Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Smartest Woman You Never Knew: Gretchen Passantino Coburn


Gretchen Passantino Coburn died last week at the age of 62. Although virtually all of my Catholic readers, and most of my Protestant ones, have likely never heard of her, she was, along with her late husband, Bob Passantino, an important influence on many of us who considered ourselves to be intellectually serious Evangelicals.

Although I had heard of the legendary Passantinos during my days in college in the early 1980s, I had never actually met them until April 1991, when I was in southern California attending the Far West Region Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I do not recall who it was that invited me to their home, but I do recall my initial impressions of them.

They and their three children lived in a small green home that stood alone and to the right of the parking lot adjacent to a Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church in Costa Mesa, California, a city that borders the more upscale Newport Beach. When I knocked at the door, Gretchen answered with a big smile on her face. Dressed like a hippie right out of central casting, she gave me a big hug, told Bob, “Frank Beckwith is here,” and proceeded to yell to her son Paul to clean up and get ready for dinner, “We have company.” What I noticed immediately were all the rows of overstuffed bookshelves, which I soon began perusing. And they were not filled with fluff. There were serious books everywhere, in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and history, by authors as far ranging as F. F. Bruce, Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bruce Metzger, Avery Dulles, S. J., and Karl Barth.

Before my roaming eyes could catch their breath, Bob walked up to me and pointed to a book on the shelf --The Only Wise God by William Lane Craig—and asked in that fast, pointed, inquisitive, and slightly whiny, voice that many of us grew to love (think Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny”): “Hey, Frank, what do you think about Middle Knowledge?” (Middle Knowledge is the view of divine providence and human free will defended by Craig in his book, though originally presented in the 16th century by Luis de Molina).

As I began to give my measured answer, Bob interrupted, “I’m not sure it works, since, well, counterfactuals probably don’t have any actual referent, though it is an interesting theory. It’s surely better than Calvinism.” At that point, before Bob completed his third thought in five seconds, Gretchen, in her gentle though firm voice (think Donna Reed meets Kathy Bates), intervened, “Bob, why don’t you and Frank sit on the couch and talk there. I think everyone wants to hear what you guys are discussing.” In a few moments we were off and running.

By the end of the evening—which was about 1 am—I had experienced the Full Passantino: Twisting, turning, invigorating and intellectually stimulating sets of overlapping and intersecting conversations with two very smart people on a variety of philosophical, theological, biblical, and political topics, about which they had read and studied far more than I had. They often finished each other’s sentences, with Gretchen sometimes translating for this “Bob impaired” listener who couldn’t keep up with him.

I was two years out of my PhD at Fordham, and I felt like I knew nothing after that evening. Neither Bob nor Gretchen had any formal training in any of these academic areas that occupied our conversations, and yet their depth and breadth of knowledge was truly astonishing, and all without a wit of pride or pretentiousness. Perhaps this is why they worked behind the scenes for decades as trusted researchers, ghostwriters, editors, consultants, and debate coaches for some of the most well known Evangelical speakers and authors in the world. They were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the brains behind Pa.”

November 2003, at the age of 52, Bob died of a massive heart attack. In 2005, Gretchen married Pat Coburn, a man she had met when she was 14 and he was 20, though they had not been in contact with each other from the time Gretchen was a teenager until after Bob’s death. In 2012, Pat suffered a full cardiac arrest. Although the doctors resuscitated him, he had to undergo months of expensive rehabilitation. Gretchen cared for Pat throughout the entire ordeal, exhibiting a quality of soul that surpassed her quality of mind, which, given the impressiveness of the latter, did not seem possible.

As if to send us a message to confirm this judgment, the Lord saw fit to take Gretchen from this mortal realm on October 2, the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So, to my dear Gretchen, “May the angels lead you into Paradise; May the martyrs receive you at your coming, And take you to Jerusalem, the holy city. May the choir of angels be there to welcome you. And may you, with the once poor Lazarus, have everlasting rest.” (from the Rite of Burial for Adults)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On "Slippery Slopes": A Response to Richard Mouw

That's the title of my latest essay over at The Catholic Thing. It is a response to a First Things blog post by Richard Mouw. Here's how my piece begins:
My friend, Richard Mouw, a philosopher and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, has raised an important challenge about the use of counterexamples when making one’s case on certain controversial moral and political questions.

