Fishing for Souls, by Adriaen Pietersz Van de Venne, 1614
This isn't exactly breaking news. I'm about a week late with it, but I've been very, very busy lately with work, family concerns, a chance to finally enjoy some good weather, and house-hunting (somehow we've got to find a house with enough room for the 8 of us and eventually my aged father-in-law. Pray for us!).
I don't know much about Francis Beckwith, other than reading that he has recently stepped down from the head of the Evangelical Theological Society, due to the fact that he has reverted back to the Catholicism of his youth. I had never heard of him before, so there isn't really much I can say about it. I guess it caused some stir in evangelical circles, perhaps as much as the news that well-known blogger Bill Cork, Director of Young Adult & Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, was leaving the Catholic Church and going back to the faith of his youth - Seventh Day Adventism.
I always liked Bill Cork. I considered his voice to be one of the most reasonable and sensible within the well-known circle of popular writers to be found in the Catholic blogosphere. In particular, I always appreciated how he would take on the anti-semitism of some of the most extreme elements who could be found on the far-right hand side of the Catholic apologetics spectrum - people who had themselves swum the Tiber, but who had kept on going and had gone on to cross other rivers as well. I even had a link to his blog Built On A Rock for a while, but I removed it for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to restrict the links to people I'd had some kind of personal contacts with. The second was that I was starting to see a number of posts on his blog complaining about liturgical abuse, which I find tiresome and redundant with tons of other blogs. I wasn't looking for someone like Bill Cork to go on with apocalyptic stories about "clown masses" as if he was "Fr. Moderator" on Traditio.
As you can see, the Built On A Rock blog is pretty much just a stub now. Gone with a "click". I think about the hundreds and hundreds of posts he'd taken the time to write, and the hundreds and hundreds of comments that people had taken the time to make in response, and all of it just gone in an instant... I sometimes wonder if people who make these kinds of switches ponder much on the effect that they have on the faiths of those who've invested so much of their time in interacting with them.
I have to admit, the reversion back to Seventh Day Adventism was quite surprising to me. It's about as far away from Rome as you can get, and as far as my understanding goes, it is one of the most stridently anti-Catholic groups out there (a Presbyterian apologist I used to tangle with told me once that he didn't consider SDA a form of Protestantism, and that he was inclined to label it as a cult). Bill Cork wrote an apologia of sorts for his reasons here. I find it a little hard and tedious to follow, and as in most cases, I tend to think that it really comes down to more of the personal level than the intellectual. In this post, Cork describes how the SDA was there for him and his son in a time of need. Blood is thicker than water, and the communities that fostered us in our youth may put bonds around us that are tighter than we think. Do we all have a tendency to want to go "home" at some point? I'm not impugning Cork's motives in any way. This must have been a very painful thing, and I wish him well.
I can be ecumenical, yet at the same time quite partisan in my partiality towards Catholicism, so I'm always gladdened and grateful to hear about someone who comes to the Catholic faith. One thing I've noticed, however, is that many (though not all) converts and reverts seem to embrace a pre-conciliar view of Catholicism rather than a post-conciliar view. For those in particular who are coming out of a Protestant tradition, I see a marked tendency towards strict adherence and acceptance of the Trent decrees, formulas, and anathemas vis-a-vis Protestantism. My guess is that many of the converts are attracted by what they see as uniformity and doctrinal certainty within Catholicism in contrast to the divisions and doctrinal upheaval they may be seeing in their own traditions at a certain point in time. They seem to want that clear distinction and contra-punctual emphasis, because I can only imagine what some people within their own families might be saying to them... Something along the likes of:
“Why in the world would you want to become a Roman Catholic? The Mass is hardly different from a Methodist service, and in addition to that, you’ve got to buy into their doctrines on papal authority, Mary, saints, justification by faith and works, and all that transubstantiation hocus pocus.”
Is it possible that in response to that, they are interested in emphasizing everything in Catholicism that they can find that specifically repudiates Protestantism? Is it possible that in defending their decision, they want to show them a liturgy that is point-by-point radically “other” than how they used to worship?
There's a blogger who went by the name of "Gregg the Obscure" who wrote the following on his blog Vita Bretis a number of years ago, and it stuck with me.
