Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Riding high in the saddle

Francis Beckwith is in a tizzy. Sometimes you have to wonder when the poor guy isn’t in a tizzy. Apparently, “coming home” hasn’t brought him the peace of mind he was seeking.

One of my pet peeves is the intentional overuse of "Rome," "Roman," "Romanist," etc. by Protestant critics of Catholic theology. Here's why: the Catholic Church is a collection of many churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It's catechism--The Catechism of the Catholic Church--is that of all these churches that are in communion with one another and with the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. The theology found in that text, therefore, is not Roman Catholic theology. It is Catholic theology. That's the way the Church understands itself. Common courtesy suggests that those who are critical of that theology summon the respect to refer to it as such.

I am a member of a parish that is in the Latin Rite, and thus, I am, in that sense, "Roman" Catholic. But if, let's say, my wife and I moved to Austin and we became members of Our Lady's Maronite Church, we would still be Catholic, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, but not technically "Roman" Catholic. We would be Maronite Catholic.

I, of course, do not believe that people who use the phrase "Roman Catholic" without knowing its pedigree are intending anything more than to label. Others, however, are less noble in their purposes.

Consequently, anyone with any grasp of the issues knows full well that the Catholic Church is no more the Roman Catholic Church than is the United States of America the District of Columbia of America.

Just as it is not wise or polite to insist on calling a man "black" who asks you to call him an "African American," one should call Catholicism by the name it calls itself rather the label its ignorant or bigoted critics insist on calling it.

If an individual Catholic wants to be called a "Roman Catholic," that's his business, and I will respect him by calling him nothing but that. On the other hand, if the Church with which he is in communion insists on calling itself "Catholic," he and the Protestant should comply, if for no other reason than that it is charitable to do so and charity is a virtue.

I guess it should not surprise me that a Protestant would not only protest against the Catholic Church but also the Catholic Church's use of the word Catholic. He's not pleased with just leaving our church and having his own church; he wants to take our name and give us a new one. So much for the "priesthood of all believers." :-)

You wouldn’t expect a philosophy prof. to exhibit quite so much philosophical naiveté.

i) For starters, when speakers (or writers) use a designation, it’s not necessarily to make a point about the referent. Oftentimes, it’s just a common way of referring to something. A conventional, recognizable designation.

In that context, such usage carries no special significance one way or the other. There’s no subtext.

ii) At other times, the speaker will, indeed, use a designation to make a point. But one of the odd things about Beckwith’s outrage is that “Roman Catholic” or “Roman Catholicism” comports perfectly well with the self-understanding of his denomination. According to the official legend that underwrites his denomination, Peter, as vicar of Christ, was the first bishop of Rome, and he ordained a line of successors. That’s why Catholic apologists and theologians stress “Roman primacy.”

Why Beckwith imagines this usage to be ignorant, or bigoted is puzzling.

iii) It’s even more puzzling when you consider the fact that he himself entitled his book “Return to Rome.” And that’s also the name of his blog.

The fact that he’s so hypersensitive about this innocuous designation on the lips of Protestants must betray some insecurity on his part.

iv) Conversely, and ironically, the reason he gives for why a Protestant speaker should defer to “Catholic” usage is the very reason a Protestant might balk. To the extent that this designation is taken to reflect the self-understanding of his denomination, that’s an excellent reason to avoid it.

A self-designation can be a propaganda device: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…”

In cases where a self-designation is propagandistic, a speaker has every right to resist that terminology.

Mainland Chinese party officials might well regard it as more charitable and polite to designate their totalitarian regime the “People’s Republic of China,” but I’ll stick with “Red China.”

Mormons might find it more charitable and polite if we called them “Christians” rather than “Mormons.” After all, the self-designation of their cult is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” That reflects their self-understanding.

Since, however, that self-designation is a propaganda tool, I’ll stick with “Mormon.”

Likewise, the abortion lobby prefers to peddle euphemisms like “woman’s choice” or “medical procedure.” Does charity or courtesy oblige me to be a party of their agenda?

To take his own example, when race-baiters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson insist on “African-American” to denote and promote their brand of identity-politics, I reserve the right to opt out of that linguistic extortion.

v) I can’t help noticing that the church of Rome only discovered the virtues of courtesy and charity rather late in the day. If, for example, you read the text of Exsurge Domine (available online), the language and countermeasures proposed by Pope Leo X to describe and suppress the nascent Protestant movement doesn’t strike me as overly charitable or courteous.

I also can’t help but notice that this discovery seems to time with the church of Rome’s loss of temporal power. And therein lies a moral: the true test of charity is not to be charitable when you have to be, but to be charitable when you don’t have to be.

Once his denomination no longer had state sponsorship to back its brass knuckle policies, then it suddenly discovered the virtues of tolerance. Funny how those in power are quick to advocate tolerance the moment they fall from power. But I’m sure that’s purely coincidental.

vi) For Beckwith to image that Protestants are “taking our name,” as if the church of Rome held the copyright to “Catholic,” is symptomatic of his insular self-absorption.

This sort of opining about someone’s inner life and thought processes from an online interview is unseemly. The meanness was palpable.