He shares one of the arguments he employs to explain to his friends why he opposes the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” (SSM): “If we are to operate as a society on the assumption that any sincerely held view about what constitutes a marriage should be granted status in our laws and practices, I have asked, what would keep us from legalizing plural marriages, or even incestuous ones?” Mouw says that his question is often “met with disdain,” with the retort, “[C]an’t you do better than a ‘slippery slope’ argument?”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tim Challies says Pope Francis is a false teacher, but misunderstandsCatholic view of justification.

You can read it here. I had heard of Tim Challies years ago. And I may have actually met or corresponded with him at some point in the past, but I do not recall.  He seems like a nice guy, and I have no doubt that he is a devoted pastor, husband, and father.

In any event, I bring his blog post to your attention, since it serves as an excellent example of a talented writer misunderstanding the Catholic view on justification. Although there is more to Challies' judgment of the Holy Father than his negative assessment of Catholic soteriology, my focus will be on that assessment. Writes Challies:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

My chapter in the new book, Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order: Political Philosophy and the Claims of Faith

Northern Illinois University Press has just published Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order: Political Philosophy and the Claims of Faith. Edited by Paul DeHart (Texas State University)  and Carson Holloway (University of Nebraska, Omaha), I am proud to be one of the contributors along with Peter Augustine Lawler (Berry College), Robert C. Koons (University of Texas), J. Budziszewski (University of Texas), James Stoner, Jr. (Louisiana State University), R. J Snell (Eastern University), Ralph C. Hancock (Brigham Young University), Micah Watson (Union University), and Lugi Bradizza (Salve Regina University).

Here's the book's description from the publisher's website:
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? When it comes to politics, a great deal, as the superb set of essays DeHart and Holloway have gathered show so well. In these pages the political is nourished by the theological, something we sorely need today.”-R. R. Reno, Editor, First Things

“Religion is typically regarded by contemporary political philosophers as a problem. It's a problem for the state, since religion threatens oppression and violence; and it's a problem for political theorists themselves, since religion is held to be irrational and its intrusion into political thought would corrupt the pure rationality of acceptable political theory. The authors of this collection, while agreeing that religion can be a problem, argue persuasively that it is also a resource, both for our life together and for our theorizing, a resource that we neglect at our peril. It's a bold and courageous book, contesting the pieties of our present day. ”-Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University

While the dominant approaches to the current study of political philosophy are various, with some friendlier to religious belief than others, almost all place constraints on the philosophic and political role of revelation. Mainstream secular political theorists do not entirely disregard religion. But to the extent that they pay attention, their treatment of religious belief is seen more as a political or philosophic problem to be addressed rather than as a positive body of thought from which we might derive important insights about the nature of politics and the truth of the human condition.

In a one-of-a-kind collection, DeHart and Holloway bring together leading scholars from various fields, including political science, philosophy, and theology, to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and to demonstrate the role that religion can and does play in political life.

My 30-page chapter, entitled "Fides, Ratio, et Juris: How Some Courts and Some Legal Theorists Misrepresent the Rational Status of Religious Beliefs," offers a critical analysis of what I call Secular Rationalism (SR), a view embraced by several notable legal theorists including Suzanna Sherry (Vanderbilt University), Brian Leiter (University of Chicago), and the late Stephen Gey (Florida State University).  Here is how the chapter begins (endnotes omitted):
Religious citizens, like their nonreligious compatriots, attempt to shape public policy in order to advance what they believe is the common good. Critics have suggested that there is something untoward with such activism, since the positions advocated by these citizens are informed by their religious beliefs. Some of these critics ground this judgment in the claim that religious beliefs are by their very nature not amendable to rational assessment and are thus irrational.

