When Francis Beckwith woke up one day last May, his world had dramatically changed. Suddenly, his name was the stuff of national headlines, as he found himself the center of a huge controversy — and the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of commentaries. He checked his email box that morning and found it overwhelmed: his server's monthly bandwith limit was about to be reached only five days into May. The messages left there expressed a range of views, some friendly, some not, but almost all filled with emotion.
What had this Professor done to provoke such an uproar?
In a word, he had become Catholic.
Of course, becoming Catholic is not that unusual — countless people are received into the Church every year. But Beckwith was not your average Catholic. He was, at the time of his conversion, one of the nation's leading Evangelical thinkers, a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas. And not only that: he was the reigning president of the Evangelical Theological Society of America, the premier intellectual association of American Evangelicals. Resigning that post to become a Catholic is, well, something akin to the President of Notre Dame stepping down to become a Baptist minister.
Moreover, Beckwith had been raised Catholic, so his newfound religion was not so much a "conversion" as it was a return to the faith, after many years away from Rome.
How and why Professor Beckwith rediscovered his Catholic faith is a fascinating story, which may yet make a great book. It begins, oddly enough, with his childhood in Las Vegas — not a city known for its spirituality and search for truth. Francis was born in 1960, the eldest of four children, to Elizabeth and Harold Beckwith, a Catholic couple who moved their family to Vegas, for business reasons, in the 1960s.
Lament of a Generation
Bringing up four children in "Sin City," as Las Vegas is known, wasn't an ideal situation, but the Beckwiths did what they could to protect their children from spiritual and moral harm. Like other Catholic parents, they relied heavily on their Church to educate Francis, and instill in him a love and understanding of his faith. Unfortunately, catechesis was not adequately calibrated to respond winsomely to the spirit of the age. "One of the things many Catholic didn't get at the time," he says now, "is just how hostile the dominant culture was to Catholic thought. Catholic education wasn't equipping the young to respond to that challenge in any intelligent way."
There was no coherent presentation of orthodox Catholic thinking in Beckwith's middle school or high school; catechesis was in a state of disarray. Yearning for objective truth, but discouraged by what he saw, Francis began to look elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. He began attending Catholic charismatic groups, and then Protestant revivals, and Bible studies. Out of respect and tradition, he continued to attend Mass, but felt alienated from the increasingly strange liturgy he encountered, and the insipid sermons preached. Much like the post-Conciliar Church, Beckwith's emotions became a swirling mess. Recalling his confusion at the time, he says today: "Back then, I didn't know who I was."
It's the lament of a generation, something that could be said by thousands upon thousands of similiarly confused Catholics, caught up in the spiritual maelstrom following Vatican II. They were searching for guidance, and the Church seemed unable to provide them. Although the post-Conciliar era has been mercilessly lampooned, sometimes unfairly, few would deny that the Church, at that time, suffered grieviously, taking many souls with it. It was a time when feelings trumped everything, vocations plummeted and the study of Augustine and Aquinas gave way to readings of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was an age when liturgical enthusiasts exchanged the Mass of the Ages for ballerinas and clowns, and the Ave Maria was dropped for out-of-tune guitars, tambourines and harmonicas.
Enter the Evangelicals
Needless to say, the battered post-Conciliar Church was in no position to help Beckwith clarify his faith. It was the burgeoning Evangelical movement which rescued him. Roaming the streets of Las Vegas one day, Beckwith came upon several Christian bookstores — yes, they exist there — and was introduced to the writings of leading Evangelical writers: Norman L. Geisler, John Warwick Montgomery, Francis Schaeffer and R. C. Sproul, among others. They, unlike the Catholic teachers he was familiar with, had no doubts about the "Great Tradition" of Christianity, nor were they afraid to vigorously defend it. True, they drew their theology from the Protestant Reformation-and thus often assailed particular Catholic doctrines and practices, which Francis had become accustomed to — but at least they made elementary sense.
Partly because he was unaware of the rich heritage of Catholic apologetics, and partly because the Evangelical authors he studied really did express many basic Christian truths — often brilliantly –Beckwith came under their sway. In fact he became an active Evangelical, and remained one for more than 30 years.