I have no idea how people like Mr. Turk can so causally and without regard for others claim to know every jot and tittle of what lurks in a person’s spiritual journey. It made me ill when I read it two years ago, and it makes me ill to read again now.

To take something so personal, profound, and moving and turn into a condescending blog entry in order to get a rise out of your fundamentalist Amen corner is beyond the pale.

But what just sticks in my craw is the arrogant flippancy of people like Turk who think they can move from a brief interview to pronounce on the seriousness of a person’s spiritual journey.

Of course, that complaint is wholly duplicitous. Like so many converts and reverts, Beckwith is using his life story to justify his change of religious alliance. An exercise in autobiographical apologetics. Since he himself has made that large part of the argument, then his personal narrative is fair game.

In fact, virtually every Christological heresy in the history of the church is the consequence of someone trying to split the difference.

That’s often the case. And it’s highly ironic that Beckwith would bring this up since church of Rome has always tried to split the difference between sola gratia, on the one hand, and human freedom or merit, on the other. So, by his own yardstick, “Catholic” soteriology is analogous to Christological heresies.

It seems to me that the issue on which the Reformation ultimately turns is the nature of grace. Once I could not in good conscience hold to forensic justification and imputed righteousness, I had no choice but to return to the Church of my baptism.

i) That’s quite illogical. Even if you reject forensic justification and imputed righteousness, it’s not as though the church of Rome is the only alternative. Why not become an Anabaptist or Eastern Orthodox, or any number of other options?

ii) Does Catholic theology reject imputed righteousness? Sure, there’s more to Catholic theology than imputed righteousness–like congruent merit and infused grace. But doesn’t Catholicism also subscribe to the vicarious atonement of Christ? Likewise, isn’t the treasury of merit vicarious merit?

All I am suggesting is that Evangelicals like Turk learn how to read others with an eye toward learning rather than “gotcha.” If he had not read the interview locked and loaded, and if he had taken the time to understand Trent as Trent understood itself rather than how philosophically untutored low-church fundamentalist American Christians read it...

i) I’m struck by how often Catholic converts and reverts exhibit this overweening pride. Why do so many of them act like self-important prigs? I always have to ask myself, are they so proud of themselves because they're Catholic, or are they Catholic because they're so proud of themselves?

I’d just note in passing that if a man is that full of himself, then there’s not much room left over for Jesus.

ii) Moreover, Beckwith is not a church historian or licensed Catholic theologian. He’s not some great authority on Tridentine theology. He’s just a layman–like you and me.

A word of advice to Beckwith: Don’t get on your high horse when you ride a Shetland pony.

iii) To further an ecumenical agenda, there’s a lot of historical revisionism afoot regarding the original intent of the Tridentine Fathers. And it isn’t just beetle-browed fundies who see it that way. To take a few examples from different sides of the debate:

Robert D. Preus, Justification and Rome (Concordia 1997)


  1. A number of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox folks, and Protestants (including myself) refer to female clergy in the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church as "priestesses." For whatever reason, they do not like that term and much prefer to be called "priests" or "women priests."

    Next, Protestant churches prefer to be called churches. They don't want to be called "ecclesial communities."

    Pot. Kettle. Black. Speck. Log. Eye.

  2. Here are some examples of the Roman Catholic Church referring to itself as Roman, even using the term "Roman Catholic". The first quote claims that every Christian church has the Roman church as its only foundation. If Rome is your only foundation, why would you object to being called "Roman"?

    "Indeed, 'from the incarnate Word's descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior's promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her.'" (Catechism Of The Catholic Church, 834)

    "I acknowledge the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, the mother and mistress of all the Churches." (First Vatican Council, 2:12)

    Notice that, in the following quote, the universal church is referred to as "Roman":

    "They adopted an attitude of opposition and, prodigal of their good name and enemies to their own honour, they strove to their utmost with pestilential daring to rend the unity of the holy Roman and universal church and the seamless robe of Christ', and with serpent-like bites to lacerate the womb of the pious and holy mother herself." (Council of Florence, session 9)

    "Some say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the True Church in order to gain eternal salvation." (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 27)

  3. Calling Beckwith a Romanist is no more a slight than his designation of myself as a Calvinist.

  4. AAAAH geesh, and I thought I was getting along with you in here?

    Shetland ponies, now come on, I was raised up with my very own Shetland pony!

    Couldn't you have picked on pigs, they are smaller?


  5. I guess Dr. Beckwith is trying to do for "Roman Catholicism" what Nancy Pelosi is trying to do for the "Public Option" (also originally considered a positive designation by its advocates, but apparently no longer).

    It's ironic to find a political conservative adopting classic left-liberal tactics: persuasion by rebranding.

  6. Further, I hereby demand that Dr Beckwith refer to me as a "biblical Christian". "Calvinist" is an unloving caricature.

  7. Go here and enter "Roman Catholic" (with the quotation marks) in the search engine.

  8. I insist on calling Romanism "Antichrist," like all Reformers did. Like Confessional Lutherans still do. Like every English Reformer did. It's Gospel is demonic.

    The Catholic Churches of the Reformation deserve the title "Catholic," as Bp John Jewel and so many other argued.

    Rome deserves one title: "False Church."

  9. "philosophically untutored low-church fundamentalist American Christians"

    So much for courtesy and charity.