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Beckwith’s Rome

Jamie Smith has a review of Francis Beckwith’s book, Return to Rome up at The Other Journal. It certainly takes Beckwith to task for, among other things, making Rome in his own evangelical image. Definitely worth a read. Here’s an excerpt:

Beckwith has returned to the Rome of his evangelical dreams: a pure, pristine defender of truth, justice, and—not so surprisingly—the American way. No wonder, then, that he sees no tension between being “both Evangelical and Catholic.” His is an Evangelical Rome. This plays itself out in a curious conversation with his comrade J. P. Moreland. After reading Moreland a passage from an unnamed author who affirms that “the question about truth is the essential question of the Christian faith as such, and in that sense it inevitably has to do with philosophy,” Beckwith asks his colleague: “Guess who wrote this?” After Moreland reels off some favorite Protestant philosophers, Beckwith plays his gotcha: “It’s the Pope!” “He’s one of us!” Moreland replied in exuberance (78).

But somehow, I can’t imagine Benedict XVI on the faculty of Talbot School of Theology any time soon. So what’s going on here? Beckwith’s Pope is like Norman Geisler’s Aquinas: an anonymous evangelical. On a more macro scale, Beckwith’s Rome is evangelicalism by other means; that is, his is an intellectualized Catholicism—Rome as the home of the true set of Christian propositions or what Beckwith is wont to call “a Christian worldview.” Thus, he criticizes the Catholic teachers of his youth who “spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true” (36). The Rome to which he has returned is, ironically, the matrix of Christianity as an intellectual system—“ironically” because Cardinal Ratzinger (just a few weeks before becoming Pope Benedict XVI) has explicitly said that “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead,” Ratzinger emphasized, “an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”


  1. mike d wrote:

    Thanks for the link – really interesting review. I wonder if Smith really is saying that Beckwith is “making Rome in his own evangelical image” – it sure seems like it. But is Smith really denying that such a Rome exists – even if only in the U.S.? He says himself there are many Romes – isn’t this one of them? He can even put a name on it “Peter Kreeft Catholicism”. It may not he the Rome that Smith is interested in but that doesn’t mean it’s a figment of Beckwith’s imagination – just watch EWTN.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  2. myles wrote:

    Sham-wow. I can almost hear the woodshed door closing.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  3. If Roman Catholicism has room for Michael Novak and Dorothy Day, then certainly it has room for Beckwith.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  4. My response:

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Davis wrote:

    I loved the review, but I think we can go even farther in criticism of Beckwith’s “Rome,” namely on his attempt to correlate it with Evangelicalism. The problem with Beckwith’s Rome is not just that it correlates nicely with (a certain strand of) Evangelical ethics and natural law. More problematic, in my opinion, is that Beckwith’s Rome is a Rome without mortal sin, penance, satisfactions, and so forth. He fails to really engage the doctrine and exegesis that divides, in favor of the philosophy and intellectual culture that unites. Beckwith’s conversion is typical in that regard: the philosophers convert, not the exegetes or dogmaticians. Of course, Beckwith would not deny Trent on justification, but he can ably nuance it away to insignificance, since “worldview” comprehensiveness is given the priority. A belief in mortal sin fits nicely into an imaginative worldview of noble saints and humble peasants, even if such a belief doesn’t fit so nicely with personal convictions of a free Gospel. So, in other words, what exactly about Evangelicalism is Beckwith importing into his Catholicism? Whatever it is (philosophy, culture, anthropology), it is not Evangelicalism.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  6. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Mike D is right about the EWTNization of American Catholicism. I see a growing number of my students who are attracted to its triumphalist certitude. It’s bound up with but not identical to the First Things, Theo-con Catholicism to which, I think, Beckwith was truly converted.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  7. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I should add that Stephen Webb — the guy who’s written about vegetarianism, Bob Dylan, and why American imperialism is a wonderful thing — is another convert to this kind of star-spangeled Catholicism.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  8. “More problematic, in my opinion, is that Beckwith’s Rome is a Rome without mortal sin, penance, satisfactions, and so forth.”

    Have you not read the book? “Penance” is central to my return.

