Sunday, May 23, 2010

Conversion Matters

James K.A. Smith's review of Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome (the best parts of which are the opening paragraphs), might on the surface appear to be a critique of Protestants who convert/revert to Catholicism.  It struck me, however, as an endorsement of just such a move. Obviously Smith disagrees with Beckwith epistemologically, and (moreso perhaps) politically, but Smith's last paragraph simply highlighted the fact that there is room for both Beckwith and Smith within the Catholic faith.  It's a spacious church, that Roman one.

Recently, Robert Jenson shed some new light on his attitude towards Catholicism.  Writing a "How My Mind has Changed" article for The Christian Century, Jenson explains why he and his wife Blanche "will not, we now think, become Roman Catholic, despite great empathy with formerly Lutheran or Anglican friends and allies who have."
I have written that all Western churches should be under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, in his role as patriarch of the West. I have written that the universal church needs a universal pastor and that Rome is the only place for this ministry. I stand by all that. But I have never believed and do not now believe that one's soul is endangered merely by lacking full communion with Rome. Nor do I believe that a celebration of the Eucharist or of other of the mysteries lacks any reality or efficacy sheerly because the celebrant has not been ordained by a bishop recognized as such by Rome. Thus individuals - as distinct from churches - who are not in full communion with the bishop of Rome can and therefore must decide for themselves whether to seek it. That such individual choices are inescapable is among the punishments visited upon a divided church.
Despite his acknowledgment of Roman primacy, Jenson concludes that his family will (for now) stay Protestant, due to a "stubborn, indeed now somewhat desperate, dedication to that original ecumenical vision and an accumulation of experiences and reflections, none decisive by itself." Which is to say, there is far more at work in the decision to convert than getting one's theological and church historical facts straight (however important that may be).  This is something which Beckwith, it seems to me, understands.  Rather than being (as Smith claims) "a litany of facts, arguments, and propositions," Return to Rome read to me as an attempt to respond to a litany of Protestant facts, arguments and propositions, offering the more mysterious, downright "Smithian," both/and terrain of Catholic dogma instead.  In addition, familial factors were especially active in Beckwith's case (which is why Smith's "where is love?" line was odd).  Beckwith's grandmother, wife and nephew - not just Louis Bouyer and Cardinal Newman - were key players in his decision.

It is hard to begrudge Protestants who convert to Catholicism, or Orthodoxy for that matter, especially when justification, the Reformation's "article by which the church stands or falls," is undergoing a very public, Protestant overhaul.  But the tragedy of a church divided can obfuscate what might otherwise be clear.  Even when conceding the superiority of another tradition, we can be bound to our own through personal history or pastoral commitments, or a bottomless sense of genuine indebtedness.  A faith formed chiefly by the New Testament will intuitively grasp the absurdity of having to choose not only Christ, but among the fragments of his broken ecclesial body as well.  But the church has been sundered, and this is our lot.

[crossposted at evangel]