Recommendation and Review: Return to Rome by Francis Beckwith

I’m going assume that you either know, or can find on the net, the basic story of who is Francis Beckwith and why he is a person of interest in the current evangelical-Roman Catholic encounter. Let’s just say that when one of the leading academic ethicists in evangelicalism and the President of the Evangelical Theological Society reverts to Roman Catholicism, it’s a story worth reading.

I want to get to the heart of my reaction to this book.

It’s a very good book. Short. Well-written. Quite personable. No axes to grind at all. Gracious to everyone. No name calling. No apologies or triumphalism. Lots of good questions, insight and humility. If you want to spend an couple of hours with a very intelligent, articulate Catholic revert from the heart of evangelicalism, this is a great book.

Beckwith is not out to convert you or even to make much of a defense of his own reversion. I can see some evangelicals writing a 400 page pot-boiler, but Beckwith gives us 130 pages, plus endnotes. As I said, this isn’t some comprehensive, crying tell-all meant to portray Rome as the savior and Protestants as be-nighted ignoramuses.

No, if anything Beckwith leaves you with plenty of questions. This is not a man who wants to debate anyone. This is a description of his own journey as a theologian and as a Christian. The chapters where he does engage in some defenses of the Catholic position will hardly qualify as knock-out punches. Beckwith isn’t an exegete, and most of what he has to say can be summed up as “I learned to read the Bible like a Catholic.” As my boss says, “Big whoop.”

Beckwith’s involvement in ethics kept him in the world of Catholic ethical theology, not the polemical world of defending the assumption of Mary. What he saw and heard in Catholic ethics impressed him. He kept looking and was more impressed. The Catholics he meant encouraged him to read Catholic thinkers and theologians. He was impressed. He read the Church Fathers. They seemed to be Catholics to Beckwith. He read John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He read Hahn and other apologists.

Over time, with his wife’s encouragement and developments in his own life, it all came together. It seemed right and it seemed to be God’s will, so they returned to the church. (Beckwith had grown up Catholic.)

No bells, explosions or visions. No mission to convert Protestants. Just a journey, a process and a conclusion. I’m happy for him.

Do I see other things? Sure. I see an evangelicalism that looked increasingly thin in comparison to the depth of the Catholic thinkers and writers Beckwith was reading. Should he have read more widely and more critically? Sure, but he read what he read and we are what we are right now. Admit it: we ain’t so impressive much of the time.

Does the fact that Baylor initially refused him tenure fit into what I see? Oh yeah. In a big way. An unfortunate and no doubt painful rejection. Even when repaired, it had to make an impression. It would make me think about where I wanted to spend my life as a Christian.

Did Beckwith’s experience of the evangelical churches he was part of leave him feeling there was more? Had to be more? Absolutely and no doubt. Let’s form a line to “amen” that experience.

Does Beckwith’s experience of Reformed theology and Reformed exegesis show some of the problems that bring so many through Calvinism into a journey to Rome? Yes, I think so. Something about Calvinism’s self-confidence winds up making a lot of people ask authority questions. Some of them decide that authority question can only be answered rightly by people who aren’t embarassed to say “Here’s our pope and magisterium.”

Does Beckwith’s Catholic reading of Romans really prove that Protestants are reading Paul through reformation glasses? Does he prove that forensic justification can’t be sustained in an honest reading of the New Testament? No in both cases. His reading of Romans is, frankly, relatively lightweight (compared to other scholars) and his confessed adjustment of what he sees the Bible saying about justification is hardly a reason to return to Rome. See N.T. Wright for details.

Did Beckwith need a deeper look at the Roman Catholic claim that modern Catholic doctrine is taught in the Fathers? What do you think?

Does Beckwith’s two page summary of how he made it through the other difficult areas for him- papal infallibility, purgatory, etc.- do much more than just tell us that once he got to the authority of the church, he was ready to sign on? No.

All in all, it’s a typical conversion these days. Beckwith isn’t Steve Ray or Bryan Cross. He doesn’t tangle with James White or the Triabloggers. He tells his story, and anyone who is a pilgrim on their own journey will respect and appreciate it, even if they don’t agree with it.

I like Beckwith. He’s where he ought to be. He won’t persuade many evangelicals to follow him to Rome, but he might help many understand why others do so.

NOTE: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, but no food. That’s why I was pretty tough.

63 thoughts on “Recommendation and Review: Return to Rome by Francis Beckwith

  1. … Maybe the wisest thing to do is to declare a moratorium on this discussion of communion, closed/open, etc.?

    It’s hard to see you all going in circles, knowing that this subject is so personal for imonk and his wife.

    May I submit that it might be more respectful to just let this drop, for a while, at least? If I were imonk, I’d seriously consider making this subject off-limits for discussion in comments. (Have been a BB mod myself, and some subjects just seem to be tailor-made for flaming… this seems to be one of them, on this site and others like it.)

    Just my .02-worth…


  2. I also do not commune with my wife. She was baptized Catholic, attended a low-church Anglican parish during her youth, then went to evangelical churches after leaving home. We currently go to a Rob-Bell-esque Church of Christ congregation and she sometimes comes with me to Mass.

    It is a deeply painful situation.

    I have the most difficulties when my wife and I go back to the Anglican parish of her youth. I have received Communion there a few times (as commentators would point out, in violation of Canon Law). I was deeply torn at those times and I regret doing so, but it is very difficult to resist because A) we were married there B) my step-family is all there C) the liturgy is so similar and, in many ways, superior to the Catholic Mass we usually attend.

