A peculiar thing has been happening at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. This is an institution that values the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and many other thinkers one would not expect to find on the shelves of an evangelical seminary. While producing a number of successful and popular Protestant pastors, SES has also been the site of a mass exodus across the Tiber.
In the decade from 2004 to 2014, more than two dozen faculty members, students, and alumni of SES have entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Keeping in mind that only around two dozen students graduate from SES each year, this is rather a significant percentage. The obvious question is: “How can a school co-founded by an Evangelical theologian-apologist known to be critical of Catholicism produce so many Catholics?” In an effort to answer this very question, Douglas M. Beaumont has collected the accounts of nine conversions from SES, including his own, in a new book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome, published by Ignatius Press. Beaumont responded to questions from Catholic World Report via email.
CWR: Can you briefly recount your own conversion story?
Douglas M. Beaumont: I became a Christian believer in 1989, and from then to 2009 I was a dedicated Evangelical Christian student, minister, professor, author, and speaker. In 2009 I engaged in a serious, heart-wrenching process of discernment over whether I would remain in Evangelicalism. As I pondered some of the problems I encountered in the movement, I began to consider the historic Church and increasingly found it difficult to defend my anti-Catholic beliefs. At the end of this process, I came to believe that I was not in full communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. So, in 2014, I was received into the Catholic Church.
What I came to realize is that little progress will be made on the major issues (or many secondary issues) of theology until one settles the issue of religious authority. That single concern is related to numerous key facets of the Christian faith, the most impactful of which were the canon of Scripture and its orthodox interpretation.
The canon of Scripture (the books included in the Bible) is a huge issue for anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God and the authority for one’s faith. If one thinks the early Church went astray somehow, it becomes a very difficult problem because the biblical collection itself was not settled until centuries after the apostles died. If the Church was in error by then, how can the “Bible-Only Christian” be sure he really has the inspired Word of God? And if the Church was kept from error while it determined the canon, why was it not likewise kept from error during the councils and creeds it produced at the same time? As I looked at the major alternate theories of canonization, I discovered the historical truth that the Church is ultimately the standard.
This was also the case with doctrine. It is well known that there is rampant disagreement among the various sects, denominations, and cults of Christianity—but where is the line drawn? Christians often speak of “orthodoxy,” “heresy,” “essentials,” and “fundamentals”—but by what authority are these words defined, and doctrines labelled? For the Christian who denies that the Church is the standard, there seemed to be no non-circular means of doing so. For the Bible to function as an authoritative standard (i.e., sola Scriptura), it must first be understood—yet there seemed to be insurmountable problems with attaining such an understanding. Regardless of one’s theoretical method, the fact remained that very few Christian traditions agreed—even at the scholarly level.
So if what the Bible was, and how it was to be understood, were not grounded in a God-guided, infallible process—then what else was there to trust?
Although I would eventually come to deal with other issues such as Mary, Purgatory, justification, etc., I saw early on that they all ultimately revolve around one’s positions on the issues above. From there it was just a matter of following the history. And, as Blessed J.H. Newman wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
CWR: Were there particular figures or events in the history of Christianity that significantly influenced your journey to the Catholic Church?
Beaumont: Event-wise, I’d say the fact of authoritative Church councils weighed heavily on me. They essentially were the answer to the above issues of canon and orthodoxy, and they also pointed to what the historic Church was—if the Catholic Church was behind the councils that determined the biblical canon and its orthodox interpretation, was it God-guided or not? If not, then why trust the Bible or the creeds? And if so, when did the Church lose that guidance? There seemed to be no non-question-begging answer.
As to persons, St. Thomas Aquinas was an enormous influence on me. Not only was his theology built on the most solid philosophical and biblical foundations, but his application of those truths to how people are to live settled a lot of my disparate theological and moral intuitions. I remember one occasion very vividly; I was reading his section of the Summa on the faith of heretics (ST II-II, 5, 3) and I was surprised to find that Thomas believed that even a heretic’s faith in true things was false. I read his explanation—that faith is, by definition, trust in an authority, and therefore denial of any authoritative teaching is proof that one’s “faith” is really just an accidentally true opinion—and I was stunned. I remember staring at that section and slowly realizing that it perfectly described my faith as it had been taught to me—and as I had taught it to others. By teaching people that faith was one’s personal conviction based on personal study, I was literally helping people to not be faithful! It was an awful moment of clarity, but I truly loved learning it. I knew then I could not remain Protestant.
CWR: This book recounts the tales of conversion from several people associated with the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Considering the enrollment at SES, this is a fairly significant percentage of students and faculty in recent years who have converted to Catholicism. Is there something peculiar to SES that has led to so many converts in recent years?