Considering the alternatives, that wasn't a bad thing. Beckwith could easily have abandoned Christianity altogether, or even fallen into a life of disrepute. That he did not is a credit to the Evangelical community, which, whatever its shortcomings, instilled in Beckwith a thorough knowledge of the Gospel, a commitment to Christian ethics, and a sheer love for Jesus Christ. To this day, he cherishes what he learned from his Evangelical friends and mentors.
Unlike others who've left the faith, Beckwith never developed anything approaching hostility toward the Church. "I've known too many serious Catholics — not least my parents and siblings — who love Jesus to the depths of their soul, to believe they were ‘lost.' I always felt, even when I was a rigorous Evangelical, that you could be a practicing Catholic and a true Christian at the same time."
Beckwith's openness toward Catholicism made it much easier to accept his mother's advice, after he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas: she urged him to get his PhD under the Jesuits at Fordham, in the Bronx — "one of the best pieces of advice I ever got."
Off to New York he went. His experience at Fordham was entirely positive, having a profound impact on his intellectual development. Among Beckwith's teachers were some of the finest philosophic minds in American Catholicism: W. Norris Clarke, Gerald McCool and Quentin Lauer, Jesuit priests all. They gave him a deep appreciation of the underpinnings of Catholic theology, helping formulate his views on God, the human person, and the natural moral law. Francis never clashed with any of his Catholic professors, as most everything he learned was consistent with Evangelical Christianity. More, his teachers welcomed Evangelicals into their class, precisely because they knew they took their faith seriously: "Fr. Clarke actually joked to me that I was more Catholic than any of his Catholic students." An interesting sidenote to all this is that, while he attended Fordham, Beckwith lived in Brooklyn, with his Italian grandmother, Frances Guido. A long-time resident of New York, she was also a devout Catholic, who went to Mass daily and said the rosary. Did she know her grandson was an Evangelical? "Yes; but she was very happy that I was studying with these Jesuit priests, whom she trusted — somehow, someway –would eventually bring me back to the Church."
Embracing the Pope's Insights
After obtaining his doctorate in philosophy from Fordham, Beckwith went on to hold full-time academic appointments at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (1989-1996), Whittier College (1996-1997), Trinity International University (1997-2002), and Princeton University (2002-2003) before being hired by Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university. He became a leading thinker within Evangelical circles — and noted opponent of the secular establishment — constantly expanding his knowledge and debating skills, and earning a graduate degree in law along the way at Washington University in St. Louis.
The more he intensified his studies, however, the closer he came to the Catholic world view, even if he didn't quite realize it at the time.
The first real sign that Beckwith's views were shifting was an article he wrote for Touchstone magazine in 2005, entitled "Vatican Bible School: What John Paul II Can Teach Evangelicals," a celebration of John Paul's encyclical, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason. In it, Beckwith urged Evangelicals to embrace "the Pope's insights on how certain philosophies will, because of their own internal logic, undermine confidence in the truth of the Gospel message." Treating John Paul as a brother in Christ, indeed one of the world's eminent Christian leaders, Beckwith continued: "The Pope is interested in saving souls, and he understands that bad philosophy, if not challenged by good philosophy, will make the Church's soul-saving more difficult."
Early the following year, Beckwith attended a conference on "John Paul II and Philosophy" at Boston College, delivering a paper which incorporated many of his Touchstone article's insights. He argued that Protestants who questioned Christianity's early creeds, as defined in the major Church Councils, held "to an incoherent point of view on faith, reason, and the nature of the Christian university." At the end of his address, Laura Garcia, a BC philosophy professor, and herself a Catholic convert from Evangelicalism, asked Beckwith a simple question: "Frank, why aren't you a Catholic yourself?"
