Serviam, or Non Serviam

Silly me. I thought that we’d gotten beyond the puerile anti-Catholicism of previous generations; I assumed that the nutcases in the fringes of the Internet were, well, on the fringes. Perhaps that’s true; maybe they just all left their cells at once and descended upon Dr. Francis Beckwith en masse. But, after reading three days of venomous comments on his blog, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Philip Jenkins was right: anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.

Let me cut off one criticism with a quick comment: I am not going to defend Catholic triumphalism here. I admit I’m rather pleased that Dr. Beckwith has returned to the Church, but I also think that many recent converts to Catholicism look at the foibles of our Church through rose-colored glasses. Some of them may end up like Bill Cork, returning to their roots. Maybe I will, too; I have no way of knowing what the future holds. But, I rejoice with Dr. Beckwith and I’ll leave it at that.

Now, about the Evangelical and Reformed folks who take issue with Dr. Beckwith’s decision. On the one hand, I’m glad they take issue; they wouldn’t be true to their own traditions if they didn’t disagree with him. But, the sheer arrogance is breathtaking. Let’s take a sampling of the more egregious offenders:

We all know Dr. Beckwith is a well respected man, a good thinker, etc. But, like Greg Koukl says at times, good thinkers make simple mistakes. This is certainly one of them for Dr. Beckwith.

This past week I taught Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” to my son’s home school co-op class, prompting my observation as a longtime ETS member that it seems apparent ETS today would roll out the red carpet for Erasmus, but would give old man Luther the boot. Those tempted to cast a longing glance after Dr. Beckwith would do well to read “Bondage of the Will,” themselves. It’s a perfectly Scriptural cure for Tiberculosis.

As an ex Roman Catholic, and as one who strives to reason with my unsaved Roman Catholic family held captive to its bogus claims, I feel nothing but shame toward people like yourself.

You may well be a respected theologian and smart guy, a great philosopher and all that, but to me, you are a traitor and a stumbling block for the truth of the gospel.

I am grieved in my spirit regarding this decision.

I don’t hold RC’s in ill-will as people, and I do believe that it’s possible for RC’s to be saved. However, it would be in spite of the stated dogmas of their church. I hold them and their church anathema specifically because of Galatians 1:6-9.

I will keep you in my prayers b/c ultimately it is your soul that is on the line before Christ and if you wish to stand behind Rome in your defense before the Father instead of soley behind Christ’s finished work on the cross than you really do need my prayers.

These commentators are stunning. I really don’t know if any words can do justice to how spectacularly wrong they are. But, I’m going to try. Do they really think that all us relatively intelligent people who examined the claims of Rome and decided to leave our Evangelical roots are deluded? That our logic failed us when we left the “Bible alone” behind?

I expect them to disagree with us, but at least give us a little bit of credit. I spent two years studying and arguing with myself and others before I converted. My friends will attest to the agony I went through; the last thing I wanted to do was leave my Baptist church family behind. But, I had to follow my conscience.

There is one simple error of logic that Evangelicals make, that underlies all these comments and prevents the unity of Christianity. That error is that the Bible is formally sufficient for salvation. This position cannot be justified from Scripture itself, because the Bible does not itself define what books it contains, and it is painfully obvious that it does not interpret itself. We must rely upon an external authority, if only to determine the Canon. To claim to follow the Bible alone is to fall into circular logic.

I think I understand why at least some people fall for this error. It is not in our nature to submit to external authority, so we appropriate that authority for ourselves. A common sentiment in Evangelicalism is that the Holy Spirit guides us to the correct interpretation of Scripture. I’d like to think that is true, but the evidence speaks to the contrary: if it were the case, then to whom is the Holy Spirit truly speaking? Those who interpret Scripture to allow one thing, or those who interpret it differently? Ultimately, we appeal to some tradition or another to define the “correct” interpretation. But then how do we determine which tradition to follow?