    And besides, the book was not supposed to be anything more than a narrative of my personal journey, not a magnus opus covering every single issue I assessed. I say that at the very beginning:

    With these three temptations observed, I can say more precisely what it is I intend this book to be. What I hope to offer here is an account of a personal journey that focuses on my own internal conversation, or struggle, between the Protestant theology I embraced during most of my adult life and what I’ve come to think of as my Catholic constitution, which I have to believe had always been there. Much of this book is a celebration of the Christianity that has shaped my life, intellectually and spiritually, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms. I do indeed explain how and why my mind changed, but with respect and admiration for the Evangelical Protestants who the Holy Spirit used to deepen my devotion to Christ, which I carry with gratitude into the Catholic Church. Thus, this book is a narrative intertwined with encounters, arguments, criticisms, and reflections. It is not meant to be an apologetic for Catholicism or an autobiography in the strict sense.
    It is my hope that this book may effectively, with grace and charity, communicate to my fellow Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, an understanding of the reasons and internal deliberations that culminated in my departure from and eventual return to the Catholic Church.

    “Of course, Beckwith would not deny Trent on justification, but he can ably nuance it away to insignificance, since “worldview” comprehensiveness is given the priority. ”

    I have no idea what that means.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I didn’t know he’d converted to Catholicism–naturally of the star-spangled variety. Figures.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  10. In his “response” in which he explicitly refers to blurbs for the book, Prof. Beckwith seems to have forgotten one of them. Though he claims no one makes an allusion to Newman, here’s an endorsement for the book:

    “In 2007 Francis Beckwith, an esteemed scholar on ethical and political issues at Baylor University, after announcing that he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church, resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In this highly readable apologia pro vita sua, Frank reveals the reasons for his surprising spiritual odyssey.”–Edwin M. Yamauchi, Miami University and 2006 ETS President

    Just FYI.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 4:38 am | Permalink
  11. It’s not a comparison to Newman, Jaimie, and you know it. It’s a fancy use of Latin. If I say “res ipsa loquitur” I can either mean the term of art in law or simply “the event speaks for itself.” And the fact that a book is entitled the “Car Bible” does not mean that its author is claiming its the Word of God just for Detroit.

    You should stop defending the indefensible, and just confess your lack of charity. Today is a fine day to do that, by the way. It is the Feast of the Annunciation. Remember that Our Lady received Christ in a way we cannot imagine.

    I don’t understand the anger. Life’s too short to always be in mortal combat about such things. “Joy” is underrated. Learn to embrace it.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Well that’s the most condescending comment I’ve seen in a long time.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  13. Brad wrote:

    Dr. Beckwith,

    I think it’s pretty clear from Smith’s review that in asking “Where is the love?” he wasn’t calling into question your love for your family or their’s for you. He wasn’t even calling into question your love for God. Rather, he was calling into question your suggestion that Christianity is a cluster of beliefs that are true, rather than a tradition. He was calling into question the idea of Christianity as an intellectual system.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    Wow – neither did I. So much for Webb as a Protestant example in my dissertation…

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink
  15. kim fabricius wrote:

    I don’t know St. Francis (just joshing, Professor), so I’ll stay shtum about his particular translation. Nor do I have any statistics about the scale of evangelical defections to Rome. There is, however, a fair amount of anecdotal evidence about just such a pilgrimage – and not only to Rome (or – halfway house – high church Anglicanism) but also to Constantinople (next stop Mecca and a proper hajj?). If this evidence can be trusted, I proffer two reasons for the trend.

    One Gene has alread mentioned: it’s the attraction of “triumphalist certitude”. Biblical fundamentalism is now an option only for the brain-dead, so all that is left for those whose nerve has failed in an age of suspicion and uncertainty, who have lost what Keats called “negative capability”, is ecclesial fundamentalism (cf. what Rowan Williams refers to as “tradition fundamentalism”).

    But there may be another reason, and it helps, at least partly, to account not only for this particular phenomenon but also for the very different movement of RO: it is the nostalgic longing for a “renchantment” of the world (and one of its symptoms is chronic Enlightenment-bashing). It is a reaction to modernity that Bonhoeffer, luminously prescient as ever, anticipated in his prison reflection anatomising the “attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world,” which, he continues

    “I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up back into adolescence, i.e. to make him dependent on things which he is, in fact, no longer dependent … Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man’s weakness for purposes that are alien to him … Unchristian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness … More about this later” (LPP, p. 327).

    Alas, no later.

    If I were to suggest a third reason for church-hopping to institutions with more authoritative quality control, it would be the more visceral desire for purity. Here the giveaway is human sexuality: what better strategy as the gays inch their way up the gangway than to jump ship?

    Any resonance?

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Kim, did you know that your comments are like warm cookies on a winter day?

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  17. kim fabricius wrote:

    That’s very kind of you, Halden – and timely: my wife has just made a batch of large chocolate chip cupcakes (with chocolate icing!), and I’m about to dig in!