The usually fluid Professor, rarely at a loss for words, was stumped. He didn't have an answer — at least not immediately. And the reason he didn't, he reasons now, is because, in accepting the Holy Spirit's guidance in those early Church Councils, he also implicitly accepted the Catholic understanding of the magisterium. And that got him thinking. Although he finally answered Garcia's question by appealing to the doctrines of the Reformation, saying they remained essential, something in his heart had been dislodged — or rather, put back into place. A short time later, he purchased a copy of Truth and Tolerance by Joseph Ratzinger, who just recently had been elected Pope Benedict XVI. Studying the text, he became more and more impressed with its wisdom, and found the Pope's Christian teachings compatible with his own. He wondered if he was alone in his views, as a Protestant, so he called up a close friend — a prominent Evangelical scholar — and read him a passage from the book, about whether theology is really knowledge, and asked him to guess the author. After his friend reeled off a list of names — all Evangelical theologians — Beckwith interrupted and said, "No, no, it's none of them…. It's Ratzinger, the new Pope!"– provoking the reply: "So he's one of us!"
At that point, wheels really began turning in Beckwith's mind, even as he assumed the presidency of the Evangelical Theological Society, in November, 2006. A month before, he had been asked to comment on a paper by fellow Christian philosopher — and Catholic convert — Jay Budziszewski, at the University of Dallas. After he spoke, Beckwith and his wife, Frankie (also an Evangelical, with increasing stirrings toward Rome) had breakfast with the Budziszewskis. The topic at hand? Why the Beckwiths were not yet Catholic — a question Frankie herself had previously asked her husband, and now pursued with the Budziszewskis. What followed was a three-hour conversation about the theological issues that still formed a stumbling block for Beckwith: justification, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the teaching authority of the Church, and the primacy of the Pope. A skilled teacher himself, Professor Budziszewski patiently answered each question, explaining how he once had had similar objections, until he studied the (very Catholic) Church Fathers, and overcame his doubts.
Deep in History
Impressed, but not yet convinced, Beckwith decided to read those authors himself, free of Protestant assumptions. That's when a light went on. "When I read the Fathers, those closest to the apostles, what I discovered is that all the key Catholic doctrines were already there, and sincerely believed, even if they hadn't been officially promulgated by the Church yet."
But one teaching that wasn't there was the key Reformation doctrine on justification — the idea that grace is imputed to the Christian, rather than infused. In fact, the more he studied the Reformation doctrine, the less he found support for it in early Christianity. "The big debate boils down to this: at baptism, or whenever conversion occurs, are you infused with God's grace, and do you have a certain responsibility to follow Christ given that grace — the Catholic view — or, is justification merely a legal declaration from God, stating that your simply declared righteous based on Christ's righteousness, but no grace is infused to you — the Protestant view. A number of Reformed thinkers will point to the Council of Orange — the Council which came out against the Pelagian heresy — as holding to a kind of pre-Reformed Protestant view on justification. But if you read the canons of that Council carefully, what you find taught is infused righteousness. This doesn't mean the Church teaches justification by works, or ‘works righteousness' — on the contrary, the Church has condemned justification by works. The Catholic position, often misunderstood or misrepresented, is that everything we do as Christians is the result of Christ's free grace, in the sense that when we do something good, or participate in the sacraments, we open ourselves up to God's free gifts. We are not working for our salvation, or earning points to get to Heaven; what we are doing is allowing God's grace to change us. In other words, the authentic Christian life is not merely getting into Heaven — its getting Heaven into you."
Beckwith's study of early Church Fathers, as well as his readings of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, not only brought him to the doorstep of the Church, but convinced him that "the Reformation doctrine on forensic justification was really a novelty, historically." That's not to say that the Reformers didn't have legitimate criticisms, for many abuses were taking place in the Church. It is to say that there was no sound reason to leave the Church Christ founded, inventing new doctrines along the way. Too often, says Beckwith, the Protestant reformers were engaged in fighting Catholic phantoms. "What the best of the Reformation fought against was not true Catholicism, or true Christianity, but Christianity abused and confused," he says. "The true essence of Christianity was always there, being taught and preached in the Church, however poorly certain Catholics, including even Popes, practiced it in their personal lives."
The Reformation was a religious tragedy and shocked the Catholic Church to its very core; but to the extent the Reformers helped bring about the Council of Trent — "a marvelous document," insists Beckwith — one might see it as a welcome challenge, ushering in the Catholic Reformation.
