Conversion’s storm – Evangelical returns to the faith after not be able to explain why he wasn’t a Catholic
NORTH HAVEN, Conn. (National Catholic Register) – Until a few weeks ago, Francis Beckwith served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), an association of 4,300 Protestant theologians. That was until he made the announcement on the Right Reason blog of his return to the Catholic faith of his youth.
Beckwith returned to the church after 32 years as an evangelical. The online “storm” that followed led Beckwith to resign as president of the prestigious society.
He serves as associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor University. He spoke recently to National Catholic Register from his home in Waco, Texas.
National Catholic Register: It’s been a while now since your announcement. Can you believe your reversion is still generating so much online discussion?
No, it’s beyond remarkable. Prior to my announcement, our blog averaged 1,500 hits per day. The weekend after my announcement, it hit 20,000. We’re still getting between 5,000 and 7,000 per day.
National Catholic Register: You were born into a Catholic family. When did you leave the Catholic Church?
I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1960. My mother, Elizabeth, also born in Brooklyn, is Italian-American. My father, Harold Beckwith, was born in Connecticut. I’m the eldest of their four children. In the mid-1960s we moved to Las Vegas, Nev., where my father worked as an accountant and internal auditor at a number of hotels. In the late 1970s, both he and mother founded Sweets of Las Vegas, a candy business that had two retail stores in the area.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was part of the first generation of Catholics who would have no memory of the church prior to Vatican II. This also meant that I grew up, and attended Catholic schools, during a time in which well-meaning Catholic leaders were testing all sorts of innovations in the church, many of which were deleterious to the proper formation of young people.
On the other hand, there were some very important renewal movements in the church at the time.
The Catholic Charismatic Movement had a profound impact on me.
During my middle school years, while attending Maranatha House, a Jesus People church in downtown Vegas, I also frequented a Catholic Charismatic Bible study. Some of the folks at that Bible study were instrumental in bringing to my parents’ parish three Dominican priests who offered a week-long evening seminar on the Bible and the Christian life. I attended that seminar and was very much taken by the Dominicans’ erudition and deep spirituality, and the love of Jesus that was evident in the way they conducted themselves.
But I was also impressed with the personal warmth and commitment to scripture that I found among charismatic Protestants with whom I had interacted at Maranatha House.
Looking back, and knowing what I know now, I believe that the church’s weakness was presenting the renewal movements as something new and not part of the church’s theological traditions.
For someone like me, who was interested in both the spiritual and intellectual grounding of the Christian faith, I didn’t need the “folk Mass” with cute nuns and hip priests playing “Kumbaya” with guitars, tambourines and harmonicas. And it was all badly done.
After all, we listened to the Byrds, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and we knew the church just couldn’t compete with them.
But that’s what the church offered to the young people of my day: lousy pop music and a gutted Mass. If they were trying to make Catholicism unattractive to young and inquisitive Catholics, they were succeeding.
What I needed, and what many of us desired, were intelligent and winsome ambassadors for Christ who knew the intellectual basis for the Catholic faith, respected and understood the solemnity and theological truths behind the liturgy, and could explain the renewal movements in light of these.
National Catholic Register: You spent 32 years in the evangelical world. What could Catholics learn from evangelicals?
I learned plenty, and for that reason I do not believe I ceased to be an evangelical when I returned to the church. What I ceased to be was a Protestant. For I believe, as Pope Benedict has preached, that the church itself needs to nurture within it an evangelical spirit. There are, as we know, too many Catholics whose faith needs to be renewed and emboldened.
There is much that I learned as a Protestant evangelical that has left an indelible mark on me and formed the person I am today. For that reason, it accompanies me back to the church.
For instance, because Protestant evangelicals accept much of the great tradition that Catholics take for granted – such as the Catholic creeds and the inspiration of scripture – but without recourse to the church’s authority, they have produced important and significant works in systematic theology and philosophical theology.
Catholics would do well to plumb these works, since in them Protestant evangelicals often provide the biblical and philosophical scaffolding that influenced the church fathers that developed the Catholic creeds as well as the church’s ...
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