September 29, 2020

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. “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.

  6. 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.

  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. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. … 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…