It is admirable, however, to admit that we follow the tradition of our fathers, in solidarity with them. But, one has to understand that others’ fathers might have followed differing traditions. If relativism is OK with you, then perhaps you could leave it at that, but I couldn’t stop there. I remain convicted that Jesus (in John 17 in particular) and St. Paul (in 1 Corinthians 1 in particular) demand unity in the Church. This is not some invisible unity, but real, visible, tangible communion. The answer to the question of which tradition to follow cannot be answered by examining the present, but only by looking to the historical record of 2,000 years of Christianity. When you do that, as Cardinal Newman so aptly put it, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

So, then, we’re left with two choices: either remain in a magisterium of one, following one’s own whims under the pretext of following the Holy Spirit, while He is leading others who follow their own inner voices to different conclusions, or submit to some external human authority. Submission is terribly difficult; it requires humility, which is not a common virtue. The humble man admits that the sum of human experience is greater than his own. The humble man seeks to understand the other through the other’s eyes, not his own. If you want to understand Catholicism, learn about it from Catholics. If you want to understand the early Church, read the Church Fathers. Then make the decision to submit.

Discover for yourself that the old myths about Romanism and Popery aren’t true. The evidence is all there, if you just take the time to look:

  • We don’t believe in salvation by works. We believe in salvation by the grace of God, which will be manifested in good works. As St. James put it, faith without works is dead.
  • We don’t pray to saints in the same way we pray to God. We ask the saints, who are in heaven, to intercede for us to God, much as we ask friends to pray for us here on Earth.
  • We don’t worship the Blessed Virgin Mary in the same way we worship God. We honor her for her example, for her purity, and for her constant intercession with her Son, but we know that she isn’t God.
  • We can’t buy our way into heaven with indulgences. Indulgences, which can’t be bought or sold, are means of reducing time in purgatory.
  • And speaking of purgatory, it’s simply a place beyond space and time where we who are saved will be cleansed before entering Heaven. Nothing impure can enter the presence of God, and a snow-covered dunghill is still a dunghill. Indulgences are earned by actions that increase our purity here on Earth, therefore reducing the amount of cleansing needed.
  • We don’t re-sacrifice Christ every Mass. We re-present the one Sacrifice.
  • Infallibility doesn’t equal impeccability. The pope, unless he’s declaring something of faith and morals, in a specific manner, is just like you and me. He’s a sinful human being.
  • Yes, we’ve done bad things in the past, but we’re sinful, too. It may not have been a good idea to burn Protestants at the stake, although if you take heresy as seriously as we do–and by your comments, I know you do–then to keep someone from infecting others with their salvation-denying views is perfectly understandable. There were bad popes and good popes, there are bad bishops–lots of ’em. But, that does not take anything away from the preaching of the Gospel.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Please don’t bother reading some hysterical anti-Catholic to learn what Catholics believe. Ask us. We are not the members of a vast conspiracy designed to preach a false Gospel; we were preaching the Gospel before the Canon was set.

And once you’ve learned from us what we believe, then maybe, just maybe, in a spirit of charity, you’ll realize that we seek the face of Christ every bit as fervently as you do. And if we do that, then surely, He will not turn us away.

UPDATE: With sadness, I see that Dr. Beckwith has resigned from the ETS completely, to avoid the public conflict that his presence in that organization would cause.

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23 Responses to “Serviam, or Non Serviam”


  1. 1 tiber jumper May 7, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Very nice post.
    I too was amazed at the rancor and venom spewed, but most of it seems to come from a particularly narrow sect of Christianity and posted about it sat morning.
    Lord have mercy on us all.

  2. 2 Edmund C. May 7, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks, TJ.

    I have a feeling that Dr. Beckwith is going to have a tough time of it the next few weeks/months/years. But, I pray that his example will lead to others considering the same move–especially as they see how those particularly narrow commentators responded.

  3. 3 tiber jumper May 7, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    I agree, those comments alone , God will use to bring folks home. They meant it for evil but God used it for good.

  4. 4 Richard Barrett May 7, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    I’m Orthodox, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. That said, I’m happy to see someone like Dr. Beckwith embracing what he broadly calls “The Great Tradition,” even if I might niggle with him on the particulars. One way or the other, there is an extreme cognitive dissonance encountered when one compares the historic witness of early Christianity to what the preponderance of modern Protestantism looks like, and it does not seem to me that saying “Well, that’s because the Early Church Fathers were infecting Christianity with Platonism and pagansim from the get-go” is an intellectually honest response to that.

    What *does* bother me, however, and bothers me immensely, is the venom being spewed at Dr. Beckwith; what also bothers me is the same being given to Bill Cork, just like it was given to Rod Dreher, by basically the same people presently defending Dr. Beckwith. Within the last year you’ve also had Fr. John Fenton getting it from the LCMS when he left for Antioch.

