Francis Beckwith is a U.S. philosopher who sparked a furor when he resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, upon his return to his cradle Catholic faith.
On June 15, Beckwith spoke at a Vatican conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization to celebrate Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). He will be the keynote speaker at the Aug. 1-3 Napa Institute Conference, where he will outline new challenges to the rationality of Christian belief and the need for a public response from the Church.
Beckwith is a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University and resident scholar in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, whose research spans the fields of ethics, legal philosophy and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice and Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic, among other works, and blogs at Return to Rome.
Beckwith spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond June 8 about his pilgrimage to the Catholic Church, how Catholics and evangelicals have overcome the tensions of the past by working together on issues like abortion and same-sex "marriage" and the growing suppression of religious speech in the name of "tolerance."
You were raised Catholic, left the Catholic Church and then returned. Tell me about that.
When I was a kid in my early teens, I became very interested in the person of Christ. My father had a friend who left a book at the house called Good News for Modern Man. I read it and started going to a Protestant Jesus People Church in Las Vegas.
I still went to Mass with my parents, but I was drawn more to evangelicalism. My experience was that the Catholics in the early ’70s were unserious about theology and more concerned about the cosmetics of the post-Vatican II world, and that pushed me away.
After college, I went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University and had an opportunity to study under one of the great minds in philosophy, Norris Clarke, SJ.
Studying and teaching on the major issues of our time, I began to see that the people who were doing the best work were Catholics. I realized I had begun assimilating many Catholic ideas, even though I didn’t consider myself Catholic. They offered better answers on apostolic succession, the doctrine of justification, penance and the Eucharist.
Was there a particular doctrinal issue that spoke to your own faith life?
One difficulty I had as an evangelical was figuring out the role of holiness. After all, I was saved — they said you would exhibit good works, yet it’s not that easy.
Catholicism, and ultimately Jesus, offers redemption after one becomes a Christian. The issue of post-baptismal sin is addressed with confession, reconciliation.
Initially, I didn’t appreciate the whole Catholic understanding of the sacramental life, prayer and fasting, so essential to being formed according to Christ.
You now describe yourself as an "evangelical Catholic." What does that mean?
As I wrote in my book Return to Rome, "I am an evangelical Catholic because I believe in the Evangel, the Gospel, the Good News, and that it is a gift of God that ought to be embraced and lived by everyone. As an evangelical, indeed as a Christian, I have an obligation to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
"I am also Catholic, because I believe the Church is universal and that its continuity is maintained through history by the whole of its membership, the body of Christ, and not merely as a collection of isolated individuals in personal relationship with Jesus. I also believe that this Catholic Church is under the direction of the Holy Spirit working through the Church’s magisterium, the apostles’ successors."
In recent decades, pro-life Catholics and evangelicals have worked together against legal abortion and, more recently, same-sex "marriage." Now, they are working to overturn the HHS mandate. How has this joint advocacy improved mutual understanding?
One thing about the evangelical world: Until the early ’80s, there existed a strong anti-Catholic message. With [the shift] on abortion and marriage issues, that changed radically.
It has forced both sides to look at the traditions of each. Evangelicals realized that the presentation of Catholicism offered by evangelical literature wasn’t quite accurate. Catholics saw the attraction of the Protestant view of Scripture, which was really part of the Catholic Tradition.
Catholics hadn’t thought about the conversion of people who aren’t Catholic, but evangelicals are good at communicating their faith in a way that is understandable to ordinary people.
Catholics often talk to each other in language that outsiders don’t understand. Evangelicals are good at presenting their faith in venues that are hostile to religious belief. They are very good at equipping laypersons in rather sophisticated ways. For example, one can find scores of conferences every year hosted by evangelical churches, and at these conferences some very well-educated and accomplished evangelical scholars will offer to their listeners winsome and intelligent ways to share their faith with others.
Religious liberty has emerged as a key ecumenical issue, but the social and political contest has changed from previous efforts to attack and stigmatize Catholic ethnic groups. Today, Church teaching is the target.
Threats to religious liberty today are different from the American experience of the 1930s, when Protestants feared that Catholics would use public funds [through school vouchers] to evangelize.
Now, [with the HHS mandate] you have the government conscripting the financial resources of the Church to advance a secular point of view on the nature of sexuality and the humanity of unborn children.
So the issue has shifted from a belief that the Church should leave the government alone to a belief that the government should leave the Church alone to conduct its business without interference.
During the Year of Faith, Blessed John Paul II’s landmark encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, is getting special attention. What is your message at the conference on the encyclical hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization?
I discuss how to understand the culture of death — including its philosophical roots — and how to respond to it for the purpose of persuading skeptics.
I offer a reply to the authors of the article "After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?" first published online in March 2012 in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
I show that even in an article hostile to the culture of life the authors must rely on assumptions consistent with the sanctity of life.
[Thus] one finds a glimmer of John Paul’s claim that the gospel of life is "written on the heart of every man and woman, has echoed in every conscience ‘from the beginning,’ from the time of creation itself, in such a way that, despite the negative consequences of sin, it can also be known in its essential traits by human reason."
Your book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Midair and other commentary have addressed the suppression of natural-law arguments and religious speech in the academy, all in the name of a skewed interpretation of the virtue of "tolerance."
The context has changed. There is an aggressive secularism that is punitive and unforgiving. The rightness of the cause cannot be questioned, for, if any doubts intrude, the whole house of cards collapses.
It is the collapse of liberalism, which has morphed into an ideological fanaticism. They once defended free speech and agreed that everyone should have their day in court. Now, they just call you names.
This is the first generation of people who have been educated in universities where postmodernism is in ascendance. It teaches that ideas and arguments are just a pretext for gaining power. There is an anti-intellectual element to this.
When I was in college, the professor told us, "Pro-lifers are only against abortion because they want to keep women barefoot and pregnant."
I said, "No, they think children are one of us."
But people in elite institutions say that reason doesn’t apply to moral questions, and so my argument would be dismissed as just a cover for prejudice.