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Catechesis, Conversion, and the Reason For the Hope Within You Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 30 March 2012

During Holy Week and Easter Sunday Mass, in Catholic parishes throughout the world, many pilgrims will be received into the Church. Most will have gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), a six-month study of the Church’s teachings and practices. This year I have the privilege of being part of the RCIA team at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center at Baylor University, where as many as a dozen men and women will soon be entering the Church.

Because it was five years ago this week that my wife, Frankie, and I decided to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, I have been reflecting on my own journey and the degree to which my own misunderstanding (and subsequent understanding) of Catholicism and its teachings were instrumental in both my departure to Evangelicalism in my teens and my return to the Church at forty-six.

Although I had attended Catholic schools from first through twelfth grades (1966-1978), my knowledge of Catholic thought was grossly superficial. Everything that I would come to believe substantively about Catholicism during my years of intellectual and spiritual formation as an Evangelical would come from Protestant authors, some of whom were deeply hostile to Catholicism while others were critical though appreciative.

I did earn my Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University (1989), a Jesuit institution, where I studied under the great Thomist philosopher, W. Norris Clarke, S. J. It was Fr. Clarke who helped fully convert me from a peeping to a convinced Thomist, though it was St. Thomas’ metaphysics and ethics, rather than his commitment to the Church, to which I gravitated.

In fact, I scrupulously avoided St. Thomas’ ecclesiastical and sacramental theology. I thought at the time (if you can believe it) that St. Thomas’ Catholicism could be safely severed from his philosophical musings. Besides, there was no reason for me to read St. Thomas on these matters since I knew that the case for Catholicism was biblically and historically weak. For I had been intellectually formed about Catholicism by non-Catholic authors, whom I trusted.  

During the 1990s, soon after I was hired by the philosophy department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I began teaching and writing on issues in applied ethics and political philosophy. This was a departure from the philosophy of religion, the area of study that had initially attracted me to the discipline of philosophy. Because of these changing interests, I was drawn more to Catholic authors who seemed to have a better grasp of the underlying philosophical issues that percolated beneath many contemporary moral debates.

I found myself continually moved by the case Catholic authors made for their Church’s philosophy of the human person and what that told us about a variety of contested subjects, including the nature of marriage, the unborn, human sexuality, religious liberty, and the free market.

Although Protestant authors could cite Scripture in defense of their views on all these subjects, and sometimes quite impressively, their cases lacked the elegance and intellectual richness of the Catholic authors. Moreover, the Catholic Church could locate its moral beliefs deep in Christian history, connecting its moral theology to its predecessors, from the earliest Christians to the present day, while at the same time accounting for genuine development in these beliefs consistent with its earlier teachings.

Protestantism, on the other hand, seemed easily influenced by cultural fads and secular movements in the formation of its moral theology. So, for example, after the Anglican Church discarded its ban on artificial contraception in 1930, it took only one generation for conservative American Evangelicals to make a case for contraception and nonconjugal sex as being consistent with biblical Christianity.

In retrospect, it is clear to me now that I had, by gravitating to and eventually embracing the Catholic Church’s teachings on these matters, begun to see the Church as a “truth-telling institution,” as my friend Hadley Arkes puts it.  As an Evangelical, I found myself, like Hadley, often looking to this Church, its leaders, and its great authors for insight on moral and philosophical questions, though I sometimes found theological wisdom as well.

I would eventually learn that I was mistaken about much of what I thought I knew about those Catholic doctrines that for decades prevented me from returning to the Church (i.e., justification, penance, holy communion, apostolic succession). Thus, in the last week of March 2007 I could not think of a good reason to remain in schism with the Catholic Church.

Cradle Catholics often underestimate the importance of sound catechesis in the formation of one’s intellectual and spiritual development. But for many of us who left the Church for what appeared to be greener ecclesial pastures, its absence and eventual recovery in our lives made all the difference in the world.

This is why RCIA is far more important than we often realize. It is perhaps the primary way that a local parish can obey St. Peter’s instruction, “But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.” (I Peter 3:15 – DR)


Francis J. Beckwith, the fifty-seventh President of the Evangelical Theological Society, is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author of Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos, 2009) and one of four primary contributors to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012)

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written by Paul, March 30, 2012
I do find it so sad Greg Koukl didn't revert with you. He is such a great communicator, yet now seems to be fighting his (very winsomely argued) war on relativism on his own, whilst being unable to see, or acknowledge, denominationalism for what it is. It seems like it's one area of his life he's still clinging on to relativism himself.

