Penelope Adams Moon’s response to my essay,
Has Christ been divided? Was Paul Crucified for you? The evangelical imperative of ecumenical peacemaking and the Bridgefolk (Mennonite-Catholic) movement (Mennonite Life, Fall 2007), raises good questions on matters that merit clarification and comment as well as makes false assumptions and dubious assertions that need rebuttal.
Adams Moon’s remarks take much of my argument concerning Christian disunity out of its intended context. That is as much my fault for not making clear enough the context for my reflections on ecumenism. So let me do so here.
The scandal of division in the church concerns the division of the communion table, that Christian believers who have shared in one baptism are unable to gather with integrity as one body around the one table of the one Lord, Jesus Christ. Paul’s concern about factions in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10–17) was precisely that these factions—which styled themselves
Cephites—had caused divisions at the communion table, such that they were not coming together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one body (1 Cor. 11:17–34). What concerned Paul is not at all foreign to us. If you have ever worshiped in a congregation of another denomination and found yourself in the pew wondering whether or not you could or should take communion with those gathered around you, then you have experienced for yourself the very division that so concerned Paul. This division does not concern differences between denominations as such, but rather the question of belonging. Notice how Paul describes the factions at Corinth:
What I mean is that each of you says, (1 Cor. 1:12). When we sit there in the pew wondering whether to take communion or not in a congregation of a denomination other than our own, we are asking implicitly,
I belong to Paul, or
I belong to Apollos, or
I belong to Cephas, or
I belong to Christ
Do I belong to this body of believers, or not? The very fact that this question of belonging arises in the mind at the invitation to communion is a symptom of the division within the church with which I am chiefly concerned.
If we Christians cannot all approach the communion table as one body, then our exchange of peace prior to taking communion does not tell the whole truth despite our best intentions. The divided communion table betrays that we Christians have failed to
maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3-6). Mennonites, of all Christians, should understand this point. The Anabaptist practice of taking communion only twice a year was premised upon the shared conviction that the communion table was to be a place of peace and unity—hence the need for mutual reconciliation among all members before celebrating communion.
It is in the context of a divided communion table that Bridgefolk, the grass-roots ecumenical movement among Mennonites and Catholics, hears its calling, makes its prayer, and pledges its effort in behalf of the whole church—in hope of that future day when Christ will gather his people around his table, in one body, in true peace. When I write of
reconciliation concerning ecumenism, it is with respect to restoration of a unified communion table. My prayer for
reconciliation in Christ looks with eschatological hope to a single, all-inclusive table of communion with and in Christ, a hope I share with my Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.
Adams Moon writes:
Belousek marshals a number of biblical mandates for ecumenism, drawing in particular on Paul’s counsel to the church divided at Corinth.
I do draw from Paul’s counsel to Corinth, as well as Paul’s message of the cross in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. But to characterize my argument as being particularly Pauline obscures the fact that I root the argument, not in Paul, but Jesus (John 17:21-23). Christians are called to ecumenical peacemaking as a gospel imperative, not because Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to get their house in order, but because that is what Jesus prayed for us:
that they may all be one. And Jesus’ prayer has a missional aim:
that the world may believe. Ecumenical peacemaking aimed at restoring ecclesial unity is thus essentially and inescapably a matter of discipleship and mission. The reader is invited to review the opening paragraphs of my essay to see this point.
As much as I’d like to get on board with Belousek, however, I think a major thread in his argument hinges on assumption. Belousek seems to assume that difference equals disunity … . Belousek seems to call for erasing Christian difference.
I do not assume that
difference equals disunity. That would entail logically that unity equals sameness—hence, that unity is opposed to diversity. Taking unity to be opposed to diversity, however, commits a common fallacy: diversity is opposed, not to unity, but to uniformity. And nowhere do I ever argue for ecclesial uniformity.
This may sound ironic to many readers, but I know of no better example of unity in diversity than the Catholic Church. A manifold diversity—cultural, ethnic, theological, liturgical, and communal—flourishes even within a Catholic unity that is both hierarchical and clerical. In its Decree on Ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council emphasized an ideal that many Mennonites will recognize and appreciate—unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials, and charity in all things:
All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. (Unitatis Redintegratio 4)
Of course, the Catholic Church sees ecclesial unity as ultimately unity under papal authority. Adams Moon refers in her postscript to a recent statement by Benedict XVI reaffirming Rome’s position that the one true church of Jesus Christ is none other than the Catholic Church. Although such statements are not new, the language used by the Vatican to speak of Protestants—
separated brethren belonging to
ecclesial communities—is often heard as offensive and goes largely misunderstood by Protestants. Even if we do not agree with the Vatican’s position, we do well to understand its language for the sake of ecumenical peacemaking through dialogue.