Beaumont: SES is a peculiar school on a number of fronts. Unlike most seminaries that exist to prepare students for a particular ministry within their church/denomination/communion, SES is a solitary entity, beholden to no particular tradition, communion, or governing body. It is also not attached to any university or college. SES’s draw comes from its focus on Christian apologetics (defending the faith) and, secondarily, on its unusual blend of typical Baptist/Evangelical theology mixed with many tenetsp of classical philosophy. The latter involves the study of the teachings of the über-Catholic Thomas Aquinas, as well as many of his best commentators. SES also regularly invites popular Catholics to speak at various conferences when their expertise places them on the top of the scholarly heap (as it often does).
Now, the school has gone to great pains to point out that accepting certain parts of Thomistic philosophy does not entail Catholic theology (something no knowledgeable Catholic would argue), and that one is free to pick and choose from what Catholics teach (so long as they do not go against the school’s doctrinal statement, of course). This smorgasbord approach to theology is made clear by the structure of the classes—students read Catholics when it comes to metaphysics, epistemology, theology of God, and ethics but then switch to contemporary Evangelicals when it comes to issues surrounding salvation or the end times. For a lot of us, the comparison was unfavorable toward the Evangelical writers, and the theological inconsistency eventually became too great to ignore. Eventually a lot of us realized that the best of Evangelicalism was borrowed capital from the Catholic Church, and the rest was simply sub-par.
CWR: One common obstacle to conversion is the stigma it can carry with it—people can lose their friends and family, their whole social and professional network. Was this something you encountered? Is it a common issue with converts from SES?
Beaumont: I think this is a common experience in conversions of many types. If Aristotle was right, friendship at the highest level is the mutual pursuit of the good. When friends or family begin to disagree on what the good is, it inevitably produces tension—even strife. Moreover, in a system like Evangelicalism, where one’s beliefs are self-determined and the real spiritual authority lies within the mind of the individual, disagreement over doctrine can be seen to equate to a personal attack. Further there is a massive cultural shift that occurs in an Evangelical-to-Catholic transition. It is, as Christian Smith puts it, likened to a paradigm shift in science. The meaning behind certain words and actions changes, and dialogue becomes strained. None of these exactly contribute to healthy relationships. It’s a lot of work to overcome, and you really find out who your true friends are.
Professionally it was rather terrifying as well. Although great thinkers such as Aquinas, Gilson, Maritain, Kreeft, George, etc. were regularly [read or] invited to the school to speak, they would never be allowed to teach there. SES is extremely insular in its hiring practices—the majority of its current faculty got their doctorates from SES, and even the suggestion that one might not be towing the line can result in getting fired (one adjunct professor lost his position at SES simply because he allowed that one verse in the Gospel of Matthew concerning the rising of the saints might have been non-historical). I personally experienced opposition and suspicion just for looking into Anglicanism! Obviously, becoming Catholic would mean losing my job, so I stopped accepting course offers the spring before I even began formally looking into Catholicism. But certainly the transition was tense, and the loss of a decade’s worth of networking and potential employers is a sickening prospect. Praise be to God, I managed to secure a secular job during this time so I could build my new network up.
CWR: As editor of the book, how did you choose which individuals’ stories to include?
Beaumont: When I had the idea, I simply contacted everyone I knew from SES who had become Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox!) over the previous decade (i.e., starting with me and going back 10 years). I only asked if they would be interested in putting their personal stories together in one place; I was not necessarily planning to publish, I just wanted there to be a resource for people who wanted to know the truth about what had happened (and was continuing to happen) in this regard. I reached out to about 15 people, and nearly everyone wanted in. Eventually it began to look like we really had something here, so I had to tailor it for a Catholic publisher. Some people had to drop out for personal reasons, others were added in as I tracked them down. When we got to the final lineup, the book was already too big, so we stopped adding contributors (I joke that I could have had volume two written within a year!) and made some adjustments to the layout (like adding appendices covering common material to minimize redundancy) and it worked out well to limit it to what we had.
CWR: Have you noticed particular themes, or common threads, in the conversion stories of those associated with SES?
Beaumont: Certainly there are strains of similarity—especially with regard to the influence of certain thinkers, or experiences that led to re-thinking certain aspects of the Faith. But I think what is perhaps surprising is how different these stories actually are. The line one hears around SES is that these conversions were the result of a sort of underground movement headed by a few of us (who it is changes depending on what time period one focuses on) who somehow managed to influence all the rest. This is both untrue and insulting to us as individuals. What unites most of us is just that we happened to go to the same evangelical seminary—but many of the contributors did not even know of each other, or did not share their journeys with each other. Each person had particular concerns that were not able to be satisfied by the Evangelical theology they had learned, and they all found the answers in the Catholic Church. That may be an uncomfortable truth for the friends and colleagues who have continued to carry the SES torch, but it is true nonetheless. My hope is that the book will aid those who wish to understand this phenomenon, regardless of which side they eventually choose.