I’ve noticed that a great many integrists are either converts or reverts. Moreover, nearly all of the integrists that post frequently on the web come from a fundamentalist background.
This actually make pretty good sense. Fundamentalism started as a protestant reaction against modernism – a reaction based on highly literal readings of scripture. What distinguished fundamentalism is its stridency and use of proof-texting. Since fundamentalism was a reaction against some serious heresies, it’s not surprising that fundamentalists have a tendency to look for (and find) the worst in everyone. Too often the stridency brings out the worst in those who try to engage them in discussion. Since fundamentalism was a reaction against a new set of ideas, fundamentalists are so suspicious of anything that appears to be new that they often conclude that the world is now more evil than it’s ever been...
I had limited exposure to fundamentalists before my conversion to Catholicism. There were some in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, such as a college prof who taught Old Testament and insisted that anyone who believed that the exodus occurred after 1300 B.C. had endangered his salvation. I remember the 1970s debates in the LCMS in which one side held that anyone who denied or doubted the literality of the story of Jonah was a heretic. That sort of overreaching insistence on strict adherence to notions that are at best peripheral to the message of Jesus, while often ignoring the clear mandates of the King of Kings, drove me from the LCMS and, ultimately, to Catholicism.
Fundamentalism doesn’t deal well with paradoxes and contradictions. Eventually, any bright, honest and dedicated fundamentalist would invariably run into many of the inconsistencies presented by Sola Scriptura. Ultimately he would have to either proclaim some kind of private revelation or look to Rome.
When a fundamentalist becomes Catholic, a new problem arises. Too often the convert’s way of looking at the world doesn’t change that much. The stridency is still there, and now there’s a much larger body of literature to search for proof texts. If the convert had believed that the world is growing more evil every day, there’s little chance that he’ll outgrow that notion. That and an ill-informed focus on the purported immutability of the Church would lead one to recoil in horror from even the slightest alteration to doctrinal pronouncements or liturgical practice. Instant integrism.
I wouldn't have defined the formerly-Catholic Bill Cork as an integrist, but it does seem clear to me that there were issues he was struggling with in terms of doctrine and authority, and his understanding of the way the two were supposed to work together. In a way, the case is similar to the one with Rod Dreher, a conservative convert to Catholicism who had plenty of criticism for Catholic liberals and progressives over the years, but later said as he left Catholicism that when he really studied what went down at Vatican I, he was unable to buy into the doctrine of papal infallibility anymore. In terms of his criticism of progressives, who've studied the same issue and have struggled mightily and faithfully over its meaning and the extent of its application, I find that ironic.
I guess a lot of converts and reverts come aboard and expect to find a monolithic entity in which there is complete unity and harmony among true believers, and that all disputed questions have been settled, or at least have a means of being settled definitively. I'm not eloquent enough to put it into words, but perhaps most cradle Catholics realize that it is much more complicated than that, and that there is always a dynamic tension between authority and the sense of the faithful... I have a hard time describing it... How do you say it to a convert who never had to go to weekly confession when they were a child or an adolescent, or whose parents never struggled with issues of conscience surrounding Humanae Vitae? It's a whole different milieu to have been brought up in. All I can say to converts and reverts is, yes, I believe it is the Truth, but the Fathers were right at Vatican II to identify the Church as a Pilgrim Church making its way through history rather than the "Perfect Society" built along the lines of a pyramid structure. The Tridentine era had left too many people with the impression that the Catholic Church was as completely immutable in its non-essentials and ecclesiastical positive laws as it was in its De Fide dogmas. For all intents and purposes, it indeed had been that immutable for the previous 400 years. I'd say that the proper understanding is that God is immutable, and that the Deposit of Faith is immutable, but the Church is not.
There is great virtue to be found in obedience, and all of us should get to know the mind of the pope and conform as well as our consciences allow us to, but if your faith in Catholicism is contingent upon perfectly synchronizing in your own mind the thought of Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XI; if it is built on striving to harmonize the teaching of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus with the teaching of the document Nostra Aetate, Unam Sanctum with Dignitatis Humanae, Pascendi with Gaudium et Spes; if it needs to perfectly match the Council of Constance with Vatican I, the Councils of Orange and Trent with Vatican II, there may be difficulties in that, and I urge you to look at the Tradition much more deeply, more nuanced, and more openly in faith.