    I am, however, thankful for the response of the bishops on this issue. It is pastoral but firm. I need not remind people here that things were much more strict a few decades ago, when you could not even go into a Protestant church building, let alone attend a service, sing the hymns, etc… Imagine how hard that would be for a couple or a family? Much like the Catholic praxis regarding divorce and remarriage (another painful point, not for me, but for many), the newer guideline tries to walk the line between respect for the truth and respect for legitimately painful and often intractable circumstances. People sometimes talk about remarriage as if there were no possibility of them committing adultery by doing so. Also, without the support of the Magisterium, there is no way I would possess the fortitude and resolve to risk hurting the feelings of those I love on this issue. For that I am grateful although I grieve over the division it causes.


  3. To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard – People are terrified to exercise the one God given freedom we have, i.e., freedom of thought, and they demand freedom of speech as a compensation.


  4. I know everyone does not agree with me, but I think this is a fantastic discussion. It is challenging and enlightening, particularly into my own beliefs with regards to what has been codified compared to what I and others actually believe and practice.

    Shayne — my journey has been very similar to yours only I started from a place of abject, parentally enforced alcoholicly insane atheism in a suburban sea of large devout Catholic families. By the time I had my Pauline experience and started to devour the Bible and anything evangelical and charismatic I could get my hands on, I was a college student well versed in critical thinking, and I was and still am not afraid to put anything that has passed through human reasoning and intellect to the test — “infallible” or else. But that that is even a huge issue for some is extremely suspect since Papal infallibility has been invoked so infrequently and about what happened to the body of Our Lord’s Mother and the like. The very fact that there are those who totally discount the presence of any value to Apostolic succession also makes me suspicious of the origins and the motives involved.

    Coming from such a dysfunctional background I have to be particularly suspicious of my own motivation of what “spiritual” dogmas I cling to. I have to continually ask myself whether I feel comfortable with a particular belief system because it matches some deep seated harmful attitude I learned or adopted as a coping mechanism as a child that is something I really need to abandon for something better and more challenging.

    But the fact that I question everything has served me well. As earlier posts have alluded to, God doesn’t want robots. And as Joseph Campbell used to say, belief systems (he, of course, identified them all as mythic metanarratives) are meant to be like the nurturing pouches of marsupial mothers — “a womb with a view” he would say. The purpose of such systems of belief is to give the individual the ability to learn how to negotiate the grave dangers and pitfalls, challenges and rewards of Life from a safe vantage point until he or she is ready to venture out into the world as a freethinking adult. The problem, he would say, with Western religious institutions is that they demand to keep the individual in the womb “from cradle to grave.”

    I, of course, do not agree with Campbell’s personal decisions on which specific beliefs to embrace (he left devout Roman Catholicism for something more Hindu), but the above referenced analysis of his is dead on, in my opinion.


  5. Just glancing through this post and the replies, and because of time pressures I will just put some thoughts down in a point-like form, that is, no justification of my views.

    Up to the age of 44, I was Catholic – in a cultural sense, Catholic schools, and self-identified as a Catholic in any census, statistical questionnaire. I then had a road to Damascus experience (and because people can’t stand, weird Christians, I don’t talk about it any more) and became a follower of Jesus. My wife is Anglican, and, at that time, I straddled church life between my wife’s (bible-based) church community and a local catholic charismatic group. In both areas they accepted my ‘dual nationality’, mainly because my life and my walk reflects what I believe.

    Over, the next fifteen years, I became a specialist in early church history, focused on the Jewish-Christian split, this included, detailed DSS analysis, and resulted in trips to Israel, and weeks of walking around the history. My favorite, early church father, was Augustine – and up to a few years ago, stayed away from later theologians like Aquinas, because I was told he was just too brilliant. Didn’t think, I had the intellectual and spiritual ability to study his words but, I’ve since found that his strength is his weakness, detailed processes of logical steps – that are now easily refuted. I also had at my elbow a well-worn copy of the Catholic Catechism.

    There was one major nagging thought, I have an unshakable belief in the love of my God, as demonstrated on His cross, and that I believe His Word, that if I should die tonight – I will be in paradise with Him. Nothing in my hands I bring – you know the rest …. How could anyone, who loves and knows Jesus, condemn my assurance, as a sin?

    The second thought is this: there is no new, essential revelation after Rev 22:21. Hence the difficulty with the promulgating of the Bull, Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared infallibly the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, the belief is not the issue, but the process, which states that what we may have believed about this issue, for 1900 years was once okay, but now, it’s not – even more than that- this belief is now essential for salvation; plus, if we create doubts in Catholic minds – we are cursed with the fires of hell. All the Catholic (academic) theologians that I’ve discussed the detail of this document with, and especially its footnotes, have pulled out of the discussion. Why? The answer is they can only fall back on the claim that the Pope is infallible. Early Church history and Scripture leaves them with no where else to go.

    Recently, about two years ago (that’s recent for an old man), I spent days praying about this – then, I awoke in the middle of one night, with a fantastic feeling – I’ve never actually believed the Catholic position. I’m free. Do I reject the good of the Catholic Church – no; and my spiritual mentor remains a Catholic priest; because he too, can see the bigger picture. Strange how God works through our human frailty. Umm – longer than I thought – sorry.


  6. Just have to say this in my own defense — I don’t do it, did it once over thirty years ago (excepting of course the years outside of the RCC) and would not do it again.

    Tim — I do miss some Holy Days.


