There are not many examples of the kind of ecumenical encounter I am envisaging, but one comes to my mind. In January 2006, the theology department at Durham University hosted at Ushaw College, a neighboring Catholic seminary, an international conference of Catholics in conversation with Orthodox, Anglicans, and Methodists. Conducting an experiment in what the conference called “receptive ecumenism,” the speakers were asked to discuss what they could find in their own traditions that might be acceptable to the Catholic Church without detriment to its identity. The Catholic participants, including Cardinal Kasper, were asked to evaluate the suggestions and judge their practical feasibility. The discussion, I am told, was informal and did not lead to any set of agreed conclusions.
Unlike some recent models of dialogue, ecumenism of this style leaves the participants free to draw on their own normative sources and does not constrain them to bracket or minimize what is specific to themselves. Far from being embarrassed by their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that the others still lack.
PEG responds graciously to my post from yesterday, but he misunderstands me, and in so doing partly confirms the point I make. He thinks I am asking him to be “wary of taking [his] faith seriously,” to stop thinking about Catholic social doctrine “as a Catholic,” and therefore to commit “a…
WARNING: STRAW MEN AHEAD.
I’m going to try to respond as precisely as I can so that I run less risk of strawmanning, even though I am sure I will.
As far as I can tell, you have two specific complaints.
The first: “I’d like to see more Catholic thinkers […] acknowledge that Catholics don’t own all the good ideas, that other small-o orthodox (and perhaps even some rather heterodox) Christian traditions have something to contribute to the attempt to renew our political world, and that Catholic thinkers might benefit from seeking out some of those ideas — or at least to show yourself open to such ideas”
I hate to bring out the S word myself, but this is something I repeatedly, continually do (to bouts of fury from Trads on my side, I would add), including in my previous missive. As you so helpfully note, this is something I am bound to do by my own Tradition, and I have written that this is one of the key reasons I love this Tradition so much. I don’t know what else to say.
So there. You asked me to acknowledge this. If the many previous times when I have acknowledged it were not enough, verily, verily, I say to you: I. ACKNOWLEDGE. IT.
Of course, it’s not enough to say that I’m open to non-Catholic ideas, I have to show I am. Which is fair enough. Of course, it helpfully puts you in the position of being able to judge whether I put my money where my mouth is.
But I would like to inquire as to what you need. I pray using Orthodox prayer beads and cite the Lutheran-Catholic statement as my doctrine of justification. In my so-parochial New Distributism columns the first four columns criticize (some, I’m sure, would say “attack”) Papal/Vatican economics and the last one uses a Jewish and an agnostic thinker as their main influence (no Anglican yet, it is true, though there is one Anglican I am dying to cite. His initials are A.J.). The almost entire point of the whole New Distributism thing is to critique currently-existing Catholic social doctrine (presupposing that it is not perfect), and believe you me that I am using non-Catholic sources to do so—again, as you point out, as a good Catholic should. This would seem to me to fulfill your spec, but, apparently not.
You do make one specific suggestion: you request that I describe my New Distributism project a ““a distinctively Christian theology of economics.” Because Catholics are Christians, are they not? Surely it’s not “intellectual self-mutilation” for a Catholic to call himself a Christian. And even that slight shift in emphasis can be both welcoming to others and a reminder that Christians from different traditions can learn from one another in substantive ways.”
And again, I’m not sure what to say to this. A ”distinctively [Mere-]Christian theology of economics” sounds like a lovely, useful and important thing. That is simply not what I’m interested in doing. It’s not a value judgement.
Alan, you recently wrote a biography of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This clearly shows your sectarianism and lack of ecumenism. Why couldn’t you have written a biography of the Bible? Because Anglicans do believe in the Bible, do they not? Surely it’s not “intellectual self-mutilation” for an Anglican to write about the Bible? And even that slight shift in focus can be both welcoming to others and a reminder that Christians from different traditions can learn from one another in substantive ways.
But I simply, perhaps naively, assumed that the reason why you decided to write about a specifically Anglican piece of history was not out of contempt for other traditions, but simply because it was a thing you were interested in enough to write about, simply because people are sometimes interested in writing about things, and writing about X entails not writing about not-X, and it would have seemed bizarre to me if anybody had suggested that your book betrayed a belief on your part that Anglicans “have all the good ideas”, or that it was a diss towards the Missale Romanum. Which form do I have to fill out to get the same benefit of the doubt? Don’t worry, Alan, I am just strawmanning and “talking for victory”—no need to examine your own premises.
I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ analogy of Mere Christianity as a meeting hall, which you know better than I do. I love the meeting hall. I want to spend a lot of time there and meet a lot of people from the other rooms. I might even visit the rooms where I don’t live, because I know they are good, and I know that there are things there that will inspire me and some that are even better than the ones in my room; and I want to give everyone the things that there are in my room, with no strings attached (something which you apparently see as a kind of ecumenical version of cultural imperialism). But I agree with Lewis that nobody should pitch a tent in the meeting hall and live there. And I think you do too. But you seem to me to be not only faulting me for not wanting to live in the meeting hall, but implying that anything not done in the meeting hall is sectarian. I know that can’t be what you mean. But, again, I am not sure what you are asking of me.
