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Philosophy, grace, and reconciliation: reflections of a catholic revert.

On April 28, 2007, I was received back into the Catholic Church. My reversion caused quite a stir, (1) since it occurred while I was serving as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), an academic association of Protestant biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, historians, and ministers that in 2007 had a membership over 4,300. On that evening I wrote the other members of the ETS executive committee, telling them of my reversion. Although I assured them that I could remain as ETS president since there was nothing in the society's doctrinal basis with which a Catholic could not agree, (2) it was naive for me to believe that this was possible. Within a week I resigned, realizing that I could not remain as ETS president without causing a scandal. Several days later I resigned my membership as well.

Although I have published a memoir, (3) as well as contributed to the book Journeys of Faith ,4 in this article I want to offer some additional reflections on what I have learned and continue to learn about my journey. My focus will be on the role that philosophy played in helping me to be more receptive to the Church's understanding of grace, and how that understanding has been instrumental in deepening my spiritual life.


I had left the Catholic Church in the early 1970s as a young teenager, having been drawn to Evangelicalism as a consequence of a variety of factors. As a young Catholic who had a penchant for theological inquiry and a desire to follow Jesus, the Evangelicals that I had encountered, both in person and in print, seemed to be far more serious and authentic in their faith than what I had known as a Catholic. Like most Catholics of my generation, I was poorly catechized, despite the fact that I attended parochial schools from first to twelfth grade.

After my high school years, in which I became less interested in my faith, though I still attended Catholic Mass with my parents, I found myself again gravitating back to Evangelical ministries that I had first begun exploring a few years earlier. As my college days commenced, I no longer considered myself Catholic. I became involved with several college ministries including Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was in those groups that I became acquainted with many Evangelical authors who shaped the trajectory of my spiritual and intellectual development. These authors included popular speakers and writers such as Walter R. Martin, J. Vernon McGee, and Charles Swindoll to more academically oriented authors such as Norman Geisler, Ronald H. Nash, Clark Pinnock, Alvin Plantinga, R. C. Sproul, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and John Warwick Montgomery. I was also influenced by some thinkers outside the Evangelical orbit, including Peter Kreeft and Mortimer Adler.

In college I switched my major to philosophy, largely because of my growing interest in Christian apologetics. I had been advised by several people that it was the major that would best prepare me for advanced work in apologetics if I chose to pursue it. Interestingly enough, the two Evangelical philosophers who had the biggest influence on me were Norm Geisler and Ron Nash, an Aristotelian Thomist and a Platonic Augustinian, respectively. I had no idea at the time that these were not widely held schools of thought in the Evangelical world. Both thinkers saw nothing untoward in the positive use of philosophy in the formation of doctrine including philosophical theology and the nature of the human person. This too was highly unusual in the Evangelical world, but I did not realize it at the time. It was only years later that I came in contact with the writings of Evangelical theologians who didn't have many nice things to say about the role of philosophy in theological development. Colin Brown, for example, offers an analysis typically held by his Evangelical peers: "The first [side effect of Aquinas's thought] is that, where a theology is based partly upon Christian revelation and partly upon alien philosophical ideas, the result is often a misguided hotchpotch. At best the end-product is a mixture containing ideas that cancel each other out."5 This, of course, is a bit better than calling philosophy the "devil's whore," as Martin Luther once put it. Nevertheless, this was not part of my initial experience in studying Evangelical authors. For that reason, my embracing of the Authority of Scripture as a young Evangelical was never separated from the integral role that philosophy played in the formation and development of Christian doctrine, though I was not often conspicuously aware of it. It is much clearer to me now than it was when I first entered the church that my initial formation in Evangelical thought via Nash and Geisler was not typical. I am convinced that it made me more receptive to Catholic ways of thinking on matters of faith and reason, philosophical theology, and theological development, as well as doctrinal issues that continue to divide Catholics and Protestants. Concerning the latter, let me provide one example I have not had the opportunity to share in print.