  7. Surfnetter, I used to play at Mass as a child, too. That does not mean I now believe in women’s ordination. St. Therese of Lisieux desired to be a priest – does anyone seriously think she’d be on board with the WomenPriests movement?

    We’re all in need of the grace of God. But no, I don’t see the bishops “winking at” anything in that piece you quoted, and I don’t see the bare minimum exposition of the faith and discipline of the Church as “blaming the laity”.

    To take your funpark theme: you can argue over whether the prices are too high, or if the cocoanut shy is fixed, or if your twelve year old is tall enough to get on the ride. I don’t think anyone would accept that those in charge do not have the right to make rules, or when they say “You have to be this high to get on this ride”, they do it in a nod-and-wink fashion that is to be taken as “Sure, we say that, but we don’t mean it! Your six-month old baby can go on, if you like!”. You can insist on your right to break the rules but if the security guards toss you out, I don’t think you have the right to be too surprised.


  8. Ok Sam Urfer got to answer, so now let’s call that debate over. We’ve been at it for 500 years. Everyone knows the score and can decide for themselves.

    Thanks guys. I know it’s a big issue but I can’t have that debate take over this thread.


  9. “And that goes back to why I haven’t crossed the Tiber, despite the many other good reasons too. I don’t think Jesus would appreciate turning his “do this in remembrance of me” into this pre-requisite understanding that seems so different than what the original intention was. I don’t see the Apostles recognizing literal flesh and blood presence in the Supper.”

    I don’t want this to devolve into a debate, but I have to say that I can’t see how reading the Bible can lead one to any conclusion short of Consubstantiation, if not full-on Transubstantiation. John 6, for starters. I mean, come on. Jesus may have also said he was a door, but he didn’t spend an entire sermon trying to convince people that they had to literally open him up and walk inside in order to be saved. The Real Presence, in a dead-literal flesh and blood sense, is one of the essentials of the Faith, not an optional feature.


  10. Closed communion is more loving than open communion. Closed communion is based on a Scripture’s teaching that an undiscerning partaking of it causes harm to the indvidual. Permitting open communion despite scripture’s teaching that undiscerning communion will cause harm is not loving.

    Paul says undiscerning partaking of communion caused physical sickness and death. 1 Cor. 11:27-32. Communion is a powerful, mysterious thing. There is nothing loving about a church permitting a guy like Surfnetter eat and drink judgment on himself. It shows a lack of faith and seriousness about Christ’s commands.

    The church cannot set aside Christ’s truth whenever it causes heartache. Should it marry gays? Ordain women? Should it reject the idea of hell and damnation for those without faith? Families are divided over Christ’s truth all over the world, and Christ told us it to expect it. If you have a firm conviction that RCC doctrine is incorrect, you should not want to commune there and drink judgment on yourself.


  11. Surfnetter, you might not see the harm in what you do, but the Bishops do. I urge you to meditate on I Corinthians 8 and I Corinthians 11, and reconsider your nonchalance towards communion. The damage it does is apparent in the distress you are causing Michael, another name for which is Scandal. Causing scandal with a brother is serious business. Stop treating it like a lark.

    That being said, I do rather like your analogy of the Church as a water park. A bit on the whimsical side, and as all analogies do it breaks down after a while, but I like it.


  12. Well, no problem Surfnetter, I guess. What you’re pointing to there still doesn’t say it’s officially OK. The official deal is that it’s generally not OK, but that there are some extenuating circumstances in which it is pastorally provided for.

    What Michael’s head is exploding over is, first of all, very personal in his own life, and secondly, that you’re not acknowledging the official Catholic “deal” on the thing. Given, your experience may be a certain way of dealing with this, as may the experience of many others, but that is what it is. The official party line is something else.

    I’m sure Michael would agree, but it’s probably best to let this one lie for now and all go to our neutral, or not so neutral corners. And PEACE to all in this house.


  13. 5 things necessary to be in” good standing” with the Church
    1) Attend mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation
    2) Receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during the Easter season if it’s only once
    3) Confess your sins at least once a year, during Lent if only once
    4) Obey the marriage laws of the Church
    5) Provide for the financial support of the Church ( no amount specified )

    Learned this in RCIA. Don’t have a specific reference.


  14. Thank you again, +Alan. That is a lovely document.

    Sorry guys — just thought that, since you are all talking about me and the subject, that I could ask a couple of questions I really needed the answer to:

    However these ecclesial communities, “when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper … profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 1400)

    So the Baltimore Catechism had a lot tougher language, did it im …? I think it’s your move, ecclesial communities ….


  15. OK, here’s the official dealio – from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which includes little pieces of the Canon Law we’re actually talking about here (844):

    Non-Catholics and Holy Communion

    It’s an interesting piece. So, normally speaking, the answer is “no, we don’t really do that.” But there are abnormal circumstances, even for Protestants. Interesting that it’s not deemed “theologically impossible” or anything like that. It’s a discipline, and the Bishops lay out the reasons.

    Just puttin’ out the info. Not trying to convince anybody of anything – but there it is. Lordy mercy.


  16. Surfnetter,

    The line has been crossed and I don’t think a smiley face is going to fix it. How ’bout giving it a break.
    Joe Magisterium


  17. Martha – “And we have to treat him as a brother – since he’s baptised into the Church and unless he formally recants, he’s one of us. No matter how he may act or what he states are his beliefs.”

    Sound like I might qualify as one of the least of His brothers.

    Better treat me right 🙂


  18. Someone come and get me when this is over. I’m going to have mental lock-up if I have to read any more of this.

    Catholic Answers guys? EWTN people? Bryan Cross? The 140+ people who’ve been writing me conversion letters? Where are you when I need you?

