In The Other Journal, James K.A. Smith reviews Francis Beckwith’s Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic and, predictably, and doesn’t like it. His complaint, in large part, is that Beckwith finds most appealing in Rome those aspects which engaged him as an Evangelical:
Beckwith’s project, then, is bent on justification. In particular, the book is largely written for evangelicals puzzled by such a move—though one can also hear Beckwith writing to himself, determined to convince himself, too, that despite his return to Rome he has not had to give up any of the core claims he affirmed as an evangelical. The basic gist of Beckwith’s defense is something like, “Don’t worry! I’m an evangelical Catholic.” Thus in his own little Retractationes in the opening chapter, Beckwith surveys some of his previous thinking (prior to his return to Rome) and concludes “there is nothing in these paragraphs I do not believe as a Catholic” (25). This becomes a persistent refrain throughout the book: he experiences no tension in thinking of himself “as both Evangelical and Catholic.”
In other words, in returning to the church of his baptism, Beckwith didn’t have to renounce any of his intellectual agenda up to that point. What that seems to amount to is proving that this former “Evangelical” culture warrior (the capital E gives that away) is not resigning his commission. The platform that occupied his labors as an Evangelical colonel in the culture wars—concern for “objective truth,” protecting the unborn, and a rabid defense of free markets—still drives him as a “Roman Catholic” culture warrior. In short, Rome’s not so far from Colorado Springs (or La Mirada) after all. What Beckwith gets in his return to Rome is evangelical plus: evangelical fixation on doctrine, fretting about relativism, affirming “objective” knowledge, and embracing a narrow political agenda plus tradition, the primacy of the Roman see, and liturgical adornment. The path to Rome was a straight shot for an evangelical like Beckwith because he doesn’t see any inconsistency in the core “beliefs” of Rome and evangelicalism (as articulated, for instance, in the Evangelical Theological Society’s doctrinal statement).
But is this because Beckwith has created Rome in his evangelical image? Whose Rome are we talking about here? Which Catholicism? Rome is no monolith—that picture itself is a Protestant myth. Catholicism is chameleon and we constitute, to some extent, our own Romes. Even those who convert to Roman Catholicism, especially North American academics, are always, to some extent, joining the proverbial “church of your choice.”
Beckwith has returned to the Rome of his evangelical dreams: a pure, pristine defender of truth, justice, and—not so surprisingly—the American way. No wonder, then, that he sees no tension between being “both Evangelical and Catholic.” His is an Evangelical Rome.
So what is highlighted in a former Evangelical’s personal account of his journey to Rome are those aspects and emphases of the Catholic faith which appeal to him as an Evangelical. Well, imagine that.
But is it really so surprising to find that the Catholic Church is as accommodating of our various spiritual and intellectual dispositions as it is large? I’m reminded of my own spiritual journey. Leaning a little left-of-center in the 90’s, I moved from Tolstoy’s ‘Christian Anarchy’ to Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, impressed by her discovery within the Church room for her own anarchism, pacifism and political activism . . . “plus tradition, the primacy of the Roman see, and liturgical adornment.”
Consider his feeble attempt to pit Beckwith against the Pope:
After reading Moreland a passage from an unnamed author who affirms that “the question about truth is the essential question of the Christian faith as such, and in that sense it inevitably has to do with philosophy,” Beckwith asks his colleague: “Guess who wrote this?” After Moreland reels off some favorite Protestant philosophers, Beckwith plays his gotcha: “It’s the Pope!” “He’s one of us!” Moreland replied in exuberance (78).
On a more macro scale, Beckwith’s Rome is evangelicalism by other means; that is, his is an intellectualized Catholicism—Rome as the home of the true set of Christian propositions or what Beckwith is wont to call “a Christian worldview.” Thus, he criticizes the Catholic teachers of his youth who “spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true” (36). The Rome to which he has returned is, ironically, the matrix of Christianity as an intellectual system—“ironically” because Cardinal Ratzinger (just a few weeks before becoming Pope Benedict XVI) has explicitly said that “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead,” Ratzinger emphasized, “an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
Well, yes — and Beckwith would agree. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to find one more “fixated” on doctrinal truth than our present Pope, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — who, I seem to recall, also expressed his own concerns about “relativism’, and is acutely concerned about the evils wrought when our human projects are divorced from truth.
Professor Smith’s beef doesn’t seem to be with Beckwith so much as Beckwith’s own “fixation with truth.” (I can imagine worse traits). And what passes here for a “book review” tells us more about Smith than it does about anyone else. As he admits:
[I]f I ever make the plunge, as I’m sometimes wont to do, I’m swimming across to that corner of Rome populated with cafes where “bad” Catholics like Graham Greene and Oscar Wilde rail against the formation that nonetheless fuels their imaginations. Beckwith returns to an intellectualized Rome, fixated on truth. I find it hard to share this evangelical concern (that probably makes me a “bad” evangelical). Instead, I find myself tempted by Rome’s fictions.
Perhaps, given my own journey and academic life, I should by now have grown accustomed to the scores of insults that have been hurled at me since my return to the Church. But the insults do not usually come from those, like Professor Smith, who pretend to be the lone virtuous custodian of Christianity’s lost liturgical kernel. Since becoming a Catholic, I have a better sense of my own smallness. I know that if I died tomorrow, the Church would go on just fine without me. I would not, and should not, be missed. But if Professor Smith were to vanish from this mortal realm, the postmodern, liturgically aware, emergent, anti-modernist, radical orthodoxy Reformed Protestant movement will have lost one third of its intellectual firepower.