Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Francis Beckwith and his critics

Well the issue of the differences between Catholicism and protestantism has been placed front and center again with the controversial reconversion of Francis Beckwith, the President of the Evangelical Theological Society, to the Roman Catholic Church. Frank's post on Right Reason explaining the move now has 422 comments, which, as Bill Valicella over at Maverick Philosopher has remarked, must be some kind of record.

I like what Scott Piland at Aslan's How had to say today about it, which reflects my own view: namely, that personal condemnations are not appropriate, and that, rather, people should take it as an opportunity to better understand what exactly the two positions are and how they differ.

Frank is an old friend of mine and has commented on this blog, and my respect for him as an intellect and as a person knows no bounds. I think there are several things not in dispute here. The first is that Frank Beckwith is a man of personal and intellectual integrity: this is not a matter of debate among those who have known him over the years. In addition, whether or not you agree with his return to Catholicism, you have to respect the way he has conducted himself in the wake his announcement. Given the circumstances he was in (being the head of one of the most significant and influential bodies of Christian, and mostly protestant, intellectuals), I don't know that he could have done things more discreetly and more charitably than he has.

The only unfortunate aspect of the episode has nothing to do with Frank himself. It has to do rather with how people have responded to it. Some of the responses from my fellow protestants have been thoughtful, even if critical. Others have quite frankly been uncharitable, if not rude. Fortunately, there have been more of the former than the latter, but it is still disturbing. If you are confident in your position, you don't need to engage in ad hominem attacks on those with whom you disagree. To do so is usually a signal either that your position is weak or that you don't have a good mastery of it. There are those (and these are the ones from whom the personal condemnations of Frank have mostly come) for whom smugness trumps thoughtfulness when it comes to expressing their views on this subject, and who, in consequence, can brook no disagreement whatever. Unfortunately, this doesn't make their case either more compelling or more attractive. They need to stop casting aspersions and start formulating arguments. To do anything less is not only and insult but a lost opportunity.

I am intrigued by the real debate that has gone on and look forward to more of it. It will be a good opportunity for both sides to clarify their positions on things like the doctrine of justification and the five "sola's" of the Reformation, and get beyond the caricatures and straw men that too often plague theological debates between Catholics and protestants. I asked Frank in an e-mail the other day if we could expect an Apologia Pro Vita Sua from him any time soon. That was a reference, of course, to the great work of John Henry Newman, which he wrote in response to the critics of his own very controversial conversion in the late 19th century. Not that Frank, natural controversialist that he is, necessarily needs any provocation to respond to his critics.

Beckwith's is certainly the most high profile conversion since that of Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things Magazine. When Neuhaus converted, there was no blogosphere, so I supposed I shouldn't say that it wasn't quite as controversial as Beckwith's. Maybe it just seems that way. But to my knowledge, Neuhaus never issued a full explanation of why he converted. I think such a thing would have been instructive. Surely the hits Frank has taken are provocation enough for such a work.

Count me out from those who want to run Frank down for this. But I will add my small and insignificant voice to the chorus of those who would like to see his reasons--not so that we can engage in target practice, but so that we can all understand the truth better.

That is, after all, what Frank Beckwith has always been about.


Chad Toney said...

Hi! Found your blog through a google blog search about Dr. B and look forward to reading more from your archives!

On RJN...don't know if you would count this as a full story, but here's the article version.

And it is also discussed pretty thoroughly in his book, Catholic Matters, which I highly recommend.

Martin Cothran said...


Thanks for the tip.