    Are the clergy really this busy that no one can visit this thread?


  19. Ok — can I engage I a little Socratic existential analysis…?

    Someone please enlighten me — since the RCC recognizes all baptisms in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, what exactly prevents a Protestant from be welcome to receive communion in a Catholic Mass?

    And since many priests report that they used to “play” Mass at home as children, being given unconsecrated hosts by priests who were obviously hoping and praying that they indeed had a vocation (this was the case with my own son — we used to set up the ironing board and he wore a long white nightshirt — we all partook of both “species” using grape juice — he is a web-developing deist young man now, btw) and this was obviously not a sin, what exactly is the nature of the sin of a Catholic partaking of communion in a Protestant Church?

    Anyone …?


  20. One of the most frustrating things to me as a post evangelical is the recognition of some forms of unity and the rejection of others. So people who would agree that they all belong to Jesus Christ are unable to commune together. Even if we disagree on the issues of authority that give us the “furniture” in the house, we all live in the same house. And we eat in separate rooms?

    It’s foolish. Of course, no we can argue who left the dining room and started eating in their own room 🙂


  21. I do so lament that fact, Michael. I’m not sure it makes total sense to me either. I’m just being honest. And just so you know (I hope you know this), I don’t want in any way for you to think that I believe that your situation is not painful or anything of the sort. You know I pray for you guys. Peace.


  22. Dr. Beckwith,

    I’ve made it clear on IM many times that I have no desire to commune anywhere- fundamentalists, LCMS, RCC, etc- that presents a closed table. I do not have any desire to commune at an RC church under the current RC beliefs regarding the meaning of the Lord’s Table.

    Perhaps I failed to make myself clear. I believe in open communion among baptized believers, but I have no desire to “crash” anyone’s service to insist on communion.

    But when two persons in a marriage are forever barred from communing together by the views of one partner’s church, then we ought to lament the fact that the witness of a Christian marriage as one in Christ is then torn apart and made absurd by closed communion. Such is the sad fact of the broken body of Christ. We all belong to him and we cannot commune together. It makes no sense at all. But I don’t have any desire to force the issue. The table of the Lord is open to all believers in any church that I am part of.




  23. Thank you +Alan 🙂

    Straining at gnats, might we be swallowing camels …?

    In an earlier post I spoke of how being a member (in good standing, btw) of the Roman Church was for me like being given “an open invitation to the indoor water park on Capital Hill.” When I said this the imagery felt right but I hadn’t analyzed it.

    What I meant is that in the “upstairs chambers” of the Vatican the Magisterium Hierarchy is busying themselves with keeping the water flowing pure and refreshing, making sure the rides are safe and the food court is well stocked, staffed and active, and the patrons are happy and fulfilled.

    That there are failures in this process has not escaped these intelligent, caring and dedicated men and (a few) women. But I don’t think they believe it is helpful to blame the laity.

    To paraphrase the One in the Church who is certainly not under their authority in this vein — the Magisterium was made for the laity, and not the other way around.

    I haven’t heard it pronounced much but our former pastor (now rector of the seminary) would often remind the congregation that if anyone felt for any reason not ready to receive communion he or she could get in a priest’s line and when approaching cross their hands across their chest and the priest will get the message and give the person a blessing instead of administering communion.


  24. And that goes back to why I haven’t crossed the Tiber, despite the many other good reasons too. I don’t think Jesus would appreciate turning his “do this in remembrance of me” into this pre-requisite understanding that seems so different than what the original intention was. I don’t see the Apostles recognizing literal flesh and blood presence in the Supper.


  25. “Closed communion will always keep me from being a Catholic.”

    Okay, I don’t want to start a fight, here. But……..

    isn’t the principle behind the idea that only those in full communion with the Church may receive communion just the sort of principle that shows a level of theological seriousness that you, iMonk, have decried about popular Evangelical Protestantism?

    While I was a Protestant I attended many Catholic Masses with my parents and never went up to the Lord’s table. Why? Because I would essentially be saying to the Church, “I reject your authority on these matters, but I want you to pretend that I don’t by allowing me to partake in the Lord’s Supper, even though I reject your understanding of it.” The whole idea that I, as a Protestant, should be entitled to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church while retaining my non-Catholic understanding of it seems incredibly arrogant. The fact that I was ecclesiastically promiscuous at the time does not mean that the Catholic Church, that wants to remain chaste, should accommodate my desires.


  26. Yeah, a bunch of Catholics sittin’ around judging each other on how well we respectively obey the letter of the magisterial law is not an attractive proposition. Very distasteful indeed.

    And as painful as it may be, and I know it is for you Michael, I’m not seeing Surfnetter really making a case that he is “right” – just that this has been his experience, that pragmatically, this is how he has seen things work. I’m sure he’s not alone – right, wrong or otherwise.

    One more thought on this: I think even if we all had our “consciences informed properly,” studied, gained all the knowledge we needed, went to Confession once a week, Mass every day, etc., etc., we would STILL see a good lot of differences inside the Catholic communion. The result would not be ecclesiastical clones, and that’s a good thing – at least I think so. Peace to all here.


  27. No one needs to explain it to me. I know. Closed communion will always keep me from being a Catholic. I am unalterably opposed to it with all the understanding I have of Jesus. But our friend Surfnetter has rattled me over and over on this one. Show up. Wink at the priest, and go right ahead. And I’ve watched Protestant friends do that (and Catholic friends commune at Protestant communion) and it’s a complete lack of integrity to me. Right or wrong- have a conviction.