In the spring of 2007, the time in which my consideration of Catholicism had reached a level of utmost seriousness, I was wading through the Reformation dispute over the nature of justification. As part of my study I reread the Decree on Justification in Session VI of the Council of Trent (A.D.1547). I say "reread," because I had indeed read it in the early 1980s while taking a graduate course in "Church History" at Simon Greenleaf University. It is there that I earned my MA in Christian apologetics prior to my entering the doctoral program in philosophy at Fordham University in 1984, where I studied under W. Norris Clarke, SJ, one of world's most accomplished scholars on the thought of Aquinas. Rereading Trent with the benefit of over two decades of experience and maturity, as well as a mind more philosophically informed than I had possessed in my early 20s, helped me to see things in the Catholic Church's teaching on justification that I had missed when I was younger. Take for example, the portion of Trent's Decree on Justification that explains the causes of justification:

   The causes of this justification are: the final cause is the glory
   of God and of Christ and life everlasting; the efficient cause is
   the merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing
   and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of
   our inheritance; the meritorious cause is His most beloved only
   begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the
   exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited for us
   justification by His most holy passion on the wood of the cross and
   made satisfaction for us to God the Father; the instrumental cause
   is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith,
   without which no man was ever justified finally; the single formal
   cause is the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just,
   but that by which He makes us just, that, namely, with which we
   being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and
   not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just,
   receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure,
   which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and
   according to each one's disposition and cooperation. For though no
   one can be just except he to whom the merits of the passion of our
   Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet this takes place in that
   justification of the sinner, when by the merit of the most holy
   passion, the charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Ghost in
   the hearts of those who are justified and inheres in them; whence
   man through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives in that
   justification, together with the remission of sins, all these
   infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity. (6)

Several things stand out about this passage. First, Trent's account of the causes of justification corresponds roughly to Aristotle's four causes: final, efficient, material, and formal. For Aristotle, material and formal causes are intrinsic causes. For example, the material cause of Michelangelo's David is the marble and its formal cause is the King's shape. They are intrinsic causes because they are constitutive of the sort of thing the sculpture is: its matter and its form. Final and efficient causes are extrinsic causes, since they are not intrinsic to the thing in question. Michelangelo is the efficient cause of his statue, and his purpose for creating it is its final cause. (7) Trent's causes, nevertheless, do not precisely track Aristotle's. This is because any cause of justification cannot arise from anything intrinsic to the believer's being, such as his nature or his will, for to claim such a cause would violate the Church's ancient condemnation of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. (8) So instead, the Council speaks of the instrumental cause of baptism, replaces material cause with meritorious cause, and locates formal causality, not in the human being's nature, but in the righteousness infused into the believer by God.

Second, and not surprisingly, none of the five causes of justification is the human will. Consequently, when I reread this portion of Trent, I was perplexed by how certain Evangelical authors could charge the council with peddling semi-Pelagianism, (9) and how I could have ever believed that Trent advocated "works righteousness," as I had believed for several decades prior to rereading it in 2007.

I have come to the conclusion that my initial misreading was the consequence of embracing a univocal understanding of divine action that in turn prevented me from understanding Trent's account of operating and cooperating grace. It was only after my formal training in philosophy and years of reading various authors that I was able to acquire the tools and experience to read Trent properly, and to grasp the philosophical categories it employed.

If I conceive of God's agency as I think of the agency of finite creatures--that is, if I conceive of the agency of God and His creatures univocally--then it would be correct to suggest that if I am justified by God's grace, then any claim that cooperation with that grace contributes to my justification would implicitly deny that I am indeed justified by God's grace. Just as it must be the case that either Robert Griffin III or Francis J. Beckwith threw the first pass in the Redskins game last week, it must be the case that God is the only agent involved with my justification. That, however, is only true if God is an agent like Griffin or Beckwith. But it does not seem that He is. For if He were, then none of us could say, for example, that God is the author of scripture while each of its books has a human author as well. Under a univocal theory of divine action, we would have to choose between a dictation or a coauthorship theory, neither of which provides a satisfying account of scripture as a book whose author is God though written by human agents.