This view should not be confused with what is sometimes called Political Liberalism and often associated with the work of John Rawls and his numerous disciples. According to that view, policies informed by religious or secular comprehensive doctrines that limit the fundamental liberties of citizens who do not share those comprehensive doctrines are justified if and only if the coerced citizens would be irrational in rejecting the coercion. Rawls, himself, concedes that many of these comprehensive doctrines, including the religious ones, are reasonable. This is why Rawls distinguishes between reasonable comprehensive doctrines and the grounds by which the government may be justified in coercing its citizens.

The focus of this chapter will be on those who eschew Rawls’ modest approach and argue that all religious worldviews are at their core unreasonable, because they are dependent on beliefs not amendable to reason. The implication of this view--that some, though not all, proponents of it explicitly acknowledge--is that religiously informed policy proposals have no place in a secular liberal democracy that requires the primacy of reason. Although this view of religion’s rationality is found or implied in several US Supreme Court opinions as well as among some legal and political theorists, it is far more controversial than its advocates portray.

You can order the book from  or the publisher, Northern Illinois University Press.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Frankie!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="368"] Frankie and me in Paris in 2001[/caption]

Today is my wife Frankie's birthday.

What follows is one of the many poems I wrote to her over the years. This one in particular was penned in the mid-1980s while we were dating. It is called "Elusive Valentine."

Elusive Valentine

I'm finally relaxed
After two weeks of being here
And my time is never taxed
Whenever she is near
She doesn't wear a monogram
She's got an independent mind
She admires Billy Graham
She's an elusive valentine

There's something 'bout this city
That always brings me back
It's that woman who's so pretty
That she gives me a heart attack
She'd look lovely in Paris
Sipping a glass of French wine
'neath a moonlit glowing terrace
Like an elusive valentine

My words, not frivolous
Their meaning leaves no doubt
Her symmetry is marvelous
Her spirituality, devout
She stands up for her faith
In the Man from Palestine
In gold, she's worth her weight
She's an elusive valentine

Standing still, lavender clad
Indeed, attractively stubborn
Her possibilities are myriad
By fools, she'll not be governed
And yes, we're a couple of mystics
Rationally inclined
She holds her own in linguistics
She's an elusive valentine

--Francis J. Beckwith, 13 June 1986 (Las Vegas, Nevada)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The paper I gave in Rome published in NCBQ: "On Making the Case for Life: On St. Peter's Counsel to Always Be Ready"

Last year I was invited by the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization to participate in an education conference in Rome on John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.  Held at the Pontificia Università Urbaniana, the keynote address was given by Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, which was followed by papers given by myself and Robert Royal (Faith & Reason Institute). A revised version of my  Rome talk, entitled "On Making the Case for Life: On St. Peter's Counsel to Always Be Ready," was just published in the Winter 2013 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 13.4.  To download the article, go here.

The next day, June 16, 2013, I had an opportunity to meet Pope Francis and give him a copy of my book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case for Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007). (I tell the story of my meeting the Holy Father in a Catholic Thing column published last summer, "From Frances to Francis.")

[caption id="attachment_3171" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Francis Beckwith and Pope Francis (click picture to enlarge)[/caption]

Friday, March 28, 2014

Justice Kagan, You Gotta Serve Somebody

That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:

Reading the transcript of Tuesday’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases, I came across this exchange between Justice Elena Kagan and the attorney for Hobby Lobby, Paul Clement:

MR. CLEMENT: Well, just to put this in concrete terms, for Hobby Lobby, for example, the choice is between paying a 500 – a $475 million per year penalty and paying a $26 million per year coverage.

JUSTICE KAGAN: No, I don’t think that that's the same thing, Mr. Clement. There’s one penalty that is if the employer continues to provide health insurance without this part of the coverage, but Hobby Lobby could choose not to provide health insurance at all. And in that case Hobby Lobby would pay $2,000 per employee, which is less than Hobby Lobby probably pays to provide insurance to its employees. So there is a choice here. It’s not even a penalty by – in the language of the statute. It’s a payment or a tax. There’s a choice. And so the question is, why is there a substantial burden at all?

