As Pope Benedict XVI heads to Brazil, where a major challenge in what is technically the world’s most populous Catholic country is sheep stealing (actually, I think they’re often letting themselves out an open gate) by Protestant “sects” (the Vatican’s term), or what John Paul II called “ravenous wolves,” it is interesting to note continuing episodes of the reverse phenomenon in North America. There is of course nothing new about Evangelicals who swim the Tiber—I made the journey, though from a less-than-committed Evangelicalism at the time, and absent much of the conservative agenda that seems to animate many of today’s converts.
The latest episode, however, is a stunner: Francis Beckwith of Baylor, a leading conservative Evangelical voice and president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), has become Catholic. Or, in the words of Amy Welborn (where I first saw the recently-revealed news), he has had a “reversion” since he was actually raised and confirmed Catholic, but left in his teens for Evangelicalism.
Beckwith discusses his re-conversion at his blog, Right Reason: http://rightreason.ektopos.com/archives/2007/05/my_return_to_th.html. This post is certainly not to trump “one for our side” (there are way too many stories of a reverse migration) but simply because the phenomenon fascinates me, and raises so many questions. We seem to be an increasingly Evangelical Protestant country and culture, quantitatively, as Christians leave denominations and institutional churches for megachurches and praise music and such. Yet many Evangelical (and related) intellectuals are going to Rome. (See Jason Byassee’s August 2006 story in the Christian Century on the trend, “Going Catholic” http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=2290)
Since the distinguished Evangelical scholar Mark Noll (now at Notre Dame, his Evangelical faith intact, having left Wheaton, which last year dumped another prof because he actually converted to Catholicism) wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” Evangelical scholarship has more than come into its own. So what’s going on? Why are many Evangelical leaders converting? Is the Reformation over, as Noll has asked—or are Evangelicals and Catholics simply swapping souls?
I think it was Newman who said something to the effect of, “To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.” Much as I admire Newman, that always struck me as a bit triumphalist, and perhaps not true, depending on how deep one wants to go into history. Converts—and especially those of a socially conservative stripe, I find—always want to justify their (our) conversions solely as the work of the Spirit rather than personal preference. But there is always more to the story. And with so many true believers converting in—and out again, in Rod Dreher’s case last October—how much of this is just more evidence of our national culture of choice?
In Beckwith’s case, of course, he can simply argue that he was always Catholic. For as that great Catholic (at least in one episode) apologist, Bart Simpson, once put it: “Once you go Vatican, never go back again.”