One Our Father, One Hail Mary

In 2007, Francis Beckwith was a full professor at Baylor University (then embarked on a plan to be “the Evangelical Harvard”) and president of the Evangelical Theological Society—one of the intellectual centers of Evangelical Protestantism. So it was dramatic news indeed when Beckwith returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood. This book tells the story of how it all happened.

Born in 1960, Beckwith grew up in a liberal Catholic family in Las Vegas, attending Catholic schools and Mass every Sunday, in the midst of post–Vatican II liturgical reforms he remembers as “cute nuns and hip priests playing ‘Kumbaya’ with guitars, tambourines, and harmonicas...usually not done very well.” As a teenager, he found a variety of mostly nondenominational Protestant groups more impressive in their “commitment to following Christ,...personal warmth, and high view of Scripture.” After a brief bout of agnosticism, his path as described here led steadily upward through a series of academic degrees, connections with influential Evangelicals, and teaching appointments until he arrived at Baylor in 2003 and, within the next five years, was denied tenure, received tenure on appeal, and was promoted to full professor. Amid the twists and turns of his religious pilgrimage, his politics moved sharply to the right and stayed there. Hired at Baylor by a controversial conservative president who then left, Beckwith lost his first tenure fight after he publicly argued that public schools should not legally be prohibited from teaching “intelligent design.” After the case became a cause célèbre in conservative circles, the decision was reversed.

In Beckwith’s account, he met good Christian people who truly inspired him at every step of the way. In this book he oddly never explains the issues behind his tenure battles. Indeed, he looks back cheerfully on a life that must have included more than its share of controversies, convinced that none of those fights were about matters of great importance. He sadly recognizes that many Evangelicals may see him as a traitor, but he sees no reason why he should not be both a Catholic and an Evangelical.

Return to Rome is thus a conversion narrative with no dramatic conversion. Beckwith gradually realized that his theology was more Catholic than not. He followed his own version of Pascal’s wager: “If I return to the church and participate in the sacraments, I lose nothing, since I would still be a follower of Jesus.... But if the church is right about itself and the sacraments, I acquire graces I would have not otherwise received.... If I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason for me to believe I am rejecting the church that Christ himself established. That’s not a risk I was willing to take.” When his sixteen-year-old nephew asked him to be his confirmation sponsor, he realized that he would have to make things official in time for the ceremony, so, as a baptized and confirmed Catholic from the days of his childhood, he went to his first confession in thirty years, said (literally) one Our Father and one Hail Mary by way of penance, and was once again a Catholic in good standing. (This, I was taught as a young Protestant, is how Catholicism worked.)

Beckwith’s book is short, lively, and written for a wide audience. It shows signs of hasty composition; under attack, he clearly wanted to get his side of the story out quickly. Still, even making allowances for that, I was struck by its essential superficiality. Cardinal Newman this is not.

Beckwith’s Protestantism was not grounded in any denominational tradition. Its boundaries were defined by local congregations, friendships with famous Evangelicals, and conservative politics. The roots of its theology reached to nineteenth-century America, not to sixteenth-century Europe. Of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century or the accomplishments of the ecumenical movement, Beckwith shows scarcely any knowledge. He describes his most important research into Catholic theology as done “while surfing the Internet.” In the memoir of a typical lay Christian returning to Catholicism, none of this would be a fault. From someone with the credentials of a theologian, it is at least disappointing.

For Beckwith the central theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism concern justification, the Real Presence, the teaching authority of the church, and penance—or what Catholics now call reconciliation. As to the first, he rightly notes that Protestants believe we are justified by imputed righteousness while Catholics hold to infused righteousness. In other words, while Catholics think that, thanks to God’s grace, we actually become righteous when we are justified, Protestants say that we are not really righteous but, thanks to the grace of Christ, God treats us as if we were, and thus we are freed from condemnation. Allowing for necessary simplifications, so far so good. But Beckwith continues:

Remember, the Reformed view asserts that good works follow from true conversion and are part of one’s postjustification sanctification. Presumably, if one claims to have been converted to Christ, i.e., justified, and no good works follow, then one was not ever really justified. This means that for the Protestant view of justification, good works are a necessary condition for true justification.

Well, actually, no. If I am justified by grace through faith, then I will want, out of gratitude for the grace that has been given me, to love God and my neighbor more fully. If I do not at all manifest such love, then it is fair to look and see where things went wrong. But, for Protestants, sanctification is a sign of justification, not a condition of it. My efforts toward sanctification come out of gratitude. They do not in any way contribute to earning my salvation. This is, on one account, what the Reformation was about. If we probe more deeply into such matters, Catholics may for other reasons be right, or it may turn out that Catholics and Protestants are not really in fundamental disagreement, but, as a refutation of Protestant views on justification, Beckwith’s paragraph does not carry the day.

Beckwith seems not to know that Luther and Calvin both accepted a doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. He knows that their view of sola scriptura was more sophisticated than the one he finds among many of his Evangelical friends, but, having pointed out flaws in the latter, he takes only a sentence to dismiss Luther and Calvin as not much better. He several times mentions “penance” as an important issue but never gets around to discussing it, and he writes that “the other issues that most Protestants find to be stumbling blocks—the Marian doctrines and purgatory—were not a big deal to me.” For Beckwith, the only problem had been that these beliefs are not explicitly developed in Scripture. Once he accepts the teaching authority of the church, he has a way of authorizing them, and he seems not to have thought very much about the theological implications of their content.

There is a tradition I very much respect of high-church Protestants who have recently converted to Catholicism, from Richard John Neuhaus to R. R. Reno and my friend Bruce Marshall. Either the truth of Catholic doctrine has become compelling to them, or the division of Christendom has become too painful, and they have joined the communion with by far the strongest claim to be “the church.” This book does not narrate a story parallel to theirs; they all know a lot more about the history of doctrine than Francis Beckwith seems to. Of his sincerity and piety I have no doubt. Of his gift for lively, friendly prose this book provides abundant evidence. The back cover notes that he serves this year as Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture. I hope his colleagues there teach him more about Catholicism than he seems ever to have learned about Protestantism.

Published in the 2009-01-16 issue: 

William C. Placher was the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He died in November 2009.

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