MR. CLEMENT: Well, just to be clear, we were talking about the same thing. So the option, the choice, is between paying a $475 million a year penalty and a $26 million a year penalty. That’s what Hobby Lobby faces. So $2,000 per person.

JUSTICE KAGAN: No, between paying $2,000 per employee per year if Hobby Lobby does not provide.

MR. CLEMENT: That’s $26 million.

JUSTICE KAGAN: You know, Hobby Lobby is paying something right now for the – for the coverage. It’s less than what Hobby Lobby is paying for the coverage. There are employers all over the United States that are doing this voluntarily because they think that it’s less.

So, according to Justice Kagan, the way that the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, can avoid this “substantial burden” is to simply not offer to their employees health insurance of any kind.  Consequently, they not only do not have to provide to their employees pharmaceuticals that are used to end nascent human life (which is what the Greens object to in the HHS mandate),  they are financially in a better position than they were before. How can one not like this deal? Thus, reasons Kagan, if the Greens have the right under the Affordable Care Act to choose to relieve themselves of this substantial burden and do not exercise that right, it is the Greens, and not the government, that is placing a substantial burden on the Greens.

>>>>continue reading

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My NRO Interview - "Abortion and Human Equality: How to return the debate to the essential questions 41 years after Roe."

That's the title of Kathryn Jean Lopez's interview of me in today's National Review Online. Here's how it begins:

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What are your thoughts as D.C. is about to see a March for Life against 41 years of legal abortion in America?

FRANCIS J. BECKWITH: Even though the advocates of the belief that unborn life lacks moral status have had over four decades to completely inoculate the wider culture from the sanctity-of-life ethic (through the media, the academy, and entertainment), they have been astonishingly unsuccessful in doing so. The March for Life, and the increasing numbers that participate every year, is as clear evidence of this failure as one could have imagined. And what makes it more astonishing is that no one in the march has a self-interest in its cause succeeding, since no one who marches is an unborn child.

LOPEZ: In what ways is the abortion debate really about human equality?

BECKWITH: No one — not even the most sophisticated advocate of abortion choice — denies that the unborn are human beings, but one can only exclude them from the community of those whose lives we must respect if one claims that they lack some morally significant characteristic that is possessed by mature and healthy human beings.

If this is true, as some abortion-choice advocates maintain, then some human beings are so intrinsically inferior to others that they not only lack moral status but they can be killed without justification. Consequently, according to this perspective, possessing a human nature in and of itself is not morally significant. This is why in Defending Life I call some abortion-choice supporters Anti-Equality Advocates (AEAs).

LOPEZ: Is there an irony in the twin January memorials of Martin Luther King’s death and the Roe v. Wade decision?

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

George C. Scott Explains Calvinism in 3 Minutes

(HT: First Things)


From the 1979 movie Hardcore(Language Warning: F-word employed at the end)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Day I Met Jesus in Las Vegas

That's the title of my latest column over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
Several days before my 13th birthday, in late October of 1973, I had a dream that was so vivid that when I woke up the next morning I was convinced that it was no mere dream. As I note in my 2009 memoir, Return to Rome, in the dream

[caption id="attachment_3145" align="alignright" width="373"] Stained-glass window in the Gardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas[/caption]

Jesus and I “were sitting, facing each other, with the landscape of heaven in the background. He spoke to me. Over thirty years later, I cannot honestly recall the words he uttered. But I do remember waking up the next morning with the sense that I had experienced a reality that was unlike any dream I had ever had.”

Last week, on the evening of December 26, while my wife and I were visiting family in Las Vegas for the holidays, I voiced a brief prayer under my breath while I was driving alone to my brother’s home, “Jesus, I invite you back into my dreams tonight.” We recently received news that my father has been diagnosed with cancer. Although the prognosis was far from hopeless, such news, especially during Christmas, has the power to jar one from the complacencies of ordinary life.

I began to reflect on the fragility of our mortal existence, the inevitability of death, and how ill-prepared I am for the journey that awaits each and every one of Adam’s children. So my mind harkened back to the one first-person glimpse of the supernatural that seemed the most real to me.

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