How did this illuminate my understanding of Trent? The council affirms that one's entry into the body of Christ is the consequence of what Aquinas calls "operating grace," wholly the work of God. (10) The effect of grace, according to Aquinas, is to heal and justify the will so that the human being may freely partake in the Divine Nature and undergo transformation. (11) Thus, any meritorious acts in which a soul infused with God's grace freely engages could not be meritorious without that grace and thus without God's cooperation. This is called "cooperating grace." Writes Aquinas: "Augustine says (De Gratia et Lib. Arbit. xvii): 'God by cooperating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us, since He who perfects by cooperation with such as are willing, beings by operating that they may will.' But the operations of God whereby He moves us to good pertain to grace. Therefore grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating." (12)

Trent explains this understanding of grace by employing a metaphor that Jesus used to describe His relationship to His Church:

   For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and
   the vine into the branches, continually infuses strength into those
   justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows
   their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be
   pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing
   further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being
   considered to have, by those very works which have been done in
   God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this
   life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its
   [due] time, provided they depart [this life] in grace.... Thus,
   neither is our own justice established as our own from ourselves,
   nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated, for that justice
   which is called ours, because we are justified by its inherence in
   us, that same is [the justice] of God, because it is infused into
   us by God through the merit of Christ. (13)

Unless divine action is understood analogically rather than univocally, Trent's account of justification will be mistakenly read as an attempt to split the difference between divine grace and human works, rather than what it actually is, an attempt to explain how "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work" (2 Cor 9:8). Once I understood what Trent assumed about the nature of divine action, I knew why I had misread the council when I was a younger man. But I doubt that I would have had that epiphany if not for the fact that my choice to pursue doctoral work in philosophy was a direct consequence of my early intellectual formation as a young Evangelical dominated by philosophically informed authors such as Geisler and Nash. I am, of course, not suggesting that Geisler or Nash were the proximate cause of my return to the Catholic Church. (God knows that Norm does not need that burden. (14)) What I am saying is that their understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, which led me to pursue a doctorate in the former, made me more receptive decades later to embracing the Catholic belief that "the encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance," (15) the central argument of Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 Regensburg address. As the Holy Father maintains, "the New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.... The fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself." (16)


With the benefit of hindsight, it it now obvious to me that I had pretty much accepted this understanding of faith, reason, and doctrinal development years before I was received into the Catholic Church on April 28, 2007. As I note in my memoir, Return to Rome, (17) as an Evangelical coming out of graduate school in 1989 I was convinced that the early ecumenical creeds were legitimate and authoritative articulations of Christian belief. But it was only several years later, as I write in Journeys of Faith, (18) that I began to better appreciate how the theological content of these creeds relied heavily on concepts and categories that the Church had appropriated from Greek philosophy. Consequently, it became obvious to me that, for example, the concepts of "substance," "rational soul," "consubstantial," "nature," "subsistent," and even "perfect," (19) as one finds in the creeds, would not be there if the creeds were merely the consequence of early biblical exegetes pouring over the pages of Scripture while sequestered from the corrupting influence of pagan thought.

The conundrum I had to eventually confront as a Protestant was how I could accept such an understanding of faith, reason, and doctrinal development, with some degree of magisterial authority required to shepherd it, while at the same time claiming to embrace sola scriptura. The truth is that I did not confront it for well over a decade after leaving graduate school, simply because Catholicism was never a live option for me until about mid-2006, and even then I was confident that someone somewhere could offer me a way out that was intellectually satisfying.

Of course, that solution never arrived, though I have been told over the years by several critics of my reversion that if I had just looked in the right places, read enough books, or thought through the issues a bit longer I would have found the solace I had been seeking without having to swim the Tiber. I actually don't know how one responds to such a suggestion when it concerns ultimate matters over which the evidence for the belief that demands our allegiance, though compelling, is always underdetermined in relation to the authentic hope and faith that such allegiance requires. It is like telling a man who loves his wife, and would not consider leaving her, that if he had only been more patient and attentive to the viability of his other options during the time he was wooing her that perhaps he would have had a shot at his favorite movie star. That would make sense if deliberations about one's conjugal future were like acquiring empirical confirmation of a scientific hypothesis. But it does not seem to work that way. When it comes to relationships, either human or divine, if you fear error more than you love truth, you will be paralyzed on those occasions when you are beckoned by the truth to take that step of faith without an exhaustive list of indubitable reasons. As Blaise Pascal put it, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." (20)

I am, of course, not suggesting that reason played no part in my decision to return to the Catholic Church, as should be evident from my discussion of the role of philosophical reflection in my own journey. Rather, what I am suggesting is that it is a mistake for one to overintellectualize the process of conversion, to frame moves from one tradition to another as if they were the consequence of going through a checklist of theological conflicts and judging with detached objectivity which side wins on each issue. To be sure, in my own case, certain theological questions had to be answered, in particular concerning the issues of justification, apostolic succession, penance, and the Eucharist. But how I assessed those answers depended largely on two factors: (i) my plausibility structure, "the set of ideas the person either is or is not willing to entertain as possibly true," (21) and (2) how I should live the rest of my life as a Christian.

