Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Turbulent Tiber

Professor Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), was recently received into the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Beckwith's prominence in Evangelical circles (and beyond them as well) assured that the decision that he and his wife made would attract a good deal of attention, from both Catholics and Evangelicals. As a Roman Catholic who daily grows more grateful for the unearned and unmerited gift of faith and membership in the Mother Church, I am happy for Dr. Beckwith and his wife.

But I do not think that we Catholics should do an end-zone dance about this.

I have had the great good fortune to have had ongoing conversations with Evangelicals whose faith I admire greatly and whose contributions on the subject of faith and culture have been informative and inspiring. In general I feel that Catholics could use an evangelical nudge at least as much as Evangelicals could use a catholic one. (I myself am in constant need of both.)

"I find it almost uncanny that theology is so often engaged in banal and egoistic frictions today," wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 20 years ago, "when the waters have risen to humanity’s very neck and the death knell of theology may actually have sounded."

Here's a suggestion: why don't we Catholics and Evangelicals (and anyone else who wants in on the process) treat ourselves to a little good-humored holy competition: While remaining in serious dialogue with one another, let's see how well each of our traditions can accomplish the task before is: namely, to give a credible -- which is to say, existentially edifying -- account of the truth of Christianity. I might add, just to make the contest a little more interesting: the whole truth.

Here's something that might balance things a bit. Let's call it, well ... works righteousness. It's from something then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote 20 years ago.
Recently, I entertained two South American bishops, with whom I discussed both their social projects and their pastoral experiences and efforts. They told me of the intensive proselytizing with which the hundred or so Christian denominations of the reformed churches have encroached upon the traditional Catholicism of the land and are changing its religious face. In the course of the conversation, they spoke of a remarkable event that they considered symptomatic and that had forced them to examine their conscience as to the course taken by the Catholic Church of South America since the end of Vatican Council II. They reported that representatives of several [largely “indigenous”] villages had come to the Catholic bishop to tell him that they had now joined a Protestant community. They took the opportunity to thank the bishop for all the social undertakings by which he had accomplished many fine things for them through the years and which they greatly appreciated. “But we need a religion, too,” they said, “and that is why we have become Protestants.”
This was the result, then-Cardinal Ratzinger observed, of the decision of the postconciliar Church in Latin America “that these countries should first be developed and then evangelized,” an inversion of the Church’s purpose that the Protestant evangelists did not make. “But men really do not live by bread alone,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “and cannot wait to have their other needs fulfilled until bread is no longer a problem.”

Those who undertake this task will likely be appreciative of parallel or converging efforts of others.

As a professor (whose name I cannot recall) at Wheaton College said to me several years ago on my first visit to Wheaton: "When Christ comes next time, he'll be looking for bride and not a harem."

It won't hurt to keep that in mind.

1 comment:

Athos said...

Dr. Beckwith's coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, and his conciliatory stance toward evangelical brothers gives me great hope in light of our need to be charitable and present more unity as Christian today.

It reminds me of something you said in your talk to the Oklahoma Methodist clergy, Gil: "we need to protect one another's wells."