Evangelical Leader Returns To Catholicism

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By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2007

The president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an association of 4,300 Protestant theologians, resigned this month because he has joined the Roman Catholic Church.

The May 5 announcement by Francis J. Beckwith, a tenured associate professor at Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Tex., has left colleagues gasping for breath and commentators grasping for analogies.

One blogger likened it to Hulk Hogan's defection from the World Wrestling Federation to the rival World Championship Wrestling league.

"This is a sad day for all true sons and daughters of the Protestant Reformation, for all who lived and died for its truths," Douglas Groothuis, a professor at the evangelical Denver Seminary, said in a posting on Beckwith's own blog, adding sternly: " . . . you are embracing serious theological error."

Beckwith, 46, said in a telephone interview that he had expected some repercussions in academic circles but was stunned by the public response. He said strangers have called him at home to berate him, and that his Internet server was overwhelmed by 2,000 e-mails a day to his personal Web site, which in the past seldom generated more than 90 a day.

"It's beyond anything I've ever experienced," he said.

Beckwith is not the first, or even the most prominent, evangelical to switch to Catholicism in recent years. Others include Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), theologian Scott Hahn and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things. On the other side of the equation, the Catholic Church has been losing droves of ordinary worshipers to the Pentecostal form of evangelicalism, particularly in Latin America.

Beckwith said his decision reflects how dramatically the divisions between evangelicals and Catholics have narrowed in recent decades, as they have stood shoulder to shoulder on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and school vouchers.

The stormy reaction, however, is a reminder of the gaps that remain, particularly on such theological questions as whether to baptize infants and how human beings gain "justification," or righteousness in the eyes of God.

Beckwith said he was raised as a Catholic in Las Vegas and was "born again" as an evangelical during his teens, at the height of the countercultural "Jesus movement" in the 1970s. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, but then taught at Protestant schools, including Trinity International University and Baylor.

He said that for many years he agreed with the criticisms of the Catholic Church made by Martin Luther and other leaders of the 16th-century Reformation, who emphasized the authority of the Bible alone -- rather than the pronouncements of church leaders -- and who argued that justification resulted from the grace of God, not from good deeds.

But his thinking began to change, he said, as he read more deeply into Catholic theology, including works by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. After studying Ratzinger's book "Truth and Tolerance" last year, he said, he called a prominent evangelical philosopher, read him a passage about whether theology is really knowledge, and asked him to guess the author.

"He reeled off the names of a bunch of evangelical theologians," Beckwith recalled. "I said, 'No, it's Ratzinger!' And he said, 'So he's one of us!' " Beckwith said he was also deeply affected by a joint declaration in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification, which he said went a long way toward eliminating this historical source of division.

"I do agree with Protestants that there is no good I can do, no work I can perform, that would justify me," Beckwith said. "But there are many places in scripture that say there's an obligation Christians have to take on the character of Christ, and that contributes to their justification. The Catholic solution is: I am required to take on the character of Christ, but it is not my power that does it, but God's grace."

Chuckling gently, Beckwith said that in discussions with fellow theologians over the past year, he suddenly found himself making "Catholic-type arguments" about natural law and truth, arguing that everything found in the Bible is true, but not everything that is true is found in the Bible.

"At the end of the day, the reason for the Reformation was the debate over justification. If that is no longer an issue, I have to be Catholic," Beckwith said. "It seems to me that if there is not a very strong reason to be Protestant, then the default position should be to belong to the historic church."

On his blog last week, he said he wrestled with whether to inform the Evangelical Theological Society immediately of his intention to return to Catholicism, or to wait until the end of his term in November. He said he and his wife prayed for guidance and received an answer when a 16-year-old nephew asked him to take part in his Catholic confirmation ceremony tomorrow. "I could not do that unless I was in full communion with the church," Beckwith said.

Because Baylor does not require its faculty to sign any statement of beliefs, a university spokeswoman said, Beckwith's change of heart will not affect his teaching post. And because he was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic in his youth, he did not have to undergo conversion -- he simply had to go to confession and receive Holy Communion. He did so in a quiet ceremony April 29 at a small church in Bellmead, Tex.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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