Beckwith's search for truth continued, as he eagerly read more of Joseph Ratzinger's works: In the Beginning, Introduction to Christianity, Values in a Time of Upheaval, and especially Called to Communion. Enriched by Benedict's teaching, Beckwith began to understand that by embracing the Catholic vision, he wasn't repudiating the best Evangelicalism had to offer, rather, he was re-discovering and expanding it. In fact, it may have been a Protestant scholar, Mark Noll, who helped move Beckwith the most. Noll's provocative work, Is the Reformation Over?, argues that the modern rapproachemont between Evangelicals and the Catholic Church, demonstrated by the ecumenical Joint Declaration on Justification (1999), has largely resolved that key Reformation debate. It is a theme the great French theologian, Louis Bouyer — another convert to Catholicism — began 50 years before, in his classic, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.
Heeding the Call
When Beckwith came to the point of no return, the point where he thought, "if I reject the Catholic Church, I may be rejecting the Church that Christ Himself founded," he realized "that wasn't a risk I was willing to take." Although he had intended to delay his conversion, at least until his ETS presidency ended, so as not to create a public spectacle, something unexpected happened. In April of 2007, Beckwith received a call from his teenage nephew, asking if he, Professor Beckwith, would serve as his sponsor for Confirmation. Of course, the Church requires sponsors be practicing Catholics, which Beckwith, at that point, still was not. He told his nephew he would seriously consider it, and then asked his wife, "Honey, what should I do?" He may have already known the answer — and so, perhaps, did his wife, who was undergoing a similiar journey herself.
In March of 2007, the Beckwiths had already met with their local priest, Fr. Timothy Vaverek, Pastor of St. Joseph Church in Bellmead, Texas, announcing their desire to seek full communion with the Church. As a baptized Catholic, Francis only had to go to Confession; his wife entered RCIA, the normal program for prospective converts. The idea was that both would formally return to the Church at the end of Beckwith's ETS presidency, in November. But the call from his nephew accelerated all that, and brought them "home," so to speak, ahead of time. The rest, as they say, is history — inspiring Catholics everywhere. Asked if he thinks his nephew's call was Providential, perhaps Heaven's way of prodding him to have the courage of his convictions, before it was entirely comfortable to do so, Beckwith says, "I really don't know. But I have no other explanation."
These days, in addition to his busy teaching and lecturing schedule, Beckwith spends most of his time with his wife and friends in Woodway, Texas; and blogging at Francisbeckwith.com. He also continues to produce acclaimed books. As noted, even before his recent celebrity status, he was a highly respected Christian philosopher, known for his forceful and articulate defense of the Christian world view. Among his published works are a refutation of David Hume, the influential 18th-century skeptic; responses to secularism and relativism; critical studies of the Mormon and Bahai religions; and several works on the pro-life ethic, including his latest, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. Published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, Defending Life is a profound and vigorous defense of the right to life, as well as a comprehensive rebuttal to every conceivable argument in favor of abortion. It has already received sterling reviews, across the political spectrum, including the periodicals America and National Review.
Reflecting on all that has transpired during the last year, the Beckwiths consider themselves richly blessed, not least because of the renewed vitality they see operating in the Church. Best of all, this "dynamic orthodoxy," as its been called, has been embraced by the Beckwiths local parish, under Fr. Vaverek. His guidance and spiritual direction have been priceless, instrumental in their conversion and formation as Catholics. "I would never have predicted," says Professor Beckwith, gratefully, "that it would take a professorship at the world's largest Baptist university in the heart of Texas to bring us in contact with a godly priest who would help guide us into the Catholic Church." The experience has been invigorating, and quite different from the hesitant and confused Catholicism offered him back in the seventies. "The Church has awakened, and I am very optimistic about its future, especially when I interact with the young at Catholic conferences." Strong enough to attract illustrious converts again, the contemporary Church may finally have come full circle, and rediscovered the eternal truths of its roots… just as Francis Beckwith has. Somewhere, his Italian grandmother is smiling.