Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic

I've been anxiously awaiting this book. I have been a fan of Beckwith's writings for some time and was surprised at his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Although I was surprised at his conversion I was more surprised and very disappointed at the reaction from protestants. Far too many comments were pejorative and and did little more than belittle Beckwith personally. Beckwith comments on how one person in a radio interview expressed surprise that "someone with [Beckwith's] intelligence could become Catholic, seeming to imply that Catholicism does not have the intellectual resources a person with real accomplishments, gifts, and theological commitments would find compelling." (13) This sort of intellectual elitism is uncalled for.

The first two thirds of the book is dedicated to his journey back to Catholicism. Here he recounts is childhood and how and why he left Catholicism for Evangelical Protestantism. At the end of this account he says that "virtually every Evangelical Protestant I knew during this time was a former Catholic." (45) He then asks, "is there anything that we did that helped facilitate the departure of these talented and devoted people from our communion?" (45) This section of the book was very personal and helpful.
But then Beckwith recounts how he started hearing the same question. On a number of occasions, either after a lecture or in personal conversation, someone would ask, "Why aren't you Catholic?" This got Frank to thinking and he began a journey that would eventually lead him to the Catholic Church.
The final third of the book Beckwith deals with what he saw as the deal breakers in becoming Catholic. Namely, the doctrine of justification, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the teaching authority of the church (including apostolic succession and the primacy of the pope) and penance. Other issues, like the Marian doctrines and Purgatory, were not "big deals" since he reasoned if the Church was right on the bigger issues then these protestant "stumbling blocks" just "withered away" because "the Catholic Church would in fact be God's authoritative instrument in the development of Christian doctrine." (79) Beckwith says that once he abandoned "methodological Protestantism" he could no longer find the "substance of the Reformed view of justification" in his reading of the New Testament. (106) Furthermore, he found the "Catholic" practices to be affirmed early on by the Church Fathers. These include "the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, infant baptism, penance and confession, an ordained priesthood, and an episcopal ecclesiology and apostolic succession (as well as other 'Catholic' doctrines including prayers for the dead and purgatory)." (114) Beckwith provides footnotes to each of these doctrines for those interested in further reading. Surprisingly, sola scriptura didn't factor much in his thinking since he "could not find an understanding of sola scriptura convincing enough that did not have to be so qualified that it seemed to be more a slogan than a standard." (79)

Here the reader will have to judge how well Beckwith does in presenting his case. Important to remember is that Beckwith is not offering a "sophisticated apologetic" for Catholic doctrine. Rather he is trying "to communicate, as best I can, the internal deliberations that convinced me that I ought to embrace it" [Catholicism]. (97) Beckwith calls himself an "Evangelical Catholic" and interacts extensively with the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) press release on why a Catholic could not be a member, much less president of the society (which Beckwith was at the time of his conversion and hence the reason he resigned both his position and membership). Here he argues forcefully for full inclusion of Catholics within the society. On this point I heartily agree.

Many protestants will not be persuaded by Beckwith's reasons. That's to be expected. Others will want to read further in some of the sources that helped Beckwith in his journey. Catholics should read this not only because it recounts the return of one of their own but it will also provide insight to Protestant thinking. Protestant pastors, in particular, would do well to read this to help them understand the attraction that many protestants are finding in the Catholic church. Many protestants are just becoming aware of the 1,500 years of church history that predated the reformation. And with that awareness is coming a whole new set of questions for people and their faith.

For my own part I must say, "Frank, almost thou persuadest me to be a Catholic."

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