In any event, my last remark is only this: reunion of the Orthodox and Roman Churches has become an imperative, and time is growing short. I say this because I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. And it is, I think, a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism, possessing a singular power for absorbing the native energies of the civilization it is displacing without prompting any extravagant alarm at its vacuous barbarisms. And I suspect that the only tools at Christianity’s disposal, as it confronts the rapid and seemingly inexorable advance of this nihilism, will be evangelical zeal and internal unity. I like to think—call it the Sophiologist in me—that the tribulations that Eastern Christianity has suffered under Islamic and communist rule have insulated it from some of the more corrosive pathologies of modernity for a purpose, and endowed it with a special mission to bring its liturgical, intellectual, and spiritual strengths to the aid of the Western Christian world in its struggle with the nihilism that the post-Christian West has long incubated and that now surrounds us all, while yet drawing on the strengths and charisms of the Western church to preserve Orthodoxy from the political and cultural frailty that still afflicts Eastern Christianity.
Our divisions do truly concern doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. And we need to appreciate that this creates an essential asymmetry in the Orthodox and Catholic approaches to the ecumenical enterprise. No Catholic properly conscious of the teachings of his Church would be alarmed by what the Orthodox Church would bring into his communion—he would find it sound and familiar, and would not therefore suspect for a moment that reunion had in any way compromised or diluted his Catholicism. But to an Orthodox Christian, inasmuch as the Roman Church does make doctrinal assertions absent from his tradition, it may well seem that to accept reunion with Rome would mean becoming a Roman Catholic, and so ceasing to be Orthodox. Hence it would be unreasonable to expect the Eastern and Western churches to approach ecumenism from the same vantage:
I can offer only the weak recommendation of better education: perhaps we might find a way to force young Orthodox theologians to read Augustine and Aquinas, rather than fatuous treatments of Augustine and Aquinas written by dyspeptic Greeks, or to force young Catholic theologians to immerse themselves in Byzantine scholasticism and Eastern ecclesiology, and to force everyone involved to learn the history of the church in all its ambiguity. But, whatever we do, we have too long allowed bad scholarship and empty cant and counterfeit history to influence and even dictate the terms of the relation between Orthodoxy and Rome.
Je n’insiste pas plus : vous avez compris comment se déroula la soirée et combien elle dura. Au moment de partir, décidé à être le rabat-joie jusqu’au bout, je fis remarquer que l’Eglise avait montré comment il convenait de prier Marie (et de prier tout court, d’ailleurs) et qu’on trouvait des traces de cela dans le bréviaire. La nouvelle fut accueillie avec un intérêt non dissimulé quoi que personne ne sût ce qu’était un bréviaire. Il était temps de rentrer se coucher.
We have heard some who try to excuse this dangerous sickness of the soul[, anger,] with a detestable interpretation of Scripture. They say that it is not wrong to get angry at our brothers when they are guilty, since of God Himself it is said that He gets angry against those who refuse to know Him or who, knowing Him, despise him. […] They do not understand that, wanting to concede to men the occasion of a pernicious vice, they introduce the injury of carnal passion to the Divine immensity and source of all purity.
Indeed, if one must take things literally in their thick, carnal meaning when they are said of God, then God also sleeps, since it is written: “Wake up, why are you sleeping, LORD?” […]
Hence, just as one cannot […] interpret these verses in their literal sense when referring to the One whom the Holy Scriptures […] refer to as invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple and without composition, it is similarly impossible […] to apply to this immutable nature wrath and the trouble of anger.
St John Cassian, Inst. Cen. 8,2.
(cc: John Calvin)
Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase)…
This post is very saddening to me.
Alan, since you asked, I would make a couple points:
1. Not being in the US and not having paid the situation very strong attention, I can’t speak to whether the Evangelical-Catholic rapprochement is failing, or stalling, or continuing apace; if it is not continuing, let there be no question that I would view that as tragedy;
2. As I’ve written more recently (and as I thought you agreed) I view religious dialogue and openness and brotherly as not contradictory with critical engagement.
3. With regard to my own particular example, I am not sure how to respond. Do I “withdraw into a purely Catholic world”? I don’t know, because I don’t know what that means. The Catholic world is the Universe, and so I’m not sure how one may “withdraw” into it. (Why, if Thomas Merton hadn’t withdrawn into a purely Catholic world, he could have made a very respectable academic! (Not that I am anything like Thomas Merton.)) And I am not sure why, as a Christian, I should be wary of taking my faith seriously.
Do I have “little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them”? I certainly hope not. In fact, I’ve explicitly written that Catholics must learn from other Christian traditions. I am, however, well aware that I never live up to my own standards, let alone God’s.
4. With regard to my work on New Distributism, it really saddens me that you would think that you’re not “invited to this party.” First of all, ain’t no party like a Tiber party, and errbody's invited.
But, in any case, I would say the following things:
Again, I can’t speak to any broader trends. But I hope I’ve clarified what I’m about. And I’m certainly very sorry if I’ve given the impression—or actually done or said things—that seem like I’m no longer interested in constructive engagement with non-Catholics, because that is certainly not how I see it.
…As time goes on, weirdly, I’m growing less liberal. I’m more like, ‘No, religion is ruining the world, you need to stop!’