    Sometimes I feel like everybody would be a lot happier if we were just burning people at the stake again, that at least then we wouldn’t have to pretend to get along.

    Richard

  5. 5 Edmund C. May 7, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Richard,

    Thanks for the comments.

    You made me think back to my reaction to Rod Dreher’s departure from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. I don’t recall being angered, but rather, was saddened that the failures of our bishops hastened, or precipitated, his movement to the East. I am reminded that I ought to be praying for him that his wounds would be healed. I am also of the firm conviction that there ought be nothing keeping our two communions apart. Centuries of hard feelings have produced a deep wound. I’ve had two Anglican friends, on separate occasions, tell me that they would be compelled to convert to a reunited Catholic/Orthodox Church. That should tell us something.

  6. 6 Richard Barrett May 7, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    The truth of the matter is, a committed Roman Catholic and a committed Orthdox have a *lot* to talk about. My wife and I have Roman Catholic friends who have told us before, “We have to keep reminding ourselves you’re not Catholic”; we laughed when we were told that and replied, “We’ve had to remind ourselves you’re not Orthodox.” Alas, the very fact that we take what we have in common as seriously as we do also means that we’re going to take the differences very seriously as well.

    But you are correct: centuries of hard feelings have done a job on all of us, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to heal the wound rather than promote its festering. If the laypeople engage on the level of brothers and sisters in Christ (while respecting the boundaries that cannot be crossed), it will be easier to find the common faith than if we depend on our bishops to formulate minimally acceptable theological statements. Seems to me many of those presently criticising Dr. Beckwith know this–certainly James White has indicated that this is why he’s uncomfortable with what he calls “cultural cooperation” between Evangelicals and Catholics.

    Point being: a reunited Church will require effort from the ground up. If it’s something the hierarchy imposes, it will do more harm than good–witness the Council of Florence. Being in every way at the level of the ground, I’m willing to do my part–so what do we do next?

    Richard

  7. 7 Edmund C. May 7, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Oh, you’re absolutely right: there is a whole lot we need to be talking about. I hope my last comment didn’t sound like I was papering over major differences, of which there are many.

    On the level of cooperation among the laity, there is great potential for finding common ground. I’m no theologian, and I’m frankly not that well-read on the East-West divide except from Catholic sources, but it seems to me that cultural and geographic divides have played, and continue to play, a major role in our separation. I’ve been helped in my thinking on this by reading Mike Liccione’s blog, in which Dr. L constantly points out the commonality that lies behind the heated theological rhetoric that flies between us. So much, to this layman, seems like semantics wrapped around one major difference: the role of the Pope and the Western mechanism of instituting change without necessarily calling an ecumenical council.

    What role, if any, do you see the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches playing in any sort of reunion?

  8. 8 Richard Barrett May 7, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Actually, I meant “a lot to talk about” in the sense of common ground. I didn’t get the sense of you minimizing anything.

    I don’t have much of an opinion either way on the Eastern Rite Catholics. I’d like to think that Western Rite Orthodox parishes might ultimately have a role to play, however. Maybe.

    If you want to know more about the East-West divide from Orthodox sources, a good place to start is The Orthodox Church by Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware, published by Penguin Books.

    If it’s a subject in which you develop a broader interest, you might look into the Society of St. John Chrysostom (www.ssjc.org) , and/or the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius (www.sobornost.org).

    And I will start reading your blog more often, now that I know it exists.

    Richard

  9. 9 Johan May 7, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    “Philip Jenkins was right: anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”

    Anti-atheism?

    //JJ

  10. 10 Edmund C. May 7, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Anti-atheism?

    I’m prejudiced against atheism, of course.

    But, Jenkins was actually speaking about our broader public culture. I doubt you’ll find much public expression of anti-atheism.

  11. 11 Dim Bulb May 7, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    In one way I cannot sympathize with you, or Beckwith, or Cork since I’ve never been anything other than RC. In another way I can sympathize since I have run into meely-mouthed people who think they know what they are talking about and do their talking in a most boorish manner.

    I never spent much time on Mister Cork’s blog site but a friend said he believes Mister Cork’s grasp of Catholic theology was stunted by apologetics. Even among life-long Catholics one often finds that theological horizons have been narrowed by an inability to move beyond apologetics. If a person can’t find it on the Catholic Answers website it must be heresy!