I have already addressed the first factor. As I noted, I had for some years, whether I realized or not, implicitly embraced a Catholic understanding of faith, reason, and doctrinal development. Thus, it should surprise no one that I eventually came to the conclusion that the Catholic story provided a more coherent account of those doctrines over which Catholics and Protestants divide. Admittedly, if I were a Protestant with a different plausibility structure, I may have dismissed the reasons that my proto-Catholic self considered so compelling. I suspect that I would have not thought it such a problem to reconcile sola scriptura and the most dominant forms of Evangelical ecclesiology and view of the sacraments with (1) the authoritative manner in which the ancient creeds were issued by a Church that appropriated pagan philosophical categories, (2) the sacramental infrastructure--including penance and Eucharistic realism--that was uncontroversially practiced in the midst of so many doctrinal disputes for which many of the early councils, such as Nicea and Chalcedon, were convened, and (3) the sacerdotal hierarchy required for the normativity of the creeds and the administration of the sacraments. I would have simply dismissed such considerations as evidence that the Christian Church, very early on, had lost its way, that even though it provided for us the doctrinal infrastructure that made contemporary Evangelicalism possible--such as its solidification of the biblical canon and its affirmation of the orthodoxy of the Trinity and the deity of Christ--it took a wrong turn by not ridding itself of those beliefs and practices that we now know are unbiblical. That was a move--though not unreasonable--that I was just not constitutionally capable of making given my plausibility structure.

The second factor concerned my own spiritual survival. I was forty-six years old when I returned to the Catholic Church in 2007. Although I had gained a reputation as a philosopher who spoke and wrote in support of Christian beliefs and values that were contested in our public life, over the years my faith had become more like a set of theological propositions that reason had compelled me to defend rather than a devotion to Christ that propelled me to be conformed to His image. I knew what I believed and why I believed it, and I was perfectly capable of launching all the arguments that supported my beliefs. But all the intellectual affluence in the world is incapable of providing the appropriate currency to lift one out of spiritual poverty.

For this reason, I was drawn to the wonderfully rich and historically grounded liturgical life that is found in the Catholic Church. It is a way of devotion that is seamlessly connected to the Church's understanding of grace, something that, as I have already noted, I was predisposed by my intellectual formation to take seriously. If, as the Church teaches, the sanctifying grace one receives at baptism is "a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love," 22 then however I cooperate with God for my own transformation is an effect and not a cause of that sanctifying grace. It is, indeed, a mystery, which means that I am not required to figure it out before I should believe that one cannot for very long call one's faith authentic unless it is accompanied by charity and hope.

This understanding of grace has changed everything for me. I fast, pray, and read Scripture far more often than I did as an Evangelical. I am much more attentive to my habits and dispositions and how they shape my character. I participate in, though not often enough, many Catholic practices, including praying the rosary, the liturgy of the hours, and novenas, asking the saints for their intercession, and completing a daily examination of conscience. However, partaking in the Sacrament of Confession has been the most important and life-changing component of my spiritual development since returning to the Church. As an Evangelical, I was always haunted by the problem of postbaptismal (or postconversion) sin. Although I believed, as I still believe, that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient, I could not shake the fact that the temporal consequences of sin continued to reside in my soul, even if in the quiet of my room I had asked God for his forgiveness. The confessional, for me, has become, quite literally, a Godsend, an instrument of divine grace that accomplishes its end, reconciliation.


* This article is a revised version of a paper ("From Catholic to Evangelical and Back Again: Reflections of a Revert Five Years Later") delivered on November 14, 2012, at the 64th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

(1.) Alan Cooperman, "Evangelical Leader Returns to Catholicism," Washington Post (12 May 2007): B09.

