Friday, May 18, 2007

Rome-ward Bound

~from OpinionJournal by David Howard, Jr.
The phrase "the Bible alone" in the ETS context refers to the 66 books in the Old and New Testaments of the Protestant canon and thus rules out Mr. Beckwith's continued membership, given that the Roman Catholic Church accepts additional books in the canon, commonly referred to as deuterocanonical or apocryphal books. Mr. Beckwith maintains that he can still sign the ETS statement with full integrity because it does not enumerate the 66 books, but he voluntarily withdrew his membership in the interests of avoiding a rancorous debate in the society.

Responses to Mr. Beckwith's conversion run the gamut. A small number of evangelicals have reacted as if he committed an act of betrayal. Among many more, including us on the executive committee, the response has been one of cordial disagreement on some critical matters, accompanied by an acknowledgment that we nevertheless have much in common as fellow Christians.

Mr. Beckwith's conversion did catch many off guard, though. Not since the 1985 conversion of Thomas Howard, a graduate of Wheaton College, evangelicalism's flagship school, had a scholar of such high profile made the journey "from Wheaton to Rome." A professor of English literature and prolific author, Mr. Howard was widely read among evangelical intellectuals, and his conversion sparked a similar reaction to Mr. Beckwith's, including a 14-page spread in Christianity Today.

As it happens, I am Mr. Howard's nephew and thus watched his conversion from close range. It was anything but sudden. His (and my father's) family of origin embraced a robust Protestant fundamentalism in the 1930s. But in the 1960s, feeling an aesthetic as well as theological longing, he became an Episcopalian and finally in the 1980s a Catholic. He retains some of the best of his fundamentalist upbringing (a vibrant, personal piety and commitment to historic orthodox doctrine) even as he embraces the full teachings of the Catholic Church.

Mr. Howard was among the first of what has become a steady stream of evangelical converts to Catholicism in the past 20 years. Three who achieved prominence after their conversions were the singer John Michael Talbot, now the No. 1 Catholic recording artist, Scott Hahn, a best-selling Catholic author, and Joshua Hochschild, a professor at Wheaton fired for his conversion in 2006.

A common element among these converts is a strong commitment to the Catechism and papal encyclicals. These Catholics are not generally in sympathy with the theologically liberal wing of the American Catholic Church but are enthusiastic supporters of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI's emphasis on orthodox teaching and practice. In short, they have more in common theologically with evangelicals than with liberal Catholics, and evangelicals themselves, in many respects, have more in common with traditional Catholics than with mainline Protestants. Especially on social and political issues, there is much room for common cause.


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