Protestants often hear this language as implying that non-Catholics are not Christians. Despite that impression, the Vatican intends to communicate just the opposite by referring to non-Catholics as
separated brethren. The Second Vatican Council clearly stated that all baptized believers are true Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, even if not in full communion with Rome:
it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).
Likewise, the Vatican’s use of
ecclesial communities to refer to Protestant congregations and denominations is not intended as a put-down but rather to make clear what the Catholic Church sees as a crucial distinction—between those non-Catholic traditions that have maintained both ordination within the apostolic succession of Bishops and sacramental liturgy (Eastern Orthodox), which therefore are appropriately called
Churches in the Vatican sense, and those non-Catholic traditions that have not (Protestant), which therefore are appropriately called
ecclesial communities in the Vatican sense. The Vatican, that is, recognizes degrees of separation and has developed special terminology to distinguish those degrees. Despite the fact that the Catholic-Protestant separation is more recent than the East-West separation, Rome considers Catholic Christians to be in closer communion with Eastern Orthodox Christians than with Protestant Christians. For the purposes of ecumenical engagement with non-Catholics, making this distinction makes a significant difference for Catholics: shared Eucharistic communion with Eastern Orthodox in special circumstances is possible, even commendable, but not so with Protestants in general.
Nonetheless, the Vatican’s position that at present the fullness of the church is expressed and the fullness of salvation is available only in the Roman Catholic Church does present a significant obstacle to restoration of full communion among Christians, both East and West. The Second Vatican Council, citing previous Councils and Popes, affirmed that
for the restoration or the maintenance of unity and communion it is necessary ’to impose no burden beyond what is essential’ (Unitatis Redintegratio 18). Protestants and Catholics diverge in their understandings of what is
essential to ecclesial unity. Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, comments on this divergence:
The goal envisaged by Protestants… is content with a basic consensus in the interpretation of the gospel, but broadly speaking leaves the institutional form of the church open … . As Protestant theology understands it, the kind of institutional unity that exists among Catholics, above all in the Petrine ministry of the pope, is not necessary; indeed, for many it is not even desirable, and for some it is wholly unacceptable.
Catholics envisage a different goal…the Catholic position insists on visible unity: unity in faith, in the sacraments, and in the apostolic ordained ministry. Far from being a handicap, this unity, which finds its most visible expression in the Petrine ministry, is in fact our strength. (Sacrament of Unity: The Eucharist and the Church, Herder & Herder, 2004, pp. 78-79)
Unlike most Protestants, I agree with the Catholic position that the unity for which Jesus prayed is a visible unity, a unity that can be seen by the world and which witnesses to the truth of the gospel. Mere agreement on creed or gospel message is not sufficient. This is a position that Mennonites should understand. The joint document resulting from the five-year dialogue (1998-2003) between Mennonite World Conference and the Vatican, Called Together to be Peacemakers, highlights this convergence between Mennonite and Catholic ecclesiology:
Visibility of the Church. We agree that the Church is a visible community of believers originating in God’s call to be a faithful people in time and place …. The visibility of the Church is evidenced when, in word and deed, its members give public witness to faith in Christ. (97)
Also unlike most Protestants, I agree with the Catholic position that a unified communion table is essential to church unity—and, hence, that the goal of ecumenism is visible unity around one table. I thus agree with Cardinal Kasper on this point:
Its goal, namely, visible unity, means in concrete terms that we are able to gather around the one table of the Lord, sharing in the one eucharistic body of Christ and drinking from the one chalice. (Sacrament of Unity, p. 143)
The question remains concerning the institutional form of the visible unity that both Mennonites and Catholics affirm. The Catholic position insists that only an institution ordered under the authority of the Pope (held by Catholics to be the successor of Peter) can properly express the visible unity of the church. I am not convinced of this, not least because of the precedent of the very first ecumenical council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council comprised
the apostles and elders and concerned inclusion of Gentiles. The president of the Council was James, not Peter. Peter does give an important speech at the council (vv. 7-11), as do Barnabas and Paul (v. 12), but it is James who speaks last and pronounces the decision of the Council (vv. 13-21). The precedent of the first ecumenical council complicates the Vatican’s case, precisely because the Jerusalem Council did maintain ecclesial unity, but quite apart from Peter exercising papal authority. There is an obvious irony here: the Second Vatican Council cites the Jerusalem Council for the standard of unity,
to impose no burden beyond what is essential (Acts 15:28); yet
the Petrine ministry of the pope was evidently not essential to ecclesial unity at the Jerusalem Council.
I am not yet convinced that denominations are a bad thing…. Belousek argues that denominationalism is bad.
