20 May 2007

Converts to the Church of Rome

The religious precincts of the blogosphere are abuzz these days with the name of Francis J. Beckwith, a new and surprising convert to Roman Catholicism.

Surprising because Beckwith was, until his conversion, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an association of Protestant theologians.

(I should say that I don't feel any personal stake in Beckwith's move. I grew up as an observant Catholic, but that was decades ago, and feels as if it might have been in another galaxy. I comment only as a curious observer.)

Beckwith has become a prominent figure in church-state issues in recent years, taking predictable positions for an ETS head, arguing in favor of the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, for example.

Here's his blog, rightreason.ektopos.com

He has explained himself, and his new faith, there. Most of his account is absorbed in issues of timing and mechanics. Once a very visible Protestant philosopher makes such a decision, how should he best make the fact known publicly without doing damage to an institution, the ETS, for which he continues to have good will? That was his quandry. He didn't want to play into historical suspicions about "the Jesuitical secrecy of these papists," but he didn't want to make an open and dramatic break, either.

The issue of mechanics may well have been wrenching for him, but concerns me not at all. What I want to know is: what did the conversion feel like? Was it impelled by reason, or by a non-rational inner light, or something else?

I had to scroll down rather far in the piece before he addressed that at all.

"As you probably know," he says at last, "my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible."

Justification. Ah, that's the crux. Roman 1:17. "The righteous shall live by faith." The idea, as Luther and others have expounded upon it, is that faith leads to good works, but that it is the faith, not the good works, that justifies one before the Lord, that makes righteous.

What was the Catholic view on justification? The scandals that enraged Luther (the implication especially that one could buy an "indulgence" and either free a deceased friend from Purgatory or limit one's own stay there) were genuinely outrageous and no one today defends that.

So Beckwith said that key to his own conversion was a look at the Patristic writings. It was a very intellectual/academic sort of conversion experience, I gather. Like Cardinal Newman.

There may be another, even higher-profile, conversion to the Church of Rome soon.
Tony Blair is said to have been waiting for the end of his tenure at Ten Downing Street before declaring himself a Catholic -- the faith of his wife, Cherie.


1 comment:

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Dear Christopher:

Thank you for your fair-minded comments about my return to the Catholic Church. In the next year or so I hope to work on a memoir of my journey.

I do want to correct you on one point. You write that I have argued "in favor of the teaching of `intelligent design' in public schools..." That is not true, but I can understand how one could make that mistake. I have argued that teaching ID is constitutionally permissible if taught within certain narrow parameters. However, I do not believe it ought to be taught as a matter of policy. My interest in the topic has been animated by a more general interest in the relationship between the Establishment Clause and theologically-friendly claims in science, morality, etc. that are said be the result of natural reason rather than revelation.

Again, thank you for your measured assessment of my return to the Church.

All the best,

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.