  12. 12 Edmund C. May 7, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Hi Dim, I have been meaning to drop back by your blog.

    I never spent much time on Mister Cork’s blog site but a friend said he believes Mister Cork’s grasp of Catholic theology was stunted by apologetics. Even among life-long Catholics one often finds that theological horizons have been narrowed by an inability to move beyond apologetics. If a person can’t find it on the Catholic Answers website it must be heresy!

    That’s a very sage observation by your friend, since to some extent I suffer from the same ailment. I recognized back two years ago that apologetics was seriously hampering me spiritually. I seldom get back into it unless, like today, I just get fed up with inanity. There is so much more to be found in Catholic theology and spiritual practice that never makes it into prooftexting Bible verses or encyclicals with fundamentalists.

  13. 13 Maureen May 8, 2007 at 7:55 am

    Bill Cork was also very unhappy about some of his chosen issues (military chaplain policy, stuff with the war) not being agreed with by a lot of us St. Blog’s bloggers. I think this contributed to his feeling of loneliness and lack of fellowship, but honestly, loneliness seems to have been the major factor in his conversion. Same thing with Rod — it was obvious that he felt frustrated by church lack of disciipline, but mostly lonely.

    This makes me feel very bad. I know that pursuing the truth is more important than anything else, but people are also supposed to know we are Christians by our love. We can’t necessarily agree on every prudential issue, but we ought to be there for each other. And unfortunately, this is where blogs and Internet friends are not the best help.

  14. 14 tiber jumper May 9, 2007 at 7:31 am

    “I recognized back two years ago that apologetics was seriously hampering me spiritually. ”

    What do you guys recommend for reading to get more of a Catholic mind, worldview? I too have spent the first three years of conversion reading mostly the apologetics material, some Karl Adams, the catechism, but there is so much to learn and read and I suspect it will take years for me to grasp it.

  15. 15 Edmund C. May 9, 2007 at 8:36 am

    TJ,

    Bear in mind that you converted a year before me, so take my advice with a grain of salt. The problem that I had with apologetics material is that it became for me a case of “us vs. them”–Catholics vs. Protestants, and I got a rather big head. I could answer almost any argument, but all that was doing was making me arrogant. I then ran into the problem of “well, the folks around this parish don’t know squat about their faith.” More arrogance…

    The biggest thing that is helping me (I’m by no means over these issues) is spending more time reading classic Catholic spiritual texts, like “An Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and (although I’ve never gotten all the way through it) “Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila. I’ve also been greatly aided by the modern writings of St. Josemaria Escrivá, and I’ve recently started reading some of the works of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation. The key to all these, in my mind, is that they focus entirely on being Catholic, not necessarily on knowing more theology.

    Hope that helps, from a fellow work-in-progress.

  16. 16 tiber jumper May 9, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    ah Edmund!
    we are on the same page. I am daily praying for that sense of “Now I see, Why can’t you?” spirit to be diminished, though if you see the borg posted on my blog, you will know that journey is just starting 🙂
    I have read The intro to the devout life and the spiritual exercises and will look into the others you mentioned.
    Thanks so much
    God bless

  17. 17 Argent May 9, 2007 at 11:24 pm

    Hi, TJ.

    Have you read Thomas Howard’s On Being Catholic? He presents the Catholic faith in a very lyrical way…meditative in quality, allowing you to see the higher vision, the grace-leading-to-graciousness that is inherent in living out the pious life. He captures the joy of being Catholic which helps in transitioning away from the in-your-face-I’m-right fervor that we new Catholics naturally take on at conversion.

  18. 18 Bekah May 14, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Argent,
    I wholeheartedly second that recommendation. With more of my book money being spent on midwifery texts than Catholic ones, this was one of my must have’s. I need to reread it again soon.

  19. 19 tiber jumper May 14, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    thanks I will “half com” it out
    God bless

  20. 20 Idetrorce December 16, 2007 at 2:56 am

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  21. 22 Bill July 24, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    I stumbled upon this months after the fact. Interesting that here I’m accused of restricting my Catholicism to apologetics, while Dave Armstrong accuses me of ignoring apologetics. Here it’s said I was lonely–my friends would certainly disagree. It’s just interesting how folks speculate in ignorance about someone they don’t know at all.


  1. 1 WR as road to Florence? « Western Rite Critic Trackback on January 19, 2008 at 5:32 am

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