(2.) Here's the entirety of the ETS doctrinal basis: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory." (Website of the Evangelical Theological Society, Compare that with these comments made by the First Vatican Council (1869-1870): "These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church." (Session 3, Chapter 2,

(3.) Francis J. Beckwith, Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009).

(4.) Francis J. Beckwith, "A journey to Catholicism," and "Catholicism rejoinder," in Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism, ed. Robert L. Plumber (New York: HarperCollins/Grand Raids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 81-114, 129-34.

(5.) Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian: A Historical Sketchfrom the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 38.

(6.) The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. and intro. Rev. H. J. Schroeder, OP (Rockford, IL: TAN Publishing, 1978), 33-34 (notes omitted).

(7.) For natural objects, such as human beings, trees, and squirrels, final causality is tightly tethered to formal causality. Thus, because a human being is a particular type of being, that is, he has a certain form or nature, specific ends or purposes are proper to that nature. So, for example, a human being's mental powers are ordered toward the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, though they may not in fact achieve that end, as in the case of a child who dies in infancy or an adult who is impaired due to illness or accident. For this reason, we say that a being's final causality is "extrinsic," since it is aspirational, even if our judgment of its correctness is grounded in an intrinsic cause, its form or nature.

(8.) From the Council of Orange: "If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism--if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, 'And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ' (Phil i: 6)." (The Council of Orange [AD 529], canon 5, From the Council of Trent (a.d. 1547): "If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema . . . If anyone says that divine grace through Christ Jesus is given for this only, that man may be able more easily to live justly and to merit eternal life, as if by free will without grace he is able to do both, though with hardship and difficulty, let him be anathema." (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 42)

(9.) Sproul, for example, writes: "The views of [the semi-Pelagian] Cassian were condemned at the Council of Orange in 529, which further established the views of Augustine as expressions of Christian and biblical orthodoxy. However, with the conclusion of the Council of Orange in the sixth century (529), the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism did not disappear. They were fully operative through the Middle Ages and were set in concrete at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. They continue to be a majority view in the Roman Catholic Church, even to the twentyfirst century. (R. C. Sproul, "The Battle for Grace Alone," Tabletalk Magazine (i August 200), See also R. C. Sproul, "The Pelagian Captivity of the Church," Modern Reformation 10.3 (May/June, 2001): 22-23, 26-29.

(10.) "It is furthermore declared that in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ, that is, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits on their part, they are called." (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 31)

(11.) Writes Aquinas:

   Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be
   more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses
   every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a
   partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature.
   And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For
   it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a
   partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is
   impossible that anything save fire should enkindle [St. Thomas
   Aquinas, Summa Theologica II.I, Qii2, arti, 2nd and rev., literally
   translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province [1920],
   online edition,].... God
   does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being
   justified we consent to God's justification [justitiae] by a
   movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the
   cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains
   to grace." [Ibid., II.I, Q111, art 2,
   /summa/ 2111.htm]

(12.) Ibid., II.I, QIII, art 2, .htm.

(13.) The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 41 (notes omitted).

(14.) About eighteen months after my return to the Church, Geisler coauthored a book in which he offers an apologia against Catholicism: Norman L. Geisler and Joshua M. Betancourt, Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008). The authors include a brief section on my reversion, dismissing it as largely the consequence of familial influence rather than serious deliberation (193-94). Ironically, Betancourt, an Episcopal priest at the time of the book's publication, has since become Catholic.

(15.) Pope Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections" (September 12,200),available at /speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_2006091 2_university -regensburg_en.html.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Beckwith, Return to Rome, 6o.

(18.) Beckwith in Journeys of Faith, 86.

(19.) See H. Leclercq, "The First Council of Nicaea," in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1911),; and Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), .htm.

(20.) Blaise Pascal, Pensees (1660), ed. W. F. Trotter (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), no. 277.

(21.) J. P. Moreland, "Academic Integration and the Christian Scholar" (1999), Faculty Commons Academic Initiative website, available at /moreland_integration.html.

(22.) Catechism f the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), 2000.
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Author:Beckwith, Francis J.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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