

Cokeley also said it’s important to remember that celebrity converts are (like their fellow believers) souls traveling along a learning curve — and fans should therefore discern wisely in evaluating their statements about the faith.

“Just because they’ve (now) converted, it doesn’t mean they’re (suddenly) an accurate purveyor of Catholic truth,” said Cokeley.

At the same time, said Cokeley, the celebrity conversion experience can underscore the importance of humility to the spiritual life.

“The positive side of it is the witness of conversion, the change of mind, the change of heart,” she said. “I can imagine that conversion is difficult, because you’ve got this persona and … you may be famous for thinking a certain way. And then to acknowledge change, to acknowledge that ‘I grew more deeply’ or ‘I had to change my mind on this’ — that’s a big deal. So there’s a way where it has a very big impact on all of us who need to change our minds and hearts on many things.”

Impact on the spiritual life

Even among longtime Christians, stardom can prove to be either an asset or a liability to the Gospel, wrote Katelyn Beatty in her 2022 book “Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms and Profits Are Hurting the Church,” which surveyed the effects of the evangelical church’s relationship with celebrity.

“Indeed, many Christians have used their fame, passion, and tech savvy for good kingdom purposes, sharing the (G)ospel via mass media culture, whose global reach (St.) Paul could only have dreamed of,” wrote Beatty. “To them, celebrity is one tool used to build the house of God — not the house itself. They’re willing to part with their fame or prestige if it no longer serves primary kingdom purposes.”

However, said Beatty, “other Christians have reached for the tool of celebrity and found that it really isn’t a tool at all. It has more power over the user than the user over it.”

When any individual, famous or unknown, comes into the church, “the heart of the issue … (is) their relationship with God — their immortal soul, their life, their future in this life and the next, the fruit they will bear … the meaning of their lives … as they walk with Jesus,” said Weddell. “And that’s what we need to be praying for — and we have to pray for each other, because that’s a question for each of us.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.