Friday, May 11, 2007

Bill Cork Bails Out, Frank Beckwith Jumps Back In

Some thoughts on converts and reverts... Do people eventually have a tendency to go home?

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.


Mike McG... said...

"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..."

On the contrary, Jeff, you described it beautifully. Catholic theology was mediated by Catholic culture and context, neither of which are accessible to today's converts...or for that matter, our children!

Money quote: " is much more complicated than that."

Peace, Mike McG...

Jeff said...

Hey Mike,

Great to see you, and thanks for the comment. How was Mexico? Shoot me a note on it when you get a chance. :-)


Garpu the Fork said...

Agreed...I love the Church--it's what I was born into--and they'll have to throw me out, even though there are things I struggle with. I wonder if there's a way to get converts and reverts to relax. I think in being so rigid, they're losing a lot of the joy in our faith.

crystal said...

I'm a convert, and I have nothing to revert back to :-) I really had no idea about the different views within the church when I joined, but I'm glad there is so much wiggle room.

Paula said...

Good post.
I am a convert and I could only revert to Eastern-Orthodoxy from where I came (it is a way of saying that I came from there, since I only practiced several years..well you know my story).:-).
And I will never revert because I really want to be in the Catholic Church. One of the reasons why I want to be here is exactly the tensions within the Church that you so well describe. :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Well, we can't ever let you revert back to being nothing, can we?


That which defines itself as Catholic (Universal) must within that definition leave some room for diversity within it.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

Yes, I think that coming from Orthodoxy, which already puts great weight on patristics and on Sacred Tradition would certainly be a very different experience.

Tensions there may be here with us, but as you said very brilliantly on your blog, we are all part of the same Body, and we all need each other.

Like the Apostle says:

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Now the body is not a single part, but many.

If a foot should say, "Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body," it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.

Or if an ear should say, "Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body," it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.

If they were all one part, where would the body be?

But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I do not need you," nor again the head to the feet, "I do not need you."

Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.

If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

1 Cor 12:12-26

Jeff said...


I hear you! I guess I feel the same way. I'm not going anywhere, and nobody's going to throw me out. I don't care if I'm the last one left to lock the doors and turn out the lights. :-)

Paula said...

Amen brother Jeff.:-)

Steve said...

Great post, Jeff. I also suspect that the RCIA/formation process has something to do with how a future-Catholic views the church.

And yes - 'nuanced' is a good way to put it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

I also think that we have a real problem in how we reach out to others. A lack of a visit in a nusing home or after the death of a child or some other tragedy... A lack of warmth, a lack of strong community plagues so many parishes.

Protestants often have Sunday school and coffee hours, they all know one another by name.

We just don't have that. The mass packs in a scripture study and worship in 45-60 efficient action packed minutes. It is very beautiful, the traditions are beautiful, the stance against nihilism is beautiful. But the lack of community, I think, is a major problem.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Good to see you again. I hadn't seen you blogging in a while.

I think a lot of people might agree with you that certain aspects of RCIA need an overhaul.

Jeff said...

Hey B.,

Good point. I certainly think you are right about that, and it's ironic and a bit embarrassing, because the Eucharist is supposed to bind us closer together as a community, but too many of us have seen it and the entire Mass in the sense of a privatized devotion.

cowboyangel said...


There's a lot here to chew on. Alas, it's late and I'm tired, having just tried my hand at translating and explicating an Antonio Machado poem at Crystal's.

You know, one of these days, I'd love to sit down with you and discuss some of these things face to face. Blogging's great, but how can I possibly express a lifetime of experience, meditation, dreaming, fighting, loving, etc. in a few lines?

I bailed out. I keep in touch, because . . . . well, for various reasons. It's sort of like being born into a family. Or being born in Texas. It helped make me who I am. ["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."] But I'm not just a member of my family or from Texas or a Catholic. Or anything else.

I think a lot of people do "go home." And all of us to one degree or another probably do revert back to aspects of our childhood as we get older. I certainly find this in myself. On the other hand, some say you can't go home again. And I think this is also true. I moved back to Austin after being away for ten years, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It really depends on the person. Spiritual paths are funny things. It's like the Camino de Santiago - they tell you over and over that you have to walk the Camino at your own pace. And that definitely seemed to be the case. Nobody can walk our spiritual path. Even though our paths may share long stretches with other people.

But I don't think I'm making any sense. It's late! My path at the moment is to move towards the bed.

We'll pray that you find a house.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, right, I did want to respond to Winnipeg's comment on the lack of community. I think there's a different kind of community in Catholic churches and Protestant churches. Mass is a ritual, related in some ways to going to the cinema or a symphony or a baseball game - other ritualistic experiences. You don't necessarily chat with the people next to you at a symphony. But you do feel a strong kinship with symphony-goers, and if you meet a stranger and discover they also love the symphony, you often feel an instant bond. Maybe you join a symphony society. In other words, a lot of the community takes place outside the actual ritual involved.

It also depends on the church. I've been to some warm Catholic churches where the priest made a real effort to build community. And I've been to many ice-cold Protestant churches. My experience has been that "community" may be strongest in the non-demoninational charismatic churhces. But I think that's because they don't have anything else. There's no larger church structure. There's no ritual most of the time. So what are you left with? These churches tend to rely heavily on emotion, which makes community easier. But watch what happens when that community goes bad! It's really, really vicious. Too many of these churches becomes a cult of personality centered around the pastor. And sometimes, as I discovered for myself, they're just cults, period.