  28. As Martha points out views on the Eucharist is not just one point among many, it’s the main point and the defining sacrament of the Church. There’s flexibility on some things, but not communion.


  29. Sam

    Sounds like the famous Chesterton quote (it was published) has been attributed to Mother Theresa.


  30. With regard to what Surfnetter said about “Everyone knows that the last time most of them will be seen in Church is the wedding until maybe the next major holiday (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter) and certainly the baptism of their first (or next) child.”, I have to admit, with tears in my eyes, that there is at least one cleric who agrees with him about the Christmas-and-Easter people:

    “I have nothing against people who, though they never enter a church during the year, go to Christmas Mass, or go on the occasion of some other celebration, because this is also a way of coming close to the light. Therefore, there must be different forms of involvement and participation.” -Zenit news interview, Oct. 1, 2001

    That kind of wishy-washy, bleeding-heart-liberalism, woolly-headed thinking comes courtesy of some bloke named Cardinal Ratzinger. Well, with an attitude like that, he’ll never amount to much, thank goodness! 🙂

    Michael, I do realise it’s a very painful subject. It seems horribly unfair that a non-Catholic Christian, who may agree with or at least respect approximately 75% of Catholic doctrine, cannot approach the altar to receive, whereas a Catholic who states he sees nothing wrong with you going up to receive in a Catholic church or your wife continuing to commune at your church, just as long as you don’t make a big public announcement and draw attention to yourselves is treated as in good standing and one of ourselves.

    All I can say to you – and it’s not meant glibly – is what Our Lord Himself said: “10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    10:36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

    If we all agreed that Communion was a symbolic meal of mere bread and wine, a sign of fellowship, and a means of spiritual grace by spiritual means alone, then we could come to some arrangement (possibly). But we don’t. Those on the Reformation side who vehemently denied that the Host could be worshipped or venerated as much as those of us on this side of the Tiber, we all agree on this. You can’t in good conscience genuflect before the tabernacle (making giant leaps of assumption here, so forgive me – I’m not talking about you doing so out of courtesy and politeness to follow the customs of the place, but as an act of worship to Jesus really, truly, actually present physically in the Reserved Host). I can’t in good conscience go up to the altar at my brother-in-law’s church and receive because I don’t agree on the principles and I don’t want to give the impression of community where there is none.


  31. Ky boy, sure you can, as long as you fix the typos. I think I left out a word or two like “a” or “as” in one or two places. So, this is your mission, if you choose to accept: textually criticize my comments!


  32. In all charity, that’s what is meant by “bad Catholic”. What Surfnetter says is not compatible, and blatently so, with the belief of the Church. Ergo, he is a bad Catholic. He seems like a nice guy, and I wouldn’t object to drinking with him, and I certainly think better of him than a schismatic yahoo like Bishop Williamson, but a bad Catholic he remains. To be fair, I’m a bad Catholic too. I read a quote from Mother Thesea recently, when asked what the problem with the Church today is, she replied “Me. I’m the problem with the Church today, because I a ma sinner.” This is one reason Surfnetter isn’t being piled on, we think he’s wrong, but “he who is without sin…”


  33. “I have been actually toying with the idea of doing a word-study analysis of the Beatles’ Penny Lane. It would go something like this.”

    This is great.

    Can I quote this to some other people?


  34. Martha: I am right there with you on accepting him as a brother, but is there any way to communicate how painful it is to have this constant rehashing of the communion issue brought through my family right now? I mean I’ve spent major money on counseling to deal with the very issue of how God could possibly lead someone to a position where they could no longer commune with their spouse.

    It’s extremely frustrating and upsetting. I don’t think he’s a bad anything. Seems like a great guy. Happy to have him here. But he just can’t be right and what I’ve spent the last 1.5 years learning be right.




  35. Chad, do you mean fallible or do you mean peccant? 😉

    Believe me, some of the Popes we’ve had, it really does take faith in the Holy Ghost to trust Him that He knows what He’s doing.

    Michael, Surfnetter is hearing us Papists tell him he’s wrong and he’s saying no, that’s his understanding. On here is not the forum for us to start yelling at him – it would be neither edifying for you nor productive. And we have to treat him as a brother – since he’s baptised into the Church and unless he formally recants, he’s one of us. No matter how he may act or what he states are his beliefs.

    This is a whole other tangled question of when does a Catholic cease being Catholic, not to mention when excommunication is invoked and what excommunication actually involves. See the current kerfuffle about the SSPX for further details – oh boy, that’s really put a cat amongst the pigeons.

    We may think Surfnetter is a bad Catholic, but we can’t say he’s no longer a Catholic and we certainly can’t give an opinion on the state of his soul. I don’t understand how he reconciles his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament with his practice of open communing in other churches, but there you go. All we can do is instruct him in what the Church teaches. He is certainly correct that there is no Inquisition going to beat down his door and drag him off to the dungeons.

    Regarding the primacy of conscience, yes – but we have a duty to inform our conscience before making decisions, and that involves more than “I want to do this/do not want to do that, my conscience will stand it, so that’s fine!”


  36. Thank you Fr. Beck….Dr. Beckwith 🙂 for those good clarifications. I stir up enough dust that clarifications are generally always needed. And I did feel like I “got it” with your story, and I feel badly that some apologists have taken you to task for either not going to the mat with them or as if you wanted that. No, I think your book is “just right,” as a wise story said.




