Tour Finish Line

I have never run a 5k, much less a marathon, so I’ve seldom stepped across a finish line. However, I have now by God’s grace finished the Holy Ground blog tour. During these two weeks of responding to questions, my answers have dashed (and limped) through the blogosphere, some expected, some provocative, all directing attention to the core issues of concern between Catholics and Protestants.

Over the upcoming weeks, I will post some of the highlights. We’ll start with this one:

1. How do people like Francis Beckwith, who seem to affirm the compatibility of at least the core of Protestant/evangelical belief with Catholic teaching view matters like the Catholic beliefs regarding Mary (immaculate conception, assumption into heaven, etc.)?

When Frank Beckwith was asked this basic question at Wheaton College’s Penner Forum in September (which I moderated), he expressed his commitment to Marian doctrines as part of the Great Tradition. In Frank’s words (elsewhere on the topic), “Like marriage to one’s spouse, when one enters into communion with the Catholic Church, he is responsible to embrace all of its teaching (no exceptions). Just as when I married my wife, I married a whole rather than a collection of parts (e.g., I can’t say, ‘You know, I’d like to marry her, but that third knuckle on her right hand is odd’), I can’t be a ‘Catholic’ and pick and choose based on differing levels of plausibility of different parts of the Catechism isolated from the whole.”

In Holy Ground I posit a historical example of the “evangelical Catholic” in the person of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini. In the year 1511, Contarini experienced a moment of illumination that was likened to Luther’s epiphany, where he was fully convinced that salvation could not be won by any human act but was God’s free gift; and, as in Luther’s case, this conviction was accompanied by a perception that the monastery could not, for himself, procure an eternal blessedness. Like Luther, Contarini found in the contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice the solvent of his fears and the resolution of his anxious striving for perfection. This fresh discovery of Jesus’ passion forged an affinity with Luther’s doctrine of faith alone and motivated Contarini to proclaim the sufficiency of the cross among Catholics. However, years later when it was time for Contarini to choose a side at the Colloquy of Regensburg between the papacy and Scripture alone, he chose the pontiff. At the end of the day his religious identity was Catholic, not Protestant.

This is the light in which I see people like Frank Beckwith. They argue for some evangelical Protestant tenets; yet, they do so as Catholics who consciously weave Catholic threads into their theological fabric, threads which from my perspective don’t fit, but somehow they put it together. Sitting down with Catholic friends to discuss these differences in a clear, objective way is important, but it’s of equal importance that we do so with genuine courtesy and respect (1 Pet 3:15-16).

One practical implication from this observation is the importance of understanding religious identity—our own and the person’s with whom we speak. Theological discussion is most fruitful when we understand where our conversation partner orients himself in the doctrinal/ecclesial universe, since such positioning naturally influences how we read texts, use language, relate to tradition, and a host of other such commitments. If we want to listen, learn, debate, persuade, grow, and glorify God in our interaction, (and not simply talk past one another) we must be attentive to such realities.

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