But, probably like many of us, he's a victim of the lack of sound catechesis and formation you describe. I frequently remember him in my prayers as I imagine you do, too. - and have him as a reminder of what we lose by failing in our duty to instruct well.
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written by Achilles, March 30, 2012
Beautiful essay Dr. Beckwith. My RCIA just over 4 years ago was dismal and remains so today. What I marvel at is that so many that start it and complete it. There is a desperate need to improve catechesis lest the sole motivator for perseverance is finite enthusiasm without the inexhaustible Truth.
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written by Manfred, March 30, 2012
"Cradle Catholics often underestimate the importance of sound catechesis..." As modern Catholicism is so heterogeneous (cf. Pelosi, Biden, Cuomo,Sebelious v. the SSPX, FSSP, Manfred), I wonder to what you are referring? The Church did not arrive at Its present position because of unity and homogeneity, but rather through dissent and discord. I viewed the Baylor video and saw the students waving their arms over their heads as well as discussion of eucharistic ministers(sic) and lectors. My Catholicism has nothing like that. If Pius IX, Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII or John XXIII walked into a Baylor Mass or mine, which one do you think they would recognize?
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written by Gabe Smith, March 30, 2012
Professor Beckwith,

I'm curious, when you converted what did Greg Koukl say to you and what did you say to him? Do you ever see Greg making the switch?
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written by Dave, March 30, 2012
@Manfred: Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church; and he also promised, as the Gospel at Mass told us this week, "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Another way of putting this is "seek and you will find." I think anyone who wants to know what the Catholic Church teaches and what she has always taught can come to it with a modicum of good will - and yes, I am arguing that dissenter lack good will and so too do those who accept their blandishments. My own movement to the Church began in childhood, actually, and was strengthened by a stint at Yale Divinity School, where, in contrast to the New Testament's assertion that "God is not the author of confusion," confusion was all I saw. It was only in the Catholic Church, seen through the lens of someone steeped in liberal Protestant theology, that I found the freedom of confusion that the New Testament promises: no contradictions in dogmatic, moral, liturgical and pastoral theology nor between them -- not if you take the documents at their word and certainly not once you study church history and see that when the teachings of the Church are applied, miracles do occur.

It was true then and it is true now.

I don't doubt that something of inestimable value was wrested from you in the liturgical reforms of the 60s and 70s. The stream of teaching issuing forth from the Popes shows, however, that the Church and her chief pastors espouse and profess what has always been espoused and professed.

Note to anyone considering conversion: go to Peter. Read what the Popes say and forget the nut cases who dare to speak for the Church in opposition to what the Holy Father teaches. Where you find Peter, there you find Christ.
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written by MikeG, March 30, 2012
As a catechist to a class of 8th graders, it is amazing how much more responsibility is placed on us since these kids aren't being catechized at home by their primary catechists -- their parents.

I'm a child of the post-conciliar 'fallout' (born in the 70s), with 16 years of "Catholic" education under my belt. But most of what I know today of how to be a Catholic is from my my parents; especially from my late father (RIP), a sacristan of 35 years at my childhood parish. He prayed the breviary faithfully, he humbly went about his business at the church without drawing attention to himself -- which is why I think he loved being a sacristan. He was consistently Catholic and hardly ever had to tell my siblings or me what to do because he catechized best with his actions (St. Francis would be proud!).

That which parents are getting from the pulpit then (and how the Liturgy is treated), in my opinion, is of prime importance. Our natural primary catechists are sorely lacking in training, and because of the lack of virtuous reinforcement from society-at-large among other factors, they need to know more than the general "grossly superficial" aspects of the faith -- which should be coming from the puplit. We are so often easily let off the hook.

Not everyone can have saints as parents, which I was/am graced to have, but I think many simply don't know what they don't know.
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written by Frank, March 31, 2012
Well...I'm one who will finish RCIA at the Easter Vigil the evening of 7 April at my church.
Count me a proud member of the "Tiber All-Star Swim Team, Class of 2012." It has been a struggle of over 18 years. When one is a two time loser at being a Protestant as I, a third time is just not in the cards and so, while my wife (a cradle Catholic) and I decided to raise our daughter Catholic, I asked my wife AND her parents the space and courtesy to observe, read, study, meditate etc. what the Catholic Church was about. Cardinal John Henry Newman said it best, "To discover history, is to become a Catholic." The history is amazing; both glorious and at times notorious and on a much larger scale, the Councils through history testify of tremendous struggles over doctrine development. As I talk to my Protestant friends, critical of the Catholic Church and surprised at my decision, they remind me of the notorious history past and of course present but fail to mention and I have to remind them, that the Church began with a Divine Jesus and 12 men, one of which was named Judas. The Church has had to confront evil from day one. Then of course, a discussion of Catholic theology ensues on such issues as The Blessed Mother, Transubstantiation, Confession, it goes on and on. My only rejoinder to them is this, read the Catholic Catechism and study for yourselves. One may disagree with the tenets of the Church but one cannot argue that these positions were arrived at simplistically as it took many years (sometimes centuries) of thought, struggle, and prayer to arrive at establishing various points of dogma and doctrine. My lovely wife is of course supportive of my decision but sometimes in our discussions over this matter, there are many things about the Church she was raised in she does not know or understand, yet accepts. This is all well and good mind you but also may be indicative of a number of cradle Catholics. And so I ask the question, do some cradle Catholics REALLY know the elegance and rich beauty of the Catholic Church? Instead of grousing at the "this is the way it is," take some time to understand from the history and the struggle, "the why." For 2,000 years, the Church has had to endure attempts to destroy it from within and from without but Christ's promise endures. This Church, this one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church stands firm and resolute to a world trapped in its own evil madness.
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written by Randall, March 31, 2012
@Frank,