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  18. rasselas wrote:

    ahhhhh or is it that glorious longing for the nostalgiac 1950′s cemented in by Hollywood

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  19. d stephen long wrote:

    Kim, That has to be Bonhoeffer at his worse. So you really think that the European Enlightenment represents the “adulthood” of humanity? And are you serious that the attraction to RO or Catholicism is out of an unwillingness to face the lack of certainty modernity presents? So peoples’ fear drives of uncertainty drives them to these positions while those who stay within a particular version of Reformed Christianity have the courage to face the uncertainty of our time — with certitude i imagine? What is more certain than modernity with its flat technological grid that is able to position anything and everything? Come on — “ecclesial fundamentalism”. What does that do but make the epithet hurler feel secure in his own triumphant ambiguity. Warm cookies? Tastes more like caffeine free, diet coke.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    I would be remiss if I didn’t admit straightaway that right when I read this comment I was in fact cracking open a caffeine free diet coke.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  21. kim fabricius wrote:

    Stephen, that’s just the kind of bashing I am talking about. No, I don’t think that the Enlghtenement is the apotheosis of the human story (and I’ve taken, and will continue to take, my share of shots at it) – technology in particular can be baleful (he blogs, as he takes another bite from a cupcake baked in an electric oven)); neither, of course, did Bonhoeffer (who was, after all, as critical of liberalism as he was of atavism). Nor, however, do I think it is responsible for all our contemporary woes (that would be medieval nominalism, he winks). I am also sure that there are good reasons why Protestants might become Catholic or Orthodox; I’m just suggesting that there might be somer some poor ones, and if there are, I am simply suggesting that the three I mentioned might be among them.

    Btw, my own ambiguities, ambivalences, and doubts are anything but triumphalist. At best they might br a product (pace Milbank) of theological humility, at worst the work of my demons.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  22. d stephen long wrote:

    Isn’t humility something one should allow others to attribute to you rather than claim for one’s self, even if ambiguously? To clam that modernity produces certainty via a technological grid is not “bashing.” It is descriptive. When I’m on a plane I’m grateful for it. When I’m thinking about truth or some such thing, I find it less than helpful and most often misleading.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  23. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yes, “modesty” is the word I was looking for, some word to contrast with “triumphant”. My point was why assume one’s ambiguity is triumphant? To be sure, it is a clever counter to Gene’s point (with which I agree) about the attractions of (an ecclesial) “triumphalist certitude”. I certainly (!) do not want to sing the praises of doubt (that’s Paul Tillich’s tune), but hymns to certitude can only be sung in heaven when there will be no temple. Above all, I am afraid of ecclesiological turns when (you will hate me for saying this) the ecclesiological absorbs the Christological. I also don’t think it’s helpful to think of modernism monolithically.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  24. BV wrote:

    “” Thus, he criticizes the Catholic teachers of his youth who “spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true””

    isn’t Beckwith’s statement redundant?

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  25. adhunt wrote:

    Perhaps as a young half-way reflective “convert” to Anglicanism from Pentecostalism I can shed some light on this, at least from some anecdotal experience. At first I started attending just because I wanted to get the fuck out of dodge. I hated pentecostalism and evangelicalism even if they were figments of my mind it was those I hated and I went to Canterbury on account of three things, Liturgy, C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. I’m not saying their great theological reasons but that was my initial draw.

    Why I’m staying? That’s a lot more complicated, but at least it wasn’t some of the pseudo psycho-theological bullshit reasons I’ve heard. You should worry when you say the same exact things as Tony Jones, Kim.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  26. adhunt wrote:

    Ironically it also has to do with certain obsessions with gay sex. Converts to historical churches apparently only want safety and freedom from talking about penises. Please

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  27. roger flyer wrote:

    More like 18 year old scotch.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  28. roger flyer wrote:

    Not be totally patronising, but maybe it’s all just shedding skins that don’t fit anymore…

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  29. roger flyer wrote:

    Tony Jones has some good things to offer, no?

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  30. adhunt wrote:

    I have no special dislike of Tony Jones, I was assuming though, Kim being a fan of theological propositions (still a brilliant series btw, Kim!), that the implications of saying the same things as an Emergent powerhouse just might frighten him.

    Obviously I can’t argue Kim down being as I am Kim’s inferior in every way, so this seemed like a second best option.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  31. Bob wrote:

    Is Peter Kreeft Catholicism different than Vatican 2 Catholicism

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  32. roger flyer wrote:

    I think prof Beckwith is a sincere seeker with a Prof in front of his name that he might like to shed with the publication of his memoirs

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  33. roger flyer wrote:

    we are all the Kim’s inferior, but Tony is a smart guy, too–if not up to the welshman.

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  34. Brad wrote:

    I notice that Beckwith took his “review” of Smith’s review off his blog.

    Monday, April 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

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