Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Crossing the Tiber

Francis J. Beckwith is an associate professor at Baylor University, and until the other day served president of the Evangelical Theological Society. This makes him a leader, albeit in a modest academic way, among American Protestants. Which is why so many people are surprised by his return to the Roman Catholic Church.

Nota bene: "return," rather than conversion. Beckwith was raised Roman, and did not need to be catechized and confirmed. He simply went to confession. It's really very sweet, as these things go. (And they do go; this sort of thing isn't all that unusual.)

What is not sweet at all, we regret to say, is the response that Beckwith has encountered from angry Protestants. Per the WashPost, a colleague accused him of 'embracing serious error," and Beckwith reported "that strangers have called him at home to berate him, and that his Internet server was overwhelmed by 2,000 e-mails a day to his personal Web site, which in the past seldom generated more than 90 a day." Surely the fatwas and burning crosses will follow soon.

Roman Catholicism is, in a sense, the United States of Christianity: a complex, powerful, and often-misunderstood Colossus, by turns loved, hated, admired and feared by the simpler, smaller and less potent would-be Colossi in its orbit. Both institutions are often better, truer and more beautiful in theory than in reality. Beckwith's decision to reclaim his citizenship -- influenced by his reading of Ratzinger's theology -- would seem a matter of principle, where one often supects that more overtly political converts of the John Paul II vintage are motivated less by theology than by power. We hope that Beckwith will not -- like so many converts -- drink the Kool-Aid and become a reckless idelogue, but that he will be like Newman at the first Vatican Council, and have the courage to advocate for the beauty and truth of theory when they are threatened by the harsh reality of power and prestige.

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