  37. Whether we want to admit it or not, or whether we want to alter the terminolgy or not, every denomination has its own version of a magisterium. It simply is the recognized teaching and scriptural interpretational authority we place in our pastors and elders.

    At the risk of oversimplifying, placing the RC structure into protestant terminology, the pope is simply the senior pastor for the global RC church. The Roman See has mission churches in every country in the world (i.e. your local parish down the road) and an organized clergy structure to maintain continuity and sustainability. Again, this is not unlike any growing protestant congregation that sets out to establish a mission outreach. The RC’s just have a 2000 year headstart on the process – with 2000 years of glory and grime along the way.

    With regards to authority, each of us as members of His body are commanded to “join the community.” Ah, but here’s the rub – which community and which community’s set of organizing principles are we willing to follow?

    If we choose to be part of a Christian community, we all must submit to it. If not, then are we really on the road to worshipping at the altar of the “First Church of Me?” – which for some is the only church worthy of their own praise. I don’t think “going it alone” is part of the plan.

    We all must choose the “magisterium” authority to which we wish to belong. It’s not just a Roman thing, it’s a requirement for belonging.

    Without it, you end up with what the Episcopalians are doing to themselves.


  38. Cindy — not gonna say what the RCC’s teaching is on your skipping reconciliation. But you can still enjoy your experience with Christ regardless, can you not …?

    About RCIA — here in suburban Long Island most of the candidates are fallen away young Catholics and “converts” who are there because someone wants them to have a Church wedding, and you have to be caught up on the Sacraments for that. Everyone knows that the last time most of them will be seen in Church is the wedding until maybe the next major holiday (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter) and certainly the baptism of their first (or next) child. Many are already living together and the only difference between them and the kids in CCD is not that they really want to be there, but they are somewhat better behaved.

    Of course there are those like your wife who have truly been called in — I sponsored a young father who came in from a Lutheran congregation and it was a beautiful, blessed experience and he is one of our happiest and most gifted and gifting parishioners.


  39. As I write I hear in the background Governor Blagoyavich doing his best impression of Huey Long.

    Mike, thank you for your kind review. I appreciate it. Of all the people who have reviewed it so far, you’re the only one who really understood what I was trying to accomplish.

    I do want to make two clarifications: (1) I not only won my tenure appeal at Baylor, I was promoted to full professor about 14 months later, and (2) my reflection on justification in Return to Rome is not limited to Romans, but includes the Gospels, the non-Pauline letters, the deliverances of the Council of Orange, as well as the influence of nominalism on the apparent obviousness of forensic justification.

    As you no doubt can tell from the book, I am not a big fan of “word study” exegesis, which I like to call “conservative deconstructionism.” The fact is that authors write in whole sentences that are in paragraphs that are components of larger texts within the confines of certain background beliefs. I have been actually toying with the idea of doing a word-study analysis of the Beatles’ Penny Lane. It would go something like this.

    Penny Lane is clearly authored by P (Paul McCartney), though it lists John Lennon as a co-author. A decade after Penny Lane was authored P was part of a band that included a guitarist named Denny Lane. “P” and “D” are similar sounding Thus, it is not unreasonable to see PL as a prophetic document, since it also mentions “blue suburban skies,” which are populated by birds that have wings, coincidentally that is the name of the band, “Wings,” that included both P and Denny Lane.

    The American “Penny” has the image of Abraham Lincoln on it, the American President that freed the slaves. Is it coincidence that this song was released during the height of the American civil rights movement that sought to enfranchise the descendants of the slaves that Lincoln freed. Thus, it is not unreasonable to believe that Penny Lane contained subtle, though profound, message to America.


  40. Chad,

    I should say differences are tolerated on many things really, it’s not as if you’re quizzed in the pew. Priests and parishes have wide ranging differences in viewpoints and liturgy. However there is at core a few non-negotiable things that all Catholics must agree to be a Catholic in more than name only. They are primarily dogmatic questions. Now you can certainly believe whatever you want and show up and even receive communion, because it’s likely no one will stop you, but that’s not really being Catholic or in the way it’s intended. I have more respect for holding yourself apart out of an authentic disagreement of faith rather than joining in while not believing just to get along.

    Now I should note that I went to mass for ~3 years as an unbeliever out of respect for my wife, I just didn’t receive communion.


  41. Cindy,

    No, he isn’t accepting that authority the way that he should, but as long as he’s open to trying, then he’s ok. I’m a converted Catholic, and I accept without question that the Church is what it says it is. That being said, I have to accept that I’m a rather bad Catholic. I’m trying to believe a lot of things, and I really need to get my butt into the the confessional, but the Church is there to (lovingly) help me get better at all this.


  42. iMonk, re: Surfnetter, it’s not that “no Catholic will take [him] on”, but I don’t think that any of the Catholics who read and post here really want to poop up your blog with intra-necine disputations about what it means to be a Catholic. Those are exhausting and pointless and most of us have had the talk a million times all know who’s right and who’s wrong anyway, no matter what side of the debate we’re on. Besides, we like to be rested up for Luther-bashings and the pre-mil trib folks. = )


  43. I have never questioned the “authority of the Magisterium” im — I am simply reporting my experience.

    Another comment in another post spoke of the “discipline committees” in many Protestant churches. No such thing in Roman Catholicism, and I heard that on National TV right after Cardinal Ratsinger became Pope Benendict XVI. A young priest who is a lead Canon Law cleric in the Vatican told Katie Couric that those who were afraid of the new Pope’s hardline stance on the issues should not worry too much because the Roman Catholic Magisterium has no official enforcement mechanism, that for almost all cases it is left as a matter of individual conscience — not to determine what is right and wrong, true or false, good or evil — but how each lay person wants to deal it is up to him or her. No one will officially confront you on it in all but the most egregious of cases, like with Presidential candidates taking a pro-choice stance while publicly receiving communion.