Having said all of that, many Catholic Churches could use some work on building community. I've seen good examples. I think Liam's Church probably has a stronger sense of community, from what I saw on my one visit. It takes a leadership that fosters community and people within the church who want to make it happen.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

What do you mean, you bailed out? You were married by a Catholic priest in Catholic Church, weren't you? Come on, snap out of it.

I'm going to ask you to forgive me for considering you to be a Catholic whether you like it or not, because you have one of the most sacramental views of the world of all the people I've ever encountered on the web. So there.

I can well understand the Austin story, even though stability has always been a big thing with me. After all, I'm in the same house, (if somewhat expanded) that I've been in since the age of 3, and the same parish. You might say I'm a bit stuck in a rut, but it has suited me pretty well. I might have made a good contemplative monk in some respects.

The other day I was at a funeral in a Congregational Church, and was thinking to myself, "man, these ministers really do know how to preach", but the lack of sacramntalism left me feeling incomplete... as if something was really missing. I suppose that genetic memory and those bonds of upbringing really do exert a pull on us.

cowboyangel said...


I did bail out, though. I became a born-again Evangelical at 18 and spent a number of years in that environment. And for part of that time, I was pretty anti-Catholic. In retrospect, I think I was rebelling against what I felt was a cold, anti-spiritual religious/political hierarchy [the System!] that included all of the mainline Christian churches, but since I grew up Catholic, I reserved a lot of my anger for the Church. This was my non-denominational, charismatic period.

Eventually, I began to miss the sacraments. And I eventually wound up going to Episcopal churches. I may have already asked you this, but have you ever read Thomas Howard? His books Christ, the Tiger and Splendor in the Ordinary and Evangelical is Not Enough meant a lot to me. His own journey was from the Evangelical churche [his ister is a famous Evangelical missionary], to the Episcopal Church, to the Catholic Church. If you ever have someone from an Evangelical background who shows interest in Catholicism, I would highly recommend his books.

At one point, I stopped going to church altogether. It was moving to Spain that got me to reconnect somewhat with the Catholic Church. I met a woman who was about as "Catholic" as I was at taht point. And since we wanted a spiritual wedding, getting married by the Spanish government in a cold, municipal building didn't feel right. But, yes, getting married in the Church by a priest we respected felt good. In fact, it healed a lot of pain for me. Unfortunately, when we've gone to mass in the States since coming back, I've only seemed to encounter the kind of Churches I disliked so much before (with the exception of Ascension, where Liam goes.) I'd feel hungry to go to Mass, so we'd go. Then I would walk out pissed off and in disbelief that I had been sucker enough to go back. Then, a few months later, I'd feel the urge again. Then, I'd get pissed off again. This is the current pattern. I just went last weekend, while visiting the in-laws, and though I didn't come out pissed off, I certainly wouldn't go running to that church on a regular basis.

But it's more than just not finding a church I feel comfortable with. It's also about my own spiritual journey. I don't say I'm NOT a Catholic - I've actually started putting "Catholic" down for Religion on the Zogby polls I do, a major shift for me. So you can call me one without asking my forgiveness! But I don't feel like I'm ONLY Catholic. At one point in Spain, I had what some might call a mystical experience, and ever since then I've felt connected to the planet, life, G-d, the cosmos in a way I never did before. I feel engaged with LIFE in a healthy, positive way. I'm an American, but in my heart I feel like I just belong to the planet earth. I'm a Catholic, but I just feel like a human being trying to live in relationship to the Almighty.

I don't know, it's hard to explain.

I'm a bit of a wanderer, I'm afraid. I envy your living in the same house and parish for so long. You have a kind of community that I can never have. And I don't think it's being stuck in a rut. People are just different. I'm sure there are psychological reasons for my need to explore and journey around. You mention the contemplative monks, which I wanted to be myself at one point. I was pleased to discover that Buddhism has monks who wander. That's kind of how I feel.

Jeff said...


What is it about the mass that's pissing you off? Is it something that you are hearing or not hearing in the typical homily that is making you angry, or is something about the liturgy itself? I suppose it probably doesn't help to trot out what might seem by now to be a cliche or a banality - that the mass isn't about the priest or the sermon. The homily is in fact very important, and Catholic priests, by and large, haven't been trained too well in homiletics. The really good preacher seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, I have heard of Thomas Howard. I haven't read Evangelical Is Not Enough, or any of his other books, although I have read some apologetics articles he's written. The main reason I know about him is because I'm fascinated by the life and the writing of a certain friend of his, Frank Schaeffer. Schaeffer is the son of the very influential and famous evangelical writer and theologian, Francis Schaeffer. Young Frank left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy (he wrote about it a bit in a book called Dancing Alone), and wrote novels about his own childhood as a missionary's son in an enlightening and entertaining series called the Calvin Dort Becker trilogy. As you can see from his website, he writes mainly now about his experience of being the father of a marine in wartime, and his frustration with the elites of this country for not having to make any sacrifices of their own. Thomas Howard was and is a friend of his, and Schaeffer chided him in a good-natured way for going with Catholicism rather than Orthodoxy, although I can't find the article online anymore ("A Conversation With Thomas Howard and Frank Schaeffer"). I think Schaeffer has backed off of his "Dancing Alone" polemics a bit, now that he's found a new cause.

I appreciate greatly what you say in the closing paragraphs, and it reminds me of what I like about what Fr. Ron Rolheiser wrote in his essay 'Conservatism is a Good Place to Start From', the first external link I have listed on the blog.