IN MY EARLY YEARS as an apologist, most of my sparring partners were Fundamentalists. A few were Evangelicals. Others belonged to native-born sects, such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Still others belonged to foreign imports, such as Iglesia ni Cristo, a cultish group that originated in the Philippines.
Some of my opponents once had been Catholic. Their animus toward the Church usually was greater than that of born non-Catholics. I always thought the apostates to be like the young man who, once so infatuated with his girlfriend, insists only after he jilts her that all along she was a vile creature about whom nothing good can be said.
Former priest turned against the Church
It was that way with the late Bart Brewer, a one-time Discalced Carmelite priest. He was brought up in Philadelphia with, apparently, a coddling mother and too little experience of everyday life. As he freely admitted in writing a short account of his background, after his ordination in 1957 his religious superiors sent him to the Philippines, from which he was summarily booted back home after becoming infatuated with a high school girl. (There seemed to be nothing beyond infatuation in the relationship.)
Back in the States, Brewer underwent a change of religious allegiance. He became a Seventh-day Adventist because his mother became one. Later he became a Baptist. At some indeterminate point he concluded that his calling was to undermine the Church he once had been part of. Perhaps it simply was that he wasn’t trained for anything other than religious work and, then near 40, didn’t see any other avenue open to him.
I’ve seen that kind of thing working in the other direction too: older converts to the Catholic Faith, some of them already into early middle age, looking around and realizing that they were at a loss as to what to do. In their Protestant churches they had held positions of authority, but now they were Catholic laymen without jobs. Not a few of them began ministries of their own. A few proved able to settle in well, but others, perhaps never quite setting aside their Protestant mindsets, ended up taking their ministries (or perhaps their ministries took them) to the edge of Catholicism—or over the edge.
Some became as bitter toward their former Protestant faith as Brewer became toward his former Catholic Faith. Not satisfied with jilting the Church, he had to attack it too, which he did for decades through the ministry he founded, Mission to Catholics International. (“International” was a bit misleading, since all of Brewer’s touring and speaking seemed to be confined to the U.S.)
A lack of training in the Faith
I once visited Brewer at his office, which was in a building located on the grounds of the church that he attended but wasn’t the presiding minister of. It wasn’t a large office since his ministry was small: himself, his wife, a few volunteers to stuff envelopes. Trying to find something innocuous to say, I complimented him on having several good books on his shelves. He waved away my remark, saying that he didn’t read them or any other books because all he needed to read was the Bible. He seemed to take pride in not being what George Wallace used to call a “pointy-headed intellectual.”
(Weirdly, for months his ministry stocked my book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, presumably because I devoted a chapter to Brewer, who never had been written up at such length. Suddenly the ministry ceased stocking it. I suppose someone told Brewer that, while he might like publicity, the chapter about him undercut his credibility and hardly could be expected to expand his following.)
Although Brewer’s seminary training had been before Vatican II—at a time, most of us would think, when such training must have been solid—he seemed to know little about Catholicism, other than that now he opposed it. In opposing it he adopted the tones of anti-Catholic Protestants of the nineteenth and earlier centuries, warning his listeners about dark “papist” conspiracies as he showed them hosts (presumably unconsecrated) in a ciborium.
Brewer affected a Southern drawl, in emulation perhaps of television preachers he admired. It was as though such an accent were expected of one in his position, even though he grew up in the City of Brotherly Love. Along with the drawl came an unctuousness that brought to my mind Dickens’s Uriah Heep.
Despite all that, I had a soft spot for Brewer, frustrating though I often found him. Yes, he was an apostate and, worse, an apostate priest, but he also was a self-broken man. I couldn’t help thinking that, deep down, he was disappointed with himself, and I always had the sense that his wife was the stronger anti-Catholic and something of a goad.
For a while Brewer’s ministry had a degree of success—its newsletter contained many notes of thanks and praise from Baptists he had spoken to around the country—but it never managed to grow into anything self-sustaining. When he suffered a stroke, the ministry went into eclipse. There was no one to carry on the work. He died at 80 in 2005. (Strangely, the Mission to Catholics International website still exists, with a note about the newsletter: “due to prolonged illness last updated July 1998.”)
A losing debate
I debated Brewer in 1986. The debate was held at his church, with his minister as the moderator and his congregation as the bulk of the audience. Brewer took nearly twice the time we had agreed upon—the moderator seemed never to have discovered his wristwatch—and belittled the Catholic Church with every adjective at his disposal. He was in his element, among his people, and there were many “Amens!” from the audience.
After it all ended, as I was putting away my things and speaking with questioners, I overheard a congregant tell her friend that she was appalled at how Brewer and his minister had treated their Catholic guest. She said, “I’m not going to fellowship here anymore.” It seemed to be a sentiment shared by others.
I had to feel sorry for Brewer. This was his first and, as it turned out, his only public debate, and it was he who ended up being jilted.