    This is the simple truth, imonk. I don’t know what Catholic life is like in rural Kentucky. But in suburbia, that’s it ….


  44. This may be the first time I’ve had to go back to another iMonk post to find a previous comment that I made and re-post it, but we’re talking about the same old thing again, so here goes…

    “It’s also not as cut and dried as some very traditionalist Catholics would have us all think either – lock-step, Pope says it, we do it, line by line, follow the laws and that’s it, you’re good. Yeah, I know it’s more complicated than that – I’m talking about what people hear, and they obviously hear that. This kind of lock-step mentality is not really what the Catholic Church teaches it’s children. Not really.

    BUT (again with the buts) there is a teaching Authority in the Church and it’s there for a reason – to keep things in order – to keep handing down what has been handed down from the Apostles. They are not alone in this, though. The everyday faithful member of the Church is part of this keeping and hearing and sensing of the Faith. Things change sometimes because it swells from the proverbial bottom-up instead of from the top-down.

    So – somebody could, can and probably has written a bunch of books on this so give me my one long comment – Soooo, balance, yes. There is an objective standard, rules, doctrines, etc. and Catholic individuals and churches are expected to respect these things and do their best to live them. It’s not JUST what the individual Catholic thinks or believes.

    But (always, ALways) it also DOES matter what we all think and believe (and yes, I know we must have properly formed consciences). That both/and stuff really is there. I know that burns some Protestants up because they love their tightly wound understanding of the Romanists, but oh well, sorry. It’s tight, but it’s not tight like that. It’s rigid (sometimes too rigid) but not altogether rigid like that.”

    OK, I’m back in the present. I think that fits right in. Sure, there’s authority in the Catholic Church, like I said, and there is a certain trust the Church asks of those of us who are Catholic Christians. There are a lot of Protestants who think that (and like to think this for some reason) everything the Church says and presents is on the same level, doctrinally or dogmatically – from birth control to transubtantiation – and if they have questions or difficulties with anything in between, it’s a lost cause, you’re just a terminal Protestant. I have either good or bad news: NOT.

    This is not how it works. It’s more complicated than that. There are quite the number of different levels of “assent” we are called to on different teachings. There is a lot of room to question and have doubts. Have it with respect, though. Just don’t be an ass about it. Everything is not taught with the same level of irrevocable infallibility. Nope. Not even close.

    So, I’ve said this again. The extreme right end of the teeter-totter will likely not totally agree. The extreme left end won’t care that much. Oh well. I stand in the middle, in the land of “both-and,” trying to find the balance.


  45. Surfnetter:

    I really need you to stop saying the magisterium doesn’t matter to the average Catholic and that Catholic doctrine, like no communing at Protestant churches, is not insisted on in the RCIA. It’s causing major problems in my life.

    I’ve decided no Catholic is going to take you on, so I’m asking you to please acknowledge that you are promoting a view of Catholicism that is not what the church teaches in its official documents.

    Please consider the damage being done by this misrepresentation.




  46. I have heard (read) far more mention of the authority of the Magisterium in my short time entering this Protestant based discussion group than I ever did in all my years as a practicing devout Roman Catholic, and that includes annual family and men’s retreats, being a sponsor in the RCIA program, and many hours of private counseling with priests, one who is now the rector at our diocesan seminary. As a matter of fact, the only time I can remember the issue ever being raised by an “authority” figure is when one or another cleric felt my presence to be an opportunity to unburden himself by revealing — in confidence — his own doubts and misgivings about it.

    Not even as a CCD teacher was it brought up to me as an issue I needed to raise with my students. To be honest with you all, I had to Google “Magisterium.”


  47. “Sometimes the question is not, “Who is right? Then I’ll join them,” but, “Where does God want me to be an effective ambassador for His mysterious Glory; the mystery of Christ in me?””

    Amen and Amen.


  48. You become a Catholic because you believe the claims of the Church to Authority are true and that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Everything else, good or bad, is secondary and full acceptance of those lesser things are set aside to explore the main question.

    This seems to me to be sound (and reasonabe, and likely part of the decision making for reverts and converts to the RCC). When I look at why I (a lifelong Prot) do not fully except the church’s authority though, it is because I am not convinced on where the church stands on all those everything-elses.

    In your experience as a Roman Catholic, do you feel like there’s a paradox inherent in your statement? For example, let’s say John Revert believes in/accepts the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Church’s teachings on Baptism, but doesn’t (or can’t) accept the church’s teaching on some important Marian issues (her immaculate conception, her perpetual virginity, her assumption), or the ban on contraception, or the veneration of the saints.

    Now our John is a good man, a good Christian and a pillar of his local parish. We can’t fault him on his faith or actions. But, when he’s saying he accepts the authority of the church — is he really accepting it? I get it in one way. John submits to the authority of the RCC; but if he does not believe all of her doctrine, is he accepting the authority in a meaningful way?

    I promise this isn’t a gotcha. This is a sincere question from a woman who has been surrounded by Catholics her whole life — family, friends, neighbors. When those with whom I’m close talk to me about these things — I sometimes tease them that they’re Protestants, too (i.e. are in protest). They’re just double agents.


  49. Which… exactly why I am still protestant. If my minister today starts putting his authority above God and Scripture, I can say “you got a screw loose buddy”

    If I was RCC I would have to wait for “osmosis” (?brainwashing) to wash away my Berean objections.