Welcome to the Catholic Church. I entered 6 years ago at Easter Vigil. Oh yes, to discover history is to become a Catholic. That just about sums up my path to the Church. Also, you're right about so many cradle Catholics not appreciating the richness of the Faith.

Somewhere G.K. Chesterton wrote a story about a young man leaving home to see the bigger world and some distance down the road looking back at where he'd left, where he'd lived hs life, and being wonder-struck because he was seeing it as if for the first time.

@Achilles,

The RCIA program I went through was dismal, too. The RCIA director was a former nun who was sympathetic toward marxist and radical feminist ideas. Luckily some of other RCIA volunteers were more faithfully Catholic.

There are excellent faithful Catholic writers for people of all temperaments. George Weigel and Scott Hahn appealed to me. There are ladies like Danielle Bean for mothers, etc. There's something for everybody and it's important to get material from good, faithful Catholic writers into the hands of non-Catholics.
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written by Gerard Deveney, March 31, 2012
From a revert...
After 28 years wandering through the weeds of reformation theology,sola scripture and Calvanism
I came Home.
Three years ago I was part of an ecumenical gathering at my Evangelical Babtist Church. We were
about half Catholic and half Protestant. My sole reason for attending was to gently show my Catholic
brothers and sisters the error of their way.Instead they most patiently,over several months,showed
me the True Church. On 15 March 2009, guided by The Holy Spirit, I returned to the Church and the
Sacraments. There is a lot more to my story but I'm blessed to be back in the Church.
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written by Barbara Riggs, March 31, 2012
Tonight I celebrate my 10th anniversary as a part of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. I cannot imagine life without the Catholic faith.
I have gone from being a stubborn anabaptist to RCIA director in our Cathedral parish, where my husband and I teach the whole faith from our studies of the Catechism, and the wealth of writings available to us. We do not use any of the "programmed" RCIA materials passed on to us by previous directors (which I suffered through as candidate in 2002), because of their emphasis on feelings and small group dynamics.
May Jesus be praised for bringing me to this wonderful place in His body, the Church.
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written by Frank, April 01, 2012
"...that these positions were arrived at simplistically as it took many years (sometimes centuries) ..."
One of the hazards of typing too fast when thoughts come forth at the same pace.
What I MEANT to write was..."that these positions were NOT arrived at simplistically as it took many years (sometimes centuries)...

My apologies to all here for any confusion created.
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written by Randall, April 01, 2012
@Barbara,

Blessings to you and your husband. It sounds like the catechumens in your RCIA program are getting real substance. You mentioned the "emphasis on feelings and small group dynamics" that plague many RCIA programs. Honestly, it got to the point when I was in RCIA that if I had been asked to "talk about my journey" yet again I would have broken the 5th commandment!
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written by Edward Radler Rice, April 01, 2012
Dr. Beckwith,

I just found out that Baylor is phasing out its Church-State graduate programs... Where is the best place to pursue doctoral studies in the area of Church-State relations?
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, April 02, 2012
Edward, the best place for Church-State studies is probably Emory, though I am not sure they have a doctoral program. Also, Notre Dame's political science department looks like it is becoming a real important center for law and politics. So, you might want to check them out as well
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written by Edward, April 03, 2012
Thank you, Dr. Beckwith, for the tips.
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written by russ rentler,md, April 03, 2012
Dr. Beckwith, it is with much joy and a warm heart that I read again your story of reversion to the Church in 2007. Like you, I too was taught most of my information about Catholicism from non-Catholic sources(in my case less academic folks like Jack Chick!)
At any rate, after 31 years I found my way back on April 30th 2004 after 31 years in the protestant evangelical world. I continue to thank God for his grace in bringing us back home and will say a prayer for you and your family this week. Thanks for all you do for Jesus and His Church!

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