No reason to be cynical about celebrity conversions, Bishop Barron and others say

Russell Brand, Candace Owens, and Shia LeBeouf Russell Brand, Candace Owens, and Shia LeBeouf. | Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Jason Davis/Getty Images; and Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The phenomenon of celebrity conversions to the faith has taken center stage, especially on social media, and they have been widely welcomed by prominent Catholic clergy and commentators.

Going viral on X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms has been news about popular actors and political activists, among others, who have joined the Catholic faith or otherwise announced their conversions to Christianity.

Their ranks include actor Shia LaBeouf, who was raised by a Jewish mother but entered the Catholic Church in 2023 and was confirmed by Bishop Robert Barron. LaBeouf, 37, played the title character in “Padre Pio,” the 2022 movie about the famed Italian friar who received the stigmata. Political commentator and media personality Candace Owens, 35, who has recently faced accusations of antisemitism, also announced last month on X that she had “come home” to the Catholic Church.

The phenomenon has not been limited to well-known Americans such as LaBeouf and Owens. They also include Dutch lawyer and activist Eva Vlaardingerbroek, 27, who has termed the Catholic faith as the “most powerful weapon” to allay moral relativism, and 48-year-old British actor Russell Brand.

As Vlaardingerbroek became involved in politics in her native Netherlands, she said in an April 2023 interview with National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner: “I wholeheartedly realized that we aren’t just fighting a political fight (right vs. left), but that we are dealing with a spiritual fight (good vs. evil).” She cited Professor Peter Kreeft among those who inspired her in her conversion. 

In the case of Brand, he announced on social media that he was baptized in England’s River Thames on April 28, sharing a photograph of his baptism, where he was accompanied by media personality and evangelical Christian Bear Grylls. He did not reveal who baptized him. Catholics and Orthodox Christians are typically not baptized in bodies of water such as rivers. According to canon law, “apart from a case of necessity, the proper place of baptism is a church or oratory.” 

The news of Brand’s conversion was also met with controversy because it came just months after he was accused of rape and sexual assault by several women in reports filed by British media. Brand denied the accusations during an interview with U.S. media personality Tucker Carlson. 

In a recent video, Brand was seen praying the rosary, saying that it had been given to him by his friend “Joe,” who also taught him the prayers. Brand’s wife of six years, author Laura Gallacher, is a Catholic. Along with fellow actors Mark Wahlberg and Jonathan Roumie, Brand has promoted the Catholic prayer app Hallow. He has also said that he has watched videos by Catholic priest Father Mike Schmitz.

Brand said he was “changed, transitioned” by the baptism but realizes that some observers may be cynical about his profession of faith because “people see me as a celebrity.” 

CNA reached out to several Catholic observers of the phenomenon, themselves prominent in social and other media, for their take. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire and one of the most-followed Catholics on social media, told CNA that when he heard of Brand’s conversion and baptism, he was reminded of the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke, in which Christ concluded “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 90 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Noting that Brand is a public figure, Barron said that it is “not really shocking that his conversion is a public matter, and given, again in Brand’s own words ‘for someone like me associated with a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle, a move like this is surprising.’”

Barron went on to say: “I would add for some, it is also unsettling because it reminds us that Christ himself revealed that his primary mission is the reconciliation of sinners, and as such this is the mission of Christ’s followers as well. The Church is not a closed society for the perfectly virtuous, but it is instead a refuge for sinners.”

Barron said he found Brand’s explanation for religious awakening to be “striking,” quoting the Englishman’s statement that “‘the figure, the personage, the presence of Christ became overwhelming, unavoidable, welcome, and necessary.’ This apparent quickening of faith in the Lord Jesus compelled him to seek baptism.”

“Many Christians will recognize in Brand’s testimony a similar experience,” Barron said. “But they will also see in Brand’s acknowledgement of his own continued imperfections the truth that we are all sinners who are the recipients of an amazing, undeserved grace.”

In an interview with CNA, Monsignor Charles Pope — a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and regular contributor to the National Catholic Register — said: “We shouldn’t be cynical. Sometimes when negative things happen in their lives, that’s when they turn to God. So I would first assume good faith on their part.” 

As to the reason for the uptick in the number of prominent figures joining the Catholic Church, Pope said: “I think it comes down to the current situation in the world today that is spiritually empty. People are searching for meaning because man is a religious animal. Some are returning to the sources that we hold most sacred. I think that’s where it comes from.”

Pope added: “After a while, after all the faddishness, movements, and things coming and going, people begin to say, ‘Well, things seem to change every six months. Why don’t I stick to  something more stable’ as they look for deeper meaning. That’s how I understand these kinds of conversions. For all our troubles in the Church, we have a solid base of meaning.”

More in US

Meanwhile, Rob Corzine, vice president of academic programs at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and host of EWTN’s “Genesis to Jesus” with Dr. Scott Hahn, offered a nuanced analysis. “There are two dangers to beware of. First, some are inclined to be cynical about celebrities’ sincerity. We should avoid that and rejoice over the conversions of the famous just as we would anyone else,” Corzine said.

“However, the second trap is to rush a brand-new convert onto a stage and try to make them a spokesperson for the faith, to exploit their platform or access to media. That too we must avoid,” Corzine cautioned. “There is always a great deal of learning and growing to do for new Catholics. In the public eye is not really the best place for that.”

Brand himself seemed to echo Corzine when he said: “This is new for me. I’m learning. And I will make mistakes. But this is my path now. And I already feel incredibly blessed.”

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.