    I’m not trying to be rude….but in three RCC apologist posts we got right to the point. Accept what you don’t believe because the Church said so. It was good enough for Beckwith, but I can’t do it. The RCC has been wrong too many times in history.

    Memphis, in sincerity your post seems a little dichotomous. “Differences are allowed” but you have to accept the “Authority of the Church” and conform to that. Can you do both?


  50. I’d point out that Catholicism has every failing that every other Church does because it’s loaded with ordinary human beings. Further even though there is an official doctrine all argument does not cease, doctrine is often ignored or reinterpreted in the most favorable light. Catholics, like myself, are the greatest impediment to joining. You don’t become a Catholic for the company or the preaching or the homilies or the choir or the beauty of the cathedral. You become a Catholic because you believe the claims of the Church to Authority are true and that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Everything else, good or bad, is secondary and full acceptance of those lesser things are set aside to explore the main question. If you accept the Authority of the Church then acceptance of these other matters naturally follow in time through ongoing continual conversion that can take years. If you can’t accept the Authority of the Church, even if you were to join for other reasons, you’d be at odds within it.


  51. As a convert to Charismatic RCC from devout atheism, who then converted to Pentacostal AOG, then to a self-styled nondenominationalist, and a finally a full-fledged revert to RCC, I have to tell you that many of the doubts and questions that many of you have about the seemingly extra-Biblical teachings and practices of the Church I share and have shared with you, as do many lay people and clerics (the ones of the latter who have confided in me will remain anonymous.)

    I warmed up to Mary and the Saints by sheer osmosis and to the Papacy when I began to cry like a baby all alone on my boat when I heard on the radio that Pope John Paul II was probably not going to last out the day. Up until that point I didn’t even know I liked him, even though I had been a practicing Catholic, an lector, extraordinary minister and a religion teacher for most of his reign.

    I know what I post here often frustrates and infuriates our beloved internet host, but it seems that many of you don’t understand the actual freedom of faith and worship there is inside “Rome”, as you call it. If you are interested and intrigued, come on in and try us out. We don’t check credentials at the door, and I promise, we won’t lock you in.


  52. “But unless I’m very wrong in my understanding the pope is only infallible when “sitting in throne”. And that has only been used ONCE in the history of the RCC. Of course that was in reference to Mary and the immaculate conception.”

    Yeah, that’s generally it – I don’t have my copy of the Catechism of the RCC lying around but you’ve got it right. The dogma of Papal Infallibility is generally invoked when the Pope is speaking Ex Cathedra (i.e. from the chair).

    And that “privilege” was used only once in 1950 when the Pope proclaimed that the Assumption of Mary (i.e. that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven after she died) was a significant point of faith for Catholics.


  53. “but I would have to have some answer to that 2 pages. Why have Popes been so fallible in the past?”

    Not to defend the RCC and trust me I’m not even looking to find the Tiber much less cross it.

    But unless I’m very wrong in my understanding the pope is only infallible when “sitting in throne”. And that has only been used ONCE in the history of the RCC. Of course that was in reference to Mary and the immaculate conception.

    RCC experts please correct me if I’m wrong on this. I’m sure I’ve mangled the terms but think I have the general drift correct.


  54. I spent four years in a Catholic monastery as an Assemblies of God monk and never converted. Not that I didn’t think about it. I did, long and hard. In the end, it seemed that God wanted me where I was. For me, it doesn’t matter if you or I live in the house of Rome or the house of Protestant/Pentecostal. There is only one Body, and each member belongs to all the rest. Do I agree with all the teachings of Rome? No. But to be fair, I don’t agree with all the teachings of my own denomination. Heck, I look back and disagree with some of the things I used to teach!! Sometimes the question is not, “Who is right? Then I’ll join them,” but, “Where does God want me to be an effective ambassador for His mysterious Glory; the mystery of Christ in me?”


  55. One question that I have for those like Dr. Beckwith to “go to Rome” is “Did they visit Wittenberg first?”. Many times, those who go to either the Roman church or the Orthodox Church(s) is that they do not look at Reformation theology (Lutheran). Many mistakenly assume that Reformation and Reformed are one in the same.


  56. Amen Chad. I agree.
    Been reading this blog for two months now.
    Never has a SBC’er come so close to making a convert to RC. I’m starting to run out of reasons to say no. But those three points you make… Pope, mary, priest. They’re just too hard to swallow. But maybe not as hard as goin down with the ship. The only ship worth going down with is the only ship that will NEVER sink.


  57. Gee whiz Michael. If you think the former President of the Evangelical Theological Society gives a “light-weight” reading of Romans, I don’t see much reason for most average Christians reading the letter for themselves.


  58. I tell you, I could almost see myself jumping the sinking ship of evangelicalism to swim the Tiber……

    but I would have to have some answer to that 2 pages. Why have Popes been so fallible in the past? Why does Mary take on unbiblical significance? Why do they try to put mediators between me and Christ (my Mediator)? Part of me really wishes those problems weren’t there…..


  59. I haven’t read the book, yet. Though I remember reading blogs of his conversion and the reactions that followed while I was in middle of my own swim. I’m still exhausted by my conversion, it was years and pages in the coming, and though I’m in the right place, boy, the muscles are still sore and it’s hard to get going some mornings. It helps to read these stories of other conversions, and to know that the reactions to such are not always affirming… I don’t know where this is going but thanks to Mr. Beckwith for sharing his story. Viva il Papa!



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