We need to distinguish between denominations and denominationalism—rejecting denominationalism does not entail rejecting denominations. I have never tried to convince anyone
that denominations are a bad thing. Diversity of Protestant denominations no more undermines ecclesial unity than diversity of Catholic religious orders. Denominations are not the issue. As for denominationalism, that is another matter. To clarify the meaning of
denominationalism I will supply a definition (Webster’s Dictionary, 9th New Collegiate Ed.):
1. devotion to denominational principles or interests; 2. the emphasizing of denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive: sectarianism.
Regarding definition 1, I am wary of making the principles or interests of any denomination an object of
devotion that might supplant Jesus Christ as the one foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). Regarding definition 2, I am more than wary. For to emphasize
denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive or
sectarian does, I believe, undermine the unity of the church. Sectarian denominationalism thrived during the Reformation, when various confessional groups (including the
brotherly union of Schleitheim) defined Christian identity exclusive of Roman Catholics. It is precisely sectarian denominationalism that I addressed in my essay, and I would hope that Adams Moon and I could agree in rejecting it.
Adams Moon uses
the analogy to college as a model for diversity in the church. She explains why:
Teaching at Bethel College, I am continually amazed at the beauty of and potential embedded in difference. Ideas, understanding, growth blossom amidst diversity. Classes in which all students think alike are boring…. Colleges have become loud, if not entirely effective, proponents of the concept that diversity (i.e., difference) is good, desirable, optimum, a blessing. Why should it be different among Christians?
Having taught philosophy at four liberal arts colleges with Christian affiliation, I understand the emphasis on diversity in the educational context. There are good reasons, however, why things should
be different among Christians. The
humanities study human beliefs, but the liberal education ideal places no boundaries around acceptable belief, provides no criteria for judging one belief as better than another. As long as someone holds a belief sincerely and defends it logically, that belief is admitted on an equal basis with other beliefs. What is
true for you need not be
true for me—and to hold that there is a
true for all is to threaten
academic freedom. Both the belief that the cosmos has been created by God and that the cosmos just happens to exist, both the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that Jesus was just a good human being, are to be granted equal status and respect.
The church, by contrast, is founded upon a universal credo that sets the bounds of belief: We believe that God created the cosmos and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In order for the church to be the church, not all beliefs can be granted equal status; for not all beliefs are merely human. It is precisely because the church draws its source of truth from divine revelation through Jesus Christ that the liberal arts college makes a poor analogue for ecclesial diversity. Within the church we may and do differ in our respective understandings of various theological matters. If the church’s credo is only
what we believe, only
true for us, as the liberal education model would have it, however, then the church is not really a holy and catholic (universal) body that gathers all tribes into one (Rev. 5:9), but only one merely human tribe among others.
For Catholics, a host blessed through the mystery of the mass is no longer just a wafer. It is the body of Christ… period. Belousek misses this point entirely when he describes those Bridgefolk who approached the altar
hands held out in supplication to receive the sacred sign of grace incarnate. For Catholics, the Eucharist is no sign; it is the real presence of Christ.
I don’t think that I have missed the point at all. To say that
the Eucharist is no sign; it is the real presence of Christ implicitly opposes
no sign. Opposition between sign and reality, however, is precisely what Catholic sacramental theology overcomes. Sacramentalism believes beyond sensible appearances to the hidden reality of things: a thing can signify a reality beneath the appearances that is inaccessible to the senses but apprehended by faith. Thomas Aquinas could thus write in his hymn for Corpus Christi:
I adore you devotedly, hidden Godhead, who are truly hidden under these signs. This is no less, and no more, than a
mystery of faith—analogous to the Incarnation. Indeed, Catholic sacramental theology is rooted in the Incarnation: Jesus is the original sacrament—he is the flesh-and-blood sign and reality of God’s gracious presence with us.
In Catholic theology, a sacrament is both sign and the reality which it signifies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:
the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation. (774);
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace. (1131). Under the heading
The signs of bread and wine, the Catechism reads:
At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood…. The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ. (1333)
When I write of the Holy-Spirit blessed Eucharistic bread as
the sacred sign of grace incarnate, it is in full keeping with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
For Belousek, though, this difference in belief shouldn’t matter—any Christian should be able to receive the Eucharist anywhere. This is an argument grounded in classic liberalism. Belousek imagines that all Christians should be able to do whatever they want in any and all Christian churches; that Christians have
rights at all Christian tables. I’m not comfortable with this thinking.
classic liberalism is supposed to mean, none of
this thinking is recognizable as my own. Not only is what Adams Moon writes here not based in the least on my essay, but it is directly contradicted several times by what I actually wrote. The reader is invited to review especially the final section of my essay to see the carefully reasoned and clearly stated position that I presented on the difficult question of shared communion in a divided church as it pertains to Mennonites and Catholics.